It may surprise some that at 266,000 hectares, Merlot is the second most planted grape variety in the world. A substantial portion of that number (74,550 hectares) is found in Bordeaux alone. When you add in the rest of France—especially the south where it enjoys a sizable footprint—it doesn’t leave much for the rest of the world.
Or does it?
The New World has adopted Merlot as its own, but struggles to expand its role beyond the easygoing ameliorator. As a stand-alone its best versions come from Eastern Washington and the North Coast of California, but it languishes in Australia. In Tuscany there are half a dozen or so viable solo acts, but it’s been falling out of fashion lately. The variety hasn’t really taken off in Argentina, either, which is best known for distinctive, category-defining Malbecs often blended with Merlot. Chile is, perhaps, the most promising proponent of the grape, but its commitment to Cabernet Sauvignon is unequivocal even as it flirts with Carmenère. So, with the exception of the Right Bank of Bordeaux, Merlot is seldom viewed as a stand-alone with the weight of a region’s reputation on its back.
Enter Ticino, Switzerland’s sunny, Italian-speaking canton almost wholly devoted to Merlot. There is nothing even close to it in coverage. Even the white wine there is made from Merlot. (For a brief history of Merlot in Ticino see, Ticino Wine Festival — 2016.)
It’s no exaggeration to say—as Merlot goes, so goes Ticino.
Fortunately, the variety is well served there as the wine-growing landscape is, perhaps, the most varied in Switzerland. Ticino, after all, is where the African and Eurasian tectonic plates collided tens of millions of years ago giving rise to the Alps. In the north (Sopraceneri) there are acid soils and gneiss—indeed, both of its forms paragneiss and orthogneiss. In the south (Sottoceneri) there are alkaline soils with various types of limestone, including gypsum, dolomite, marlstone—and the right amount of clay, as well as basalt from volcanic activity, and conglomerate rock. Within the entire area there is every degree of grade, exposition and elevation. And to complete the picture, there is glacial and alluvial debris strewn everywhere.
The climate is Mediterranean with an alpine twist but it’s terribly wet which requires the better sites to be well-drained and aerated. For this reason organics and biodynamics take a backseat to expediency. Fungal diseases are the bane of the Merlot vine and Ticino has both in spades.
On a human scale, the patchwork of vineyards consists of thousands of small holdings tended by weekend farmers and larger concerns alike. More than any other area in Switzerland traditional practices remain relevant. Pergola-style trellising is still seen in the north which provides ventilation against moisture and room below for grazing animals and mixed farming. And despite Merlot’s dominance there are a few specialists intent on rescuing native varieties like Bondola and Bondoletta, an interesting cross between Bondola and Completer. There is even an obscure IGT known as Nostrano which is a rough mix—originally a field blend—of Bondola, Freisa, Barbera, and in today’s version, a few modern hybrids.
Even with all of these terroir options and an ideal climate there was always something amiss. Too often in the recent past the typical Merlot from Ticino was vegetal (under ripe), clumsily extracted and overloaded with new oak. It was not a good look. And because this is Switzerland, they were frequently expensive and poor value.
My how things have changed—and fast. It’s not such a slog anymore to find juicy, elegant, fresh tasting wines that are ripe and structured. Not all of them mind you, but many more than at anytime in the recent past. Climate change, improved farming and thoughtful winemaking have coalesced to usher in a new age all over Switzerland, but particularly in Ticino. Some of them even offer great value, especially when compared to Bordeaux, which these days is a fair and welcome comparison.
This tasting featured over forty producers from Ticino with all the main players in attendance, save for one or two. It was organized by Vinum magazine and Ticinowine, the promotional arm of the Ticino wine growers association. It was held at the Royal Savoy Hotel & Spa in Lausanne on March 11, 2019.
Cantina Monti, Cademario, Ticino — Located in the village of Cademario just outside Lugano, Cantina Monti is one of the homegrown pioneers of Merlot in Ticino. The family vines are strewn among the east-facing hills of Malcontone, a massive schistic gneiss formation west of the lake.
Founder Sergio Monti produced his first wine in 1976 a few years before the contingent of Swiss-Germans made their way south. His son Ivo Monti now runs things but with as much attention to detail as his father. These are always among the best wines from the region with fine balance, spicy aromatics and a sensual ripeness.
2016 Merlot, “Rovere”, Ticino: Healthy ruby/garnet in color. Clean cherry and herbs aroma. Freshness is the watchword. This is rich and sweet with the tell-tale rubbery aftertaste found in some Merlots. The texture is a bit grippy with a bit of excess acid in the finish. Still very youthful with lots of room to develop.
2016 “Malcantone—Rosso dei Ronchi”, Rosso del Ticino: (A Merlot-dominated blend that includes Cabernet Franc, Ancellotta, Carminoir and Diolinoir) Glossy garnet with crimson streaks. There is a pronounced but appealing oak aroma with violet pastilles beneath. The palate is rich and round with spicy dark cherry and plum flavors. Velvety and weighty with lots of concentration. The finish is floral and pleasantly grippy. Great balance and structure. As usual, this is a very pleasant cuvée.
2016 Merlot, “Monti—Il Canto della Terra”, Ticino: (70% grade with south-southeast exposure; sandy soils.) Dark ruby in color. Intense dark cherry aroma with some pronounced but well integrated oak. The aroma is almost meaty. Flavors of dark cherry, spice and cocoa powder contribute to a meaty, saturated pit-fruit texture. Tannins are furry and the finish is slightly bitter. Lots of promise here but already forthcoming.
Cantina Silbernagl, Brusata di Novazzano, Ticino — This newish winery founded in 2013 is off to a good start. It has embraced a less is more approach with wines that are fresh, expressive of place and unencumbered by new oak. As Andrea Silbernagl told me, “I want to discover what my parcels have to offer before I go too far astray.”
The family parcels in Sopraceneri— both Bondola and Merlot —are on gneiss-dominated slopes above the Mogadino Plain where the Ticino River flows into Lake Maggiore at Locarno. The imposing Cima dell’Uomo looms above the vines. The wines from this area display a firm, mineral core with pure fruit expression.
The wines from Mendrisio are from calcareous rock buried beneath glacial debris. They show broad, warm fruit, well-knit tannins and expansive aromatics. If Andrea’s aim is to highlight terroir, then he has succeeded with these current releases.
2016 Bondola, Ticino: (Stainless steel only) Pretty purple with blue streaks and a super bright sheen. The nose is primary with some simple grape-y fruit set off by a complex of mineral and wet stone. It’s almost Dolcetto-like in its directness, exuberance and unabashed glou-glou drinkability. From the gneiss-based terroir of the Sopraceneri where Silbernagl has a parcel.
2016 Merlot, Ticino: (Stainless steel) Star-bright ruby/crimson in color. Again, from Sopraceneri gneiss. Somewhat primary with herbs, cherry/berry fruit and the barest hint of violets. In the mouth it’s tight, focused and linear but not hard. With chewing there is considerable give and a lot of perfume. I think Michel Rolland would approve of this; it reminds me of his family’s Le Bon Pasteur in the early 1980’s.
2015 Merlot, Ticino: (Barrique-aged; from the complex soils of Sottoceneri near Mendrisio) Jewel-like garnet in color. Plums and raw oak nose with some relaxed warmth. Very primary with ripe blue fruit and delicate dried herbs. Palate is warm and chewy with a suede-like texture and some grippy tannins to finish. I liked this quite a bit but it needs time to integrate wood and tannins.
2017 Cabernet Franc, Ticino: (Stainless steel) Crimson with some purple streaks. If there was a competition for the most interestingly colored wines Mr. Silbernagl’s would probably win. There is a lovely sheen to all of them. This one has that appetizing leafy, earthy nose Cabernet Franc is known for. It’s quite ripe, however, with waves of marzipan and spice. The palate is compact with more earth, almonds, herbs and savory fruit. A different expression of Cabernet Franc than found in the Loire or Bordeaux but interesting in its own right.
Cantine Riva Morcôte, Morcote, Ticino — This youth-driven winery self-identifies as a producer of natural wine. Adrien Stevens is the winemaker and Patrick Ballabio is a partner with experience in the financial industry. They farm biodynamically, rare in this wet area, and are minimalists in the cellar.
Despite their Morcote address the vines are located elsewhere. Their Merlot is sourced from Castel San Pietro southeast of Mendrisio which is based on dolomite (a magnesium-rich form of limestone) and clay, and from the village of Trevano with its sandy, gneiss-dominated basement. Arinarnoa and Marselan are important secondary grapes from Trevano, while Chardonnay is sourced from nearby Breganzona.
Despite the natural wine leanings I found their wines clean, fresh and full of fruit.
2017 Merlot, “Stregato”, Ticino: Straight ruby in color. Very pretty cherry fruit with some sweet spiciness. Plump and round on entry with a warm cherry compote presence and near weightlessness. Pleasant, if a bit simple, and textured with some furry, lingering tannin.
2017 Rosso del Ticino, “Castello di Trevano”, Ticino: (20% Marselan) Straight garnet in color. Lovely aroma of warm, just-picked blackberries with green herbs and spice box notes. A bit of oak vanilla, too. The palate is fat and sweet with creamy berry fruit and barely perceptible acids. This is nicely balanced with great length. Just a joyful, soft, mouthful of Merlot. I really like this.
Fattoria Moncucchetto, Lugano, Ticino — This viticultural green-space is located within the city limits of Lugano. Its striking winery is designed by Ticino native and world-renown architect Mario Botta. He makes stunning use of the gneiss underlayment by artfully exposing a large piece of it within the chai.
The home vineyard surrounds the winery with a gorgeous south-southwest exposure. Another, newer parcel is located in the village of Agra on the famed Collina d’Oro adjacent to the western lobe of Lake Lugano. The L’Arco cuvée comes from a newer still parcel in the village of Bioggio which basks in the warmer temperatures created by a natural amphitheater setting.
These are elegant, restrained Merlots with plenty of crunchy acidity and fine aromatics.
2017 Merlot, “L’Arco”, Ticino: (Stainless steel) Ruby in color. Clean, sour cherry nose is pleasant, if a bit simple. The palate offers the same clean, balanced character without a lot of depth. This is a nice, basic Merlot that is somewhat reminiscent of Sangiovese.
2016 Merlot, “Riserva”, Ticino: (Twenty-two months in oak) Dark garnet in color. Much more depth with chocolate-covered cherries and an espresso seam. This is deep with dark cherries and juicy plums on the palate mingling with new oak. Displays an almost chocolate syrup texture with a burnt orange peel bite. Assertive tannins to finish. A very distinctive and memorable Merlot.
2016 “Collina d’Oro Agra”, Rosso del Ticino: (Second- and third-fill oak) Crimson/garnet in color. Very elegant nose with some pretty new oak over sweet cherries. On the palate it is sharp and tannic with some balsamic notes. Not as ripe as it could be but not vegetal either. Medium-bodied and a little lean. This may be in an awkward place right now. Only time will tell.
Tenuta Castello di Morcote, Vico Morcote, Ticino — Yet another substrate to show off the Merlot grape. This portion of the Morcote peninsula, which juts into the lake south of Lugano, is based on volcanic bedrock that is fine-grained and rich in rhyolite and andesite. The vineyards are south-southeast-facing and wrap around the tip of the peninsula like the prow of a ship.
These are crunchy, structured Merlots with a lot of finesse and fine perfume. They remind me a bit of higher elevation Chianti Classico in that way.
2017 Merlot, “Il Moro”, Svizzera Italian IGT: (Stainless steel) Very pretty ruby in color. Lots of wild cherry and strawberry on the nose as well as savory fresh greens. Sweet and fresh on entry with more strawberry fruit and some candied flowers. Admirable freshness and no hint of reduction which is not easy for a stainless steel-only wine.
2017 Merlot, “Rubino”, Ticino: (Second- and third-fill oak) Bright ruby in color. Lovely black fruit jellies nose. Saturated blackberry and plum fruit flavors are seasoned with spice and fixed by a crunchy acidity. Weighty but not heavy with substantial tannins to finish. Despite the structure it is approachable and delicious.
2016 Merlot, Ticino: (Organic) Ruby in color. Some odd ashy notes from reduction. Mostly plums and herbs otherwise. This is complex with plums, cherries and vegetative notes. There is also a bit of Cab Franc-like leafiness cut with lemon peel. Tightly wound and firm. Good potential but needs time.
2016 Merlot, “Riserva”, Ticino: (This is a selection from the cuvée above and aged in new barrels.) Slightly darker ruby in color. Fresh, raw, new oak aroma with meaty cherries. More black fruit too. Cherries and plums on the palate with herbs. Very tight and tannic with the potential for long evolution. Substantial tannins to finish.
Tenuta San Giorgio, Cassina d’Agno, Ticino — This is a consistently high-quality producer with vineyards along the lake and higher up the slope in the village of Vernate not far from Lugano. Like Cantina Monti the vineyards face to the east on gneiss under glacial debris from the central alps.
I think of Mike Rudolph’s wines as warm, relaxed and broader than most. They tend to be generous with lots of concentrated and polished fruit. I like them quite a bit.
2016 “Sottoroccia”, Rosso del Ticino: (Merlot-dominated with the Cabernets as needed—stainless steel fermented) Medium ruby in color. There are some mild reductive notes overlaying scents of cherry and hay. Very structural and somewhat angular but with clear cherry flavors and good concentration. Kind of Chianti in style with substantial tannins. Perhaps a bit awkward right now.
2016 “Arco Tondo”, Rosso del Ticino: (Merlot-dominated with the Cabernets and Petit Verdot—the house Riserva—18 months in oak) Solid ruby in color. Intense nose of dark, meaty cherries and caramel with some balsamic notes. The palate is dense but yielding with ripe cherry fruit, oak spice and savory herbs. This is delicious now and perfectly seamless. This cuvée is consistently one of the best from Ticino and a great value.
2017 Merlot, “Crescendo”, Ticino: (100% Merlot from the Vernate Vineyard in Malcantone—some oak aging) Carmine/ruby in color. Opening notes of vegetation and crisp stone-fruit. Super bright flavors of cherry and plum with a subtext of dried leaves and hay. This has great concentration and focus with some serious tannins and a lengthy finish. This is excellent.
Tenuta Vitivinicola Trapletti, Colderio, Ticino— This winery is located to the south of Mendrisio in Colderio, an area known for its gypsum and dolomite rock under glacial debris. This part of southern Ticino displays many of the calcareous sediments found in areas that were once under water. The high pH of limestone seems to give the wines added freshness and acidity as well as elegance.
This was my first experience with Enrico Trapletti’s wines but I was aware of his reputation for quality. I was not disappointed. These were my favorite wines of the tasting.
2016 Merlot, “Riserva”, Ticino: Dark garnet in color. Slightly reduced but with a lovely gravelly, graphite nose. Vinous, serious blue and black fruit with nothing exaggerated. Very interesting gravelly, mineral palate with rich rounded fruit and mild, well integrated tannins. Silky black cherry finish. Really fine.
2015 Merlot, “Culdrée”, Ticino: Dark garnet with some black flecks. Pronounced oak nose with vanilla, herbs and gravel. Relaxed palate with soft chocolate cherries, chocolate shortbread, and plush, creamy fruit. Finishes rich and tannic but the tannins are integrated and promise a medium term evolution. Very balanced, very excellent.