Ticino Wine Festival—Le Richemond—Geneva—November 7, 2016
Despite many twists and turns, the current worldwide popularity of merlot remains unabated. It is the second most widely planted variety in the world—cabernet sauvignon is first—and is found in nearly every country where wine is made. It thrives on its own and plays well with others—high-end blends and dubious supermarket conflations alike.
Despite its renown and popularity it is a relatively recent variety first referenced in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in the Bordeaux region of southwest France. It is the offspring of cabernet franc and Magdeleine noire des Charentes—an odd, mostly decorative variety—and is a half-sibling to carmenère, malbec and cabernet sauvignon. Merlot is early ripening but usually rich in sugar and, when grown in its native ferrous-clay soils, is sufficient in acidity. A thin skin, large berries and loose clustering, however, makes it vulnerable to rot and other diseases. Apparently it is susceptible to cold as well—merlot was nearly wiped out in Bordeaux by severe freezes in the early 1950’s before a robust recovery following replanting efforts begun in 1975.
Merlot, the unblended wine, usually falls into one of two stylistic camps: the fresh, cherry-fruited, slightly green, soft and vaguely hollow; or the more popular ripe to over-ripe, blatantly extracted and oak influenced style typical of Bordeaux and the New World. The merlots of Switzerland can be either/or but the Ticinese are definitely channeling Bordeaux even though the fresher northern Italian examples are so close at hand.
To many the very best examples of merlot come from the vineyards of Pomerol where the terroir is uniquely synergistic with the vine. The Pomerol plateau, from where most of the best wines come, is a veritable museum of clay. The famous blue clay of Chateau Petrus is an example, and certainly unique, but other more common types are the norm. It is the interplay of clay with limestone, and to some degree sand and gravel, that seems to catalyze the soil in favor of the merlot vine. As a general rule the denser the clay the more full-bodied the wine. Pomerols that come from outside the plain, planted in clay with gravel and sand, tend toward freshness and finesse.
Not surprisingly the vineyards of southern Ticino are noted for their heavy, clay-based soils. Distinct are the soils of Sopraceneri to the north of the canton which feature more granite.
Merlot’s journey to the Swiss canton of Ticino was born of necessity. After the phylloxera scourge of the late 19th century the region’s vineyards declined from a high of 8000 hectares to less than 1000. This was a near death blow to the substantially agrarian economy of the canton. To make matters worse most autochthonous varieties disappeared leaving no suitable candidate for replanting. Not that it mattered, no one could afford to replant anyway.
Enter local physician, wine enthusiast and cantonal director of agriculture Dr. Giovanni Rossi who, after a visit to Bordeaux, came back with merlot cuttings tabbed for an experimental vineyard behind his home, the Villa Orizzonte in Castelrotto. A short time later, circa 1908, additional cuttings were planted at nearby Vallombrosa, the so called “cradle of merlot” in Ticino. Today Vallombrosa is owned by Tamborini Carlo SA a far-flung enterprise with an import arm and vineyard holdings throughout Ticino. The firm’s Castelrotto crû is mostly Vallombrosa merlot.
The Modern Era
For a time the Ticino wine industry continued to flounder and nearly collapsed. Beginning in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s the cantonal government began to campaign in earnest for merlot as a potential industry savior. In 1947 it facilitated the creation of the Cantina Sociale Mendrisio a cooperative that still exists today. Small farmers now had a market for their grapes and newfound leadership. Despite these efforts it wasn’t until the early 1980’s when a few outsiders and well positioned locals brought new capital, new ideas and an unbridled enthusiasm for excellence back to the vineyards of Ticino.
Thanks to the persistence of local legends Claudio Tamborini, Sergio Monti, Cesare Valsangiacomo and Luigi Zanini, among others, the Bordeaux model took root and began to thrive. Soon after, reinforcements arrived in the form of Swiss German transplants drawn south by climate, culture and promise. These included today’s household names Christian Zündel, Daniel Huber, Werner Stucky and Adriano Kaufmann. Each has placed his stamp on the region and its future prospects as a world class wine venue.
For those interested in visiting Ticino I can recommend an interesting walk through the villages surrounding Castelrotto. The Tracce d’Uomo (Human Traces) is a literal pedestrian museum of the merlot grape in its adopted home. The ground-zero vineyards of Vallombrosa are part of the tour as are the wineries of Adriano Kaufmann (recently purchased by Castello di Morcote) and Christian Zündel.
This was an excellent tasting with most wines showing the quality and consistency currently available in Ticino. I did not taste all of the 250 wines on offer but I attempted to showcase the most respected names and their most important cuvées. I also rate the top non-barrique and minimally wood-influenced wines which can often represent greater value in this otherwise fairly expensive arena.
Agriloro, Genestrerio, Ticino—
Sottobosco 2014, Rosso del Ticino (merlot/cabernet sauvignon/gamaret/cabernet franc/petit verdot): Light garnet in color. Aptly named—displays very fresh notes of forest floor undergrowth. Also sweetly spicy. Fresh red berries on the palate, plush texture and just enough acidity to keeps things crisp and fresh. Medium-weight but will age a bit. Very nice.
Merlot, La Prella 2013, DOC Ticino: Garnet in color. Darker aroma of bitter chocolate and plum. Pomerol-like grip with gravelly texture. Lovely chocolate-cherry fruit, wood spice and lingering perfume. No angles, no corners just a round, fluffy mouthful. Very good.
Brivio Vini, Mendrisio, Ticino—
Merlot, Riflessi d’Epoca 2013, DOC Ticino: Very bright garnet color. Dense, compact nose of plum and fresh tobacco. Palate also compact with bright cherry, green walnut and earthy flavors. Superbly balanced and fresh with fine, grippy tannins. This is racked multiple times and bottled without fining or filtration. Very good.
Merlot, Platinum 2012, DOC Ticino: (3 week appassimento, air drying of grapes, then 20 months in French barriques) Garnet with slight brick edge. Sweet nose of spiced bread (Christmas pudding) and ripe plum. Very rounded palate with liqueur-like texture and viscosity. Sweet black fruit and spices. Very perfumed finish. Very good.
Cantina Giubiasco, Giubiasco, Ticino—
Merlot, Monte Carasso 2013, DOC Ticino: Ruby in color. Very shy nose with a hint of reduction. Rubber tire and a touch of concrete. Palate is disjointed with angular fruit, acid and tannin. Very awkward at the moment but ultimately not that interesting.
Tenuta Castello di Morcote, Vico Morcote, Ticino—
Merlot, Castello di Morcote 2012, DOC Ticino (10% cabernet franc): (12 months in barriques) Ruby in color. Aroma of cherry, root spices and earth. Very integrated, balanced and seamless. Fine flavors of cherry, gravel and savory herbs. Tannins are sweet and fine-grained. Solid structure yet delicate. Very pretty.
Merlot, Castello di Morcote Riserva 2013, DOC Ticino: (16 months in barriques) Ruby with slight brick edges. Complex nose of ripe plum, cherry, tobacco and leather. Tight, compact palate with cherry and chalk. Lovely Pomerol sapidity. Grippy tannins promise further flavor development. Really excellent.
Cantina Il Cavaliere, Contone-Gambarogno, Ticino—
Merlot, Prestige 2011, DOC Ticino: (100% appassimento, 53 year-old vines, 24 months new barriques) Garnet with brick beginnings. Stewed fruit nose with weedy green elements. Simple, sweet, candied fruit lead to a flat, somewhat dull conclusion. Assertive green tannins finish slightly bitter. Not for me.
Chiodi Ascona, Ascona, Ticino—
Merlot, Ultima Goccia 2014, DOC Ticino: (12 months in barrique) Garnet with brick edge beginnings. Flattering nose of milk chocolate and herbs. Seamless transition to dark cherry and chocolate on the palate with a crisp, lip-smacking conclusion. The very barest woody dryness on the finish. Very good.
Merlot, Rompidèe 2014, DOC Ticino: Solid ruby from middle to edge. Cooler nose of earthy flowers (geranium), dark chocolate and coffee bean. Full and expansive palate with layers of sweet spices, ripe cherry fruit, melted chocolate and dried stems. Very focused with orderly tannins. Very good.
Vini & Distillati Angelo Delea, Losone, Ticino:
Merlot, Carato 2013, DOC Ticino: Ruby in color. Interesting nose of cola spices, burnt rubber, chocolate and cherry. Palate is rather loose-knit and simple with that characteristic “hole-in-the-middle” body. Not bad, just not up to what follows.
Merlot, Carato Riserva 2012, DOC Ticino: Ruby in color. Very warm, broad nose of roasted fruit, coffee and brown sugar. Super-ripe cooked fruit, mint and other herbs roll over the palate in waves. Luxuriously textured, full-bodied and long. Textbook merlot and an equal to a fine Pomerol. Delicious.
Diamante 2012, Rosso del Ticino (merlot/cabernet franc/syrah/cabernet sauvignon/petit verdot): (18 months in barrique) Ruby in color. “Warm” nose of chocolate, stewed cherries, tobacco and a bit of leather. Very pretty, flattering palate of warm stewed fruit. Great fruit concentration leads to a prolonged, perfumed finish. Oozing: it seems the only structure holding it together is the glass. Very good.
Enoteca delle Salute, Rivera, Ticino—
Merlot, ‘na tronada 2014, DOC Ticino: Ruby in color. Very clean and bright nose of raspberry and raspberry patch. Somewhat primary. The palate boasts vigorous red berry flavors, bright acids and a crunchy texture. Very pretty and delicious. One of the best of the unoaked samples.
Merlot, ‘na tronada Riserva 2013, DOC Ticino: (15 day cold-soak, 22 months new barriques) Ruby in color. Broad aromas of red fruit, caramelized brown sugar and fresh green herbs. Very appetizing palate of rounded red berry fruit with a plummy, juicy texture. Very youthful and fresh with pleasing, furry tannins to conclude; chamois textured. Very good.
Fawino, Mendrisio, Ticino—
Merlot, Musa 2013, DOC Ticino: (15 months, 50% new barriques) Ruby garnet in color. Simple nose of milk chocolate and burnt rubber. Palate is welcoming with simple plummy fruit and a bit of unresolved wood. Finishes short and a little bitter. OK.
Fumagalli, Balerna, Ticino—
Merlot, Ronco d’Arzo 2015, DOC Ticino: (fermented in an acacia cuve, partial barrique-aged) Garnet colored. Lovely nose of candied red fruit, green herbs and gingerbread. Palate is a disappointment with very loose-knit and unfocused fruit. Finishes short. Judgment reserved.
Merlot, Sud Sud Sud 2013, DOC Ticino: (14 to 16 months in barrique) Garnet colored. Stewed weed nose is green and herbaceous. Not much else happening. Palate has a little chocolate with herbs but is unfocused and hollowed out. Medium-weight with not much extract. Not for me.
Hubervini, Monteggio, Ticino—
Merlot, Costera Riserva 2012, DOC Ticino (15% cabernet sauvignon): Garnet/ruby in color. Aromas of plum, sweet spice and root vegetables. Palate is sweet, soft and broad. Plum and dark cherry flavors predominate with a root-like nuance. Finishes warm and soft. Good.
Merlot, Montagna Magica 2014, DOC Ticino (5% cabernet sauvignon): Ruby colored. Enticing nose of dark cherry, herbs and green walnuts. Palate is sweet and delicious with fresh cherry and vanilla perfume. Satiny texture that still has grip and tension. Long spicy finish. Really excellent.
Cantina Kopp von der Crone Visini, Barbengo, Ticino—
Balin 2014, Svizzera Italiana IGT, Ticino (18 months new barriques, 7% arinarnoa *cabernet sauvignon x tannat*): Solid garnet center to rim. Oaky with plum, cherry and green herbs. Compact palate with creamy cherry fruit and seamless oak. Youthful, firm and self-contained. Round, furry tannins with a chamois-like texture. Excellent.
Scalin 2014, Svizzera Italiana IGT, Ticino: (12 months in 500-600 liter barrels) Bright garnet in color. Slight reduction otherwise cherry/ raspberry fruit aroma with compact plum, tobacco and earthy flavors. Energetic with lively, ripe acids. This will develop. One of my favorite non-barrique examples.
Irto 2012, Svizzera Italiana IGT, Ticino (arinarnoa/cabernet sauvignon/merlot/petit verdot/cabernet franc): (24 months new barriques) Garnet color with brick beginnings. Warm stewed fruit nose with herbaceous (weedy) and rooty elements. Thick flavors of stewed cherries and curry spices. Palate is dense with stone fruit concentration but a little too acid in the end. Seems a bit unbalanced or perhaps awkward at the moment. Impressive but judgment reserved.
Terreni alla Maggia, Ascona, Ticino—
Merlot, Il Querceto 2013, DOC Ticino: (15 months in barrique) Garnet in color. Nose of cherry, sweet spices, brown sugar and burnt rubber. Palate is soft and undifferentiated. Pleasant but amorphous and a bit hollow. Medium-weight and ready to drink. OK.
Fattoria Moncucchetto, Lugano, Ticino—
Merlot, L’Arco 2014, DOC Ticino: (10 months in acacia barrels) Solid garnet middle to rim. Very slightly reduced, light-weight cherry fruit. Very soft and sweet cherry palate with a bit of finishing grip. Could use a bit more stuffing. Not bad.
Merlot, Moncucchetto 2014, DOC Ticino: (16 months used barriques) Ruby colored. Lovely, gravelly Pomerol nose with cherries. Palate is slightly grainy with well integrated wood toast. Sweet and savory with spice and candied fruit. Tangy and delicious. Excellent but just a cut below the top four.
Collina d’Oro Agra 2014, Rosso del Ticino (merlot/cabernet sauvignon/cabernet franc): (12 months used barriques) Ruby in color. Plum, new leather and rubber aromas. Juicy flavors of ripe plum and green herbs are focused and tangy. Bright and fresh with plenty of finishing acidity. Very good.
Azienda Mondò di Giorgio Rossi, Sementina, Ticino—
Merlot, Ronco dei Ciliegi Riserva 2013, Rosso del Ticino (20% cabernet sauvignon): (fermented in INOX, 18 months new and used barriques) Dark garnet in color. Broad nose of roasted fruit, chocolate and rubber. Flavors are sapid with root spices, chocolate and dried cherries. Fat, velvety and without angles. Good but lacks a bit of definition.
Mondò 2011, Rosso del Ticino (50% merlot/50% cabernet sauvignon): (appassimento, fermented in INOX, 24 months in new and used barriques) Garnet with brick beginnings. Slight reduction with parsnip, leather, roots and herbs. Very savory. Palate is sweet with luscious chocolate, cherry, roasted roots and wood. Very interesting in an odd way with a palate/nose disconnect. Judgment reserved.
Cantina Pian Marnino, Gudo, Ticino—
Merlot, Oro di Gudo 2011, DOC Ticino: Garnet colored. Pretty, balanced nose of dark cherries, green undergrowth and cola spices. Big, luscious palate of sweet, roasted red fruit and charcoal embers (creosote?). A bit amorphous and unstructured but a decent drink that is ready to go.
Tre Ori di Gudo 2010, Rosso del Ticino (carminoir *cabernet sauvignon x pinot noir*/merlot/gamaret): Subtle brown intruding on garnet in color. Pretty flowers nose of violets and ripe cherries. Some casky notes as well. Soft, creamy palate (fruit-crème) with gravelly Pomerol-like earth. Warm with a lingering flavor of burnt rubber. Chamois textured. Interesting.
Cantina Pelossi, Pazzallo, Ticino—
Merlot, Lamone Riserva 2014, DOC Ticino: (fermented in acacia cuves, malolactic and élevage in INOX) Ruby in color. Very “dry” nose. Low fruit, low energy. Flavors are of simple red fruit and tangy, metallic acids. Not much interest here.
Riva del Tasso 2014, Rosso del Ticino (50% merlot/35% cabernet franc/15% cabernet sauvignon):(fermented in acacia cuves) Garnet in color. Slightly reduced red fruit nose with gravel and earth. Palate is gritty and grainy but very dense and concentrated. Candied red fruit flavors with a very perfumed finish. Not bad.
Cantina Pizzorin, Sementina, Ticino—
Merlot, Pizzorin 2011, DOC Ticino: (fermented in INOX, malolactic and élevage in barriques) Garnet in color. Warm merlot nose of roasted red fruit and cocoa powder. Palate is soft and chocolatey with very concentrated cooked fruit. Warm. A bit undifferentiated and flabby but not bad.
La Tur 2011, Rosso del Ticino (40% cabernet sauvignon): (fermented in INOX, malolactic and élevage in barriques) Garnet in color. Deeper and more profound nose than above with fresher red fruit, toffee and coffee notes. Palate is fresher and more structured. Makes up for what above lacks. Nice flavors of dried cherries, bitter chocolate and toffee. Chamois tannins. Quite nice.
Tenuta San Giorgio, Cassina d’Agno, Ticino—
Merlot, Sottoroccia 2013, DOC Ticino: (fermented in stainless cuves, aged in used casks and barriques) Ruby in color. Fragrant, fine and delicate nose: cherry, chocolate and cinammon. Compact and focused palate of ripe cherry fruit, cocoa powder and nut skins. Sweet and lingering. Excellent.
Merlot, Crescendo 2014, DOC Ticino: (fermented in oak cuves, 12 months in new and used barriques) Garnet colored. Slightly reduced and rubbery nose. Still very primary. Brandied cherry and candied fruit flavors. A touch simple and a bit awkward at the moment. I prefer the above.
Merlot, Arco Tondo 2014, DOC Ticino (merlot, cabernet franc and—depending on vintage—cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot): (fermented in oak cuves, 18 months in new and used barriques) Garnet colored. Fascinating nose of nocino (green walnut liqueur) and earthy flowers. Velvety, sweet fruit and waves of brandied cherries and tobacco. Lovely, detailed, delicate and refined. Pristine. Delicious.
Cantina Settemaggio, Monte Carasso, Ticino—
Merlot, Irti Colli 2015, Svizzera Italiana IGT, Ticino: (100% merlot, neutral cask and INOX aged) Garnet/ruby in color. Spicy cherry nose is bright, youthful and fresh. Palate oozes ripe cherry and raspberry fruit with a freshening touch of green herbs. Bright and lively with nice finishing acids. Lovely.
Merlot, Vindala 2013, Svizzera Italiana IGT, Ticino (merlot/marselan *cabernet sauvignon x grenache*/carminoir): (appassimento, 22-24 month in new barriques) Garnet in color. Opening notes of Amarone ripeness and heat. Amarena cherry and rubber tire aromas. Very concentrated, warm fruit that is both stewed and confit. Christmas spices as accent. Very good but individual.
My Top Barrique-aged Wines
1. Merlot, Arco Tondo 2014, Tenuta San Giorgio, Cassina d’Agno, Ticino
2. Merlot, Carato Riserva 2012, Vini & Distillati Angelo Delea, Ticino
3. Merlot, Montagna Magica 2014, Hubervini, Ticino
4. Balin 2014, Cantina Kopp von der Crone Visini, Svizzera Italiana IGT, Ticino
5. Merlot, Castello di Morcote Riserva 2013, Castello di Morcote, Ticino
My Top Minimally-oaked Wines
1. Merlot, Sottoroccia 2013 Tenuta San Giorgio, Ticino
2. Scalin 2014, Cantina Kopp von der Crone Visini, Svizzera Italiana IGT, Ticino
3. Merlot, Irti Colli 2015, Cantina Settemaggio, Svizzera Italiana IGT, Ticino
4. Sottobosco 2014, Agriloro, Rosso del Ticino
5. Merlot, ‘na tronada 2014, Enoteca delle Salute, Ticino