Island & Coastal Wines - Worth Their Salt or Just a Drop in the Ocean?

Coastal wineries and island vineyards provide content for some delicious day-dreaming. But do these stunning, sun-soaked locations really make for particularly delicious drinking? We've explained the power of place in defining the flavours and quality of a wine and taken a trip from Sicily to Santorini to understand what makes these wines so unique.

 

The tremendous influence of ‘terroir’

The huge variety of vineyard locations across the world’s wine regions is, in large part, what makes wine so alluring – and so incredibly infuriating. It’s a product that reflects the land from which its key ingredient was harvested in a way that’s close to unparalleled. In fact, from one hundred metre stretch to the next, soil, climate, topography and geology can provide sufficient variation to completely alter the personality, flavour and quality of a wine.

As an example for you to sip on, let’s think about two of our Piedmont producers: Cantina Andriano and Cantina Terlano. Throw a stone from Andriano on one side of the motorway – or, more picturesquely, the Adige River – and you’ll hit Terlano. Close by is an understatement. But, intriguingly, their wines are completely unique from one another. Facing East, Andriano's vineyards enjoy the morning sun, which is cooler than that of the afternoon. The wines are fresher, with higher natural acidity and slightly less fruit concentration. Generally less age-worthy than Terlano’s, these wines are delicious when drunk young. Facing West, Terlano’s vineyards are bathed in the warmth of the full afternoon sun – as a result, the flavour concentration and complexity in the grapes is more profound. These wines take slightly longer to open to their full potential – but, produced just a stone’s throw away, they are unique from their neighbour in flavour, adaptability to oak and aging potential. Why?!

 

Cantina Terlano Steep Vineyards

Terlano's steep West facing vineyards

You may be familiar with the term ‘terroir’ – a term that can sometimes seem, well, terrifying, but it’s a good term to consider as we start to break down what it is that makes wines harking from holiday havens – from coastal paradises to utopian islands – particularly special.

Jancis Robinson, British MW, OBE, wine critic, journalist and writer, notes there is no precise English equivalent to this “quintessentially French term and concept” – sadly for us, there is also no Italian equivalent. In fact, she dedicates a double page spread to the term in her Oxford Companion to Wine – and concludes that terroirs remain both unique and poorly understood…For the sake of your sanity in this instance, however, you can understand ‘terroir’ to represent the “total natural environment of any viticultural site”, consisting of its soil, topography of the vineyard and the macro-, meso-, and micro-climate in which the vines are enveloped.

 

Ferrando winery

Giuseppe Ferrando tending to his Nebbiolo vines that reflect their mountainous viticulture

 

Quality wines are grown, not made

So, where our grapes are grown plays a huge role in defining what our wines taste like. That doesn’t seem particularly ground-breaking. You’re right – it’s not. But respect for that fact is what creates clear distinction between wineries focused on true quality, and those focused on quantity. Small producers place protection of and respect for their land above all else, in recognition of the power of its influence in the final pour. Large wineries place broad consumer tastes above all else, thereby losing the nuance of the land’s influence. Those wines are made, not grown. Here, we focus on wines that are grown, whose personality reflects that journey of growth. We think there are few journeys more interesting than those of vines located along our coastlines, and up the slanting faces of the world’s most geologically complex volcanic islands. We hope you’ll think the same too…

 

Thirsty sailors and greedy merchants

Let’s start with some history. Vines have been planted along coastlines and in proximity to historically important seaports for centuries. Why? To help lubricate traders, travellers and soldiers navigating their way from Sicily to Cape Town and well beyond, and to facilitate easy access to trade for wineries looking to export their juice far and wide. In the 14th century, Bordeaux, for example, started shipping over a quarter of its exports to the UK market thanks to its situation at the mouth of the Gironde. Its location close to the Atlantic both shaped the characteristics of the world-famous wines that continue to command impressive prices today, and its global success. For part of its history, Bordeaux placed strict limitations on the wines travelling up the rivers Garonne and Dordogne, limiting global exposure to the wines of regions that continue to be lesser known (or command lesser prices) -  Jurançon, Cahors, the South West. For reasons of both practicality and power, vineyards have been planted along shipping roots since Grecian times.

 

(Climate) change is afoot

However, much to our delight, the growers responsible, generally unwittingly, discovered uniquely exceptional terroirs (soil, climate, geology) that offer so much more than wine on tap for heavy-hearted sailors away from home (and beautiful views for today’s Wine Trippers). But, before we outline the strengths such geographies bring to a wine, its also worth looking to the future, having just looked to the past. Changing weather patterns, warmer vintages and inconsistent climates hold a significant portion of winemakers’ (and buyers’) attention these days and it implores us to consider the future of the terroirs we’ve been so happily harvesting for millennia. Climate change and destructive weather patterns are starting to have a clear impact, driving viticulture from its inland continental strongholds in which temperatures are reaching points simply too high to sustain healthy vine growth – or high-quality wine making as grapes over-ripen in sugars that push alcohol levels to dizzying heights (literally). A rise in global temperatures has meant vitis vinifera (the vine species from which nearly all our beloved wine grapes stem) can thrive in more poleward locations than it does today. Typically, vineyards are only found between 30 and 50 degrees of the equator. Now, we’re seeing vines spring up as far north as the island of Föhr or, thinking closer to home, the UK, a region that’s slowly been climbing the ranks when it comes to sparkling wines that don’t want a lot of warmth and is now producing a growing number of excellent red wines we’d have been wary of twenty years ago.

Beachfront vineyards are going from strength to strength – and it’s time to make the most, before coastlines change.

So, change is afoot for inland wine regions that have, for so long, maintained a stronghold of quality. Fortunately, beachfront vineyards are going from strength to strength – and it’s time to make the most, before coastlines change. Here’s why.

 Southern Campania

Coastal vineyards in Southern Campania

 

Coastal Vineyards - Arrivederci to 'diurnal range'

You may be familiar with the term ‘diurnal range’. Or you may be completely unfamiliar with it. In short, it means the range in temperatures experienced by a wine region from day to night. Inland, high altitude areas generally have a large diurnal range, meaning it’s hot during the day – helping grapes ripen; and cold during the night – allowing the grapes some respite, and allowing them to hold onto much sought-after acidity and freshness. Whether you knew that or not, it doesn’t matter right now because, in the politest way possible, for the sake of this article, diurnal range can, as they say, “do one”. When we’re talking about coastal vineyards, we’re thinking about those operating within a narrow band of temperatures. Inland winemakers praise night time temperature swings for retaining freshness. Coastal winemakers praise the opposite: cooler days, warmer nights and a lack of extreme weather. That’s the triptych for beautiful coastal wines.

As ever in wine, there’s a little more nuance to it than that… Coastal influences can be as varied as our oceans and just 3km of coastline can create a difference in wine. On Australia’s south coast, for example, warming ocean currents from the Indian Ocean provide a gentle, moderate climate with warmer nights. You may lose the acidity that comes from cool nights in other climates – but you gain flavour through the vine’s night-time respiration, which converts acid to flavour. Meanwhile, from Sicily to Provence, ocean breezes help cool sun-soaked vineyards, helping grapes like Sicily’s Catarratto retain tantalising levels of citrus and a bracing acidity. The majority of South Africa’s fine wine producers, are located within 100m of the coast for this very reason, with cooling ocean influences sending winds inland, funnelled through mountains to facilitate widespread protection from the region’s high temperatures.

Inland winemakers praise night time temperature swings for retaining freshness. Coastal winemakers praise the opposite: cooler days, warmer nights and a lack of extreme weather. That’s the triptych for beautiful coastal wines. 

 

Low yields yield big flavours

Ocean currents and sea breezes, therefore, play a definitive role in shaping the annual climate for coastal wine regions – it’s underpinned by a greater consistency than regions further inland. Such consistency, however, does also mean that our coastal vines’ dormancy period (the period in which it shuts down over winter after its harvest and before it shoots for the next vintage) is shorter than those of inland, continental regions (whose Springs and/or Autumns will be too cold to facilitate the vine’s function). Again, this is great news for coastal wineries that are blessed with long growing seasons – which allows grapes to develop immensely complex characteristics, slowly but surely – and, due to shorter rest periods, smaller yields of grapes. The latter may sound like a negative but, remember, small production drives big flavours – all the sugars and flavours made available to each vine through photosynthesis are being pushed into a smaller number of grapes, instead of being diluted across commercially yielding vineyards. That’s good news for us.

 

Provence Chateaus St MaurProvence's Chateau St. Maur, vineyards overlooking the coast

Finding balance

So, we’ve clarified coastal vineyards can offer us big flavours and bracing acidity, without the need for large diurnal range. What we’re really saying, however, is that coastal vineyards can facilitate one of the most important criteria defining the quality of a wine: balance. Balance is like a table, with one leg dedicated to sugar levels, one to acidity, one to alcohol and one to tannin. If one leg wobbles, the balance of a wine – and the bottle sitting on the table - wobbles. Ocean influences help sustain a steady table for both red and white wines.

Take Lagar de Costa, a winery that couldn’t be closer to the Atlantic on Spain’s North-West coast. Their Albariño offers beautiful balance in structure and flavour, a deliciously refreshing wine of real finesse - salty, herbal, citrus and aromatic. This wine speaks beautifully of its unique terroir, the saline minerality and exceptional freshness from the Atlantic influences. Coastal white wines are literally ‘kissed by the ocean’, with exposure to sodium chloride sea spray clinging to grape skins ahead of harvest. Coastal reds, however, are also blessed with inimitable balance, with cooling breezes and coastal fogs ensuring the avoidance of overly high alcohol levels, and gentle temperature changes allowing a smooth development of tannins, thereby producing wines that aren’t roughly tannic nor in need to long cellaring before they can be enjoyed.  

Coastal vineyards can facilitate one of the most important criteria defining the quality of a wine: balance

 

Explosions of flavour from drops in the ocean

We’ve cleared up the debate on whether salty, seaside wines actually do take their salinity from the sea. It’s a ‘si’!. But now we’re headed to vineyards that bring the saline benefits of seaside locations – and some. We’re headed to island vineyards.

By their very nature island vineyards generally possess all the qualities of coastal vineyards. Access to cooling or warming coastal breezes and currants, steady temperatures and – other than sometimes less-than-welcoming winds – the avoidance of destructive weather patterns. However, in the absence of dramatic weather, islands tend to bring us something slightly more dramatic: volcanic explosions.

Every island we’ll explore – from Sicily to Santorini – has a different climate, different terroir, and different style of wine. There are, however, plenty of similarities thanks to their volcanic histories. The soil of island vineyards is usually ripe with settled volcanic ash, something that possesses ample minerality and is incredibly porous. Such porosity traps minerals and allows vines to dig deep through the soil to find water sources, benefitting from stores of potassium, magnesium, calcium and a salty succinic acid along the way. The result? Stronger, native vines that, given their volcanic sources, have been preserved in their local environment for decades. Thanks to the inhospitable nature of volcanic soils, phylloxera (a root disease that caused the replanting of nearly all the world’s vineyards at the start of the 1900s), hasn’t touched our island vines – and, thus, neither have wine growers who replaced so many of the world’s most unique native varieties with the international varieties that flood the market (Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, etc.) In a wine world where biodiversity is no longer the norm, our island wines offer us something unique: a treasure trove of old, native vines, long grown in soils that that garner immense flavour – including, as some people claim, uniquely smoky aromatics that only volcanic soils could perfect.

 

Palermo, Sicily

Palermo, Sicily

Sicily – so hot right now

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean with a winemaking tradition that predates 750BC, when Phoenicians and Romans began trading Sicilian wines for their powerful and unique profiles. And yet, it’s been largely overlooked until recently, as so much of its modern history has been focused on bulk winemaking (it’s the 3rd largest wine producing region in Italy). As more quality-focused producers have stepped into the spotlight – or, risen from the ashes.. – Sicily has become, as so many have put it, “so hot right now”. Its variety of terrains, topographical diversity and volcanic roots provides a serious array of grape-growing opportunities, resulting in both boisterous and lighter-bodies reds, and savoury rosés, crisp whites and plenty of dessert wine.

The epitome of an island wine region, Sicily offers as much variety in regions, soils and wines as it has tourists. Its best-known region is that of Etna, situated to the East of the island. Greatly influenced by the active Mount Etna volcano – the second largest volcano in the world, no less – the land is lava-guzzling and smoky, and it makes for wines we guzzle just as easily. The Etna region is a great example of a wine region that combines the benefits of multiple climatic influences: with vines planted up the slopes of Etna itself, their grapes enjoy lashings of sun exposure, in combination with a cooling elevation and exposure to the island’s surrounding ocean. The result is wines that enjoy a unique combination of ripeness, intensity, elegance and acidity. No wine wobbles here – just empty bottles.

Dry, hot summers allow for serious Nero d’Avola production, Sicily’s flagship variety making medium-full-bodied reds, with abundant, ripe black fruit and pepper. Of course, though, it’s a zippy white we need when we’re lounging in the Sicilian sunshine. Cue coastal plus island influences for crispy, zesty whites in which Carricante and Catarratto grapes are the biggest players.

We’ve long recognised the potential of Etnean wines, and we’re proud to partner with three wineries whose wines are both reflective of – and benchmark setting for – the region.

Benanti:

One of Sicily’s most iconic estates, Benanti holds a reputation for pioneering the production of wines from Mount Etna. Founded in 1988 as a passion project of Giuseppe Benanti, it was built with the aim of preserving this unique terroir, whilst developing the unique grape varieties native to Etna. Its 14 hectares of organic vineyard land produces grapes destined for outstanding wines. Benanti’s Etna Rosso, made from Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese set a benchmark for Etna reds – the perfect starting point on your journey of volcanic exploration. The Etna Bianco is just as worthy of attention. Made from 100% Carricante, we call it “Etna in a glass”.

 

Centopassi:

To the West we find one of our all-time favourites: Centopassi. A social cooperative, Centopassi is part of the Libera Terra movement, who work with confiscated mafia land just south of Palermo in Western Sicily. They farm 94 hectares of land, planted with both indigenous and international varieties, producing a range of delightful daily drinkers – like their Giato Bianco and Giato Rosso – as well as some of Sicily’s very best, made from grapes harvested from single vineyards.  

 

Centopassi

 

Cantine Cellaro:

Nearby, surrounded by stunning mountains and the beautiful lake Arancio, we find the Cantine Cellaro winery, located in Sambuca di Sicilia, southwest of Palermo, in the Agrigento region of Sicily. Established in 2010, Cantine Cellaro is one of Italy’s many incredible cooperatives, representing around 1000 small local growers and almost 1700 hectares of vineyard land. With a focus on environmentally friendly measures, they have implemented wind turbines to produce renewable energy for their vineyard and winery operations. Cellaro Grillo Lumà and Cellaro Syrah Lumà have for many years been firm favourites of our restaurant customers, offering value, typicity and approachability. So, if you are looking for a case of Sicilian white wines or Sicilian red wines then we suggest the wines of Cellaro.

In Southern Sicily we find the region of Vittoria, best known for its Cerasuolo di Vittoria wines, a red blend of deeply fruited Nero D’Avola and a floral Frappato (fun, fruit-forward and dangerously chuggable). With a little more distance between Etna and these vineyards, we see less volcanic influence, but beautiful coastal influences sustain a medium body in a hot region, and offer easy-drinking, earthy wines. We’ve just been sampling some wines from Gulfi winery and we cannot wait to share them with you soon. Some true Sicilian gems.

Sicily’s multi-layered talents is also visible through its fortified wines: Marsala. Historically looked down on as a ‘cooking wine’, when made with well-grown Grillo grapes it offers something rich, layered and nutty in both sweet and dry styles.

 

Pantelleria – The ‘Black Pearl’ of the Mediterranean

While Sicily has size on its side, Pantelleria offers a level of individuality untouchable by many islands – and it’s on the cusp of becoming the next top trending destination for wine experts (or thirsty holiday makers in search of La Dolce Vita). A volcanic satellite island of Italy, it’s just 15km in length, but offers views all the way to Tunisia on frequent clear days. Located above a drowned continental rift in the Strait of Sicily (off Sicily’s Western tip), it’s been the focus of intensive tectonic activity and is known as the “black pearl” of the Mediterranean.

If that’s not alluring enough, its wines certainly are. Noted for its sweet wines, Moscato di Pantelleria and Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, Pantelleria reflects its Arabic influences in its choice of grape: Zibibbo. We love working with Solidea, one of this island's true talents. Their Passito di Pantelleria is a captivating, sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes. Deep amber in colour, this 100% Zibibbo wine is rich and enticing, with concentrated flavours of dates, honey and sultanas. We like to call it a “meditation wine”, one of those wines that has you slowly sipping and sipping whilst drifting off into thought.

While its wines were a secret closely guarded by its inhabitants until 1880, it’s since become the third Sicilian wine to gain a DOC status, and in 2014 , the traditional agricultural practice of cultivating the ‘vite at alberello’ (head-trained bush vines) of the community of Pantelleria was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO. So, with Pantelleria, we introduce a further benefit of island winemaking – inimitable tradition.

 

Pantelleria

Pantelleria, the Black Pearl

 

Santorini – Salty Sips & Sea Breezes

Such inimitability takes us to our next island worth its salt – Santorini. A region we’re excited to explore, it’s one in which its native grape variety, Assyrtiko, is impossible to separate from the island itself. Assyrtiko offers powerful, ripe and mineral driven wines abundant in citrus, stone fruit and an alluring smokiness that ensures you’ll never want to leave the island – let alone put your glass down. With strong volcanic influences, and soils blanketed in lava and ash, we can already understand why Santorini’s wines are as they are. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg – or island. Santorini also sees very little rainfall, with vines relying on sea mists and fogs that seep into its porous soils for hydration. Vines need to dig deep to access these water reserves, on root soaking up an abundance of minerals and salts blown inland from Santorini’s intense winds – winds that offer gusts so powerful we see a completely unique form of vine management: grapevines woven into baskets or ‘koulara’ to protect their grapes, huddled inside the baskets, from the wind.

 

Santorini vineyardsBasket vines in Santorini 

 

Sardinia – Powerful people, powerful pours

If there’s one thing that’s been hammered into us by our Italian founders from day one, it’s that there are few people like the Sardinians. Strangely enough, that’s reflected perfectly in the wines that stem from this sun-soaked isle. Its remote Mediterranean location (to the West of Rome), and the historic influence from other cultures gives Sardinian wines a character that show little resemblance to those produced in the rest of Italy. Its wines are, in that sense, quite literally an island, with the Vermentino grape producing white wines with a Sardinian soul – like Giuseppe Gabbas’ 100% Vermentino that displays notes of chamomile, apricots, dried herbs and almonds, flanked by our much-loved zippy island-influence minerality, imparted by strong coastal breezes and the vineyards’ position afoot Sardinia’s Supramonte mountains. Its red wines show a greater Spanish influence, focusing on the Canonnau grape (also known as Grenache or Garnacha), a late ripening variety, which offers elegance through a fragrant bouquet of fresh raspberries and violets, soft tannins and a hint of white pepper. Gabbas’ Cannonau di Sardegna is a stunning example of how coastal red grapes can benefit from long, steady ripening seasons.

Coastal and island wine regions are varied in their offerings as they are in their histories – but, as we’ve seen, they have some elements in common. Mouthwatering acidity, incomparable salinity, minerality, elegance, complexity, intrigue. There is a limitless list of wines to explore to really get a feel for these unique terroirs – but we think you’ll enjoy the journey.

 

sicily

Related Posts

Producer Spotlight: Pfaffl Winery

Sustainability Certified and multi-award winning, the Pfaffl Winery has gone from strength to st...

Can Sustainability Exist in the Spirits Industry?

Sustainability has long played a role in shaping the way we shop when it comes to wine. Strangely...

September | The Monthly Edit

Your September dose of seasonal picks - what to drink, what to cook with and where to eat. Welcom...

5 Minutes with...Anton Rodriguez

We're very proud of our heritage of working closely with some of the UK's top restaurants - and t...