Escape Winter (at Least Virtually) With Far-flung Island Wines

Vineyard on Canary Islands, via Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Vineyard on Canary Islands, via Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Bomb cyclones. Early sunsets. Dreary landscapes. Most of us are already over winter by now. But if you can’t trade your snow shovels for sand shovels and escape to someplace warm, sunny and tropical, uncork a bottle from one of these islands.

Canary Islands, Spain

Sixty-two miles west of Morocco, this Spanish archipelago formed by a volcano consists of seven islands that stretch from the western coast of Africa to the Atlantic. Extreme lack of rain stresses the vines, which are planted on indigenous stock (often several centuries old), soils are dark volcanic ash, and damp winds from the ocean provide most of vines’ water. “This combination of extreme winds from the Atlantic, hot spells from the Sahara desert, extreme poor volcanic soils and old ungrafted vines combine to make unique wines,” says Vinicius Rodrigues, Spain & South America portfolio manager for David Bowler Wines, which imports more wine from this region than anyone else. Indigenous varietals including marmajuelo, negramoll, tintilla, listan prieto, listan negro, gual, vijariego blanco and listan blanco, made in a local style--without notable presence of oak or bold, extracted flavors. “The majority of bodegas and winemakers realize the unique potential of their terroir and place and are exploring interesting wines that have a smokiness, a saltiness and a texture unlike wines from the continent,” Rodrigues says. Casper Rice, corporate wine director for Fabio Trabocchi Restaurants in Washington, D.C., especially cites listan negro as an exciting, character-filled grape that’s like a cross between Russian River pinot noir and northern Rhône syrah. “The skins are thin like pinot, so not too much tannin, the nose is super perfumey, [with] black pepper, herbs, and spiced fruit - carbonic maceration à la Beaujolais is common." Rice also points out, "Listan blanc is richer and fuller with nutty notes - a wine that can lend comparisons to white Burgundy. And malvasia can be floral, mineral-driven or made in a more unctuous dessert style." 

Pairing: Suertes del Marques “7 Fuentes” Listan Negro, with paella with wild foraged mushrooms and morcilla sausage. “The wine brings out so much more earthiness of the mushrooms, and its aromatic fruit highlights the blood sausage beautifully,” Rice explains.

Santorini, Greece

untrained vines on Santorini, photo by Kelly Magyarics

untrained vines on Santorini, photo by Kelly Magyarics

“The entire ecosystem of Santorini is like no other place on earth,” muses Sofia Perpera, enologist and director of Wines From Santorini. For those of us lucky enough to have experienced the island with its azure blue-roofed cliffside architecture (and water color to match) or even just seen it on a postcard, we definitely know that to be true. Santorini underwent a massive volcanic eruption around 1600 B.C. that left it devoid of organic materials but ultra-rich in every mineral except potassium - which is why wines made with its signature grape assyrtiko have such bracing acidity. No phylloxera risk means vines are ungrafted with root stocks dating back five hundred years, making Santorini the oldest continuously cultivated vineyards in the world. Strong winds force winemakers to weave grape vines into baskets called koulara, which protect grapes from both the wind and sun; even still, there is around twenty percent grape loss every year. Less than 500 millimeters of rain per year have allowed the thirty-five indigenous varietals to use the morning fog for nourishment and force a deep root system - enhancing wines’ minerality - and a sea fog prevalent during the growing season gives wines that enticing salinity. Assyrtiko is one of those rare grapes that retains both sugar and acidity, even in Santorini’s warm, dry climate. “Assyrtiko is typically not very aromatic, but more than makes up for it with bracing acidity, intense minerality, great structure and extremely long aging potential,” Perpera points out. Its versatility means it’s made in a range of styles from dry to dessert (Vinsanto is a native sweet wine made mostly from assyrtiko, with some aidani and athiri blended in), and it can stand up to extended oak fermentation and maturation. Traditionally, it had been made in an oxidative style, but a more modern style has emerged thanks to temperature-controlled, stainless steel fermentation. Recent trends have seen single vineyard bottlings, vineyards from specific villages on the island and bottles meant for extended aging, where they gain complexity but still have full-bodied freshness.

Pairing: "2016 Sigalas Assyrtiko goes well with all kinds of seafood, but it transcends food pairing and is fabulous with oven roasted lamb with lemon and herbs," Perpera says. “For me, what I call a match made in heaven is oysters with assyrtiko.”as

Waiheke Island, New Zealand

The most populated and second-largest island in the Hauraki Gulf of New Zealand is a subregion of Auckland. “This Gulf location offers a distinct climate that benefits from the cool sea breeze and is also warmer and drier than the rest of the region,” explains Ranit Librach, promotions manager for Wines of New Zealand. “The warm, dry maritime climate promotes intensity, varietal depth, and purity of fruit.” There are around twenty-five wineries on the island, but only 1% of New Zealand’s wine is grown in Waiheke’s three sub-regions, and of that only a handful are exported to the United States - meaning you’ll want to snag these bottles if you can find them. Wines produced include those typically suited for warmer climates: syrah, chardonnay, cabernet blends, pinot gris, montepulciano and petit verdot - and others, including New Zealand’s ubiquitous racy white varietal sauvignon blanc. “The island itself is a very trendy place to visit - both for the wineries and for the charm,” Librach says. “Many compare Waiheke to Nantucket, but it takes less than one hour to get there from Auckland’s central business district, so it’s very easy to access.”

Pairing: 2015 Man o’War Estate Cabernet Franc/Merlot/Malbec, whose fruity notes of crushed red berries are joined by savory smoked meat, dried cocoa and spice. Try it with seared pepper-crusted baby lamb chops or a cocoa-dusted, well-seasoned rib eye.

And for a taste of Italian island wine, read about our visit to Sicily here.