Northeast Italy is possibly the most unusual part of an already very unusual country. The peoples often have more in common historically, culturally, gastronomically and viticulturally with their Slavic and Germanic neighbours than with the rest of the Italian peninsula. The viticulture, by the way, is extreme, influenced, as it is, by that glorious spur of the Southern Alps: the Dolomites.
Maybe you wouldn’t think it, but there is a wealth of indigenous grapes here, in addition to the grapes of neighbouring lands. Not a surprise, really, that the grapes of nearby neighbours are also important here; borders are an anachronism, and subject to change. Grapevines and the passion for wine know no borders. Thank goodness for that.
When I say “here”, I am referring to three parts of Italy’s northeast: Friuli, Trentino, and Südtirol (known as Alto Adige in Italian).
But what is perhaps the most surprising thing about the wines from this high-elevation, cooler part of the country is not that there are excellent wines to be found, but that there are excellent red wines, sweet wines, and sparkling wines.
Italy is blessed with a multitude of fine sparkling wines made from both native grapes and from French varietals, but there are very few appellations devoted to the production of sparkling wines. Of course, everybody knows Prosecco, even if fewer people know about the best part of the zone. Lambrusco is another appellation – for red sparklers – that deserves more attention. But what are the areas acknowledged for “the best” sparkling wine production in the country?
It is a difficult question simply on the basis of the semantics. What makes a sparkling wine “the best”? Nevertheless, there is a benchmark worldwide for high-quality sparkling wine production: Champagne. If you are a fan of the taste and styles of Champagne, then there are but two appellations in Italy that can regularly reach comparable heights: Franciacorta DOCG in Lombardy and Trento DOC in Trentino. Both of these appellations focus on using French varietals and “Traditional Method” sparkling winemaking. You can read more about sparkling wines and their winemaking here. With respect to the grapes, the soils, the techniques and the disciplinare (the schedule of requirements for wine production required by – and unique to – each denomination in Italy), these are the zones making the most exciting sparkling wines with typical French varietals in Italy. And only one of them takes grapes from high elevations.
Mountain Bubbles: Trento DOC
Sparkling wines from Trentino are, nevertheless, a bit different, even if the wines aren’t as famous as their Lombardian compatriots. The DOC was granted in 1993, despite traditional method sparkling wine production having been introduced to the region by Giulio Ferrari in 1902. Grapes grown in the province benefit from the cool mountain air and significant temperature variations between day and night, which encourage healthy, ripe grapes with a high level of flavour development, while maintaining brisk acidity. Perfect conditions for first-rate sparkling wine!
TrentoDOC – the Brand
Trento DOC is the appellation. But there is an “Institute of Trento DOC”, founded in 1984, that is responsible for the promotion of the territory and the sparkling wines produced there, and they created TrentoDOC, the brand, in 2007. Currently, there are 51 members of the institute – including the sparkling wine producer that started it all: Ferrari.
Important points about Trento DOC
- Vineyards can be as high as 800 metres above sea level
- temperature difference from day to night is very wide
- vine training is predominantly pergola
- the production process is even more strictly regimented
- grape harvesting must be done by hand
- only traditional method is permitted
- The only grapes permitted are Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Meunier
The wines can be made as white or rosé. The wines can be at any sweetness level (read more about sparkling wine sweetness and production methods here), except for the Riserva, which may not be sweeter than Brut.
There are three main categories for the wines, each requiring a different minimum amount of time on the lees:
- Non-Vintage – 15 months on the lees
- Millesimato – 24 months on the lees
- Riserva – 36 months on the lees
I’ve chosen non-vintage TrentoDOC to pair with the food. Non-Vintage wines from Trentino are often tight and fresh, with a lean, citric edge and plenty of salt in the finish. Fresh, with tight fruit and very food-friendly. What’s more, I’ve decided – somewhat rebelliously – not to say which wine I actually drank, in this case. Why? Because there are many fabulous producers, and I would like you to simply get out there and try a few! Some names to get you started are listed at the end of this section.
The Millesimato bottlings are reflective of the vintage, of course, and can be tremendously complex, with some time in bottle, but also very faceted, very diverse, and supremely interesting. It is worth getting to know them.
The Riserva bottlings take things in a new direction. The wines are aged, and that means that they are starting to really show their potential. With the acidity and purity of fruit available in Trentino, fine winemaking and a deft hand in the cellar… these wines can be extravagantly beautiful.
There is a strong movement to make TrentoDOC without dosage – something that I, personally, find very interesting, but which is often difficult to manage. Many of the producers here are doing great work in this regard, benefitting, no doubt, from the excellent ripeness of the grapes. You can’t make a good non-dosaggio without top-rate fruit. Trentino can do this better than almost any other appellation I have encountered. And the wines here are undervalued. There are bargains to be found – even the most famous house, Ferrari, is sold for a price that can rightly be considered inexpensive. Go forth and discover your next favourite sparkling wine!
Some names to look for:
Ferrari – the standard-bearer and the name that started it all. Moving to 100% organic production through the incentives that they offer their growers, this producer is a model for the zone, and for the world of sparkling wine production.
Pisoni – some of the best TrentoDOC I’ve had, from a very small, historic estate. The finest 100% Chardonnay I’ve had from the zone.
Toblino – the Brut Nature (no dosage) from this estate was absolutely superb.
Levii – produces only sparkling wines from a small estate. All the wines are excellent.
Cesconi – not a member of the institute, but this estate produces the most beautiful sparkling wines from the zone that I have had.
The Food for the Wine
What does one pair with such an auspicious sparkler? Good sparkling wines can pair with virtually anything, from basic vegetables and fish to roasted meats, if chosen well. TrentoDOC wines are fresh and mineral in their youth, mellowing into creaminess and salty depth with age. So, I decided to go with something classically Italian that originated very far from the northeast: pizza. And not just any pizza. The kind I make at home regularly when time is short.
When I have enough time, I make my own thin crust pizza dough. But when I don’t have the time (or the forward planning) to make my own dough, I do not buy pizza dough. I buy the kind of dough that is used in neighbouring Alsace for flammkuchen (tarte flambée in French). This dough works brilliantly well for thin crust pizza, and is the perfect size for my pizza oven as well.
The next surprise? I don’t use tomato sauce on pizza anymore, unless I have lots of time to make my own from scratch. So, nearly never. Instead, I use triple concentrated tomato paste. Then I sprinkle a little bit of salt on the paste, followed by oregano and chili flakes.
I love good cheese, so I vary the cheese on my pizzas quite a bit. This time, I used a mix of young Gouda for creamy texture and 24-month aged Pecorino Romano, to give it bite. It was a beautiful combination that I will definitely use again!
Red bell pepper, zucchini, mushrooms and a good ham. Easy. Delicious.
What about that Tannic Finish?
Sparkling wines from the north are one thing. What about the other extreme? Something red, with big tannin and huge ageing potential: Pignolo.
I’ve written about it before, and for this pizza I decided to break out another bottle or two to see how things could go coming from the other side. It couldn’t have gone better. TrentoDOC sparkling wines had the freshness and verve to pair with my pizza beautifully, but a lightly-aged Pignolo has got the substance and the tannin to shore it up and make things a bit more smoky. Both pairings were wonderful.
Pignolo is a delightful, insouciant native of Friuli – and it’s a tough grape to approach without a few years of age under its belt. All the more reason to find a good producer – like Zorzettig or La Tunella – that can make it approachable even after “only” seven years. Normally I recommend ten. Minimum. What do you get for your trouble? Tannins to go with the meat and cheese, acid to cut through the fat, sweet herbs to match the sauce, and enough body to stand up against Italy’s unofficial national dish. Bring it on.
What Else is Being Written about Northeast Italy at #ItalianFWT?
Check out the other posts here! There is plenty of inspiration, discovery and joy to be had. And lots of great food!
Camilla of Culinary Adventures with Camilla hunts down “Coniglio in Agrodolce + Ronchi di Cialla Ribolla Gialla 2017.”
Wendy tries “Caramelized Onion and Mushroom Pizza with a Terlano Pinot Bianco” over at A Day in the Life on the Farm.
Linda investigates “Alto Adige Offers More than One White Wine” at My Full Wine Glass.
Gwendolyn is The Wine Predator, and she will be “Celebrating Summer in the Mountains of Italy : 4 wines with 4 courses from Südtirol.”
Jeff at FoodWineClick! will be getting back to nature with “A Food-Friendly Skin-Fermented Vigneti delle Dolomiti.”
Cindy will be taking a look at “Picolit – A Historic, Rare, Sweet Dessert Wine from Collio DOC” over at Grape Experiences.
Jennifer will be taking her Vino Travels to the farthest reaches of Italy’s northeast to discover “Friulian Reds with Zorzettig.”
Lauren, The Swirling Dervish, will be trying out “Elena Walch Müller Thurgau with Summertime Shrimp Pad-Thai.”
Katarina will be looking closer at “Aquila del Torre winery: An Oasis in Friuli Focused on Local Identity and Innovation” at Grapevine Adventures.
Nicole from Somm’s Table shares “2 Ounce Pours: A Quick Look at Pinot Bianco.”