It sometimes surprises visitors that Switzerland produces wine at all. Swiss wine is produced in luxuriously small quantities, and just 2% of the wine is exported–most is consumed in-country by the Swiss and lucky holiday-makers. For visitors to the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, another surprise awaits: complex, versatile wines–including a white Merlot– perfectly suited to the hearty Italian-influenced foods of this mountainous region.
Terroir & tenacity
Ticino is split geographically in two parts by the Monte Ceneri pass, and wines produced in Ticino reflect differences in terroir and, just as important, the varied microclimatic features of the canton. In mountainous Sopraceneri, the northern region, the sandy soil is acid, light and porous. In the southern part, Sottoceneri, the soil is more alkaline. The Sottoceneri rewards Merlot’s preference for moist clay soil, warm days and cool nights. In the hands of Ticino winemakers, the thin-skinned grape also receives the careful tending it requires, resulting in wines that are complex in character, perfumed and elegant.
Ticino Merlot got its start in Bordeaux, France, when the grape was chosen to replenish the stock destroyed by Phylloxera at the turn of the 20th century. The canton’s Merlot story began on the Vallombrosa estate of Giovanni Rossi in Castelrotto near Lugano. There, in 1906, Rossi, a physician, politician and philanthropist, introduced Merlot rootstock, combining efficient agricultural practices with a healthy dose of political will.
It took sixty years, and the imagination and perseverance of wine-makers to build a viniculture of prize-winning quality. There are now a total of about 3600 grape growers in Ticino and 200 or so winemakers. Approximately 1,000 hectares are devoted to viticulture, much of it around Mendrisio and Lugano. Thanks to Ticinowine, Tom and I recently had an opportunity to meet several innovative winemakers in the Sottoceneri region, and to taste the marvelous results of their efforts.
Today, Merlot wine production in Ticino is characterized by the varying approaches to creating their wines, each wine-maker aiming to bring out the best aspects of the grape. Some do it via blending, some with their choice of barrels, still others by the technical processes employed. The result is a diverse wine-making culture, using just one grape!
In the 1980s, many winemakers from the canton attended specialized courses at the University of Bordeaux. At the same time, a number of professional winegrowers came to Ticino from the German- and French-Swiss regions of Switzerland. Some winemakers, such as Claudio Tamborini and Guido Brivio, brought techniques from Bordeaux home to Switzerland, and refined them over decades. Successful on their own, a collaboration between Guido Brivio, Claudio Tamborini and fellow winemakers Angelo Delea and Feliciano Gialdi has produced an intense Merlot marketed under the Quattromani label. This cuvée is complex and deep, with notes of cherry and blackberry, and overtones of liquorice, cloves, coffee and a hint of dark chocolate.
Others, such as Christian Zündel, settled in the Malcontone, reclaiming abandoned vineyards, applying modern farming methods and taking an individualistic approach to wine-making. For Christian Zündel that means unoaked, acidic wines that he feels best suit the Ticino kitchen. Still others, such as Enrico Trapletti, have brought their passion for viticulture into second careers and are now earning accolades for their work. Trapletti Merlots are elegant, generously oaked, smooth and balanced, evoking black cherry, plum and red currents, lightly spiced.
With these and so many other fine winemakers, is there room for more? Newcomers, such as Adrien Stevens of Cantine Riva Morcote, thinks so. He helps Christian Zündel while working a small plot of his own. He credits Zündel for the inspiration that has enabled him to bring a limited number of bottles to market, and is testing the waters with a pint-sized cellar that offers just three wines in limited quantities, through direct sales and in a few local restaurants.
The Montalbano a Stabio vineyard, owned by the Cantina Sociale Mendrisio, slopes down to the wide valley between Monte Generoso and Monte San Georgio. Montalbano is the largest vineyard in Ticino, but most of the cooperative’s several hundred members are passionate hobbyists, part-time grape-growers who farm small vineyard plots. The Cantina was founded in 1947, and is the only wine cooperative in Ticino. Members mainly represent the Mendrisiotto area, and wines center around Merlot. The range of wines the cooperative produces offer a broad-spectrum introduction to Ticino wines. Some of the best are now marketed outside Switzerland, especially in Italy and Germany.
Wine tourism in Ticino
Generally speaking, wine tourism in Ticino is not along a well-labeled, mapped-out route. A visitor must take a different approach, combining a taste for the grape with opportunities to sample some of the canton’s signature foods and settings. It can be useful to start with any of the artfully designed tasting rooms at the major vintners, and continue your explorations at restaurants and festivals. Good wine is widely available throughout canton Ticino!
Biano Rosso & Blu is a marvelous guide to Ticino Wines. The book provides a beautifully illustrated tour (in Italian, German, French and English) through the history and current activities of wine-making in the canton. Recommended!
If you go
Have you experienced Ticino’s surprising Merlot? If so, please share your favorites! If not, we highly recommend Ticino as a wine-lover’s destination in Switzerland. There are are numerous possibilities for sampling wines from the canton. Here are just a few for the Sottceneri:
- The annual Cantine Aperto (Day of Open Wine Cellars), sponsored by Ticinowines. This is a great time to discover wines of very limited production, but great flavor.
- Spend a day or a weekend enjoying one of the numerous harvest festivals in Ticino, such as the Chestnut Festival in Ascona.
- Hike among the vines: Ticino’s sloping terraced vineyards, large and small, evoke the ronchi of the past. From Vallombrosa, in Castelrotto, you can follow the original path of Giovanni Rossi’s ground-breaking efforts to bring Merlot into production.
- Ask for Ticino wines at one of Switzerland’s wine fairs, eg Expovina Wine Ships, docking in Zurich for the first two weeks in November each year.
- If you have an opportunity to visit a small wine-grower/producer in Ticino, take it! It will give you a look behind the scenes, and into the wine-making culture, of Switzerland.
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We were guests of Ticinowine and several winemakers in Ticino. The pleasure of sampling their beautiful wines was all ours!