Paying a short visit to Merlot country last March, we spent two fabulous days among flowering camellia’s at the lake, walking to an almost deserted village in a steep valley surrounded by snow-white mountains. At dinner, in a simple but okay restaurant, we drank a local Merlot – what else? – that did remind us of that other well-known Merlot terroir: Bordeaux. Fruity, smooth, spicy, with a touch of vanilla and a long aftertaste, this Symphonia Barrique is the first wine of Chiericati in Bellinzona, Ticino, Switzerland. And like so much other wine makers in this country, their main business is a different one, although in this case not so very different: they import and sell Swiss, French and Italian wines since 1950. Only in 1986 they have started vinifying their own, from grapes of neighbouring farmers.
Ticino wasn’t always planted with Merlot. In fact, it is just over a century that Alderige Fantuzzi, who was to help the Ticinese to improve their wine production, concluded that Merlot had the best potential. Before that the American (hybrid?) grape Isabella was most popular, though one wonders why. Yes, high yields, good resistance against heat, mildew and phylloxera but poor wines with the foxy flavours that go with Vitis Labrusca types. I have even read it made people sick, but haven’t found how, or how bad. Sick and tired enough to replant almost the entire Canton with Merlot. It paid off. It took some time, of course, but now, one is told, Swiss Merlot can compete with the great wines of the earth. That is a bit much for most Swiss Merlot, maybe, but for this Symphonia Barrique I could agree. Competing is not winning, necessarily.