Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Wine production in Ticino, Switzerland

After reviews of the broader wine region and the industry structure, I will now, as promised, examine the wines of the Ticino region.

One of the limitations of our assessment effort was an inability -- due to inclement weather and the short duration of our stay -- to walk the vineyards and engage with viticulturists on their strategies and cultural practices. As a believer in the mantra "great wines are made in the vineyard," for me this was a gap of significant proportions.

Due to its early-ripening nature, and the region's ability to bring it to full phenolic ripeness within the available period, Merlot is far and away the dominant variety and wine in Ticino. The table below shows types of wine grapes planted in the region and the relative dominance of Merlot.

Red Grapes
White Grapes
Merlot (85% of all plantings)   
Chardonnay (2.3%)
Pinot Noir (1.5%)
Bondola (1.7%)
Cabernet Sauvignon
Sauvignon Blanc
Cabernet Franc
Riesling x Sylvaner
Pinot Gris
Pinot Blanc
Pinot x Cabernet


But Merlot did not always have this level of prominence in the Ticino winemaking landscape. According to winewaysofitaly.com (The History of Merlot in Ticino), winemaking in Ticino was laid low by Phylloxera, odium, and mildew in the 1860s and then a re-appearance of mildew in 1878. Two of the important waypoints along the comeback trail were (i) the introduction of Riparia x Rupestris 101 and 3309 rootstocks and (ii) the introduction of the Merlot grape into the cultivar mix.

In an effort to revive the wine industry in Ticino, in 1901 the Department of Agriculture established a "Circulating Chair" of Agriculture seated in Lucarno and that institution initiated testing the suitability of cultivars for the environment. Between 1901 and 1906 the Chair tested a number of cultivars and reported on Merlot as being of "superior quality, resistant to sickness and decay, of precocious maturation and abundant productivity." In 1907, 12,230 Merlot buds were distributed in Ticino and 220,000 were planted over the next five years (winewaysofitaly.com)

In more modern times the Ticino wine industry was rejuvenated by 12 separate groups of young farmers coming in from the Swiss German parts of the country and taking possession of some of the abandoned vineyards. These new arrivals were focused on quality, at that time not a watchword of Ticino viniviticulture. Ticinese youngsters were influenced by these trailblazers and set out to make their own wines in this new style and initiated a discussion as to the linkage between low yields and high quality. Limits on yields began to be imposed in 1992.


Our understanding is that 15 companies produce 80% of the region's wines. We met with five of the large producers and two of the small ones, and, therefore, have a fairly solid sample from which to make projections.

I will use the Brivio (one of the wineries visited) environment as a yardstick for discussion of the Ticino winemaking environment. The table directly below shows DOC labels produced by this winery; 10 of the 13 wines are 100% Merlot or has Merlot as part of the blend. The figure below the table illustrates the Brivio winemaking process.

                                         Distribution of Brivio Wines by Type and DOC
# *
Pinot Noir
Sauv Blanc
Cab Franc
Cab Sauv
Bianco del Ticino


Bianco di Merlot






Rosato di Merlot




Rosso di Ticino



*One except stated otherwise

The philosophy of Cantina Kopp Van der Krone Visini is "different wines from different terroirs"; and this seems to hold true for most of the wineries that we visited. And this is not limited to the broader terroirs of the north and south. Rather, in many cases, we are looking at a stable of labels from vineyard site to vineyard site such that vineyard site A will have a white label (or even two), a Rosé label, and multiple red labels; and so on. This would seem to present a management headache, especially in that the differences in these "terroirs" are not clearly spelt out. At least I did not get a clear sense of the different terroirs beyond the north and south regions of Ticino. It also would seem to present some confusion to the customer who has to choose between a large number of otherwise undifferentiated labels in making purchasing decisions.

The average yield in Ticino is 70 hl/ha (compared to 68 hl/ha and 60 hl/ha, respectively, for AOC Bourgogne whites and reds). Brivio works with a low-yield clone to realize 50 hl/ha (not clear if this is the 3309 clone mentioned by Wine Ways of Italy) while Vinattieri limits yields to 25 hl/ha for its Castello Luigi Bianco Chardonnay and 35 hl/ha for its Ligornetto. For comparison, Pomerol, also a Merlot-dominant region, has a yield mandate of 42 hl/ha. Again it would seem to be confusing to a customer, and unfair to some producers, to have a 35-hl/ha wine and a 70-hl/ha wine both be classed as Ticino DOC.

The environment would seem to lend itself to, on average, thinner, less-concentrated wines:
  • The average yield is high being, as it is, on par with yields for Bourgogne whites and almost twice as high as Pomerol, one of the world's benchmark Merlot regions
  • Merlot is a vigorous cultivar and the clay soils of the south are highly fertile. The 3309 rootstock employed in Ticino vineyards is a low-vigor rootstock but rootstock effects are typically trumped by soil and water-holding-capacity effects, a situation that is probably pertinent to Ticino
  • The vines  of Ticino do not seem to be grown in stressful environments and the common wisdom today is that slight stress on the vine yields higher-quality grapes
  • The drive to deliver wines from each "terroir" may be to the detriment of producing the best wine possible
This concern about concentration levels appears to be the driver for two interesting winemaking tweaks that we encountered. First, the grapes for Brivio's flagship wine (Platinum) are dried for three weeks in thermo-ventilated boxes before alcoholic fermentation begins (This practices increases the solids concentration in the grape prior to alcoholic fermentation but may be at the expense of freshness.). Second, Vinattieri blends their Merlot with juice from dried  Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. The addition amounts to 2% to 3% of the total and contributes a "chaptalization effect" while also conveying small elements of the character of the mentioned cultivars.

I will characterize the wines we tasted in my next post.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, November 24, 2014

Deconstructing the Masseto vineyard: Disease and virus management

Masseto is one of the the world's leading Merlot wines and its 6.63 ha vineyard is ensconced within the confines of the larger Ornellaia vineyard in Bolgheri, Tuscany. It has been difficult to obtain information on the details of this vineyard so I have undertaken the task of deconstructing it using data from publicly available sources as well as reasoned assumptions. I began with the soils and then assessed the cultivar and rootstock. I now turn to virus and disease management.

One of the key issues that we need to be concerned about is ensuring that the risks of grapevine viruses in the vine yard are minimized. Grapevine viruses:
  • Can affect both the rootstock and scion
  • Is spread by propagation
  • Is propagated both across the vineyard and to progeny of the current vines.
A list of grapevine viruses of concern in the Italian environment is presented in the table below.

Virus                         Manifestation                           Infection                       Impact
Grapevine Degenerative Complex* including:
  • Grapevine fanleaf virus

  • Other European NEPO viruses

  • Leaf deformation; yellow mosaic; vine banding

  • Poor fruit set
  • Short berries
Grapevine leafroll complex
        Red leaf color in fall
  • Grafting scion on rootstock wood
  • Feeding of mealy bugs
  • Delayed fruit maturity
  • Poor color
  • Reduced yield
Grapevine rugrose complex
        Rough or bark wood

Grapevine fleck disease

Phytoplasma-induced diseases

*Most dangerous group; transmitted by nematodes
Source: Maher Al Rwahni; Golino 1

The best insurance against virus infection and disease is the use of certified scion and rootstock selections. And that position is currently mandated by EU and Italian laws and regulations. The Italian schema divides plant material responsibility between initial propagation material and nursery-developed-material, with the nursery securing infection-free material from trusted sources and supplying certified material to the vineyards. Certified materials are so indicated by blue packaging while “standard material” – where no clone has been recorded – is provided in packaging with orange labels. Material in the blue packaging is certified free of all diseases and viruses included in the table above. I will assume that Masseto only plants certified stock in its vineyards.

In the event rootstocks and scions need to be procured from external sources, I assume that it will be sourced from Vivai Cooperative Rauscedo (Rauscedo, Italy) who, according to vit.enteara.it:
- Is one of the biggest nurseries in the world
- Produces over 60 million plants/year with 4000 rootstock/scion combinations
- Has a renowned research center which has an intensive clone selection program.

Vivai Cooperative Rauscedo has the scale to increase likelihood of great diameter matching between scion and clone, one of the key factors considered when evaluating nurseries.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Deconstructing the Masseto vineyard: Scion and rootstock

Masseto is one of the the world's leading Merlot wines and its 6.63 ha vineyard is ensconced within the confines of the larger Ornellaia vineyard in Bolgheri, Tuscany. It has been difficult to obtain information on the details of this vineyard so I have undertaken the task of deconstructing it using data from publicly available sources as well as reasoned assumptions. I began with the soils and now turn to the cultivar and rootstock.


The cultivar selected for planting at Masseto was Merlot. According to masseto.com:
Among the first people to realize the potential of the great terroir of Massto hill (sic) was the great Russian-American enologist Andrè Thcelicheff (sic), a man of great experience who contributed to the conception of Masseto in the early 1980s... He loved Merlot and immediately felt that Masseto Hill would, thanks to its characteristic terroir and unusual climate conditions, be a dream place for Merlot to express its beauty. Following his precious advise (sic) the team at Masseto planted the vineyard and committed themselves to make, over the years, the dream come true.
Other considerations which make this cultivar especially suited to the terroir are as follows: 
  1. It performs well in similar clay soils on the Right Bank of Bordeaux
  2. It provides the estate with the flexibility to produce both a mono-varietal and a Bordeaux-style blend in combination with varieties from other parts of the larger vineyard.
  3. Merlot does well on well-drained soils with good water-holding capacity. The subject vineyard is comprised of loose clays and pebbly sands at the top of the slope and less-clayey soils at the base. The mineral structure of the clays allows the absorption and storage of at least their weight in water.
  4. The climate is amenable to the growth and ripening of this variety
    1. Average annual temperature of 14℃ and 18.6℃ from April to September
      1. Early bud break of Merlot not a risk factor in this environment
    2. The cool winds which come from the sea and the moderate temperature in August and September allow for slow, regular maturation of the grape components
    3. The microclimate provides both direct sunlight and reflected sunlight from the sea to the west 
    4. Average annual rainfall of 600 mm/yr.
The characteristics of the Merlot grape are (extension.org, Growing Merlot Wine Grapes):
  • Medium to high vigor with excess vigor quickly creating “a dense canopy due to lateral shoot development”
  • Does well on deep, sandy loams or well-drained soils with good moisture-holding capacity
  • No known incompatibilities so rootstock solution can be made based on site/soil conditions and cultural practices
  • High vigor rootstocks should be avoided
  • Any rootstock will reduce the tendency for high nitrogen levels in the vine.


I do not have information on the rootstock in use at Masseto so this is one of those cases where reasoned assumptions will be applied. The first step in my rootstock-selection methodology was to develop a list of candidates and their characteristics. This list was developed from the following sources:
Once this list was developed it was culled based on two of the most important criteria (as I understand it) -- Phylloxera and nematode resistance.

The next step was a further culling of the list based on the rootstock’s influence on the scion. If it was a medium-/high-vigor roostock it was eliminated because both the clay soils and the Merlot cultivar have high vigor and I am looking for a rootstock that would be mitigating (see extension.org).

The remaining rootstocks were then culled based on the soil adaptation. Rootstocks that were amenable to moist clay soils were retained. The remaining rootstocks/clones at this time were:
  • Berlandieri x Riperia
    • 5BB
    • 5C
  • Riparia x Rupestris
    • 101-14 Mgt
    • Schwarzmann
I next turned to soil adaptation and while the others were suited to moist clay soils, the Schwarzmann was adapted to moist deep soils, a situation that does not hold at the subject vineyard.

The next to go was 5BB, because, according to UCDavis, it is susceptible to root rot. The two remaining candidates then were 5C and 101-14 Mgt.

Our selection process has thus brought us down to one clone in each of the two rootstock classes and the 101-14 Mgt will be selected because of the parent characteristics (Catherine Cox, Rootstocks as a management strategy for adverse vineyard conditions, gwrdc.com.au):
  • Offer low-moderate vigor to the scion (versus med-high vigor in the competing parent)
  • Perform best on soils that dry out slowly and have moderate-high water holding capacities (perfect match for the Masseto vineyard soil type). The 5C parent class perform best in free-draining soils of moderate depth and fertility.
  • Impart low vigor to the scion and thus are suitable for sites with high fertility
The position then, is that the Masseto vineyard supports Merlot scions on 5C rootstocks. I hope that they correct me if I am wrong.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Deconstructing the Masseto vineyard: The soils

Masseto is one of the world's leading wines and one of my personal favorites. As part of a class assignment, I had to select a vineyard for further analysis and I chose the Masseto vineyard. In order to complete the assignment I needed some specific data which I attempted to obtain directly from the estate. They were unresponsive to my request so I will attempt to model the vineyard based on publicly available data and reasoned guesses. I will begin this "adventure" with a look at the soils.

Source: masseto.com

According to masseto.com, this 6.63 ha vineyard lies on soil comprised of thin silty clay and broken rock fragments and is sub-divided into three distinct sections based on soil characteristics.  The lowest section of the vineyard has soils that are a clay-sand mix. The middle portion of the vineyard has the highest levels of Pliocene clays. The top portion of the vineyard is located 120 meters above sea level and the soil here consists of loose clays and sand along with pebbles.  The soil here is the shallowest in the overall vineyard. 

Soils Assessment

I was able to identify a list of soil analytical elements (Vineyard Soil Technologies, Soil Assessment for Vineyard Design, www.vineyardsoil.com/evaluation-soil-design.html) and will attempt to assess the Masseto soils within this framework.  The elements and metrics (where available, sourced from Masseto.com and Bolgheridoc.com; otherwise, my assessment) -- are as follows :

Physical attributes:
  • Soil color --taupe to light brown
  • Soil texture -- heavy soils with clumping clays requiring extensive work to make/keep plant-ready
  • Rock (abundance, size, type) -- abundance of pebbles in the upper portion of the vineyard
  • Soil structure and particle aggregation -- Loose clays and sand with many pebbles in the upper portion of the vineyard; high proportion of clays -- as much as 40%, according to Masseto -- in the middle portion of the slope; less clay on the lower slopes
  • Soil hardness -- clays can be very hard in the middle portions of the vineyard
  • Soil porosity -- clay retains moisture, especially in the spring
  • Root density -- N/A
  • Color and quantity of mottling -- N/A
  • Approximate moisture content -- N/A
  • Irrigation quality - N/A
Chemical attributes:
  • Plant nutrients -- No data available. Assumed to be adequate given the high clay content of the soils
  • pH -- not available for the vineyard. For the region (according to bolgheridoc.com), the soils range from sub-alkaline to alkaline (with a pH which ranges from 6.93 to 8.55)
  • toxic elements -- according to the Consorzio, the zonation study revealed no toxic elements in the soil
  • Cation exchange capability -- N/A but expected to be high given the soil type.
Pests and diseases:
  • Phylloxera -- assumed
  • nematode analysis -- N/A

Additional Observations

Soil Composition

The soil in the subject vineyard is primarily clay and while it has some beneficial qualities (moisture retention and high mineral content) it also has some disadvantages (WSET):
  • It takes longer to heat up in spring
  • Swells when it absorbs water and shrinks as it dries. This can cause cracking through which water is lost and can also damage the root system
  • Does not drain well
  • Becomes sticky when wet and structure deteriorates if worked in that condition.
Clay soils can be made more suitable by the addition of organic matter and sand and working of the soil to ensure that the particles are conducive to the growing of quality grapes.

Soil Depth

According to winegrapes.tamu.edu (Vineyard Soils), “Soil depth for vineyards is commonly recommended to be a minimum of 30 to 40 inches before reaching an impermeable layer. Shallow soils limit development of the root system, resulting in smaller vines and greater sensitivity to changes in soil moisture levels. Irrigation must be managed with extreme care on shallow soils ... Deeper soils are preferable; grape roots will penetrate very deeply if the soil is permeable. A larger root system can support a bigger vine and is less sensitive to short-term changes in soil moisture.”

Given that clay soils tend to form impermeable layers closer to the surface than do sandier soils, Masseto will have to have taken that into consideration in vineyard design, vine spacing, and rootstock selection  This situation can be mitigated by building effective soil depth through addition of material at the surface or terracing.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ticino (Switzerland) wine region: Industry structure

I had had a wonderful evening at the DWCC14 closing dinner at the Montreux Casino, eating, drinking, and dancing to satiation before gingerly making my way back to the hotel. For there was work to be done on the morn. A team of bloggers would be making their way to Ticino to explore the region and its wines and I did not want to be the "guy who missed the boat." It was a train, actually, and it was slated to depart from Montreux Station at 8:36 am, headed to Milan Central where we would meet up with a Ticinowine representative and then take a second train to Lugano. Things went swimmingly and we met Mattias at Milan as planned, had a coffee, boarded our new train, and arrived in Lugano where we were greeted by Francesco Tettamanti, Director of Ticinowine. Over the course of the next two-and-one-half days we met a number of industry players and tasted their wines. I will relay my observations in a number of posts, beginning with this one providing my understanding of the structure of the industry.

Source: ticinowine.ch

The structure of the Ticino wine industry is new for me in that it runs the gamut from individual growers to vertically integrated companies producing grappa and balsamic vinegar in addition to their core product. At one end of the market is a grower who may have a plot with a few vines (but more normally between 3 ha and 6 ha) whose output is sold either to the Coop or to a large producer. In that their end product is grapes, these growers are focused on yield while purchasers are much more focused on quality. This conflict is moderated by paying the grower approximately CHF4.50/kilo once a minimum sugar level has been attained. Allowed yield in the region is 70 hl/ha, high by the standards of other European quality regions. We did not actually meet any of the growers in this class during the course of our visit.

Source: ticinowine.ch

The next step "up" on the ladder is the small grower/producer. This entity grows the grapes and produces wine on his/her own account. The grapes for the wine may be co-located with the cellar or may be grown on non-contiguous plot(s) and transported in to the estate for fermentation and aging. The latter point is illustrated by  Cantina Kopp Von der Crone Visisni which sources fruit from a number of different vineyards while the cellar itself is co-located with the vineyard in Barbengo. We met with two representatives of this class: Cantina Kopp Von der Crone Visini and Azienda Mondò.

Modification of map sourced from cantinabarbengo.ch

We next encounter the negociant grower/producers. This entity grows grapes for its own account but also purchases grapes from multiple growers from different geographic areas in order to highlight the terroir of certain areas or to create regional blends. The purchased grapes may or may not be bought under long-term contract and the producer may or may not be involved in vineyard planting, management, and harvesting decisions. In some cases the land is leased and the grower/producer is fully responsible for its management and production. Players in this class may be engaged in the production of grape-originated products such as grappa and balsamic vinegar. Residents of this class with whom we met include Tamborini Carlo SA, Angelo Delea SA, and Agriloro.

There are a total of 3000 growers operating in Ticino.

We also met with Brivio Vini SA and Gialdi Vini SA, operating as negociants under the same roof and management in Mendrisio. They buy fruit from 400 farmers operating on 100 ha of land in the region.

There are a total of 200 producers in Ticino with 15 of the largest turning out 80% of the product.

Distribution of the finished product is a responsibility that has been taken on by many of the large producers. An example of this evolution is Tamborini which began as an importer and distributor of extra-regional wines. These wines were distributed via retail outlets as well as being sold to restaurants and hotels in the region. Once Tamborini began producing its own wine, it utilized this distribution network to get its products into the hands of customers and utilized the products from other Ticicno producers to maximize the utility of this asset. Most of the large producers that we encountered had their own distribution fleet and a retail outlet.

My next post on the topic will turn to the wines of the region.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, November 14, 2014

Penfolds Grange 1997: The wine that I forgot

The initial plan for the Five Decades of Penfolds Grange tasting called for four flights of three vintages each but, after some discussion, Ron and I decided to donate two additional vintages so that we could have four wines in each flight. I had three deliverables for the event: the booklets that would be used to set the context and as a tasting-notes platform; one bottle each of 1997 and 2005 Penfolds Grange; and wines to accompany the post-tasting dinner. I de-racked the two sets of wines ahead of time and left them -- unconsolidated -- in the cellar.

The day got away from me so I was rushing around trying to finish some writing and getting myself appropriately attired before the car arrived. The car comes. I grab my wine bag out of the cellar and hurry the wife up. We tumble into the car and take off. The event is on Sand Lake Road so we have to contend with the rush-hour traffic emitting from Downtown Orlando. I immediately launch Waze in order to advise the driver as to the best route(s) around the traffic mess that I know is ahead. Five miles into the journey, it suddenly hit me. I had forgotten the booklets at home. I mentioned it to my wife who, while gracing me with a withering stare, asked the driver to get off the highway at the next exit to take us back to the house. We made it back -- using surface roads to avoid the congestion on the highway in this direction -- and I rushed into the house, retrieved the package, and hightailed it back to the car. Whew. That was close. I would never have been able to live down appearing without the promised documentation.

As the car continued on its path down I4, something kept trying to intrude on my senses. Kind of like a dull tapping on my brain. Like someone, or something, was trying to get my attention. And then it hit me. In the gut. I almost stopped breathing and buried my head in my hands. My wife thought that I had fallen asleep (She has been concerned about my sleeping patterns since my return from Europe) but I had not. I could not bring myself to tell her as yet. I had left the two bottles of Penfolds -- the two bottles that would round out the tasting -- in the cellar. And there was no way that we could turn around for a second time. So I told her. It was not good.

We got to Eddie V's and I quickly jumped out of the car. It had been so cold in there that I was almost a solid block of ice. I went into the private room where the tasting was being held and Ron, Bev, and DLynn were already there. I mumbled something to Ron about forgetting the wine at home and he looked confused. "But you did bring the Grange though, right?" he asked. He thought that I had left my dinner wines at home. I wish I had been that lucky. As I busied myself placing the booklets at the individual seats, I kept thinking to myself "time takes care of everything." Of course, I was at the receiving end of every snarky wisecrack that you could think of for the rest of the evening.

When the dust had settled somewhat (when they had enough Penfolds Grange in their systems that a missing bottle or two was of no consequence), I told Ron that the next two times that we went out together, I would bring the bottles I had at home so that we, at least, could taste the full complement of wines as planned. The first opportunity presented itself on Wednesday last when we went to Prato for one of our regular Wednesday lunches. I took all precautions to ensure that I did not leave home without it.

We had a lovely window seat and I began the proceedings by opening a bottle of 2008 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne. This wine was disappointing initially. It was tight, acidic, and austere with unintegrated oak lingering on the palate. We have become a little premox-gunshy but it was not premoxed and, even though funky, was not faulty. The wine eventually came around after exposure to oxygen. It never go to knockout range but more of the fruit was apparent, the acidity retreated to freshness, and the austerity became less so.

Next we turned to the 1997 Penfolds Grange. According to penfolds.com, the 1997 vintage was challenging, combining, as it did, a cool start to the season with high summer heat.
Budburst was slightly later than usual in most South Australian regions, with mild weather through to Christmas. The onset of a prolonged heat wave in February further delayed ripening. Fortunately, a sunny, warm autumn followed, allowing vines to reach full ripeness.
The blend in this vintage was 96% Shiraz and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wines were aged for 20 months in new American oak barrels and, at bottling, were 14% abv, had 7.8 g/l acidity, and pH was 3.52.

This wine was a dream. If we had consumed it on the night of the tasting, I may not have appreciated it as much as I did at lunch that day. Its beauty and richness may have been hidden behind a wall of Grange and Grange-fueled dialogue. Left alone on the stage, this wine shone incredibly bright.

On the nose toffee, cocoa, vanilla, fudge, ripe fruit, dried herbs, and a rich elegance. The dried herbs carried through on the palate along with a thick, rich, creamy texture and silky tannins. This wine is perfectly balanced with enough acidity to perform palate-cleansing duties when it accompanies food. Long, rich finish with a creamy aftertaste. Ron said that it reminded him of a high-quality Pomerol and that if it had been included in the tasting it would have given the 1990 (the WOTF) a run for its money. This is truly a thoroughbred.

I do not want to say that the rest of the lunch was anti-climatic, but these were pretty high heights. Our full lunch lineup is shown below.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ticino (Switzerland) wine region: The physical environment

I have written extensively about the Merlot wines of the Right Bank and Tuscany (see here, for example) but was unaware of how interwoven into the fabric of the Ticino wine region the variety was until the DWCC14 Press Trips were announced. Given my love of the grape, I was extremely pleased to be selected as part of the 10-person team that would tour the region under the auspices of Ticinowine, the wine promotion arm of Ticino Wine and Vine.

Ticino -- called Tessin in both French and German -- is a 2,813-km² (1,086 square-mile) Swiss canton located on the southern slopes of the central Alps. Italian-speaking (an artifact of rule by the Dukes of Milan until its conquest by the Swiss Confederation in the 15th Century), except for the German-speaking municipality of Bosco/Gurin, the canton is almost completely surrounded by Italy.

Source: wineandvinesearch.com

The canton is divided into two geographic regions by the dividing line of the Monte Ceneri Pass: Sopraceneri, encompassing the Ticino and Maggia Valleys; and Sottoceneri, the region around Lake Lugano. The Sopraceneri lands were formed by glaciers and streams and, as a result, are more mountainous and rife with terminal moraines and alluvial cones and is acidic. The soils are rather stony with a full complement of silt and sand. The Sottoceneri soils are limestone and deep, rich clays.

Ticino's climate has been described as "modified Mediterranean." The Alps in general, acts as a barrier such that the climate in the northern parts of Switzerland are different from the south. Ticino, situated as it is to the south of the Alps, receives some Mediterranean air from time to time and can reach temperatures of 21.3℃ in the summer with an average annual temperature of 11.7℃. Ticino's 2100-2286 hours of sunshine per year is the highest in Switzerland. The warm, moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean deposits a lot of its mass as it rises to soar over the Alps, leaving Ticino with the highest annual rainfall (1750 mm) in all of Switzerland. The Froehm is a warm wind which blows over the Alps from south to north but, on occasion, reverses itself and blows from north to south, impacting Ticino. Ticino is prone to fierce storms and the risk of hailstones has prompted grape-growers to install anti-hailstone nets.

A total of 1000 ha of Ticino land is dedicated to grape growing today, down from over 7000 ha pre-Phylloxera. As shown in the map below, the northern wine growing areas hug the river valleys while the southern ones, though centered around Lake Lugano, do venture into non-aquatic areas. Elevations in the region vary between a low of 200m and a high of 600 m, with the average vineyard located at approximately 325 m above sea level.

Source: wineandvinesearch.com

There are a total of 3600 grape growers in Ticino and they provide the inputs to the 200 producers and the Coop who produce the region's wines. Vineyards are generally small, steep plots of between 3 ha and 6 ha and yields are at 70 hl/ha. Fifteen companies produce 80% of the wines produced using all purchased fruit or a combination of owned and purchased fruit. The Coop produces 1 million bottles annually.

The primary grape varieties planted in Ticino are shown in the table below.

Red Grapes
White Grapes
Merlot (85% of all plantings)   
Chardonnay (2.3%)
Pinot Noir (1.5%)
Bondola (1.7%)
Cabernet Sauvignon
Sauvignon Blanc
Cabernet Franc
Riesling x Sylvaner
Pinot Gris
Pinot Blanc
Pinot x Cabernet

Merlot, far and away the most dominant variety, suits the Ticino environment because it ripens early and ahead of the weather change which can occur in October. It was first planted experimentally in 1906 and, since that time, research work done by the Cadenzzo Agricultural Center of the Swiss Federal Research Station has adapted the variety to Ticino climatic conditions.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Monday, November 10, 2014

Five decades of Penfolds Grange: A vertical tasting

Described by Hugh Johnson as the "only first growth of the southern hemisphere" and by Robert Parker as "the world's most exotic and concentrated wine," Penfolds Grange is definitely the most famous wine coming out of Australia and a fixture in the cellars of serious wine collectors around the world. These considerations, plus our love of the wine, caused Ron to propose a vertical tasting to our group. We agreed immediately and Ron set about making plans for the tasting. The wines would be sourced from his cellar and participants would re-imburse him for the cost. I invited Dlynn Proctor, Penfolds US Winemaking Ambassador, and one of the stars of the movie SOMM (and a valued friend), to guide us through the tasting; and he agreed. The tasting was held last Friday night and I recount it in this post.

Photo courtesy DLynn Proctor, Penfolds

Penfolds Background

No one was as important to the development of Penfolds Hermitage Grange (Penfolds Grange since 1990) than the then winemaker Max Schubert but the founding and nurturing of the company can be traced back to Dr. Christopher Rawson Penfold and his wife Mary. Dr. Penfold, who was firm in his belief in the medicinal value of wine, planted some French vine cuttings around his home in Magill, Adelaide -- called the Grange -- upon his emigration to Australia in 1844. He produced port and sherry from the resulting grapes for dispensation to his patients. Upon his death, Mary took over the running of the winery and, in this task, she was ably assisted by her son-in-law, Thomas Hyland. Thomas and Georgina, Mary's daughter, assumed management responsibility when Mary retired in 1884 and the family members retained control until 1976. The company is now owned by Treasury Estates.

Penfold's wine production consisted primarily of fortified wines and brandy up until the 1950s. Jeffrey Penfold Hyland, reacting to his perception of changing tastes, asked Max Schubert to look into the increased production of table wines. As a part of that mandate, Schubert visited the wine-growing areas of Europe and was very impressed by the aged wines he encountered in France. He was convinced that, with the proper technique, he could produce a quality, long-lived wine in Australia and sought to put that into practice with the production of an experimental vintage -- utilizing the Syrah grape -- of Penfold's Hermitage Grange in 1951. The early wines were not well received. So much so that the board, in 1957, forbade further production of the wine. Schubert continued to produce the wine in secret and, as the earlier vintages stabilized, they began to receive more favorable consideration. These favorable comments trickled back to the board and, in 1960, they authorized Schubert to resume production of the wine. Of course, he had never stopped and, thanks to his “cheekiness," there has been an unbroken string of Penfold's Grange produced since the experimental vintage in 1951.

From the beginning Penfold's has pursued a multi-vineyard, multi-district grape-sourcing strategy bolstered by a "house style" of complete, controlled fermentation followed by aging in new American oak barrels. The grapes for the wine are sourced from vineyards in the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, and Magill, all regions falling within the Adelaide "super zone."

The Tasting

We gathered at Eddie V's on Sand Lake Road in Orlando at 6:00 pm as scheduled but Ron and DLynn had beaten us there and had hatched out a tasting strategy. We already knew that the tasting would be conducted in four flights but they had made a determination as to which flight would lead off and the order in which the others would follow. We prepped for the heavy lifting by drinking two wonderful bottles of Champagne: a Krug 1990 and a Pommery 1999 in mag.

A Dlynn sandwich

Tasting team
Ron made an opening statement and then introduced DLynn. DLynn was brilliant all evening, a veritable fount of information on Penfolds as a company, the wines, the winemakers, the vintages. The guy is a walking Penfolds Grange encyclopedia. He began by asking the rhetorical question "What is Grange?" "It is technically Bordelaise," he said. Max Schubert, the first wiinemaker, went to Bordeaux twice and fell in love with the Bordeaux wines he tasted. In those early days Bordeaux wines did include some Syrah and some of the best wines he tasted on those trips were Cabernet-Syrah blends. He wanted to make that type of wine but the Cabernet Sauvignon available in Australia at that time was not very good. Schubert wanted to make a wine that would age for 50 years -- a la the great Bordeauxs -- and, in his view, that made the vineyard pre-eminent. It was not until 1964 that Cabernet Sauvignon -- a kiss, according to DLynn -- was introduced into Penfolds Grange.

1980s Flight

The first flight was the wines from the decade of the 1980s: 1980, 1982, 1986, and 1989.

We tasted from oldest to youngest in each flight so the Grange 1980 was the first one up. DLynn said that this had been a cooler vintage (by Australian standards). The wine exhibited aromas of coconut oil, violets, earth, game, and mint. Balanced, with the acidity and 12.9% alcohol fitting perfectly into the matrix of the wine. Long, balanced finish with rich, oily aftertaste. Rhonesque.

The 1982 Grange Hermitage was a blend of Shiraz and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon (DLynn). This had riper fruit than the 1980 and showed jammy, stewed fruit, prunes, coconut, anise, cedar, mint, tobacco, and leather. On the palate it was ripe fruit, richness, concentration, a saline character, and an earthiness. Long finish with a saline aftertaste. This was more of a New World wine than was the 1980.

The Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1986 was the last vintage for winemaker Don Ditter (who had taken Chief Winemaker responsibility from Max Schumer in 1976). The wine was 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and had aromas of spice, dill, bay leaf, thyme, phenolics, and a slight green note. Savory. Great balance. Slight dill flavor on the palate. Integrated tannins and a long finish.

The 1989 vintage was made by John Duvall (winemaker from 1986 to 2001) and was markedly different from any of the wines tasted to date. The vintage had been peculiar in that it was wet and cool early then hot for the remainder of the growing season. This wine was 9% Cabernet Sauvignon. Ripe fruit, molasses, savoriness, beef broth, blackpepper and blue fruit on the nose. Dark fruit and molasses on the palate. Rich.

The wine of the flight, as voted by the team, was the 1980 vintage.

2000s Flight

The wines included in this flight were from the 2001, 2004, and 2006 vintages.

The 2001 Grange was the final Duvall vintage. According to DLynn, this was one of the hottest Grange vintages ever. He spouted statistics of 14.02% abv, pH of 3.52, and TA of 6.89. The wine smelled porty, alcoholic, oily. It was ripe and fat, with the most obvious tannins to date. Alcohol present. Broad-guaged, alcoholic finish. Acid-averse.

The 2004 vintage experienced an even, moderate growing season which resulted in (according to DLynn) a complete wine. 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. On nose coconut, dill, savoryness, richness. Round and rich on the palate. Excellent texture. Long finish.

The 2006 was a conundrum. DLynn described it as old world and new world in the same vintage. Rain late in the growing season had fattened up the clusters. I got porty, overripe fruit on the nose along with dill, wax, creme brulee, coconut, and a savoryness. On the palate not a full, round mouthfeel. Drying/green tannins. Stewed fruits, short finish, and a "pale", drying aftertaste.

The 2004 vintage was voted wine of the flight.

1990s Flight

This flight included wines from 1990, 1994, and 1998.

The 1990 Grange showed toffee, praline, pencil lead, blackpepper, and ripe black fruit on the nose. Rich, ripe fruit on the palate. Concentrated, with a long finish. Very Graves.

1994 was a cool vintage and that is reflected in the pyrazine, bell pepper, black-eyed peas notes on the nose. Plum. Sandalwood. Rich.

The 1998 had ripe fruit, baking spices and pepper on the nose. Salinity and richness on the palate. Super concentrated. Late-arriving tannins. Sappiness. Long, creamy finish. DLynn felt that even at 14.23 % abv, this wine was technically balanced.

The team selecetd the 1990 as the wine of the flight.

1960s/70s Flight

This flight consisted of wines from 1968, 1971, 1976, and 1978.

The 1968 presented aromas of espresso, vanilla, mocha, cocoa, leather, blackpepper, gunoil, coconut. A sweet La Mish on the palate. Mushroom, savory, complex. I called it a 1985 Heitz Martha's Vineyard. Steve called it an '85 BV Georges de la Tour. I loved it. We all did, as a matter of fact.

The 1971 was oxidized.

The 1976 was 11% Cabernet Sauvignon and exhibited herbs, fennel, gunflint, chocolate, and coffee on the nose. Someone yelled "Haut-Brion." It was very Bordeaux-like and we got into a heated discussion when trying to determine the wine of the flight because it came down to this Bordeaux style versus what I will call the "When-Napa-was-Napa" style exhibited in the 1968.

I did not capture any notes for the 1978. Steve described it as expressing coffee, fig newtons, chocolate-covered caramels, and sawdust.

At the culmination of a warm debate (and a number of ballots, with some changed votes), the 1976 was chosen as the wine of the flight by one vote. The wines of this flight were clearly the class of the bunch (given the type of wines that are drunk on a regular basis by the people in the room) and the winner of this flight automatically was the wine of the night.

As Steve noted, somewhere in the mid-80s, Grange shifted to a bigger, bolder style, reminescent (or a harbinger) of the California path. The wines are wonderful, great-tasting, and gain complexity with age. I doubt whether the more modern wines will gain the type of complexity and class we saw demonstrated in the wines of the 1960s and 1970s.

But that was only the tasting. We still had dinner to do. But I will not bore you with the details. The wines we drank at dinner are displayed below.

Photo courtesy DLynn Proctor
Remnants of the battle. Photo courtesy Steve Alcorn

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