By day, the island of Capri off the coast of Napoli, can be a tourist nightmare from hell. With swarms of turistas arriving by hyrdofoil from the mainland seemingly every fifteen minutes — who descend upon chic shops on the Via Camerelle such as Bulgheri, Canfora, and Pucci and Gucci — Capri is a Disneylandia.
Ah, but by night, Capri is an oasis of tranquility, charm, and loveliness. Sitting in the tiny Piazzetta, as it’s known, one talks, smokes, and sips on limoncello. But for me, it’s the local wine — the white Falanghina, Greco and Biancolella varieties, or the Capri Rosso, made for the most part from Piedirosso – that gives the true taste, literally, of the island.
In 29 B.C., Caesar, impressed by the beauty of the island, acquired it in exchange for the larger island of Ischia. His successor, Tiberius took up residence on Capri. The wine produced was particularly appreciated by Tiberius, who was pejoratively nicknamed Biberius (or lush, as in big drinker) by his subjects. Over the centuries, the island’s inhabitants have continued to tend the vines, planting them in the ruins of the emperor’s villas, so that those who drink the wine today can feel that they are in physical contact with the glorious ancient world.
Another Italian wine growing island, Elba, off the coast of Tuscany also has a grand tradition of viticulture. Tending to the grapes here has been one of the primary activities for the Elbans for centuries. It is said that Napoleon took great pleasure in viticulture during his exile here. Over time, wine growing has blossomed and now includes Rosato (rosé), Ansonica, Aleatico, Vin Santo, as well as Passito Ansonica, white Muscat, and spumante (Italian sparkling wine).
While many great wines are made in land-locked locales, islands are surrounded by an integral component to making wine: water. Bodies of water can cool a warm vineyard. Water stores heat, raises temperatures, and reflects sunshine onto slopes. Most important, large bodies of water are responsible for an extended growing season, which allows many of the varieties to ripen over a protracted time. There are also water-borne breezes that help dry the leaf canopy which helps reduce disease.
But not all islands are created equal – wine-wise. The Hawaiian Islands are surrounded by water of course, but while the region is attempting to make good wine, the climate is too warm for making great wine.
Of the dozens of islands where vinifera (grape varieties that lend themselves to making world-class wine) are grown, probably the finest island wines come from southern Italy, specifically from Sardinia, way off the coast between Rome and Naples; and Sicily, which is a futbol kick off the Italian toe.
The wines of Sardinia, especially Cannonau, are beginning to gain international prominence. The grape variety is the same as Grenache (as the French spell it) or Garnacha (as the Spanish say). Cannonau is ruby in color, which tends to garnet because of ageing. It has a fruity smell of ripe plums and blackberries, sometimes spiced; an ethereal fragrance, which tends to be rich and floral. It’s dry, rich, and soft with a bitter aftertaste.
Carignano or Carignan is another grape variety that is catching on in Sardinia. The Carginano is deep ruby, bright, tending to violet with strong fragrance. It possesses fruity aromas of mulberry, plums and red currants, with a lightly herbaceous scent, fading as it ripens. Dry, strong, and rich with long finish.
And then there are Sardinia’s top white wines, Vermentino and Vernaccia. Vermentino, with its delicate aromas of fruit and hints of almonds in the finish, is a wine to be consumed young. Vernaccia di Oristano is an ancient, aging, golden yellow white wine that can be compared to the best Jerez (sherry) wines.
Another Italian island where good wines are produced is Ischia (pronounced IZ key a), north of Capri and off the Amalfi Coast. Little known, the island is rugged and a bit rough around the edges, but it makes excellent whites from the Biancolella and Forastera varieties. For the reds the main grapes are the aforementioned Piedirosso and some Aglianico, which is also found on the mainland.
These wines taste of where they were grown — on the side of an extinct volcano whose slopes plummet to the sea. Alas, they are not readily found in the U.S. The most renowned producer is Pietratorcia, whose white Vigne di Chignole shows very intense sea air with a subtle hazelnut undertone.
On the other side of southern Italy, are the Greek islands and one in particular stands out. Santorini’s wines are intense whites from the Assyrtiko grape, whose vines are trained in little nests that crouch on the windswept hills of a dormant volcano. These wines are scented with lemon and minerals and are very dry.
Back to the west, in Spain, is the posh resort Mallorca on the Baleares Island between Barcelona and Valencia. On the island’s rolling central plateau, which shelters the vines from the winds of the Mediterranean, hot summers, mild winters and limestone soil, account for dry reds such as Manto Negra and Callet.
Portugal too, has its wine-producing islands. The most famous, but often overlooked are the sweet, brown (or caramel-colored) wines from Madeira. These can be some of the greatest and long-lived dessert wines in the world. Much like the San Francisco Bay, which for centuries was not discovered because it was shrouded in fog, Madeira often has black clouds billowing over its mountains, which caused early navigators to turn back thinking they’d reached the end of the world.
The island is warm and subtropical with lots of rainfall. The weathered basalt pebbled soil has been weathered red. But it’s here that white grapes — Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia — are aged on racks to warm in the searing sun. The resulting wines are alternatively dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, and doce (sweet and rich). There’s good acidity and unique, wonderful caramel and nutty aromas and flavors.
Finally in Europe, on Corsica off France, where improvements in quality are slow to come, the vineyards are mostly on the lower slopes and the plains. The island, with long summers and warm, wet winters, grow mostly obscure varieties such as Nielluccio and Sciacarello, although Grenache and Carignan are also used.
Perhaps more than other wine-growing regions of the world, wines from islands smell and taste like the places from which they come. They display the phenomenon the French call terroir. That is, the physical attributes of those areas — the sea (especially the salt sea’s air and taste), the soils (mostly rocky and volcanic), the winds, and the typography (the shelter-from-the-storm hillsides, rock out-croppings, and mountains — all contribute to the experience.
In addition to producing good wine, these regions boast excellent food, and that other element — romance, that cannot be dismissed as contributing to the “place” that a wine might bring. Just as what the fifth, inexplicable element — umami — brings to food, island wines, especially consumed at their provenance, can be idiosyncratic and intoxicating (literally and figuratively).