Switzerland’s Italian speaking region offers breathtaking natural landscapes, picturesque mountain villages and more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in the country. But the wild, wooded peaks and palm-fringed mirror lakes of Ticino (Tessin) only scrape the surface of this fascinating finger of southern Switzerland; a rich history, vibrant cultural scene and the singular sense of sophistication that runs through the canton’s capillaries, make this region a magnet for tourists, art lovers and connoisseurs of fine food and wine.
Geographically, the region is divided in two by the Monte Ceneri pass. The upper part of the canton - including the northern tip of Lake Maggiore, the river valley from which the canton takes its name and the capital city Bellinzona whose three medieval castles dominate the skyline, is known as sopraceneri (sopra being the Italian word for over). Whilst the lower part - a smaller area to the south encompassing the lakeside city of Lugano with its distinct Swiss-Mediterranean style, is referred to as sottoceneri (under…).
The climate of both parts is largely influenced by the sea and subsequently provides the winemakers of this region with a set of growing conditions distinct from those elsewhere in the country. Having a more southerly latitude, average temperatures in Ticino are higher than those in other parts of Switzerland and rainfall is plentiful, particularly in the summer and autumn months. Soil acidity and composition varies across the canton - with the south generally being more alkaline than the north, and the alpine topography of glacial lakes and mountains creates subtle changes in microclimate which affect the terroir in different locations. This dramatic landscape also dictates that the region’s vineyards are scattered across the canton in areas where terrain permits. Most are independent, small parcels whose owners often vinify their harvests collectively or sell on their yield to larger companies.
The region’s wine history dates back to the Roman Empire, however it was not until the dawn of the twentieth century that production in Ticino really began to gain traction following the phylloxera crisis which destroyed almost all of the region’s vines. Today more than 90% of the canton’s 1100 hectares of vineyard are planted with red varietals, of which the Merlot grape accounts for almost nine tenths. This Bordeaux variety was first introduced in the region in 1906 and has proved particularly successful, producing distinguished, well structured wines of international calibre. The grape is also used to produce a white wine which has become very popular locally as an aperitif.
Other red varieties grown in this region include Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, whilst the relatively small areas dedicated to the cultivation of whites are split in a 4:1 ratio, Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc. The highest quality wines in the region carry the Ticino DOC appellation within which production of red, white and rosé is allowed.
Italian influence in this part of Switzerland is everywhere. The weather, the architecture, the cuisine, the language, the gelato, all tip their hat to their southerly neighbour, and yet the region remains undeniably Swiss. Resilience, hard work and fierce independence - traits historically synonymous with this nation and its people, are evident here in abundance, and perhaps nowhere more so than out amongst the vines of the region’s wine producers…