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.


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.


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

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