In the pantheon of sparkling wine producing areas Trentodoc may not be on your radar. However, it is likely only a matter of time before it is as much a household name as Prosecco.

In the clear air of the snowy Dolomite mountains, Italian winemakers are ramping up their production of high-quality, fresh-flavored sparkling wines. These wines are made mainly with the same grapes used in Champagne — chardonnay and pinot noir – along with crisp pinot blanc. The sparkling wines are labelled “Trentodoc” which indicates they are from the Trentino province in northern Italy, and produced only under this region’s specially-designated rules of vinegrowing and winemaking.

On a recent visit to the province I got a more complete and current picture. The lasting impression is that the region is poised to move from niche specialty to mainstream sparkling wine category as marketing spend synchronizes with the quality of the underlying product.

Tasting

Champagne customers are obviously the target of Trentdoc producers. Given the same production method and mainly the same grapes, and given that Champagne is the standard bearer in traditional method sparkling wine, the two regions instinctively invite comparison. Some Trentodoc wines aim to reproduce the autolyzed, nutty style of well-aged champagnes. However, most Trentodoc wines come across as fresher with fruit notes from citrus to tropical fruit such as guava in the nose of the white wines, and roses and cherries in the rosés.

Origins

At the turn of the 20th century, when this part of Italy belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire, winemaking was already established in Trentino. One winemaker, Giulio Ferrari, went to study at the prestigious wine school in Geisenheim, in Germany’s Rheingau region. He then took his new training to the French city of Épernay, in the Champagne region, where, he learned how to make sparkling wines. Later, he and brought both vines and knowledge back to Trento. The sparkling wines that he made at his eponymous winery won a gold medal at the 1906 Universal Expo in Milan, and inspired others to follow suit.

Growth was slow. By 1952 production was only 830 cases. Giulio sold his winery to Bruno Lunelli but continued to work there until his death. Output grew steadily but unspectacularly until 1993, when an extension of Italy’s DOC appellation system ennobled the area.

In 1993, the sparkling wines of the area (that met all requirements) were designated Trento DOC, and the still wines Trentino DOC. However, sparkling wine producers felt they needed a more memorable name than “sparkling wine from Trento DOC”. In 2007, the area trademarked the name Trentodoc and promoted the sparkling wines with this moniker on everything from bottle neck labels to advertisements. Along with the name is a logo which consists of a rippled capital letter O intended to reference the remuage (riddling) applied uniquely to metodo classico wine.

Present day production is 9 million (750 ml) bottles. The Istituto Trento DOC today records 54 producers of Trentodoc on its web site, mostly small wineries. Ferrari accounts for 60% of production and the remaining output is dominated by the cooperatives Altemasi (Cavit), and Rotari.

Requirements

A Trentodoc wine must be made in the same method as champagne, which is called metodo classico in Italian. The grapes must come exclusively from Trento DOC and the only permitted varieties are chardonnay, pinot noir, pinot meunier, and pinot blanc. The classification does not limit the proportions of each so, in principle, one could have a 100% pinot blanc Trentodoc. In practice, pinot blanc is a minor player, adding fruitiness to the nose. As in Champagne, the main grape is chardonnay with pinot noir in second place.

Terrior

The most overwhelming fact about the Trentodoc growing area is that it is in the mountains. The soils on the mountain slopes are predominantly calcareous, implying good drainage. The Istituto Trento DOC also points out that “these soils, rich in calcareous rocks and mineral salts, have a high silica content.”

Grapes grow from 650 to 3,000 feet in altitude, in valleys surrounded by the Dolomites, a mountain range that forms part of the southern Alps. This altitude distinguishes the terroir of Trentodoc from that of any other major sparkling wine growing area. It contributes to warm days and cool nights, amounting to substantial diurnal temperature variation – which allows the grapes to get fully physiologically ripe, with greater aromatic complexity and fragrance.

Viticulture

Most grape harvesting is done by hand, because of the difficulty of working on the steep slopes. Trento’s hillside vineyards are often trellised with the pergola system. This allows workers to reach up, rather than down, to the grape bunches and also provides good canopy ripening. The other trellising system widely seen is the guyot system which is more suited to the flatter areas.

Pergola method of training vines ahead, with guyot vineyard on right, at Maso Martis

Winery

In the winery, the production method is the same as in Champagne. Non-vintage sparkling wines are made from one or more base wines, the choice being up to the winemaker. For example, Rotari uses 15-20 different wines for the base wine. Usually from 2-3 vintages. Ferrari blends some 40 base wines, from three vintages. Ageing requirements sur lies is 15 months for non-vintage wines, 24 months for vintage (millesimato) wines, and 36 months for riserva wines.

The above minimums are commonly exceeded by individual producers seeking the right patina of age on their wine. For example, the 2007 Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore, Giulio Ferrari, a halo wine of the Ferrari house, made from 100% chardonnay, tasted in the Fall of 2019, had been aged on the lees for a full decade. The effect of long lees times is the same as in Champagne: substantial autolysis producing pronounced yeasty notes on the nose. Nonetheless, the nose still had fruity aromas of lemons, ripe apples and guava. The palate was bright and sparkled with ripe apples. Interestingly, this 12-year old vintage is the current release.

Many other producers choose to promote the freshness of their well-aged sparkling wines notably Rotari, Altemasi, Maso Martis, and Revi.

Present Day Production

The table below shows bottles produced and the percentage of that production exported. The data show, first, how small Trentodoc production is in relation to other major traded sparkling wines. Second, how small exports are relative to total production compared with other regions. Expansion here is planned: there is available land for further planting, and climate change makes more higher altitude viticulture possible each decade.

Comparing Trentodoc volume and exports with other major sparkling wine categories

PRODUCTION
millions of 750ml bottles
EXPORTS
percentage, by volume
Trentodoc 9 (2018) 20 (2016)
Cava 245 (2016) 65 (2016)
Champagne 320 (2018) 51 (2018)
Franciacorta 17 (2017) 11 (2016)
Prosecco 600 (2018) 70 (2016)

Trentodoc represents a true metodo classico sparkling wine produced under stringent quality control and provenance rules. It offers an organoleptic experience with many fruity, easy drinking youthful wines, as well as a few that resemble aged Champagne. Producers to note are (in alphabetical order) Altemasi, Ferrari, Maso Martis, and Rotari.,

The wines are astutely priced measurably below champagne ($15-$25 for most non-vintage brut offerings), barely higher than Prosecco, while offering a lot more in the glass. They are very food friendly, often pairing well with a variety of dishes throughout the meal.

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The above article was made possible by a media visit with financial support from the Istituto Trento DOC (a winegrower’s organization).