Many years ago, an astute critic described Ferrari spumante as the Rolls Royce of Italian sparkling wines. It still is. Crafted only from Pinot noir and Chardonnay, grown on very restricted soils, and given the full metodo classico cellar treatment, these wines are champagnes in all but name.
And that is as it should be – champagne should come only from Champagne, in France: It’s a regional name, not a wine type, whatever common usage makes of it. Besides that, it really makes no difference what you call Ferrari – spumante, sparkling wine, Italian sparkler – because whatever you call it, it’s excellent.
Ferrari is no johnny-come-lately Champagne wannabe. At a recent tasting in New York, lead winemaker Marcello Lunelli, a member of the family that has owned Ferrari for three generations, explained how over a century ago founder Giulio Ferrari went to France and undertook a careful investigation of the whole Champagne production process. Knowing the long-established Italian fondness for sparkling wines – all of them to that point made by what has come to be called the charmat method – he reasoned there would be a substantial place for a more painstakingly made, higher-quality product. He also thought that the high slopes and hillsides near Trento, with their sparse and strongly mineral-laced soils, would be an ideal place to plant the Pinot noir and Chardonnay necessary to make the kind of wine he envisioned. He was right on target with both ideas. They resulted, 90 years later, in Italy’s first DOC for sparkling wines, Metodo Classico Trento. Ferrari still leads the production of this category, both in volume and in quality.
Lunelli also pointed out one major unforeseen advantage of Ferrari’s choice of location for his vineyards – protection from global warming. The Trento area has endured a temperature increase of 1° Celsius over the past 10 years. Higher temperatures in wine zones translate into higher sugar levels and riper grapes, which in turn produce higher alcohol levels and fatter, less acid wines – not what you want in a sparkling wine. As Lunelli put it, “For a winemaker, 1° means planting grapes 150 meters higher, and our hillsides will allow that.” (That last remark is a small dig at Champagne producers, who by and large do not have the same altitudes available to them.)
Lunelli guided a group of wine journalists through a five-bottle vertical tasting of Ferrari’s top-tier wine, Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore. The firm produces this wine only in the best vintages, of which there have been 19 to date – and every single one of them has won the prestigious Tre Bicchieri rating from Gambero Rosso. I wouldn’t claim for a moment that Gambero Rosso is infallible, but no matter how you regard it, that amounts to an impressive accomplishment and a striking testimony to the quality of this wine.
The Giulio Ferrari is a single-vineyard, 100% Chardonnay wine: in other words, a blanc de blancs (Ferrari uses its Pinot noir in its rosé). That category among Champagnes usually offers a somewhat lighter-bodied, aperitif-style sparkler. Not so in Italy: All five wines on show displayed medium to full bodies, with ample substance to serve splendidly as dinner wines rather than cocktail quaffs. These were the vintages shown:
2001: This led off with a lovely, deep, wheaty nose. It was very rich on the palate, suggesting pears and apples in addition to that wheat. Fine lively acidity and a very long finish completed the package. Unmistakably an Italian wine – something about the quality of the acidity is the giveaway – from an excellent vintage.
2000: I confess to having been dubious about this wine from the outset, because 2000 was such a hot year and troublesome vintage all over Italy. Initially the wine was very attractive, a sort of fleshier version of the 2001, with a slight but very pretty almond taste in the finish – quite enjoyable. But an unpleasant sulfur scent came up as the wine opened – “burnt match,” as the person seated to my left accurately described it. This was the one in-any-way flawed wine of the group.
1997: The almond presence became even more pronounced in this excellent vintage. The wine was very fresh and balanced, with a slight peach flavor developing alongside the almond in its finish. Lunelli said he thinks this wine “needs ten years yet.”
1995: All peach leather and almonds, especially in the finish, this wine was still quite live and very, very pleasing, tied with the next one for the best wine of the day. A long growing season developed the depth of this wine. The harvest was a full three weeks later than normal, Lunelli said.
1986: To my surprise, this 25-year-old was even more live than the 1995. Its fruit flavors are just starting to mature, moving more into the fruit leather range than fresh fruit. The very long-lasting finish had the richness of fresh toast slathered with butter. Very Chardonnay, very Champagne-like.
This would have been an impressive showing for any sparkling wine, but when you remember that these wines are all 100% Chardonnay, it raises the accomplishment even higher. This isn’t bubbly for pouring on the heads of the winning team: This is a superb wine to grace your most ambitious holiday dinner.