A couple of weeks ago, I published my first article recounting a three-day trip I made to the Trentino region in Northern Italy. The first day started on the Southern end of the Lago di Garda among the majestic Dolomites. On the second day we left the lakeside hotel and drove up the coast of Lago di Garda and into the vineyards. The morning focused primarily on white wines and, after a visit to the winery, in the afternoon we shifted to red and the preeminent black grape in the region, Teroldego. The following day, we focused on the other (roughly) half of the production: sparkling wine and Rotari.
We started the third day with a tour of the Rotari half of the Mezzacorona mega-plex. And it was impressive. Don’t get me wrong: I normally eschew huge production facilities as they seem to be a bit lifeless and over-done. But not Rotari. Certainly, part of the allure was the fact that bubbles were involved (I am a bit of a sparkling wine floozy), but it is clear both from the facilities and the end product that Rotari does it right.
The Rotari story really starts with one of its current competitors, Ferrari, the nearly ubiquitous (at least in Italy) sparkling wine producer who wanted to create a world-class sparkling wine that challenged the wines of Champagne. As such, he increased the plantings of Chardonnay dramatically for the first half of the 20th Century.
Many independent growers followed suit either as an attempt to mimic the flamboyant Giulio Ferrari or (more likely) hoping they could sell their fruit to his burgeoning company. Regardless the reason, by the 1960s, there was a glut of Chardonnay in the region—grapes that struggled to reach ripeness in the relatively cool climes of the Dolomite slopes.
Those that did not sell to Ferrari (for whatever reason), turned to Mezzacorona, the cooperative in the Valley as a buyer of their fruit. Like Ferrari, the cooperative looked West to France, and decided to make a sparkling wine with the aromatic, yet highly acidic, under-ripe Chardonnay fruit. Soon, this part of Mezzacorona, which is entirely separate from the still wine production, took on the name “Rotari” who was the first Lombardy king and taught the people of the region how to cultivate the vines to produce wine.
Since the Charmat method had largely been discredited (the age of Prosecco’s dramatic rise in popularity was still several decades away), the newly anointed sparkling production arm of Mezzacorona decided to use the Metodo Classico (the same method used in Champagne where the second fermentation occurs in the bottle) for their sparkling wines. This technique, in which the wine has extended contact with the lees, developed complexity that did not exist in the grapes.
Lucio insists, however, that the wines need to be about the fruit (which despite the limitations, the grapes still get riper in Trentino than in Champagne), therefore they refuse to add any brandy or aromatic compounds in the dosage to add complexity.
TrentoDOC became the first méthode champenoise DOC in Italy in 1992, and today there are 39 small producers in the region and Rotari bottles 2.3 million of the 10 million total bottles produced.
Following Lucio around for three days, it was clear that he was a quote machine—just about every time he spoke, he uttered a memorable phrase. Although there were plenty that are likely better not put into print, some were on the verge of profound:
“We try to have fun here because it what you find in the glass. It is not just liquid, alcohol and some aromas. It is what it means to be a family.”
“I like when someone is tasting champagne and uses ten words that are used to describe foods from a bakery. Nice. But he needs not forget that the wine comes from grapes. “
“Metodo Clasico without a vintage is like a person without a last name. A book that is missing a couple of chapters.”
“I would like to kill the guy who invented the name ‘Spumante.’ It is a mess. Many Spumante are terrible so when someone asks if you want an Italian Spumante, many now say. ‘No!'”
“Tradition is not to take care of the ashes, but to keep the little light on. “
As for the wines? Nothing short of very impressive.
2013 Rotari Rosé: Retail $20 in U.S. 75% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay. While the standard Brut is Outstanding, the rosé takes it a step further and might be the best value at this price in the U.S. market. In fact, I think the wine would sell even better at a higher price point (but I will not tell them that). Bright and fruity, the addition of the Pinot Noir adds a bit of depth. Delicious and Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2007 Rotari Flavio: Retail $35 in U.S. 100% Chardonnay. 20% fermented in oak. 7% of that in new oak. Named after another of the most important Lombardia Kings, this is bright but yeasty with considerable depth. The same exudes on the palate. Whoa. A steal for the price. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
1997 Rotari Classico: 100% Chardonnay. Disgorged à la volée by Lucio. Apricot, marzipan, plenty of yeastiness. On the palate, truly remarkable a touch of spice (saffron), baked apple, white peach, creamy, plenty of acidity. The finish lasts for minutes with a cashew nuttiness. Whoa. An incredible experience. Outstanding. Easily the best Italian sparkling wine I have ever tried. 97-99 Points.