ISLAND WINES

It feels like summer is officially here:  enjoying the next few months of warm days followed by cool nights, perhaps around a fire with kids toasting marshmallow s’mores; the company of friends discussing little Johnny’s grades and life’s ups and downs over a bottle or two; oh, what joy. It’s primarily why we live in California, especially this little nook of Redwood City (climate best by government test and all that).

However, if my sale trends can be trusted, most of you will be headed west to one of the Hawaiian Islands or some other exotic locale with beaches and warm water, and good for you. As an Island boy myself I understand the attraction. So, with white sandy beaches, tropical shirts, luaus and sandals on our minds, I thought I’d join in the fun and whisk myself off to the wine producing Islands of the world. Well at least in my wine glass — sorry to say the fruit winery on Hawaii doesn’t quite cut it.  

The chosen destinations which I’ll be sharing with you in this missive are older and have made a more significant mark in the world of wine for centuries, and yet they are just plainly overlooked by most wine buyers. There are obviously the easy ones such as Sardegna and Sicily, and any list of Island wines would be sorely remiss without at least one selection from these beautiful verdant jewels set in the sapphire Mediterranean Sea. Yet if I were to lay mention to, say Majorca, Corsica Azores or the Canary Islands, you might raise a single brow and ask, “really?” To which I’d respond with affirmation.

grape vines growing in sandy island terroir

If history has taught us anything, it is that the French, Spanish and the Portuguese were not only thirsty plunderers in the race for widespread colonizat but also incapable of going a day without a tipple or two of their precious fermented grape juice. I mean, seriously. No sooner had they subdued a populace of unsuspecting indigenous peoples, than they were planting vines… prolifically. After a couple of centuries where these once foreign vines cross pollinated/interbred, we now have a whole subsect of vines that exist nowhere else, thus projecting a real sense of their origin. For example, in the Azores (a protectorate of Portugal), the grapes are much the same as Madeira but without the dramatic final product. That said, strides have been made in recent years to up the quality and define the region as we will experience in our first wine of this month.

grape vines growing in sandy island terroir

Moving over to the Atlantic, we can look to the Canary Islands, Tenerife in particular, which is well known for surf, sand, sun and fun. The wine industry there has joined in the DO (Denominacion Origiem) game with gusto. The Islands of Gran Canaria — La Palma, El Hierro, the volcanic Lanzarote and la Gomera — all have one DO, while the profound Tenerife has no fewer than 5 DO’s and at least (officially) 15,000 acres planted to vine with dozens of varietals. The reds are of interest, but for the moment we’re focusing on the zesty whites made from such local varieties as Marmajuelo and Gual (same grape known as Boal in Madera). For those of you looking for a “flash geek-out”, here’s some more juicy information on the other Spanish territories in the Med.

Over the past 20 years, Mallorca has seen its ancient vines recover from near extinction with both grapes cloned and imported vines. Manto Negro makes light reds, and the rare Callet grape makes something more serious in depth, especially in the exceptional local variety Anima Negra. The two DO’s are Pla I Llevant, which is grown in the east, and the Binissalem, which is cultivated in the center of the Island. 

Madeira, an island located over 400 miles west from the Moroccan coast, is known for its sweet dessert and aperitif wines and has probably one of the richest and most fun histories of all the Atlantic wine growing Isles. Of these Islands, Madeira is not only the largest in the archipelago, but surely also the prettiest: it’s as steep as an iceberg and as green as a glade. As the story goes, when the Portuguese arrived in 1419 at Machico in the east, they set fire to the dense woods.  The blaze that followed burned the entire island for almost a decade leaving the already fertile soils enriched with the ashes. 

It wasn’t too long after that the invaders began planting vines and sugarcane. Their efforts were initially focused on the smaller island of Porto Santo, but the focus soon shifted to Madeira with its larger port of Funchal and the colonization of the Americas. The original plantings of Malvasia created bitter and acidic wines at best, and so the obvious option was to sweeten them with the other local crop of sugar cane. Merchant ships looking for ballast and a remedy for scurvy would take on barrels for the cross Atlantic trip, and they found that the 6 month trip improved the quality of the wines, and the return trip back even more so. This approach was then adopted in the winery storehouses and developed the wine we know and love today. The wines age at a snail’s pace and can last for years once opened. There are four main styles of Madeira wines all offering up a very unique experience: firstly, there is the Malmsey, the sweetest style offering up floral sweetness with an almost salted caramel nut essence; Sercial and Bual are next, and Verdello follows in line heading towards almost aperitif and desert utilities.

That pretty much covers the Atlantic; now let’s continue our nerd quest by looking at the islands of Sicily and Sardegna. Now, I could write a thesis on these two Islands and still have areas left out, but I’ll glaze over these for now just so we can save them for a later date… say in September when we can enjoy the kids back in school or, for those of us childless, when the real work for the year begins.​

Sicily is a treasure trove of soils, climates and volcanic activity which provide a steady supply of ash and lava to fertilize the soils. Add in the perfect year-round climate of warm sunny days and cool nights and — badda bing! — a wealth of great wines. Here, Norello Mascalese is the king of reds and can be made either bold and deep with bright acid, ageable for decades, or a much more feminine expression that I’m seeing more and more of as Burgundy wines become more unattainable and Sommeliers look for comparable wines to quench the thirst of an ever-frustrated consumer.

grape vines growing in sandy island terroir

The always grippy Norello’ is an incredibly svelte and sexy wine that is grown around the base and up the slopes of the very active Mt. Etna Volcano. Frappato and Nero d’Avola make worthy mentions, with the Frappatogiving bright red fruit wines with earthy leathery tones, and the Nero d’Avola providing a slightly more paisano experience with lush juicy black cherry fruit, again leathery textures but minimal tannins. Catarrato, Grillo and Izolia make the bulk of white wines planted on the Island. Catarrato makes full body, nearly weighty wines that can handle oak and be elegant, and also produces zesty bright expressions in stainless steel. Grillo provides a middle ground for more nutty and pear like whites with an almost steely minerality and ocean spray saltiness. The Izolia grape makes a fresh fruity citrus and floral wine that would refresh even the most discerning palate in a fun and frolicky fashion. The island of Sardegna, however, is a totally different animal. The second largest of all the isles in the Mediterranean, its wine production and consumption on any scale has developed only in the past few centuries. Viticulture remains a minority enterprise despite generous financial incentives from the government. There seems little drive to capitalize on its naturally wine friendly climate and landscape (who’s ready to fund me and move to follow a wine dream?), thus only a small percentage of the Islands green and verdant land is given over to vines. As of 2020, only 66K acres of vines were planted. The lackluster vino-frenzy probably explains why the closest mainland varietals from Tuscany (Sangiovese) and Lazio (Barbera, Trebbiano and Montepulciano) are nowhere to be seen on the Island as one might expect. 

Instead, one finds varieties of French and Spanish origin: Grenache (called Cannonau locally), Carignan (Bovale and Bovale Grande), and even Cabernet! The most Italian varietals that can be found are white and the plantings of Vermentino and Malvasia are prevalent, but Vermentino can barely be considered “Italian” as there are significantly more plantings in the south of France and Corsica where it is called Rolle. Muscat Blanc/Moscato Bianco, which is ubiquitous all around the Mediterranean, further contributes to the ‘pan-med’ feel of Sardinian culture. It’s not all for naught though. As hard as they might be to find, the Island does make use of several obscure and fairly exclusive varieties, including Torbato, Semidano, Niederra, Naragus, Monicaand Nasco. The latter three are showcased as single varietal specific DOC’s from Cagliari, a municipality in Sardinia, Italy.

And now, this month’s selections:

Terras De Lava, Isla do Pico 2020

This white wine blend is incredibly classy and oh so nuanced. Not much makes it off the Azores Islands so it’s a real treat to be able to offer this Isla do Pico varietal to you. It’s packed with orchard fruits, papaya, tangerine and pineapple all supported with bright saline acidity.

The winery itself and vineyards are like no other! Set in a maze of volcanic and coral walls, each vine can only be tended, harvested and worked by hand. The volcanic and limestone soils keep the wines fresh and linear in spite of the tropical conditions.

Tascante Sciaranuova, Nerello Mascalese, Etna Rosso DOCG

The Contrada Sciaranuova is a single vineyard of Nerello Mascalese planted high on the northern face of Mt. Etna, between Montelaguardia and Passopisciaro. Twelve acres of vines, mostly planted back in 2008, grow on the volcanic soils with formations that date back as far as 4000 years. 

This broodingly alluring red wine is perfumed with notes of cedar, and is generally more elegant than others from the region, a modern take for the varietal that I’m seeing more and more of.  Wild herbs take the lead on the palette before giving way to elegant black cherry, red and blue fruit. The bright minerality and acidity cause lift to the fine-grained tannin and a slightly balsamic tinge lingers on the finish.​

Bodegas Rautava, Listan Negro, Canary Islands 2020

Sourced from engrafted century old vines, the Listan Negro is an indigenous varietal that is harvested above 250 meters on the volcanic slopes of Santa Ursula. The Clay topsoil adds a softness to the angular framework. The grapes are destemmed but not crushed and allowed a soft natural fermentation in tank before resting in stainless steel and neutral oak for 6 months. The wine itself is fresh fruity and full of blueberry, fig leaf, with a hint of smoke representing the volcanic soil.