No, the title does not refer to a car.* It refers to the best sparkling wine you’ve probably never heard of.
Matteo Bruno Lunelli is on a mission. The charismatic Chairman of Ferrari Metodo Classico wants us to know that Italian sparkling wine is not limited to Prosecco, the ubiquitous dry sparkler that makes a mean mimosa, or Asti Spumante, the syrupy-sweet fizzy Moscato that you may have stolen from your parents’ cabinet in high school.
In fact, Italy makes some world-class sparkling wine, utilizing the same process and grapes as the Champenois.
Lunelli’s company has been producing such wine – with great success – for over 100 years. It is known as “the toast of Italy,” having been served at the President’s house, to celebrate the country’s anniversary, and its soccer World Cup victory, among many other celebrations.
So then why haven’t I had it before this week? (And why are there only 400 or so bottles currently logged in CellarTracker?)
That’s the question that brought me to Ristorante Tosca, the chic Italian dining spot in downtown Washington, D.C., on a hot July afternoon, to dine with Lunelli and several other wine journalists and professionals. Lunelli was in town to meet the new Italian Ambassador to the United States and for an event with the Congressional Wine Caucus. In between these higher-profile engagements, Lunelli is trying to teach Americans what Italians have long known: that an Alpine province that was part of Austria until the last century happens to be one the world’s best spots for growing Chardonnay for sparkling wine.
In 1902, Giulio Ferrari returned to Trentino in northern Italy after studying in France with a dream to create outstanding wine using the classic Champagne method he had learned. He planted Chardonnay and quickly discovered that his instincts were correct. Ferrari’s vineyards on the slopes of the Dolomites – 300 to 700 meters above sea level – experienced hot days and cool nights that were perfect for ripening the grapes while preserving the natural acids. In addition to this essential diurnal temperature variation, Ferrari’s vineyards also had ideal soil diversity – limestone and granite, among other types.
Italians quickly took notice, and a whole new industry was born. Ferrari was the first to plant Chardonnay in all of Italy; now it can be found from Trentino to Sicily. And sparkling wine from that province now has its own designation – Trento D.O.C. – which requires adherence to a set of regulations, including restrictions on yields, limitations on grape varieties, and minimum aging periods on the lees. While close to 30 wineries belong, over 50% of the production in the Trento D.O.C. belongs to Ferrari.
That is all to say that Ferrari must’ve been doing something right for the last century, but what is the result? After all, Lunelli, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, could sell ice to the proverbial Eskimo – could the wine walk the walk?
In a word, yes. Across the whole lineup, I found the wines to be consistently excellent, with a distinct style apparent from the entry level non-vintage brut through the world-class single vineyard reserve. Lunelli explained that the goal is “never to compromise the quality” in any of the wines. “The biggest challenge,” he said, “is to make an outstanding non-vintage year after year,” because it is the company’s flagship bottling. Citing the Aristotelian adage of excellence as habit not act, Lunelli described the attitude with which his family has sought to imbue the company: “Everyone has to be involved, and feel involved [in the success of the wine].” That attitude is reflected in the wines we tasted with lunch, described below.
N.V. Ferrari Brut
Pale gold in color, very fine mousse. Yeasty nose, earthy with a slight oxidized note, and bruised apples. Very good acidity, nice body and structure. Red apple and toast on the palate. Medium-long finish. Dry. Nice! About $25.
This wine is 100% Chardonnay, a mixture of estate and purchased fruit, aged a minimum of 24 months on the lees. This was a 2011 disgorgement, and probably mostly 2008 base wine, although I didn’t see the bottle [Note to Asimov and Galloni: Ferrari does print disgorgement dates on its labels.] Lunelli says the Brut is meant to be “fresh and drinkable,” which is certainly the case. With a relatively low sugar content in the dosage (about 7g/L), this wine is very food-friendly, and really highlighted the salinity of the caviar that accompanied the Burrata cheese in our opening salad course.
N.V. Ferrari Rosé
Very light salmon orange/pink in the glass, small bubbles. Sweet fruit nose of strawberry and watermelon. Acidic and crisp, very dry (the sweetness of the nose clearly was the fruit, not any residual sugar). A slightly vegetal note emerges on the palate, which is a bit thin. Less body than the blanc de blancs. Pretty good. About $37.
This is a blend of 60% Pinot Nero (Noir) and 40% Chardonnay. It is mostly Pinot vinified as a rosé wine through skin contact, then blended with a small amount of Chardonnay and Pinot vinified as a white wine, with a touch of still red Pinot Noir blended in. Lunelli told us that the first time Ferrari made a rosé was in 1972 for the wedding of his uncle as a surprise, but it was such a success that they started producing it commercially. The wine went very well with our stuffed squash blossom, proving once again that fried food and sparkling wine are a match made in heaven.
2004 Ferrari Perlé
Yellow in color, very small bead. Yeasty again on the nose, with notes of syrupy pears. More orchard fruits on the palate, with a lovely white chocolate note and toasted almonds on the finish. Very well balanced. Great value! About $35.
The Perlé wines (a proprietary name that Ferrari invented, which recalls pearls and perlwein, German sparkling wine) are the next step up in the Ferrari lineup, produced entirely from estate vineyards. The objective, Lunelli explains, is to make a wine that is both “drinkable and complex,” with “a harmony between the nose and mouth.” Lunelli says this wine is served by the glass at top wine bars in Italy, which is why they need to keep the price reasonable. That is good news for us! This is a vintage sparkler for less money than most non-vintage Champagne, but with comparable complexity and balance.
2005 Ferrari Perlé Rosé
Deeper color than the NV Rosé, an orange rose with medium bubbles. A liquor-like, sherry nose. A very saline palate, like salted watermelon. Not as dry as the NV, but balanced – crisp, medium acidity, long finish. Very nice! About $75.
This wine is about 70-80% Pinot Nero, and is built for longer aging. It spent 5 years on the lees, plus an additional year of bottle age before release. Lunelli says “the Pinot provides the structure, while the Chardonnay provides the elegance.” While the wine definitely had good body and structure, it was overpowered by the Gorgonzola in the risotto.
2005 Ferrari Perlé Nero
Medium gold, light mousse. Red apple on the nose, not as yeasty as the rest of the lineup. Touch of fruit cup on the palate, but with nice minerality into the finish. Very dry, crisp. Probably my favorite wine of the day. About $90.
The first vintage of this 100% Pinot Nero sparkler was 2002. It is made in an extra brut style, with less than 5g/L of sugar. Disgorged in 2011 after 5 years on the lees.
2001 Giulio Ferrari
Medium gold in color, very tight bead. Bright nose of crisp, ripe fruit (mango?). The palate was rich, with more ripe fruit and a touch of vanilla. Mouthfeel is amazingly smooth, the finish lasts forever. In a word, this wine is classy. About $100.
This wine is 100% Chardonnay from a single estate vineyard, aged 10 years on the lees. It is only made in exceptional vintages, the first being 1972. When not made into Giulio Ferrari, the fruit from this vineyard is declassified into the Perlé. Lunelli explained that this wine started as a secret stash for the winemaker who aged it for 7 years, then introduced it to his brothers. They loved it so much that they brought it to market. It “has the Ferrari signature, but much more complex,” according to Lunelli. It is the most awarded sparkling wine in Italy, and it’s easy to see why. This wine could stand toe-to-toe with almost any tête de cuvee in Champagne.
*As for that other Ferrari from Italy, Lunelli assured us that they have a good relationship with the car company founded 50 years after the winery. In addition to sharing a name, they both “represent the Italian lifestyle” of beauty, taste and elegance.