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Italy’s ‘other’ Ferrari steps up a gear

A Trentino producer is confident that it can carve an export niche in the growing sparkling wine category, even at prices to rival prestige cuvée Champagne.

Matteo Lunelli (left) and other members of this family run group.

“We are not afraid of being priced much higher than most Champagne,” asserted Matteo Lunelli, president of traditional method sparkling wine producer Ferrari, which has been managed by his family for three generations.

For Lunelli, a key point of distinction between Ferrari and Italy’s other sparkling regions is the dramatic geography of Trentino. “We are a mountain wine,” he told the drinks business. Pointing to the “very strong diurnal shift” in temperature as a result of this influence from the surrounding Dolomites, Lunelli explained: “this is very important because it allows us to have grapes with good acidity.”

In this respect he drew a contrast with Italy’s other main bottle fermented sparking style, Franciacorta, which has recently been achieving strong growth in the UK and other export markets.

“Franciacorta is not a mountain wine,” observed Lunelli. “They tend to harvest earlier than us and there is less acidity so the wines are less long ageing, but their fruit is rounder when the wines are younger.”

As a result of this high acidity in Trentino grapes, he highlighted the long ageing potential of the wines both before and after disgorgement. While Ferrari’s entry level non vintage expression Maximum, which carries an RRP of around £20, spends three years on its lees, the brand’s various “Perlé” vintage expressions typically see six years of this lees maturation, rising to 10 years on lees for its top end Giulio Ferrari blanc de blancs expression.

Carrying an RRP of around £85, the Giulio Ferrari comes from a 15-hectare single vineyard called Maso Pianizza. First made in 1976, around 40,000 bottles are produced in the years when it is made, with the producer holding back altogether in challenging years such as the hot 2003 or the latest rainy 2014 vintage.

While Trentodoc sparkling wines may include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier, at Ferrari there has historically been a particularly strong emphasis on Chardonnay and blanc de blancs styles.

Indeed, claimed Lunelli, “Chardonnay was introduced to Italy by Giulio Ferrari”, the house’s founder who spent 50 years pioneering sparkling wine in the region before selling his brand to Lunelli’s grandfather in 1952.

Despite the high end positioning of his portfolio, Lunelli insisted that Ferrari’s non vintage offers “an outstanding quality to price proposition between Prosecco and Champagne.” As for the brand’s Perlé vintage range, which carries an RRP of about £29, he noted its ability to offer “six years on lees for the price of non vintage Champagne.”

While much of the world’s recent sparkling wine growth has been driven by fellow Italian but more modestly priced Prosecco, Lunelli suggested that this category was a “door opener” rather than a hindrance to Ferrari’s ambitions. Indeed, he noted that his group now owns a stake in Prosecco brand Bisol.

“Sometimes it creates confusion because Ferrari is not Prosecco and it’s not priced the same,” he commented. “But when people look for a high end Italian sparkling then Ferrari can be an interesting alternative. We can reach a level of complexity that Prosecco cannot.”

After joining UK distributor Enotria two years ago and with listings in a number of high-end London Italian restaurants such as Locanda Locatelli, Lunelli confirmed that the time was now right to begin a more concerted push in this and other export markets. “I’m incredibly positive,” he told db. “I truly believe that sparkling is the wine of the future.”

Elaborating on this prediction, Lunelli remarked: “It’s a most modern wine that is in line with customer taste and habits; it’s a social wine that is linked to people meeting and celebrating. It’s also the perfect wine for light, elegant food that the customer is looking for. And also women, who are more and more interested in wine, are bringing their own taste into the wine world, which is often for sparkling wine.”

Although reporting that Trentodoc now features “almost 40 producers” making the DOC’s bottle fermented sparkling style, Lunelli conceded that the region still lacked the weight of export-focused wineries enjoyed by Prosecco or even Franciacorta.

“We are by far the largest winery and sometimes we feel a bit alone,” he acknowledged, noting that the region’s total production is no more than seven million bottles – compared to more than 300m for both Prosecco and Champagne – and most local producers sell all their wine domestically, or look no further than the nearby German market.

The Dolomite mountains, which dominate Trentino’s vineyard region

However, Lunelli continued: “We are leaders in the region and we feel a responsibility to promote Trentino territory. We strongly believe that the effort we’re making will help more and more Trentodoc.”

Confirming that the brand’s export focus was now “very strong”, he observed that while previous family members had built a solid business in the domestic market, “the challenge for my generation is to make Ferrari an international brand.”

To explain the motivation behind this shift in focus, Lunelli commented: “The wine market is becoming more international, people travel, so if you want to be a leading brand today you have to be in these big cities around the world – London, New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Hong Kong.”

Looking to the future, he set out an aim to derive growth from export activity rather than Ferrari’s largest market of Italy, where overall volume wine sales are in decline.

“Growth is certainly coming from outside Italy,” Lunelli confirmed. “In Italy we would rather keep our market share, it’s not about increasing sales.”

For the moment, Japan represents a particularly strong export market for the brand, which began working with a distribution partner there 18 years ago. “We now sell almost 200,000 bottles in Japan,” reported Lunelli.

Using this success as a template for building a similar business in the UK, he observed: “It’s crucial to find the right partner and strategy. Now in the UK we think we have that partner, but since there is no category yet it won’t fly by itself.” Nevertheless, he concluded: “There is interest in the market for this. It is a niche, but there is a niche of wine lovers in the UK who can appreciate these wines.”

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