Bubbles from Snowy Peaks

Sparklings from South Tyrol show constant high quality but remain the hidden gems in the Italian sparkling game. Elisabetta Tosi knows more.

Sparkling wines from the mountainous region of Northern Italy offer great quality / Credit: Tiberio Sorvillo
Sparkling wines from the mountainous region of Northern Italy offer great quality / Credit: Tiberio Sorvillo

When it comes to Italian classic method sparkling wines, thought easily turns to famous territories such as Franciacorta and Oltrepo’ Pavese in Lombardy, or Asti and Alte Langhe in Piedmont. Yet, two small regions in Northern Italy produce bottles of the highest quality, punctually rewarded every year by the national wine guides and by international wine competitions. They are Alto Adige and Trentino: two areas that share breathtaking mountains and an extraordinary variety of landscapes: woods, wide valleys, pictouresque villages, lakes, and nature mostly unadulterated.

The verticality of South Tyrolean sparkling wines

The history of South Tyrolean sparkling wines is relatively recent. The first official bottle was released in 1902 and was a classic method with Riesling grapes, made to satisfy the Austrian guests who loved to spend some days in the area and were used to drink Champagne. That first production stopped at the outbreak of the First world war, but the dream of making a great classic method did not die.

In 1962 Sebastian Stocker, a pioneer of South Tyrolean wine, produced a Brut for the first time; few years later, some producers such as Josef “Sepp” Reiterer and Alois Ochsenreiter followed his example and laid the foundations of the current production of “Suedtirolersekt”. In the Seventies, Josef Reiterer bought an old building in the heart of the tiny village of Meltina, at 1200 meters above the sea level, and founded Arunda, the highest winery in Europe. “My very first production of sparkling wines were just 300 bottles of Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc classic method, but they turned out pretty good recalls Reiterer – So, I kept on with that wine. In the beginning, running a winery in a place at that altitude and quite isolated from the rest of the world sounded like a bet, but we could take benefit from the mountain climate. The large temperature differences between day and night are just what the grapes need”. Even the selling early wasn’t easy: the local restaurants didn’t appreciate those sparkling wines, which got sold with no difficulties in cities like Milano instead. 

Persisting, the things changed. Later, others joined Reiterer and Ochsenreiter, and now there are ten wineries and cooperatives renowned for their bubbles: Arunda, Haderburg, Kettmeier, St. Pauls Kellerei, Kaltern Kellerei, Martini, Meran Kellerei, Kurtatsch Kellerei, Von Braunbach, Ptfischer. All of them are part of an association, the “Sudtiroler Sekt Classic Method” established in 1990 by Reiterer himself, who is even the current president: “For years we’ve been producing annually just 200 thousand bottles – he highlights – Now we are approaching to 400 thousand”. For now, they aren’t interested in export abroad, and focus rather on the domestic market: “Nowadays the white wines from South Tyrol are run in great demand in Italy, so it’s easier to introduce in a wine bar a new product as our classic method. There are more and more consumers who are looking for an alternative to the usual Italian classic methods, like as Franciacorta or Asti”. Although the bottle price isn’t inexpensive, as the range is between 14 and 25 Euros, the consumers don’t complain, and recognize the value of the wines: all the bottles are aged on lees longer than is required by law, 24 months at least, 36 if it is a Riserva. Somebody is planning even 70 months. According to the rules of the “Sudtiroler Sekt Classic Method”, the wines can be produced only with Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot noir grapes. 

Sparkling wines with original features

“The freshness, the minerality and the verticality of South Tyrol sparkling wines are maybe their most original features – says Lorenz Martini, whose winery is in the old wine village Cornaiano, nearby Bolzano  – In our highest vineyards, the climate is pretty similar to that in Champagne: for our wines, we need acidity and low levels of sugar, but it is also important that the grapes are picked when ripe because we cannot harvest early just to not lose the acidity. We need balance”. Another trait that marks the originality of those bubbles is the Pinot Blanc in the blend: “We use much of it because it’s a grape that gives to the wine minerality and backbone – he explains – It’s a variety difficult to cultivate because it has a very compact bunch, like the Pinot noir, therefore it is sensitive to rot. For this reason, to get the sparkling wine base, it is important to grow the Pinot Blanc, not below 600 m/asl”.

The current pandemic affected also the sales of South Tyrolean bubbles; however, the producers didn’t do any distinct action of marketing nor special offers to selling more bottles. “Thankfully, our wines take advantage if they can age a bit more – says Josef Reiterer – thus they can rest in a cellar for some years with no issues”.

The mountain footprint in Trento DOC sparkling wines

Mountain environment has a direct influence on the wines of the neighboring Trentino region too, as it gives them a richness in odouros fragrances (volatile compounds) higher than in any other Italian sparkling wine.

A recent research carried out in Fondazione E.Mach, an important training and research centre in San Michele all’Adige, has provided a scientific evidence there is something in the Trentino climate that gets the vines to accumulate a series of compounds, mainly primary aromas. No other area has that feature. The researchers discovered it’s possible to distinguish a Trentino classic method from another Italian one even with chemical analysis, because 180 compounds differ between the two types of wines. Those compounds are strictly connected to the territorial origin of the Trentino bubbles, as further close examinations showed off. The fragrances of Trentino bubbles are determined by temperature fluctuations typical of mountain environments. “We made a climate analysis, and saw a very clear correlation with the thermal index – claimed Fulvio Mattivi, researcher in E.Mach Foundation – That demonstrated the mountain footprint in our sparkling wines, and where their complexity comes from”. 

In Trentino, 70 percent of the region is over 1,000 meters in altitude, and the grapes where the Trentino bubbles come from are cultivated mainly on slopes up to 800 meters above sea level. The total surface for this kind of wine production is just 8 percent of the whole cultivated area, equal to about 800 hectares, scattered on 74 municipalities between the Dolomites and Lake of Garda. Here the viticulture is among the most costly in Italy, everything has to be handled manually. Most of the wineries are mainly grape growers with vine-covered areas of less than a hectare. 

As in South Tyrol, even in this region, the origin of sparkling wines dates back a century and a half ago. At the beginning of 1900, the wine grower Giulio Ferrari who had studied oenology also in Montpellier, began to produce sparkling wines following the Champagne method. He had seen similarities between Trentino and that French area, and was ready to bet on the potential of his region. His first bottles were successful, so the production increased rapidly, reaching 10 thousand bottles in 1952. Later, he sold his business, Cantine Ferrari, to Bruno Lunelli, but continued to work in the winery until his death in 1965. Nowadays the most important bubbles of Ferrari winery is named after him.

Collective marketing

In 1993 Trento DOC became the first denomination of classic sparkling wine in Italy, one of the first worldwide. Since 2007, all the sparkling wines of Trentino, qualified to bear Trento DOC on the label, can use the collective trademark Trentodoc. Currently, 57 wineries are using it, very few sparkling wine producers have to claim it yet. For the rules of production, the only grapes allowed are Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier, harvested by hand. The aging on the lees lasts from 15 months for a Brut to 36 for a Riserva. In 2019, the Trentodoc production was 10 million bottles, and the value of the compound is about 110 million Euros. The exports are just 15 percent of the total turnover, whereas Italy rep-resents 85 percent; there is, though, a supportive increase in sales to the USA. Interestingly, the categories of bubbles that are better performing in sales are the most prestigious ones, Millesimato and Riserva (+16.6% in 2019) along with the trendy rosé (+14.4%). Although the market share is still limited, the fame of the wine is growing everywhere. 
In 2020, in the Champagne & Sparkling Wine World Championships founded by Tom Stevenson, Trentodoc was the most awarded classic method in Italy. The wines won 52 medals (20 golden medals and 32 silver medals).

Throughout the lockdown for the current pandemic, the Trentodoc producers reacted trying to reach their consumers in different channels than Horeca, as modern distribution and e-commerce. The Trentodoc Institute also developed its presence in the social media platform with storytelling (#trentodoclife), organizing many online tastings (#trentodoctime), and even with the app “Trentodoc” for smartphones. The goal is getting closer to the wine lover, at least virtually waiting for the time it will be possible to do it for real.

Elisabetta Tosi

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