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Ticino is divided into two regions by Mount Ceneri. The Sopraceneri to the north (sopra meaning above) connects Bellinzona to Lake Maggiore, winding through many alpine valleys. The Sottoceneri to the south (sotto meaning below) includes Chiasso, Mendrisio and Lugano, along with the regions of Castel San Pietro and Morbio.
The canton is Switzerland’s fourth largest wine region. Prior to the attack by phylloxera it had 7,000 hectares of vineyards. Today it has around 1,100 hectares.
The creation of the railway Gotthardbahn boosted investment in wineries. It linked commerce between Italy and the Swiss-German as well as with Germany.
Winemakers mainly started with the bottling of Italian wines, but then switched their focus to the production of local wines.
In the Sopraceneri region of northern Ticino, the local red wine varietal Bondola still survives in some vineyards and produces wines.
In the canton of Ticino, vintners primarily grow red wine. Over 98% of Ticino’s wine production is based on red grapes and around 90% of that is based on Merlot grapes which originated in the Bordelais region. Other types of red wine are Pinot Noir and the Nostrano, the latter being considered a typical Ticinese wine. Some varietials of grapes are used as table grapes or for the production of the famous Grappa.
In climatic terms, Ticino has the hottest average summer temperatures, although some areas of the Valais also have periods when the daytime temperature rise as high as 95F (35C).
In Ticino's vineyards, on both sides of the Monte Ceneri Pass, it is still possible to find vines trained in the tendone (pergola) style - often associated with Chile, Argentina and southern Italian regions such as Sicily and Calabria. The vines are trained overhead on wooden frames but it is rather uneconomical to use this system as the structure is typically too low to allow vineyard machinery to pass beneath it. As a result, the more-modern cordon and guyot training systems are gradually becoming the norm here, as well as, on the steeper sites, gobelet, which is found in the vineyards of the northern Rhone.
Due to the alpine topography Ticino's vineyards are fragmented, scattered where the landscape permits. There are few large vineyards as even the valleys are quite narrow, rarely broader than two miles (3km) from one side to the other. Currently the land is owned by a large number of independent growers who either sell their grapes to bigger companies, or collaborate to form co-operative structures.
Soil types in Sottoceneri are mainly granite, sandy, acidic soil, with almost no limestone. The grapes mature much more slowly due to the mountain winds. Whereas Sopreceneri has a more alkaline soil type with some clay and limestone. The region overall is very wet but with many sunny days, so normally the vineyards are grassy which limits erosion.
There are three classifications depicting quality in this Canton.
For a wine to be classed as ‘one of the best’, production must be limited to 1.0 kg/m² for red grapes and 1.2 kg/m² for white grapes. The appellation to look out for is Denominazione di Origine Controllata, normally Ticino DOC or Ticinese DOC.
The wines can be made with Merlot, Bondola, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carminoir, Gamaret, Garanoir, Diolinoir and Ancellotta for red grapes. With Chasselas, Chardonnay, Doral, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Kerner and Riesling x Sylvaner for white grapes.
The second category of wines has the Denomination Vino da Tavola Bianco/Rosso or Nostrano Svizzero or Della Svizzera Italiana.
The third category is simply Vino Rosso or Vino Bianco. These wines do not have an explicit geographic denomination (other than Swiss or of Switzerland), with year and grape variety on the label.
The VITI label was introduced before the appellation to distinguish the better wines. Now only wines of the first category (DOC) are allowed to use the VITI label, but it is not widely used on top quality wines.
Merlot del Ticino can be relatively light or, when produced from the warmer, sunnier, vineyards and carefully vinified using new oak, as fine and well-structured as a good Bordeaux red.
It is said that Merlots are not normally that interesting. There are not that many differences between an Italian Merlot, a Spanish Merlot or one from Napa valley. However, Merlot from Ticino has been described on many an occasion as being ‘very distinct and expressive.’ An alpine climate, mineral site, steep slopes and dodgy weather conditions (hot summers coupled with the key enemies of viticulture, hail and rain) add up to producing a very interesting spicy note.
Merlot is the main grape varietal and does extremely well here, a strong contender on the international market. However, there are a few vines of Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Gamaret, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Chasselas Chardonnay, Sémillon, Riesling, Sylvaner - even the curiously foxy grape called Clinton is cultivated here.
Very small quantities of Nostrani Americani also have a home in this canton. The Nostrano is certainly the oldest and most traditional wine from Ticino. It is made from the local grape Bondola which is sometimes mixed with the grape varietal Freisa.
There is a current fashion of vinifying the red Merlot grape as a white wine. Some producers are making blended, barrel-aged whites. People love the dry white Merlot, especially the Americans. Definitely one to try!
Polenta Ticinese: Polenta has a long tradition in Ticino and has been a staple food for a significant part of the population for centuries. Many grottos and Ticino restaurants cook the dish the traditional way on a crackling fire. Polenta is not a dish suited to those who are impatient as cooking Polenta on a low flame requires approximately two hours while stirring it frequently. Those who are patient enough to wait will be rewarded with a genuine dish that has a splendid golden colour, which can be accompanied by various Ticino specialities, for example, Alpine cheeses, Mortadella (Bologna sausage), braised meat, stew and many other tasty side dishes. However, Polenta is also exquisite if accompanied only with fresh milk - the simple taste of times gone by.
Risotto Ticinese: Ticino is a land where rice has been cultivated for decades and the recipe for Risotto reached Ticino from nearby Italy. Risotto is present everywhere in Ticino, in the grottos, gastronomic restaurants and in the town squares during the carnival, accompanied by the traditional ‘luganighe’ (pork sausages).
Zincarlìn da la Val da Mücc: Acknowledged by the Slow Food movement, it is a cheese made from unheated curd and produced only in the Valle di Muggio. It is normally produced from cow's milk, but it is traditional to add a small quantity of goat's milk. The raw milk comes exclusively from local farmers. The cheeses mature in semi-basement cellars with characteristics specific to the Monte Generoso massif. The surface of each zincarlìn cheese is treated with white wine and salt almost every day to avoid undesirable moulds developing. This is a cheese that has a particular flavour that is intense. Its shape is unmistakable and resembles an overturned cup.
Farina bóna: A traditional product of Onsernone Valley. It is a corn flour (Zea corn) obtained by very finely grinding the corn grains which have been previously toasted. In the past it was part of the everyday diet of Onsernone people and it was mixed with milk, water or wine.
Chestnuts: In the poor valleys of Ticino, the chestnut was once the food to survive. The rule of thumb was 500kg had to be collected in order to bring an adult through the winter. Even today, every fifth tree in Ticino is a chestnut tree. This fruit has experienced a true culinary renaissance and there is now hardly any product that cannot be made without chestnuts, from cakes to jam, pasta to beer and deserts such as the famous marrons glacés. During the numerous festivals in autumn, such as the Sagra delle Castagne in Ascona or in the Muggio Valley, the chestnut is the biggest star.