My two wine picks this week were sampled at the Ticinowine Festival in Lausanne. You’ll find more details about them in the text that follows. Castello di Cantone Riserva 2016, Merlot, about CHF72 and Cantina Pelossi Agra Merlot Riserva 2016, CHF37.
Ticinowine Festival showcases change
Ticino has so much going for it. The sensuality of Italy with the tidiness and efficiency of Switzerland, the smartness that comes with being the canton with the smallest but most melodic, Italian voice. That useful head start on the seasons that makes people in gray Zurich and chilly Valais long to go to Lugano in March or April.
If you can’t go to the place, but the place comes to you with its wines on a bone-chilling day in early March, how can you say no? The Ticinowine Festival organized by Vinum magazine with the official Ticinowine body took 42 producers to Lausanne 11 March for a tasting session open to the public. It pulled in a good crowd, interested in sampling some 250 wines. Masterclasses gave an opportunity to study Merlots from some of the top wineries, looking at the “Merlot tradition”.
Change is the word that came to mind for me in Lausanne. Wine-wise, Ticino seemed to be in a bit of a Merlot funk for a few years. The entire canton turned itself over to growing Merlot in the post-phyloxerra years, at the start of the 20th century, and it became good at it, but there was much of a sameness about it. When I first visited Ticino specifically to taste its wines, about 20 years ago, I thought they were mostly pleasant if not especially interesting. Gradually, I was introduced to several better ones, and while the quality difference was easy to follow I did not sense much difference in style, beyond how oak was used.
Organic’s growing role
It’s only been in the past five years that I’ve seen newer styles surface, so that today Ticino Merlots for me fall into three categories: classic (heavier, often concentrated), contemporary (lighter and fruitier, often with less oak), and organic.
It isn’t logical to divvy them up this way, clearly, for organic isn’t a style, if style comes from the way a wine is made. Organic begins in the vineyard and how the wine is made is just one part of the equation, but it nevertheless makes sense to me: Ticino’s organic wines tend to have more character, to be produced with a closer ear to the soil, the terroir. Many are very good, but not all, just as with the other two groups.
The canton’s annual rainfall is the highest for Switzerland’s wine regions, contributing to the lushness of its valleys, but also to a lively insect population and fungal diseases. Organic and biodynamic are up against serious challenges here, for limiting products used to keep these problems in check can mean small doses of permitted products, applied more frequently. In other words, it’s labour-intensive.
It’s also part of the canton’s efforts to develop a sustainable winemaking programme; Ticino is pushing hard to reduce the use of phytosanitary products. Each year some 40 official laboratory checks are mandated to look for residue from these products in wines; wineries also make private requests for this work to be done. Ticino last year had the largest such series of checks in the country, but as Andrea Conconi, director of Ticinowine notes, the canton has been doing this for several years.
More producers, new wines
Things are happening in Ticino’s wine world. The struggle goes on to find balance, to appreciate its 20th century Merlot history while finding a good toehold in the highly competitive markets where it exports – German-speaking Switzerland and Germany are very important to these wineries. The canton still dominates Swiss Merlot production, with 870 of the country’s 1,150 hectares of the grape, but that share has fallen. In 1995, according to federal statistics, Switzerland had 790 hectares of Merlot, with 760 of them in Ticino; its total planted surface area was 890 ha, compared to 1,100 now, the rare wine region to have increased its surface area. (source: OFAG 2017)
A boost is coming from new producers. Ticino has 2,700 grape growers, of which 250 make wine. In the 1970s there were fewer than 50 cellars and today there are about 80; Conconi points out that of the 250 people who make wine, 170 are very small and make it mainly for their own use.Merlot is still king, at more than 79% of planted grapes, but five other reds and two whites are now officially more than 1% each, and interest is high in trying more grapes for greater diversity. Gamaret, created in the 1970s, is good at resisting rot, and it is now as widely grown as Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, the three main red grapes after Merlot.
Wines I enjoyed in Lausanne
The masterclass had three winners for me.
***Castello di Cantone Riserva 2016, Merlot, oaked. I loved everything about this wine from Mendrisiotto, made somewhat in the style of Veneto Amarone ripasso wines, with the grapes often dried after the harvest, a long slow fermentation in cement tanks and the wine is matured in oak for 14 months. Full-bodied, rich, complex, lovely balanced nose and mouth. A contemporary wine.
**Cantina Kopp von der Crone Visini, Balini 2016, oaked Merlot. This is a wine I know, one of my favourites from Ticino, but the 2016, not a warm year, needs more time and is a bit severe compared to some vintages. The tannins need 2-3 years, but it is otherwise beautifully balanced. Some of the other 2016s we tasted had vegetable notes, which you often find in Merlot but here, that tendency is well managed.
**Tenuta San Giorgio, Crescendo 2017, oaked Merlot. Very classy and clean, complex, another slightly dried-grapes wine so it is rich and spicy, sweet yet balanced. This, too, is too young, however, and needs more time to become as balanced as it promises to be.
The walkabout tasting
This is not a selection so much as a reflection of what I had time to taste. I missed some excellent wineries, sadly.
Two whites that I think show the potential for this region to move beyond its standard whites from Merlot wines, virtually the only kind of whites you found for many years, and they can be insipid. The practice of bottling in the same year the grapes are harvested continues to be widespread. **Agriloro’s Granito 2017, aromatic and with surprising roundness despite the high acidity. *Azienda Agricola Bianchi’s None 2018 from the disease-resistant hybrid Solaris planted in 2005. Partially oaked, interesting mix of aromas – litchi, nutmeg, slightly bitter finish. A 20-year-old family winery with organic certification from Bio Suisse from early on, not just for their wine but their honey and other products.
A non-Merlot red* from Vini Rovio, San Vigilio 75:25, 2015. Gamaret and Syrah. Winemaker Gianfranco Chiesa says “for Ticino clients we need something other than Merlot” and this is a nice option. I found the nose a bit animal, perhaps it needs time to breathe, but the mouth is very smooth, rich, elegant. CHF35 cellar price
**Contemporary trio from Tenuta Vitivinicola Trapletti, which always has wines with character, reflecting the independent-minded owner/winemaker: **Merlot Riserva 2016, is rich, young, and very likeable; Trapletti Rosso 2016 is 90% Merlot with Nebbiolo and Cabernet Franc – lighter, a young wine; Culdrée 2015 is lovely, well-balanced.
**Tenuta Castello di Morcote makes 4 Merlot reds, all very classy. A consistently good series of organic wines with personality from this winery which sits at one end of a popular hiking trail, in a breathtaking setting.
**Castello di Cantone, whose 2016 Riserva (CHF72) is one of my wine picks this week (see above), had 3 other interesting wines in Lausanne, including their new, top wine Ungulus 2016, 100% Cabernet Franc which, like the Merlot Riserva, is made from partially dried (24 days) grapes. Delicious nose, the mouth a bit too sweet for me, very rich yet easy to drink and spicy, beautiful finish – a wine with character that will age well. The winery is a stone’s throw from Italy at the very bottom of Ticino and young winemakers Viviana Pasta and Dario Pistarà have gathered a good deal of international experience before returning to her grandfather’s winery.
*Cantina Silbernagl, a very young (2013) winery and a one-man impressive operation, the perfect example of how new producers are contributing to good changes in Ticino. His Bondola 2016 is rich, with a spicy nose and very clean fruit; the Merlot 2016 is a light and easy, refreshing wine with black fruit notes while the 2015 of the same wine, 36 months in new French oak, has red fruit notes. He makes only 5,000 bottles (grows, harvests and makes the wine mostly alone), but has ambitions to reach 20,000. Stay tuned.
***Cantina Pelossi, Agra Merlot Riserva 2016, one of the most beautifully balanced and elegant Merlots around. From the Collina d’Oro. I’m not surprised, as Sacha Pelossi is also the man behind the beautiful 2015 Magnificients Merlot. Happily for us, he is working on a new wine with that team. Meanwhile, Lamone 2016 is another Merlot I like but with rustic tannins and that immediately made me long for red meat. CHF37
***Cantina Monti, 3 reds, all of them beautiful, but especially the Rosso dei Ronchi (at CHF42 a steal), which is fruity, with a very rich mouth. No visit to Ticino wines would be complete for me without tasting Ivo Monti’s creations (the next generation is now hard at work), for these are always some of the most beautiful handmade Swiss Merlots, produced in limited quantities, designed for savouring. Classic, exquisite. No wonder GaultMillau gave him the title of “iconic”, a lifetime achievement award, in 2018.