A CONFLUENCE OF CLIMATE, TERRAIN, AND SOIL TYPES ALLOW VITIS VINIFERA TO THRIVE
Like any agricultural product, the climate, terrain, and soil types in which wine grapes (Vitis vinifera) are grown has a major influence on how the wine turns out. As such, most wine production comes from the Mediterranean area where this geographical equation is most favorable for Vitis vinifera. And as would be expected, Vitis vinifera is believed to be native to this part of the world along with Central Europe and southwest Asia. And while they might be native in Central Europe and southwest Asia, geographical areas where Vitis vinifera thrive are smaller in those places, whereas in the Mediterranean, Italy, France, and Spain, alone, dominate the world’s wine production. Of course, wine is yummy enough to have induced humans elsewhere in the world find geography favorable to Vitis Vinifera plantings, and areas in North America, Latin America, New Zealand, and Australia were big enough in size to now account for sizable portions of the world’s modern wine production. In fact, when a microscopic insect called phylloxera ravaged the Vitis vinifera crops of Europe in the 19th century, roots of native North American grape vines that repelled the insect had to be grafted onto Vitis vinifera roots and replanted in Europe to save the cradle of wine production (Before we give North America too much credit for this big save, however, let’s keep in mind that North America exported this pesky phylloxera to Europe in the first place). But we digress because this newsletter addresses the phenomenon of plantings of Vitis vinifera on select islands that found the perfect storm to lead to unique varietals and delicious wines.
THE PECULIARITIES OF ISLAND WINES
Islands have since time immemorial provided sheltered microcosms that produce unique, sometimes mutated, specimens of life whether it be animal, plant or human, and those islands that are able to grow Vitis vinifera successfully are no exception. Wine-producing islands, although each unique in their own rights, do tend to share characteristics. Since most islands were formed by volcanic activity, many are rich in volcanic soil, which is porous and rich in minerals, or sandy soil given closeness with the sea. Incidentally, both types of soil deter the movement of the phylloxera parasite. Most islands are not so large, so vineyards are close to the ocean and receive the benefit of ocean breezes that bring needed moisture, but these breezes also dry excess moisture and provide temperate climates. And, lastly, islands share a degree of impenetrability, being surrounded by water, which result in less land-based contamination and encourage unique, captive species. And, grapes, of course are no stranger to this latter phenomenon. The three islands from which we chose to pick wines for your December Wine Club are Corsica (France), Santorini (Greece), and Gran Canaria of the Canary Islands (Spain).
Although Corsica is technically a part of France, any Corsican will tell you they are Corsican before they are French, and there is also a strong Italian influence to the island, especially regarding its wine as the native varietals are Italian in origin, and the Genoese established a formal winegrowing and winemaking industry on the island, governing the industry with strict regulations for 500 years. Because the interior of the island is dominated by mountains, the vineyards are located around the entire coast. The vines profit from a microclimate of cool breezes coming off from the sea and from the mountains. Interestingly, the island gets very little rainfall, which lends a continuity of dry, rot-free harvests. Although the climate is decidedly more temperate year-long than mainland France to the north, the temperature is actually not high during the peak growing summer months, averaging 74 degrees Fahrenheit, as the sea absorbs the heat during the day and radiates it back to the island at night. The most popular native red grapes, Nielluccio and Sciaccarellu, are descended from the Sangiovese grape prevalent in Tuscany, Italy. Unfortunately, Corsica’s vineyards did not, for the most part, grow in sand or volcanic soil that deters the movement and survival of the phylloxera aphid, and so was not as fortunate as other islands to escape the phylloxera epidemic; hence, wine production was decimated in the 19th century and did not see a resurgence until the late 1960s. Since then, winemakers have rediscovered the island’s ideal climate and geography with a vengeance and wine production has returned to pre-phylloxera levels.
A typical Corsican vineyard
Santorini is about 200 kilometers south of the Greece mainland and is about 90 square kilometers in size, which includes two inhabited islands and four uninhabited. The islands receive very little rainfall and are baked by the sun, which would seem to make it an unlikely candidate for sustaining Vitis vinifera in any meaningful manner. But the island’s soil is a result of volcanic lava and ash from a volcanic eruption that happened only 3,600 years ago, so that the volcanic properties of lava and ash is still extremely prevalent and rich, one such characteristic being that the soil lacks clay in which phylloxera proliferates; in fact, the soil is completely resistant to phylloxera, and the vines have never needed to be replaced. Because the climate is so dry, the principal source of moisture for the soil is dew followed by sea mists and nighttime sea fog, and the porous volcanic soil allows the vines to develop deep roots to capture and hold water. As such, the native Assyrtiko grape that grows in these vines is known for a saline, mineral character. Also, because the islands are small and constantly battered by ocean winds, these vines are trained to grow in a basket shape with the grapes bunched and sheltered in the middle. They are also grown far apart to minimize competition for water. As such, the yield of these vines is considerably lower than that of mainland grapes, at only 10% of those in France, for example; hence, that fact alone let’s one know that the final product is well worth it.
The unique basket vines that protect grapes from the relentless winds pounding the islands of Santorini from the sea.
GRAN CANARIA (CANARY ISLANDS)
The Canary Islands is a seven-island archipelago off the coast of southern Morocco. Out of the three island climates represented in this month’s wine club, the climate of the Canary Islands seems the most improbable to be conducive to winegrowing as it is generally hot year round and outside of the 30 to 50 degrees latitude of optimal geography for European wines (The Canary Islands are located at a latitude of 28 degrees). Because of the islands’ relative isolation from any mainland and in many areas, and its volcanic soils, phylloxera never reached the islands’ vineyards, so there are vines that are over one hundred years old. Vitus vinifera vines are believed to have been introduced by the Spanish in the 15th century, and some were never replanted in Europe after the phylloxera scourge in the mainland. As a result, the varietals have established their own native identities to the islands, including the Listán Negro (known locally as "Negra Comun"), Tintilla (Trousseau), Tinta Negra Mole and Malvasia Rosada red varietals, and Listán Blanco, Malvasia, Gual (Bual) and Marmajuelo white varietals. The Gran Canaria is the third largest of the islands, at 1,560 square kilometers, and is known for a wide range of terrain with many microclimates to the extent that it has been called a “miniature continent.” While the eerie black soil desert vineyards of the Lanzarote island have been photographed often for their Dune-like optics, the Gran Canaria vineyards tend to look more standard and are often farmed on steep slopes at high elevations by and near the interior mountains
Iconic vines on the island of Lanzarote
Old vines on the island of Gran Canaria.
A SANTORINI ASSYRTIKO AND CORSICAN NIELLUCCIO FROM OUTSIDE AND A CANARY ISLAND RED FROM OUR SHELF
Following are the wines we selected to represent the three island appellations outlined above. The Santorini white and Corsican red are not from our shelves, while the Gran Canaria Canary Islands red has been a staple of our store since its inception.