Ticinese winemakers, who created white Merlot, are pulling out all the stops in an effort to join the ranks of the world's best producers. A new generation is transforming the fruits of the canton's vineyards into wine fit for the most discerning palates.
Ticino's vineyards stretch across the sun-drenched valleys of Mendrisiotto, and the region, which yields some six million bottles a year, is traditionally known for its ruby-red Merlot.
The canton has a long tradition of winemaking, but has yet to build an international reputation, like California's Napa Valley. In the past two decades, though, a new generation of winemakers has been working to turn Ticino's wine industry into one that can compete against the best in world.
"We're trying to reinvent the image of Ticinese wine by putting new kinds of wine on the market and by promoting it to select international customers," says fourth-generation winemaker, Guido Brivio.
A key element of Ticino's strategy is to produce small quantities of high-quality wine, such as white and rosé Merlot.
Brivio was one of the first producers in the world to produce Merlot Bianco, or white Merlot, which is produced by removing the skins of red grapes before the fermenting process begins.
Served chilled, white Merlot is almost crystal clear and has a crisp but subtle flavour. Brivio says that unlike its cousin, white Zinfandel, which is also made from red grapes, white Merlot is "less sweet and tends to compliment a wider range of foods".
He adds that over the past two years, the methods pioneered in Ticino have been copied by a handful of Californian winemakers, who are also now producing white Merlot.
Ticino received a major boost in 1997 when the "controlled domination of origin" (DOC) label was introduced to the region, providing buyers with a guarantee of quality much like France's "appellation contrôlée".
Brivio says this marked a big step forward for Ticinese winemakers because "it places strict quality controls on any wine that is exported from the region".
Ticinese winemakers are also trying to promote their wines by creating "wine routes" aimed at introducing tourists to Ticinese cellars.
Brivio says a joint project between Ticino's Tourism Office and the Swiss Wine Exporters' Association is underway to set up visits and wine tasting tours to four local vineyards by the end of the year.
Ultimately, Brivio hopes that a "wine and gastronomy" tourism trade will flourish in the canton, offering locals and tourists alike a taste of Ticino's finest products.
Gastronomy journalist and restaurant owner, Luigi Bosia, says it makes sense to reinforce the links between Ticinese wine and its cuisine because the region's famous "grotti," or traditional taverns, were born out of the canton's winemaking tradition.
Bosia explains that around 1840, "i grotti" started out as private terraces, which were set up in regional vineyards, where cellar owners would invite friends around to sample their wine. "Real grottoes have at least one wall which is set in the rock of the wine cellar," he says.
Little by little, these cool, shady terraces were turned into taverns where people could drink wine, eat traditional Ticinese dishes and even spend the night. Bosia says that by 1950 there was a "grotto boom" in Ticino when the taverns sprung up everywhere.
Today, grottoes are still extremely popular in Ticino, especially among tourists. Bosia says, though, that many restaurants, which call themselves "grotti", are not authentic.
"Real grottoes are quiet hideaways outside the city, with small kitchens and large gardens where people can escape the heat of summer," he says.
"To be authentic, they should only serve traditional local food such as air-dried salami and mortadella sausage, minestrone soup, risotto, marinated fish, fried potatoes, polenta, "torta di pane" or bread pudding, and a choice of local cheeses, including Zincarlin - a mixture of fresh cheese, garlic and pepper."
That's not to mention the Merlot, of course, which is traditionally served in a low, wide-mouthed bowl or "boccalino."
Salute e buon appetito!
by Anna Nelson, Lugano