IN CONVERSATION WITH GUIDO BRIVIO
Motivated by a long family-business tradition in the drinks industry, Guido Brivio set out at the beginning to target restaurants and speciality wine shops with high quality Swiss wines.
“For me, every harvest is like creating a new painting.”
We met Guido recently for a catch up as he was showcasing Platinum 2011 and 2005 Brivio Vini SA (Merlot Barrique) at the Circle of Wine Writers event in December 2013. The 2011 is the currently available vintage and the 2005 showed off how the wine can evolve.
We always have a good selection of Guido's wines
What is your story?
My family has a background in the spirits industry. We hold the license to produce Cynar throughout Switzerland, but my true passion has always been to produce wine from grapes grown in the region of Ticino.
My story began at the end of the 1980's, after finishing my oenology studies in France, I acquired the winery “Fratelli Valli di Stabio” (Brothers Valli of Stabio) with the help of my mother and uncle. At that time, Valli wine was imported from abroad and produced around 5,000 bottles of wine Ticinese - too small a quantity to allow for new markets.
The acquisition spurred me to want to produce a high-quality local wine with a new and attractive image.
Right from the start, I teamed up with Gialdi Wines and, thanks to the grapes supplied by the winegrowers from Mendrisio, the first wines of the new Brivio brand came into being. All the bottles were destined for top class restaurants and dedicated connoisseurs.
In 2001 Brivio Wines SA was integrated in the Gialdi Wines Group SA. Our slogan became ‘United we stand’.
The Canton of Ticino ha s been producing Merlot here for 100 years. Ticino is the Italian part of Switzerland, only five miles from the Italian border.
About 90% of the grapes grown here are Merlot, grown with an Italian touch and we want to concentrate on that and become a specialist in Merlot. The soil here is ideal for that type of grape. We are lucky because Merlot is recognised internationally and much easier to sell than a Fendant.
Do you grow any other varietals?
We have white wines, some Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but Merlot, both red and white, is our main focus.
Why is Merlot the main grape variety in this region?
In the canton of Ticino, from north to south, there are fantastic soil conditions for Merlot.
Merlot is a great grape. You can make tons of different styles of wine - rosé, white, dry white, blend it with Cabernet, make it red and fruity and light, or make a big heavy red for ageing. Our dry white Merlot is very popular.
In the south, where we are, the soil is mainly clay. This produces a tobacco smell, spicy, Cuban cigar and contributes to a nice elegant Merlot.
The alcohol content is usually 12.5%, but the wine we presented at the Circle of Wine Writers event in London, Platinum, is 100% Merlot with 14% alcohol. It is a late harvest and we increase the concentration further by drying the grapes. We then leave the grapes in small boxes in a room with special air circulation for three weeks. the wine is matured 20 months in new French oak barrels. This produces a very powerful and elegant wine.
We don’t produce the wine every year, just in top vintages. It was interesting to try the latest vintage, the 2011, and compare it to the 2005. These wines ought to be cellared, and the 2005, while still young, shows why.
Tell us about your ‘white Merlot.
When I started, out, I received a lot of slammed doors in my face, especially for white Merlot. Once I even received a letter from a restaurant owner saying: ‘You are going to ruin red grapes to make wine. You’re going to ruin the image of Ticino. Please stop! It’s not going to be successful". Now he reserves maybe 60 bottles a year. Sometimes you have to go against the wave to try new things.
We use a lot of oak, all from the Massif Central of France. For red wine we go for medium toasting. For white we use a heavier toasting. The most important is the grain of the wood. Big grain gives less oxygen. The important thing is oxygen going through the oak and breathing with the wood and wine.
And the climate in Ticino?
We are blessed with a Mediterranean micro climate in the south of Ticino. We are blessed with hot summers and even have palm trees here!
A lot of Swiss people have holiday houses here in Ticino because of the climate. It is also located in the middle of everything. If you drive towards Italy, in two hours you are by the sea. Drive half an hour the other way and you can ski.
What was the 2013 harvest like?
Brilliant for Merlot and okay for the white wines. We are very happy though. We produced 8-10% more than last year in quantity and the quality is looking really good.
The winery has been completely renovated with the adoption of the most advanced wine making technology and we are gradually replacing all of the wine making machinery. Currently, the winery can process up to 300,000 kilos of grapes through the use of high-tech systems.
To obtain the best grapes in Ticino, closer personal contacts were established with the region's wine growers and new vineyards were planted in accordance with the most recent wine growing methods. They produce grapes of the highest quality, among the best that this territory can offer.
The aging of the wines is in French oak barrels in our centuries old cellars dug deep into the rock at the base of Monte Generoso. They were built to season cheese, salami and wine and for those who built them, to party with their friends.
There is natural aeration through holes dug in the rock to channel a flow of cool air into the cellars. When it rains the water pushes out fresh air on this Swiss side. This produces the ideal atmospheric conditions for making wine. The perfect level of humidity is also maintained naturally this way.
What are you future plans for the winery?
We are exploring export markets for Swiss wines. When people think of Switzerland, they don’t think about wine. They think about banking, watches and chocolate, but wine is the last thing.
But when they try the wine they are amazed by the quality, that is why it’s important for to us to allow people to access the wines. We are part of ‘old Europe’ for making wine and want to keep that culture and to spread it.
Is the winery open to visitors?
All of our wines can be tasted and purchased in our new wine bar at the winery in Mendrisio. The wine shop is open Monday to Friday, from 8:00 to 12:00 and from 13:30 to 17:45 and Saturday from 9:00 to 12:45 pm.
In 2008 our guest house Le Palme was created when we renovated an old cellar to accommodate larger groups for presentations and tastings.
What traditional dishes would you recommend to drink with your wines?
Polenta and risotto are traditional dishes. We have a north Italian culture here.
What restaurants do you recommend in the region?
If you want rustic food then the tavern, Grotto Bundi (grottobundi.com), located on a road full of ancient wine cellars, is a must. Grotto serves the best polenta in the world, in my opinion.
What other interests do you have?
I love art and in our tasting room, the bottles stand before paintings. Each image represents the taste of a particular wine to the artist.
I love to travel and ski. My wife is American, so we go to the States quite often. I love to taste different foods and wines. I believe that you always absorb something by travelling. It opens up your mind.
Do you think your son will carry on the family tradition of winemaking?
Our son has always been around the winery. He is 14 (in 2014) and showing signs of wanting to come into the business but I will never push him. Winemaking is not like any other career. To make good wines you have to feel it inside. It really is a 360 degree job but exciting. I enjoy working with nature, the technical side of wine making and communicating the wines. For me, every harvest is like creating a new painting. You have to interpret what nature gives you and keep up with your style. It’s a challenge every year but exciting.
Your wines have won awards in the past but you have stopped entering them into international competitions. Why is that?
We decided six years ago that the best indication of the quality and demand for our wines was from the market not from a competition. My personal opinion is there are too many international competitions. There are Gold medals everywhere. What is the meaning of 50 Gold medals from the same competition? There is supposed to be one Gold, one Silver and one Bronze. It is confusing for people when they see so many medals. Having so many medals and competitions lacks value
Our focus is to promote our wines on the ground, meeting people and letting them taste. The feedback we receive from the market is real and valuable. It is important to us that people buy and talk about our wines.