“God made only water but man made wine” so wrote French poet Victor Hugo over one hundred years ago. Today his words resonate as winemaking becomes increasingly human-led rather than a natural process.
Wine has been made in Ticino for over 2000 years, but the quality and variety we enjoy today are a far cry from those less than glorious days. The excellent quality and impressive variety of the present day range of wines, is, in large part, the result of the work of the last three generations. Not content to follow the paths of their of fathers, they have dared to make their mark, placing their wines amongst the best in the world. No one knew the real potential of growing in Ticino, so they faced many risks in realizing their ambitions. Modern winemakers in the region are bold, creative and their perseverance, although not without risk is gaining recognition at an international level. They are very lucky to draw on the variety available to them and their success appears only to be growing, at least for the foreseeable future.
Viticulture is a universe in its own right, where age-old beliefs meld with modern practices in all areas; from vineyards, manual labour, geography and the terroir, to traditional methods, authenticity, art and even philosophy. Yet the reality is sometimes stark; we have many vineyards in the low-lying areas with production relying largely on machine-led cultivation; millions of vines grow on land once occupied by sheep, lip service is paid, in many cases, to ‘tradition’ and ‘philosophy’ as different types of wine are standardised, and creative marketing becomes an all important factor. Ticino wine growers however, remained unpretentious and true to their roots, with a predilection for producing distinctive wines.
The much vaunted climate in the southern Canton Ticino has many eccentricities, the managing of which is easier said than done. And so in times past good wine was usually the result of favourable circumstance. Winemakers possessed so little knowledge that many ‘cantinieri’ succeeded in turning even sweet grapes into sour must. In short ‘the wine suffered in its quality’.
Large scale wineries dominated the market without too much effort, often relying on Italian imports showing no ambition in their own productions. All that changed explosively in the 1980’s, in a period of feverish hard work. Instead of relying on factors as they stood producers were determined to actively shape the profiles of their wines. They took different paths, inevitably they all faced the temptation of ‘technical manipulation’ but chose against it. By rejecting it and demonstrating real commitment and prudence, the Ticinesi are deserving of great credit.
Even if the objective attained was one gained in common, in every mind there resides a personal vision. And so the search for quality and expression has today become more personal; as is shown in an exemplary fashion, in the following six short portraits; the world of Ticino wines, reflected in many fascinating faces.
The battle against mediocrity
He could have lived a tranquil life as a wine merchant, instead he has thrown himself into a delicate undertaking. Feliciano Gialdi wanted to translate the keen character of North Ticino into magnificent wines. To do this he had to overturn the rigid mentality of the region and convince the inhabitants of the valley that viticulture offered them possibilities. What he has achieved through passion and discipline merits great respect. The wines are excellent in every category, moreover they demonstrate that high quality and large quantity can be found together.
Scattered vineyards, a simple cellar in the ex depot of postal vehicles in Cademario reflect a understated mode of thinking which does not sound as if it would create the right conditions for producing exquisite wines. But it is in precisely this unspectacular frame that Ralph Theiler succeeds in producing first class wines, full of character and refinement. His vision makes sense; the better the grapes the lesser the interventions in the winery. On this account he sees himself more in the role of an attentive guardian. Wine cannot be ‘made’, it can only be brought into being.
At the Tenuta Luigina di Stabio, the oenologist Ettore Biraghi dedicates himself day and night to the creation of perfectly balanced wines. The devil hides in the detail, and so from the work on the wines through to bottling every step has to be executed following a plan. The challenge lies in individualising and extracting each facet so that not one of them is neglected or lost. This meticulous work however, could never be carried out on a large scale. The small holding is a workshop for artisanal excellence, where Ettore Biraghi cultivates rare pearls.
One of the most dynamic personalities in the Ticino vinicultural landscape is without a shadow of doubt Angelo Delea. Not a day goes by without his conceiving an original idea. With passion and initiative he has developed a modern enterprise in Losone and has created an impressively wide range of fine wines. His skills extend beyond wines, to grappa and balsamic vinegar. Notwithstanding his successes he constantly confronts the question, here and there, if he has not looked into some minute additional detail. Nothing stops his creative impulse, he has so many projects in mind that at times he regrets the day has only 24 hours. Recently it seems that Angela Delea has been passing long hours in the olive grove of his Tenuta l’Amorosa; one may well be curious….
Provocation through creativity
Werner Stucky came to Ticino in the eighties, and has been one of the important innovators. He was the first to produce a Merlot in barrique and he made the first wine assemblage in the style of Bordeaux. Bellicose, he showed the vintners guild that the poverty of their grape juices were self-inflicted and that their rigid rules blocked innovation. Since then he has become calmer in his dealings with his former combatants, always remaining faithful to his creed, producing leading wines on a small scale. The limited production goes mostly to established customers. Should you discover a bottle of vino Stucky in a wine list, you should order a bottle.
Diversity as a source of inspiration
With 150 hectares of cultivated land, Terreni alla Maggia represents an important reality in the agricultural context of Ticino. A company of this size can diversify with high quality standards: rice, polenta, chicken, honey and whisky are just a few examples of over a hundred products. The recipe for success is to constantly identify market niches and produce specialities. As for wine, this concept is reflected in a particular varietal range: already decades ago, the Kerner variety was trusted, and several winegrowers have since followed suit; or the local Bondola variety, which nobody thought capable of much, was planted and transformed into delicious wines for convivial moments. Of course, the king variety Merlot remains dominant: to the previous nine variations, a Passito was recently added – another niche product for sophisticated palates.