The Swiss canton of Ticino is privileged in a major way: it has a Mediterranean climate and barren soils.
Given its location at the foot of the Alps, whose hills stretch as far as the border with Italy and, in some cases, beyond, the warm Mediterranean climate can even reach up into the mountains. The soils are generally permeated with gneiss sand and are acidic and low-yielding. In times gone by, the population had great difficulty living off the land, but the ever-changing occupants were interested merely in the strategic and financial benefits that the corridor through the Alps could offer. Many were forced to emigrate, especially those whose talents did not involve tending the terraced plots. The rule at the time was: if you could not produce enough to eat, you could not stay.
A favourable legacy
The barren earth thus forced many from the canton. Hunger drove those with ability – architects, master masons, stonemasons, carpenters, stucco plasters, painters, sculptors – to emigrate and create wonders in foreign lands1. Just think of Rome or St. Petersburg, where the Ticinese have left their mark. Those who remained behind were the peasant farmers, who continued to lead a very modest existence until as late as the 1950s. It was only as a result of tourism that the underdeveloped region began to really find its place in the present.
Where the barren soils were once a heavy burden, they have since become something of a blessing, with conditions in the rugged Ticino landscape unique to viticulture. Ticino is located in the insubric zone, which marks the division between the European and African tectonic plates. The name derives from the Celtic ethnicity of the Insubrians, who inhabited the area between the Saint-Gotthard Massif and the river Po in pre-Christian times. The four elements of abundant sunshine, an ample supply of water, a wild mixture of soil layers and virtually endless winds play a role in this region like in no other, and make for a temperamental setting.
The vines certainly don’t have it easy, but they are, after all, unusual creatures: plant them in heavy soils and they’ll enjoy a peaceful life and vegetate. Make them fight, and they’ll give their utmost.
The quantum leap
Viticulture has been practised in Ticino since Roman times, when wine was nothing more than a food to add a few extra calories to the meagre diets of the population. There was no wine culture, and what was produced was produced without finesse. Only once the canton had found its place in the modern world did quality production start to find a footing.
Only at the beginning of the 1980s did people begin to realise Ticino offered globally unique conditions. When its adopted son, Merlot was introduced to the region from Bordeaux at the beginning of the 20th century, Ticino had at its disposal a variety of grape that could now be pressed as a high quality “great growth”. Migrant vintners from German-speaking and French-speaking cantons and local winegrowers set to work with great eagerness, taking just a decade to produce a feat that attracted the attention and recognition of a worldwide audience.
But that wasn’t enough. For more than 40 years now, small and large producers have been breathtakingly creative and in continuous competition. Every one of the more than 300 (sic!) cellars aims to be the best. At the beginning, it was about producing wines with more structure and character. Today, the challenge is to give more substantial crops greater finesse, elegance and polish. The results are fascinating, and more and more wine lovers have become enamoured of the distinctive Ticinese style of moderate substance, vital character, complex aromas and exciting minerality.
If any zone can lay claim to the production of terroir wines, it’s Ticino. Producers have borrowed from around the world, but especially from Italy and France, and their masterly achievement is to have combined these two contrasting styles with Ticinese peculiarities and their own ideas to produce a harmonious whole. The way in which the vintners have been able to interpret the capricious nature of the insubric zone is a sign of great skill. Try the wines yourself at a cellar testing, such as at Angelo Delea in Losone, one of the most active protagonists of the local wine scene.
Small reality, great diversity
With an average of six million bottles per year, the reality is small, and every one of the 2,000 plus labels is a rarity. The wine lists offered by local restaurants are equally varied. The establishments run by the Seven Group on the Piazza offer sophisticated menus with an attractive selection of Ticinese wines and sound advice. Ristorante della Carrà and Hostaria San Pietro in romantic Dorfkern both have wine-loving owners. Be curious and open to any recommendations. At da Gina on the Viale Monte Verità, the person serving you is highly likely to be a young winegrower.
An affinity for wine is strong in Locarnese, and many of the staff working in the bars and restaurants are genuine wine fans who spend time visiting cellars in their spare time, and who know many vintners personally. In Ristorante da Enzo in Ponte Brolla or in urban Blu in Locarno, you’ll not only find a great selection of wines, but the best advice to go with it.
When you think of Ticinese wine, you tend to think of red wine. There are, however, an impressive number of delicious white wines to choose from, including white Merlot. On no account should you let the opportunity to try one slip by. The Ristoranti Fred Feldpausch restaurants (Osteria Nostrana, Grotto Broggini and Sensi) or any of the venues run by the Cotti Group (Al Faro, Piazza and Al Pontile) all offer “Merlot bianco” as it is commonly known, either as an aperitif or for casual refreshment. If you can’t tolerate acidity, don’t worry – the Bianco di Merlot is, as its name suggests, a white wine from the blue Merlot grape, giving it a pleasantly mild flavour.
The future is Merlot
Unlike in many regions of the world, Merlot is not a modern phenomenon or trend in Ticino, but a wine with a tradition stretching back more than 100 years. Although other varieties have since become available, the status of this top location is indisputable. Producers are highly motivated and hone in on every detail to ensure that they produce truly authentic wines. Ticinese Merlot will, therefore, inexorably earn its position on the international stage, if only in limited quantities, which means it is reserved for the fortunate few.