Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The wines of Ticino (Switzerland)

After reviews of the broader wine region, the industry structure, and its wine production practices, I will now examine the wines of the Ticino region.

White Wines

In my view, the great white wine regions of the world are so designated because their wines exhibit typicity, balance, and, in most cases, bright acidity. You know when you are drinking a Chardonnay from Burgundy or Margaret River; or a Chenin or Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire; or an Assyrtiko from Santorini; or a white from Rioja or Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Ticino is not one of the world's great white wine regions. Rather, it still seems to be casting about in search of a white-wine identity. As I survey the number of different white wines being made in the region, I am reminded of conversations among Virginia Wine Bloggers a few years ago as to what grape varieties were best suited to the region; but Virginia is an emergent wine growing region while Ticino has been turning the sod for a minute.

The Ticino white wine environment is not as monolithic as is the case for its reds but the primary red variety -- Merlot - also plays an important role in the region's white wines. For the production of white wines, the Merlot grape is crushed and then gently pressed with little or no contact between the skin and juice. The 2013 Brivio Contrado is such a wine. It is barrel-fermented and aged for 10 months in oak. The wine was cold-filtered to remove any color and, according to the owner, fermentation flavors were also removed during this process. Aromas include chocolate, coffee, banana, and lychee. It had great weight on the palate. This was the standout white Merlot for me.

Most of the other white wines tasted were blends of Chardonnay and one or two other varieties -- Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blends were fairly popular -- and these were, for the most part, indistinguishable one from the other. Even when paired with foods, these wines did not stand out.

One white wine that was a reveal as to the potential of the region -- if it focused its effort -- was the 2011 Agriloro Chardonnay. This was one of the few varietally labeled wines that I encountered on this visit. Both alcoholic and malolactic fermentation were conducted in barriques and the wine was then aged for 9 months in 25% new barriques. This was an excellent representation of Chardonnay. Apple-pear on the nose and palate with white fruits, oak, biscuit, and spice. Margaret-River-Chardonnay-like on the palate. Elegant, with perfect balance. Apple on the aftertaste. Phenomenal alone. No give when paired with a Braised Hare with Pomegranate Seeds and a Cortona Apple Puree.

Red Wines

As I have mentioned many times previously, the dominant grape variety in Ticino is Merlot. And so is the dominant red wine. One of the characteristics of the Ticino wine region is that the allowed yield is 70 hl/ha and, as I have pointed out elsewhere, this compares unfavorably with other leading Merlot-produing regions. There are a number of distinct issues with overcropping, in general, and with Merlot, in particular:
  • Given the vigorous nature of the Merlot variety, as well as the soils in the south, it is quite likely that large canopies accompany this type of yield
  • Proper canopy management in this environment will be very time-consuming
  • With the perceived canopy sizes, enough light may not be getting through to the fruit, with implications for berry size and concentration of solutes
  • An effect of these high yields is a diminution of the herbaceousness of the Merlot and an increase in its fruitiness
My impression of the Ticino Merlots is that there are a number of standout representations surrounded by a vast sea of average-to-poor wines. But, as we found out, the wines of Ticino do best with foods, as even the less-than-stellar wines spring to life in the presence of a mouthful of the robust fare of the region.

Tasting notes for a small subset of the reds follow:

Brivio 2011 Refisi de Epoca -- Concentrated fruit, balsamic notes, coconut oil, tobacco, cuban cigars. Elegant, refined, integrated, balanced. Long, refined finish with chocolate aftertaste.
Brivio 2011 Sassi Grossi -- Grapes from the north. Spice, toast, balsamic, tar, shoe polish. Good acidity. Rich, weighty, and smooth. Coffee. Long finish with a creamy aftertaste.
Brivio 2010 Trentasei -- Grapes from the north. Successive 18-month new oak treatments. Straight oak notes with spice, smoke, sweet baking spices, and milk chocolate. Elegant. Long finish with a creamy aftertaste.

Agriloro 2011 Merlot Reserva La Prella -- Alcoholic fermentation in barrels for 15 days followed by MLF and 2 years of aging in 50% new oak barrels. Ripe red fruit on attack with concentrated black fruit on mid-palate. Rich. Spice. Chocolate. Elegant and balanced. Great weight on palate. A little light on the finish.
Agriloro 2011 Casimiri -- Nine-variety blend to include Bordeaux varieties plus Arinarnoa, Tannat, Gamaret, Egiodola, and Marselan. Alcoholic fermentation in barrels for 15 days followed by MLF and 2 years of aging in 50% new oak barrels. Complex. Chocolate and baking spices, fudge, and milk chocolate. Slate, tar, anise and spice. Excellent acidity. Balanced and harmonious.
Agriloro 2007 Syrah -- Alcoholic fermentation in barrels for 20 days followed by MLF and 2 years of aging in 60% new oak barrels. Very Syrah. Blood, iron, meat, with a gaminess. Good concentration. Ripe but not overripe. Fresh.

Vinattieri 2011 Ligornetto -- Grapes for this wine had yields of 35 hl/ha. Aged for 16 - 18 months in part new oak. Plum and licorice with good acidity. Spice. Austere. Ripe tannins. Astringency without aggressiveness. Good, firm aftertaste.
Vinattieri 2012 Ligornetto -- Same treatment. Only bottled this past June so not yet on market. Vinous. Austere. Lean. Vibrant and zesty.

The visit and tasting of Ticino wines were both informative and revelatory. It was informative in that I was exposed to Ticino wines and winemakers for the first time ever and gained some insight into what they are trying to accomplish. It was revelatory in that it gave me some insight as to the potential of the region (my perspective, of course). The Agriloro Chardonnay cries out for a concerted attempt to place this type of quality before the world's wine drinkers and influencers. The fine, elegant Merlots that I drank seemed to come from vineyards with lower yields. It may be that the high Merlot yields in effect are there to provide grapes for the white wines also but I think that the region would be better served by cutting back on merlot production and converting some of those vineyards to Chardonnay (at the appropriate yield levels). This would improve the quality of the Merlot offerings and place another great Chardonnay onto the world wine stage.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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