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