The Mondial du Merlot world wine competition takes place this weekend in Sierre, canton Valais, and I’ll be taking part as a judge. Earlier today I was interviewed by WRS radio in Geneva about this grape and its wines, canton Ticino’s specialty. I mentioned a few wines on the show and promised to provide their names here, to help listeners.
First, a bit of background on Merlot and Ticino’s love affair with it for the past century. The grape is bordelaise, from the Bordeaux region, and its main claim to fame before Ticino began to make varietal (single grape) wines from it was that Bordeaux producers used it in their blends. Possibly the most famous of these is Chateau Pétrus (95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc).
Ticino’s Merlots versus the French grape
But the Merlot grown in the past in France, and even today, is a small cousin of the grape used to make varietals, in the sense that the ones used for blends are often harvested early to provide acidity to wines and aren’t generally regarded highly for use on their own. The “international style” varietal Merlot popular in Switzerland and elsewhere – Merlot is one of the world’s most widely grown grapes – calls for a grape harvested later to benefit from its lush rich fruitiness.
Ticino planted the grape massively starting in 1906, after the region was hurt by phylloxera. Today red wine accounts for 91% of Ticino’s total and white 9%, with white wine made from red Merlot grapes a large part of these. By comparison, red wine throughout Switzerland is about 58% of the total produced.
Switzerland in 2014 produced 10.8 million litres of Merlot, compared to 42.6m litres of Pinot Noir, the main red grape, and 13.8 m litres of Gamay, the second.
Contrasting faces, good wines north and south
Ticino’s ability to raise excellent Merlot grapes is all the more remarkable when you consider the difference between north and south, both of which grow large quantities of it. The Sopraceneri, the area north of Monte Ceneri, has an alpine climate and soil. Its steep narrow valleys are famous for their intense rain and snow, which are offset by equally dramatic amounts of sunshine: Ticino as a whole has both the most rainfall and the most hours of sun in the country.
The Sopraceneri includes Bellinzona and Locarno. Head south over the mountain to Sottoceneri and you find balmy weather, palm-lined lakefronts and a heavier clay soil fed by glacial moraines and volcanic material. This is Switzerland’s famous south. Here the Merlots are often aged and some of the world’s most elegant, luxurious Merlot wines come from here. They contrast with some of the more northern versions which, if not austere, are upright and often intense because of the longer ripening time.
Beautiful comes with a price
Throughout Ticino, grapegrowers are continually battling nature’s determination to take over, with forests continually encroaching on cleared land and forest deer wandering in for nibbles of the delightful vines. The hillsides are steep, the weather often dramatic, making it hard work to produce these wines.
Expect to pay CHF20-50 for a decent to very good Merlot, and the hard labour that goes into making it is the explanation for the cost of these wines. It also makes you appreciate them all the more, if you hike the hills or visit the mountainside hamlets of Ticino.
Wines I mentioned on the WRS programme:
- at the lower end, “Irti Colli” by two young brothers in Settamaggio, the Marcionettis. CHF20 approximately, and very good value
- also in the north, the Meroni twin brothers in Biasca, not far from the Gotthard tunnel, produce a range of very traditional northern Merlots which are a good way to educate yourself about the variations on this wine
- Agriloro, whose owner Meinrad Perler was the 2010 Swiss Winemaker of the Year, has two very beautiful Riserva Merlots, CHF42 and 45
- Gialdi-Brivio produces one of the most famous and more expensive wines, “Sassi Grossi”, a real classic, velvety and with complex notes.
The list of Merlots I love is far longer than this, however, and I’ll add to these in the next few days, when I find time between judging the latest Merlots, from Ticino and elsewhere.
Here is the show, with presenter Tony Johnston