I first tasted white merlot at a restaurant in Ascona, Switzerland. It was a soft summer evening on the shores of Lago Maggiore, and the restaurant was packed. The wine was served as an aperitif while my husband and I waited for our table, and it came with a plate of olives and salami.

At first, I thought it was a glass of pinot grigio, but this wine had more character, plus a hint of dry minerality. Later, on a crisp autumn evening in a cozy grotto (a traditional restaurant, perhaps with a vine-draped arbor for outdoor dining in summer), another merlot surprise came our way.

This one, an amerone-styled red, was rich, sultry and smooth, and proved a divine accompaniment to roast lamb with polenta, a specialty of northern Italy and Italian-speaking Ticino. Both merlots were superb, yet startlingly different in every way possible. And they are just the end points on a production line that includes a widely divergent range of merlot styles and flavors.

It sometimes surprises visitors that Switzerland produces wine at all. Swiss wine is made in luxuriously small quantities, and just 2% of it is exported. Most is consumed in-country by the Swiss and lucky holiday-makers. Visitors to Ticino are treated to complex, versatile wines – including red and white merlot – perfectly suited to the hearty Italian-influenced foods of this mountainous region.

What makes the merlot from Ticino special? Is it terroir? Cultivation practices? Production methods? In fact, all these things contribute to the diversity and depth of the merlot experience.

From Bordeaux to Switzerland

Several grape varieties are cultivated in Canton Ticino but the predominant variety – more than 80% – is merlot, introduced early in the 20th century.

The vines on myriad terraced parcels, some of them quite small, date from the region’s recovery from the devastating phylloxera scourge that wiped out vineyards across Europe in the late 19th century. Phylloxera came late to Ticino, which meant that much trial and error in how to deal with the problem had already been undertaken.

Merlot grapes in Ticino, Switzerland

Merlot grapes ready for harvest at the highly regarded vineyards of Gianfranco Chiesa – Vini Rovio Ronco. FWT Magazine.

Ticino merlot got its start in Bordeaux, France, when the grape was chosen to replenish destroyed vineyards. The Swiss canton’s merlot story began on the Vallombrosa estate of Giovanni Rossi in Castelrotto near Lugano. There, in 1906, Rossi, a physician, politician and philanthropist, introduced merlot rootstock, combining efficient agricultural practices with a healthy dose of political will.

It took 60 years and the imagination and perseverance of winemakers to build a viniculture of prize-winning quality. There are now about 3,600 grape-growers in Ticino and 200 or so winemakers. Approximately 1,000 hectares are devoted to viticulture, much of it around Mendrisio and Lugano.

Terroir and Microclimates

“Merlot’s remarkable affinity for the land, and its ability to show its many faces so well here, account for the grape’s dominance in Ticino.”

                                                    –Swiss Wine Promotion 

Ticino is split geographically in two parts by the Monte Ceneri pass, and wines produced in Ticino reflect differences in terroir and, just as importantly, the varied microclimatic features of the canton. In mountainous Sopraceneri, the northern region, the sandy soil is acid, light and porous.

In the southern part, Sottoceneri, the soil is more alkaline. The Sottoceneri rewards merlot’s preference for moist clay soil, warm days and cool nights.

In the hands of Ticino winemakers, the thin-skinned grape also receives the careful tending it requires, resulting in wines that are complex in character, perfumed and elegant. The vintners say it’s the diversity of microclimates within such a small region that provides them with interesting base products for winemaking.

My Wine, My Way

Some Ticino producers surely have winemaking in their blood: Claudio Tamborini, Gianni Gialdi, Guido Brivio and Angelo Delea, to name just four. In fact, these vintners who trained in Bordeaux in the 1980s not only have their individual prestige wines, but also have banded together to produce a cuvée that celebrates vintage years.

Quatromani is produced when the four contributing winemakers declare a year’s production to be vintage. They take it in turn to handle blending and aging of successive issues of the wine.

Not everyone aspires to producing merlot in the style of Bordeaux, however. Some, such as Christian Zundel, have taken another approach entirely. Zundel cultivates his vines by the phases of the moon, and produces prize-winning wines in very small quantities, experimenting with various fermentation vessels, from egg-shaped cement tanks to stainless steel. For him, the key is the affinity of wine with the hearty foods of the local kitchen.

Individual vintners also apply their own philosophies to ensuring quality wines. Guido Brivio makes excellent wine, but does not cultivate grapes. Instead, he and partner Gianni Gialdi source their grapes from as many as 400 small growers and put their energies and talents into ensuring quality through the production and aging process.

Brivio in particular is a big proponent of excellence in barrels, replacing approximately one-third of them each season. He works with the barrel-maker to achieve the desired levels of wood aging and toasting to suit the requirements dictated by each year’s harvest.

Brivio Vini wine cellar

The cellars at Brivio Vini in Mendrisio, Ticino, built into the base of Monte Generoso. FWT Magazine.

Tasting Swiss merlot

With so little of annual production exported, about the only way to enjoy most of Ticino’s merlot is in-country, and it can be problematic to find these wines even in Switzerland.

Wine tourism in Ticino is not along a well-labeled, mapped-out route. A visitor must take a different approach, combining a taste for the grape with opportunities to sample some of the canton’s signature foods and settings.

It can be useful to start with any of the artfully designed tasting rooms at the vintners, and continue explorations at restaurants and festivals. Ticino’s sloping terraced vineyards, large and small, are also great for hiking.

I’ve enjoyed excellent regional wines with local specialties – from polenta to unique cheeses to seasonal flavors such as sausages with saffran risotto – in the grotti of Ticino. My favorite way to explore the region’s food and wine, though, is to stay in quaint hotels with a view of the Italian/Swiss lakes or in the midst of a vineyard.

Fattoria L'Amorosa, in Ticino, Switzerland

The Fattoria L’Amorosa, a farmhouse-style retreat and restaurant with nine rooms, is a project of Angelo Delea, one of the canton’s top wine producers and a former restaurateur. FWT Magazine.

The numerous harvest festivals in Ticino, such as Ascona’s Chestnut Festival, also feature regional wines. The annual Cantine Aperto (Day of Open Wine Cellars), sponsored by Ticinowine, is a great time to discover flavorful wines of very limited production.

Ticino vintners also promote their wines at Switzerland’s many wine fairs, such as the Expovina Wine Ships, which dock in Zurich for the first two weeks in November each year.

Valentina Tambourini of Tambourini Vini, in Ticino, Switzerland

Valentina Tambourini, of Tambourini Vini, pours a taste of Castelrotto at the Basler Weinmesse (Wine Fair). FWT Magazine.

If you go

  • Swiss Fine Wine identifies and rates wines, for sommeliers and wine enthusiasts alike. Search the site by region to identify high-quality wines from Ticino and other Swiss regions.
  • Paolo Basso, World Sommelier of the Year in 2013, has a wine shop in Lugano and produces his own wine. In addition to teaching about wine, he offers Selezione | Séléction, a handy list of the year’s best from Switzerland, France and Italy.
  • The Swiss Wine Directory, the official online portal of all of Switzerland’s winemakers, aims to facilitate wine cellar visits, providing information about reception services, languages spoken on-site and more.
  • In Switzerland, a hotel with a good kitchen and a knowledgeable sommelier is a fine way into pairing foods and wines of Ticino. Swiss Tourism’s website provides details for atmospheric, quality lodging in Ticino at various price ranges.