Q&A with Ferrari

I once thought Ferrari was just a sports car. Big mistake. As I learned in bits and pieces over the years, it’s probably the top winery for metodo classico sparklers in Italy.

First I kept bumping into them at Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri awards—the Oscars of the Italian wine world. (Their wines have been there a record 22 times.)

Then I got an invite from importer Palm Bay to a vertical tasting of Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore, their top reserve, which they keep for an incredible 10 years on the lees. It was here that I first really felt the wow factor of Ferrari. It started with pre-tasting pours of their mid-tier Perlé in both blanc de blancs and rosé forms, then escalated as we progressed through the Riversa del Fondatore: 1999, 1994, 1992, 1989, 1986, and 1983. It makes me dizzy just to think of. And the winemaker was there to boot: Marcello Lunelli, third generation of the family that bought the firm from the heirless Giulio Ferrari in 1952. An extremely handsome man, by the way, in that tall, lean, dark-haired Italian way. He was as elegant as his wines, and dizzying too.

As a result of that tasting, we added Ferrari into our wine and hiking tour in Alto Adige, The Italian Alps & Dolomites, so the next year I was touring the estate, a modern complex on the autostrada just outside of Trento. Here our tasting went broad rather than deep, and again I came to appreciate the excellence of their wines, from the entry-level Brut NV on up. The firm is big (4.5 million bottles), but they do it right.

Matteo Lunelli, chairman of Ferrari
Matteo Lunelli, chairman of Ferrari

This past week, I was working on an article for Tastes of Italia about TrentoDOC, the denomination to which Ferrari belongs. Naturally, they were on my list of calls. This time I had the chance to talk with Maurello’s cousin, Matteo Ferrari (right), chairman of Ferrari. We had a great chat. I know all this information won’t make it into my article, so I thought I’d run the interview in full here, even though it’s not a very blog-like thing to do.

And just for the record: There’s no relation between the families of Ferrari the car and Ferrari the wine. Ferrari is a common name, derived from ferro or iron, so in the distance past, the name implied working with iron. As it so happens, we do visit the other Ferrari too, stopping at the Ferrari Museum in Modena during our Slow Food Festa tour. So you can take your pick. Car. Wine. Both are at the top of their class.


Lake Garda and the TrentoDOC wineries
Lake Garda and the TrentoDOC wineries

What makes the area around Trento so good for sparkling wine?

Certainly, it’s all about mountains and mountain agriculture. Being on the slopes of the mountains provides a very special climate, and these conditions are perfect to grow chardonnay and pinot noir for sparkling wine.

At the end of the summer, you get a very high diurnal shift. During the day, the vineyards are kissed by the sun and the temperature tends to be warm. But during the night, the temperature goes down, and we have chilly nights. So this difference is very important.

If you’ve been to Trento, you know this doesn’t happen on the bottom of the valley [where the town of Trento lies]. It happens when you get to a certain altitude or in some of the valleys, like the Valle dei Laghi, which is very special. In this valley, which goes from Lake Garda to Trento, you have an interesting mix of climates: one coming from Lake Garda, and the cold weather coming from the mountains of the Dolomites.

That diurnal shift is important because it provides the level of acidity you’re seeking for your sparkling wines?

Absolutely. The difference in temperature between day and night and the climate conditions allow the grape to develop an aromatic maturation while maintaining a good acidity. This is crucial if you want a sparkling wine with elegance and complexity.

What I think is very special about TrentoDOC is that these are wines able to meet the challenge of time. If you did a vertical tasting, you’d notice how our Giulio Ferrari, and even our Perlé, are able to develop over time. Now [in 2013] we are selling the 2006 Perlé, for example. In the U.S., you can find even older vintages. But they are incredibly fresh and crisp. At the same time, being wines that age on the lees for five to six years, they have complexity. What keeps the wine crisp and fresh and elegant is the acidity.

But you need to have the combination of well-balanced acidity and aromatic maturation. This is what we’re able to do with our mountain agriculture.  This obviously complicates our work, because cultivating a vineyard on the slopes of a mountain makes it much harder! But it is a longtime tradition for us in Trentino.


In the world market, how do you position yourself relative to champagne and also to Franciacorta?

Relative to champagne, we want to emphasize that we are different. As much as champagne is an expression of the French tradition, we at Ferrari want to present ourselves as the Italian art of living. So we are strongly Italian, even if we use the methode champagnoise.

On the other side, what makes us special is the territory, and it’s what makes Ferrari and TrentoDOC different from Franciacorta. Franciacorta is still in the Alps, but they are much lower altitude and closer to the plain of the Po River.

A great wine has to be an expression of its own territory. Ferrari and TrentoDOC are an expression of Trentino.  The acidity and elegance we can have I think is quite unique. The crispiness, the drinkability, is really unique to our region.

Can one generalize about the differences between Franciacorta and TrentoDOC in terms of fruit flavors? One’s more tropical, the other’s more citric—anything like that?

Probably you can. In each area, different wineries have different styles. If you think about champagne, there are houses with very different styles. You go from a very clean blanc de blancs style to a style where you have more pinot noir or use of wood. So the wines can be very different depending on the style of the winery.

But I think you can differentiate between Franciacorta and Trentino. In Trentino, the wines tend to be more age-worthy. They tend to be more straight and elegant. Franciacorta tends to be rounder and more tropical, probably. I think there is a difference in the expression of these two territories.

But I’m proud to say that Franciacorta and Trentino currently express the excellence of Italian metodo classico. I have a lot of friends in the area of Franciacorta, and together we have a challenge, which is to promote the luxury tier of Italian sparkling wine. It’s an area where I think we have a huge potential in the U.S.—both for TrentoDOC and for Franciacorta.

Seen from the US, the distance between Franciacorta and Trentino is not very huge. But there is a difference if you come and visit us. And that difference reflects a bit on the style.


Giulio Ferrari was the first to bring chardonnay into Italy, correct?

Yes. He was a true pioneer for a number of reasons. First of all, for a young man from Trento, it was certainly not common to go abroad and study in Montepellier, visit the champagne area, then go to Germany to specialize in the study of yeast.

Nowadays, a lot of students go abroad to work or to study. But this was not the case at the end of the 19th century. So he was really open-minded. He was eager to improve his knowledge of agronomy and winemaking. And this is what allowed him to be a pioneer.

He did bring chardonnay to Italy for the first time. That was a very important innovation. Probably there were some chardonnay vines perhaps, but not classified. Nowadays, you can find chardonnay from Trentino to Sicily.

In addition, at that time in Trentino, there was a culture of wine and a tradition for winemaking, but the wine was simple, generally made by farmers.

Giulio Ferrari from the very beginning wanted to create a luxury wine—a fine wine for the most prestigious and exclusive hotels in Italy.

When was sparkling wine in Trento given a DOC?

I think 1993. I’m certain that it was the first DOC in Italy dedicated solely to bottle-fermented sparkling wine. TrentoDOC is only for metodo classico. Trentino DOC is for the white wines.

TrentoDOC as an association was founded in 2007, correct?

No, actually 2007 was when we created the new name and the new brand. But for a long time, there has been an institute—an association of sparkling wine producers in Trentino. Once upon a time it was called Instituto Trento Classico—even before the DOC was classified. My uncle Gino Lunelli, and then Mauro Lunelli were president a long time ago. Then they changed the name. Today it’s Istituto TrentoDOC, an association of the producers of TrentoDOC, where I sit on the board.

The double O swirl alludes to the bottle's remuage
The double O swirl alludes to the bottle's remuage

2007 is the date when the new symbol of TrentoDOC was created, and there was an agreement between the Chamber of Commence of Trento and the group of producers about using this new TrentoDOC brand, the logo.

Is this essentially a branding and marketing association? The goal is to spread the word and expand exports of TrentoDOC?

Yes. I have to say that a lot of the TrentoDOC producers are very small wineries, and they are more focused on the local market. Even the Istituto has mainly done promotional activities in the Italian market. I’m sure that in the future we will have to go around [the world] even with the Istituto. Currently, only the biggest two or three wineries are doing promotions internationally, while the smaller wineries are mostly focused on the Italian market. So that’s why you probably haven’t seen too many initiatives from TrentoDOC around the world.

I’m among the people currently pushing all of the producers, trying to convince them that in the future it’s very important to make the TrentoDOC brand more and more international.

I’m very happy you are dedicating an article on that, because certainly there are wine regions that tend to be better known than TrentoDOC. I think it’s important for the customers to understand that Ferrari is TrentoDOC: We are a metodo classico, bottle-fermented sparkling wine made with grapes only from Trentino. And TrentoDOC has a tradition that we are part of.

It’s a funny challenge you have. I’d bet that many people who drink wine have heard of Ferrari. Few people—very few—have heard of TrentoDOC. When speaking of categories, Franciacorta is better known than TrentoDOC. But Ferrari is better known than Franciacorta.

[laughs] It’s a very good point. And you should ask why?

Probably nowadays, we have better coordination between the wineries in TrentoDOC. But in the past, Franciacorta was probably better working as a team. That’s because in Franciacorta, the producers are more homogeneous. If you think about it, Bellavista, Ca’ del Bosco, Berlucchi, Monte Rossa—they are relatively similar in terms of size. And they started much later—the Franciacorta area started in the [1960s and] 1970s. So there are a lot of producers who are more similar to each other, and they started working together earlier [than TrentoDOC]. That’s why they’ve worked together better.

TrentoDOC is quite peculiar. You have three groups: Ferrari, the biggest winery with the longest tradition. Then you have the big cooperatives that produce, for example, Rotari [the sparkling label of MezzaCorona], Cesarini Sforza [La Vis], and Altemasi [Cavit]. And then you have a lot of smaller producers.

Until now, there probably has not been enough coordination of these groups of producers.

But I’m optimistic. We at Ferrari are proud to be TrentoDOC, and we think it’s important for us as well to promote the territory, and the smaller producers can understand that Ferrari can do big promotion and help them when we go around the world.

Total production for Trento DOC is 8 million?

Probably a little bit more: 8 to 9 million.

And the total for Ferari? 4.5 million. Still for Ferrari, the main market by far is the Italian market.  In the U.S., we are around 100,000 bottles.

I was happy to see that Eataly in New York, where I live, now carries about six Ferrari labels. That's a real treasure trove.

I actually spoke yesterday with [Eataly owner] Oscar Ferretti; we’re very good friends. He’s actually a shareholder in a couple of companies that make sparkling wine. Notwithstanding that, he still opens a bottle of Ferrari when he opens a new shop. When we opened the first Eataly shop in Turin, we had a big bottle of Ferrari for our toast. This is a tradition we have maintained for all the shops around the world.

He opened the New York store with a Ferrari toast with myself, Ferretti, Mayor Bloomberg, and even Timoth Dolan, the Archbishop of New York. We both share the idea of promoting the Italian tradition and Italian food and wine.