The bold personality of island wines seems inevitable if we consider the particular conditions for vine growing—and life itself—that are found there.
Of these conditions, there are two that really form the backbone of the idiosyncrasy and evolution of the history of wines from the Mediterranean islands: the particular climatic characteristics and geographic isolation.
The solitude of the islands and their geographic isolation are ideal for those looking to escape it all. But beyond creating the perfect setting for pleasure-seekers, this isolation has had a crucial impact on how wine was marketed, since the island location made it impossible to viably depend on local consumption, resulting in the need to look further afield.
At the same time, this isolation has been perpetuated by an inherent mistrust of outsiders. In his book Pasión por el Vino: Secretos y placeres de los grandes vinos del mundo [A Passion for Wine: Secrets and pleasures of the world’s great wines] (Ed. Hedonismos), Joan C. Martín sums it up very well:
Island mistrust is based on ancestral Mediterranean culture. Until the arrival of tourists, all foreigners who reached their ports did so with the intention of taking things away.
But, above all, island vine growing has given rise to a variety of clones that have evolved to become separate from the original master stock, precisely because of this condition of solitude. The processes of this isolated evolution (vine isolation) have been followed very closely by Belinda Stummer, an agricultural engineer from the University of Adelaide.
The particular climatic characteristics enjoyed by the islands that make them perfect tourist destinations, are also decisive factors in the vine growing, the soil composition, and, of course, the unique terroirs. These are soils with a tectonic foundation in many cases, while others have a composition influenced by volcanic activity.
On the islands, particularly the small ones, the lack of any hint of continentality encourages the accumulated marine moisture to settle during the night on the vines and the ground, where it filters slowly until reaching the layers closer to the plant’s root system. In the Balearic Islands, this poetic phenomenon is known as “banyadura,” or “bathing.”
Sicily: Under the volcano
We begin our island tour in bella Italia. Sicily is the largest Italian wine region in terms of area planted with vines, although it comes behind Apulia, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna in terms of production in hectoliters (around 5.6 million hl).
Although there is a historical impediment of prioritizing quantity over quality, something is changing on the island; so much so that the powerful cooperatives and small owners are joining forces to redefine the paradigm, aiming for today’s Sicilian wines to be more reliable and of higher quality, at reasonable, competitive prices.
To do this, and spearheading this shift, traditional indigenous varieties are being used—such as the red Nero d’Avola and white Inzolia and Catarratto—particularly more and more in blends with the international varieties Shiraz and Chardonnay.
The miracle of Nero d’Avola
The banner variety Nero d’Avola takes its name from its birthplace, which is also a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controlatta—Designation of Controlled Origin), a noble category in the ranking of Italian wines.
Located in the southeastern corner of the island, the variety withstands temperatures that can easily exceed 40ºC (104ºF) during the ripening period. Despite the heat, this “super variety” has the potential to give us miraculously balanced, even elegant wines, with subtle tannins and a fruity character that plunges into the depths of ripe black fruit.
There’s also something for the more sweet-toothed among us: around 30 miles south of Sicily lies the island of Pantelleria, where they make a delicious and curious dessert wine called Passito di Pantelleria, made with raisined Muscat grapes.
Etna: wines from the volcano
Over the past decade, various producers have taken a chance on the uniqueness of volcanic soils by purchasing vineyards on Mount Etna. Abandoned pre-phylloxera vineyards located over 1,000 meters above sea level offer yields that are very limited, but with rare quality.
Pale reds with a seductive perfume that inevitably lead us to make comparisons with the best of Burgundy.
Sardinia: discreet charm
One of the Mediterranean destinations par excellence as far as tourism is concerned, Sardinia has always lived in Sicily’s shadow in terms of wine. However, on this island they continue to make wines with strong personality and bags of charm.
The effects of vine isolation on the island are expressed in the varieties Cannonau (originally from Grenache) and Carignano (Carignane). As varietals and in blends, both guarantee excellent results.
Cannonau is the variety that flies the flag for the island’s unique wines: Varietal wines that are intensely floral (violet) with moderate acidity, building their structure around a solid alcohol content (14% ABV) that fills the mouth and provides a pleasant texture.
For the more adventurous, and toeing the line with archeo-viticulture, Malvasia di Bosa DOC is a designation that is now semi-abandoned but once supplied all of Europe’s courts with wine.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Vermentino di Gallura DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controlatta e Garantita—Designation of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin), which seems to be poised to take off soon thanks to the white variety Vermentino.
With a decent alcohol content, Vermentino di Gallura is characterized by its vinosity. It is flavorsome and rotund, with an elegant fruity acidity. Rarely given over to noble rot, the variety shows its best self in wines from the current vintage.
An oddity of the wine world and one for all the Sherry fans, Sardinia is also home to Vernaccia di Oristano DOC. A wine aged on flor yeast, like Sherry, it has that pungent nose so characteristic of dry fino Sherry wines.
Sicily and Sardinia form definitive destinations representative of the character of island wines. A destination that is as beautiful as it is attractive for those who see the glass half full and life through rose-tinted glasses. Let’s escape!