When the grey snows of winter begin to fade, bulbs start to poke their way up through the dark earth, and sweet sunshine trickles down through spring showers, we stock up on island wines.
We don’t normally identify wines by the geography of the areas they come from. (How often do you hear someone ask for “mountain wine,” or “ancient riverbed wine?” Not often.) Because most of the time, we’ll ask for wines by country, subregion, grape variety, or style.
It makes sense. Take ten wines grown on ten different mountains, and they’ll be remarkably different. But when it comes to island wines, even in their diversity, we find delicious similarities.
What Are Island Wines?
Island wine is a loose term that normally describes wines made on Mediterranean islands. But we use a broader definition, one that includes distant outposts like the Canary Islands.
Wine-producing islands might all have different climates and cultures, and create remarkably different wines, but there are some unifying factors:
- Most of them have volcanic soils, which are dry and porous, creating ideally stressful conditions for the vines.
- There are strong ocean winds, which keep the vines cool from pests.
- There is an excellent contrast between daytime and nighttime temperatures.
The result is often supremely flavorful, aromatic wines that conjure remarkable portraits of the islands they come from. These are wines that do more than quench our thirst — they inspire us.
Here, you’ll find stories of hardscrabble winemakers scaling mountains to hand-harvest grapes in the Canary Islands, farmers who dared to grow vines in the perilous shadow of Mount Etna, and vignerons who pulled indigenous varieties from the brink of extinction in Corsica.
These are the wines you’ll want with you on every adventure.
This mountainous island, formed by volcanic activity, springs up from the Mediterranean like something straight out of a fantasy novel. Corsica’s peaks reach so high that they remain capped with snow well into summer. Its vibrant white beaches gaze out over turquoise waters, and the rest is covered in unrelentingly wild, fragrant greenery called the maquis that seems always on the edge of overtaking every trace of humanity, if given the chance.
Corsica, controlled by France, has a unique language and culture owed to its long history as a trophy in a political tug-of-war. That struggle, combined with the devastating effects of phylloxera, very nearly resulted in the extinction of indigenous grapes on the island.
In the second half of the 20th century, winemakers came to the rescue. One, Antoine Abbatucci, climbed high up into the mountains to take cuttings from abandoned farms. Through efforts like this, varieties like Carcajolo Nera were saved from extinction. Today, it joins the ranks of indigenous grapes like Sciacarello, Nielluciu, and Vermentino which are widely used in the island’s wines.
Look for rosé, white, and red wines made with those native varieties. You’ll find examples that are complex and thought-provoking alongside bottles that just beg to be shared liberally outside next to the grill. A common thread can be a distinctive herbal note, which comes from the maquis.
Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Normans — practically every empire ruled (or attempted to rule) Sicily at some point in history. The result is an independently minded island that is both Italian and not, with a culture and cuisine all its own. Couscous resides on menus alongside pasta, you’re as likely to find anchovies in a dish as you are raisins, and dessert could be cannolis or almond granita.
The island is enormous, bordered by three seas. There, the brilliant Mediterranean sun lights up crumbling Greek and Roman ruins overlooking pristine beaches and bustling towns.
While the landscape, food, and culture seem idyllic, danger is never quite too far away. Mount Etna is the active volcano that gives Sicily its incredible volcanic soils. They host indigenous varieties like Catarratto, Grillo, Zibibbo, Frappato, and more. The porous, well-drained terrain forces the vines to root deep into the earth, drawing out minerals that result in intensely flavorful wines.
Some producers, like Pianogrillo, have been making wine on the island for generations. The 1700s manor house isn’t the first building to occupy the site — there was a small fortress there before. Now, baron Lorenzo Piccioni di Pianogrillo oversees the operation and produces wines made with indigenous varieties that reflect regional tradition, like their Cerasuolo, made with Nero D’Avola and Frappato.
The Canary Islands
On clear days, you can see the volcanic peaks of the Canary Islands soar above scant puffs of cloud, stark black monuments towering against bright blue skies. This string of isles off the coast of Northern Africa, an autonomous community of Spain, produces some of the most distinctive volcanic wines in the world.
Maybe those unique wines are the result of the warm climate combined with the high elevation. Or maybe it’s that the Canary Islands are home to some of the oldest indigenous vines in the world, but w
when you open a bottle from the Canary Islands, you’re diving headfirst into a completely unique experience.
It’s one of the only places that you’ll find varieties like Listan Prieto and Listan Negro — and when you can find Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in practically every corner of the earth, that’s unbelievable. Add to that, many of the vines are more than 100 years old.
You might find genetic similarities between grapes like Gual, Forastera Blanca, and Negramoll and other vines grown in Spain, or the world, but by now, they’ve become a part of the island. You simply can’t find wines like this anywhere else.
Dolores Cabrera of la Araucaria works with Listan Negro and Listan Blanco in her vineyards high up on Mount Teide’s northern face, on the island of Tenerife. Her wines embody the local spirit — they’re singular bottles that stand out not only from other Spanish wines but also from other wines on the island. And they beg to be drunk with goat cheese and plenty of fresh, grilled vegetables.