Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France


Trentodoc – sparkling wine under the Dolomites

‘Sparkling wine is joy … and joy is for everyone’ (Leonello Letrari). There is a certain generosity of spirit about the sparkling wines of Trentino, known collectively as Trentodoc.  It may have something to do with the magnificent Dolomites rising above the river valley or the cold air which descends from the mountains at night. Certainly, the climate seems excellent for producing high-quality Chardonnay and a bit of Pinot Noir which goes into the bottle-fermented sparkling wines of the region.  

For Matteo Lunelli of Ferrari, the key point is the effect of those mountains: ‘The characteristic of our region is the mountains: every time you are in a vineyard, whatever the altitude you are surrounded by mountains – and it is very different to be at 400m on the top of a hill and at 400m on the slope of a mountain that is 2,000m high, because at night the fresh air from the mountains comes down to cool the vines, so there is a strong diurnal shift in temperature.’ (quoted in drinksbusiness, November 2017, p. 37).  Although he is too polite to say so, Lunelli has put his finger on the key difference between Trentino and Franciacorta where the high mountains are a distant vista.  

In November 2017 I had the chance to visit a number of wineries which produce or indeed specialize in bottle-fermented sparkling wine in Trentino.  This is a long tradition here. Indeed Giulio Ferrari is credited with producing the first bottle-fermented Chardonnay wine in Italy in 1902, having visited the Champagne region.  Perhaps more than even he realised at the time, the lower slopes of the Dolomites are a fantastic terroir for this style. There is more ripeness here (yellow apple to peach) than in Champagne but there is also the cooling influences of mountain air descending at night.   The result is slowly-matured ripe fruit and high acidity, pretty much perfect for grape growing for sparkling wine.  While the Franciacorta region is much bigger and has been more successful in promoting its bottle-fermented sparkling wine, Trentino can reasonably claim to have the best terroir for this style in Italy and therefore the highest quality potential.  

The visits were a great mix of scale as well. The dominant force and standard-bearer is undoubtedly Ferrari. It is responsible for 60% of the region’s entire production of bottle-fermented sparkling wine with 100 hectares of its own and access to the fruit of another 500ha. These are big figures in a region where the average holding is about one hectare per grower.  Production is nudging up to five million bottles a year and they have entry-level, mid-tier and top bottlings.  There truly is a Ferrari to suit every pocket. Then there are the sparkling wine divisions of the two large cooperatives in Trentino: Cavit produces Rotari, while Mezzocorona has its Altemasi (‘high farms’) line.  Finally, there are the smaller estates such as the historic Letrari (18 ha in all, 10 for sparkling wine), the bijou Maso Martis (12 ha) and the equally special Endrizzi (25 ha).  

High-quality fruit

As I have already said, the thing that really makes Trentodoc stand out is the quality of the fruit.  Elsewhere I have been critical of very long lees ageing of some Italian bottle-fermented sparkling wine, given the ripeness of fruit that can be attained.  But here, in most cuvées, it is the fruit, rather than the effects of very long times on the lees, which shines.  I particularly like Maso Martis Brut NV. Although labelled non-vintage, in reality, the current release is made from fruit from the 2015 vintage, 70% Chardonnay, 30% Pinot Noir. It spends 20 months on the lees and has 6g/l residual sugar.  Sometimes in life – as in this glass – there is no need to complicate things. The wine shows fresh, rich, yellow apple fruit, a light touch of biscuity autolysis and is just so immediately appealing.  Equally, the rather grander Brut Riserva 2013 (same blend and dosage) is gorgeous. It strikes a great balance between orchard and stone fruit but is toastier and more complex with real length, due to its 36 months on the lees during second fermentation: a star wine at just €25 a bottle. 

The quality pyramid

The bigger companies are playing a double game, producing big volumes of their entry level wines and relatively small numbers of the top wines. For example, Cavit’s Altemasi NV and its basic vintage lines together make up 450,000 bottles while the riserva Graal is a production of just 12,000.  The times on the lees are dramatically different too. 18 months for the NV, 48 months of the vintage line and 72 months for Graal.  This makes the vintage line great value. For example, is currently offering it at just under £20 a bottle.  If you want the very best, then, of course, it will cost more, but not that much more: Ferrari’s Perlé vintage wines are around £25. It is really only the truly exceptional Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondadatore which is in the luxury price bracket at £75.  

Vintage wines

The better wines of Trentodoc are typically single vintage wines. While the weather in Trentino is fairly reliable, it is fun to see the difference vintage makes from year to year.  The producers I visited were very generous and typically opened either current or recent vintages with occasional older vintage also being shown. Daniele and Lisa Endrice are the fifth generation of the family which runs Cantina Endrizzi. They offer a good range of still Trentino wines and have a second property in the Tuscan Maremma for big, structured reds (under the Serpaia brand). However, we focused on the sparkling wines and concluded with a trio of vintages of Pian Castello Riserva. It is a single vineyard blend of 60% Chardonnay and 40% of Pinot Noir, planted in the 1980s at 5,000 vines per hectare.  A small proportion of the wine is barrel-fermented, none go through malolactic conversion and the wines spend 40-45 months on the lees in the bottle, well above the requirement of 30 months for the Riserva category.  Final dosage is 7-8g/l residual sugar.  2010 was a great year here as elsewhere: the wine is generously flavoured in the apricot to peach range with a touch of tropical fruit overlain with delicious hazelnut notes.  The fruit intensity is well balanced with a lively lemon acidity.  2009 and 2008 were a touch less ripe and aromatic with the hazelnut to mushroom tertiary notes beginning to be more dominant.  These are fine wines with the only question being whether to drink them young for the freshness of the fruit or whether to give them extended time in the cellar and see what develops.  

Rather further south in the town of Rovereto, Letrari has its historic winery, founded in 1976. This is an azienda agricola, in other words, they only vinify the grapes they have grown themselves. They have 18 ha of which 10 are devoted to the two varieties for sparkling wine.  It is situated in the Valgarina, the southern part of the Adige valley, which is one of the oldest areas for viticulture in Trentino. It is a touch warmer here but with the same effect of warm air from Lake Garda meeting the cold mass of air from the mountains. As a result, the day/night temperature difference is more than 10ºC, helping to retain acidity and prolonging the ripening period. Among the older wines I tasted Letrari Riserva Dossagio Zero 2010, 2007 and 2001; the Brut Riserva 2010, 2009 and 2008 (all 6g/l) and the Riserva del Fondatore 976, 2007 (disgorged in March 2017 after 96 months on the lees).  The last is a 50/50 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir blend, while the others are 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Nero. These are beautifully made wines with older wines showing candied fruit and increasingly powerful leather, tobacco and even meaty notes.  As the founder said: ‘sparkling wine is joy … and joy is for everyone’. 

That these wines can age was demonstrated at Rotari, the sparkling wine division of the Mezzocorona cooperative.  They have a well-maintained library of old vintages and I tasted the 100% Chardonnay from 1995. This was a remarkable wine, rich gold in colour with fabulous complexity: wood smoke, cinnamon, honey, raisin, hazelnut and tobacco aromas played over its still fresh yellow-apple fruit compote core. I have discussed a good range of older vintages of Ferrari’s grander wines, tasted in 2013, here.

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