First published in The Irish Times, Saturday 21st May, 2016
From its probable birth over 8,000 years ago in the Caucasus, vine growing and wine drinking was spread, by the Phoenicians, and later the Greeks and Romans, around the entire Mediterranean. Wine sustained empires and provided its inhabitants with something safe to drink.
By the time you read this column, I will be down at the Ballymaloe Litfest 2016, the third year of this excellent event. On Sunday lunchtime I will be giving a talk and tasting entitled Islands in the Sun.Since a visit to Pantelleria a decade ago, I have been fascinated by the island wines of the Mediterranean. Wine was produced on virtually every island of any size, many of them volcanic. Despite being surrounded and ruled by various competing powers, many have developed a separate identity, with undiscovered indigenous grape varieties producing unique wines.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean. Once a source of cheap bulk wine, it is now home to some of the most exciting producers, on the slopes of Mount Etna in particular. Sardinia was ruled for four centuries by the Spanish kingdom of Aragon (as was Corsica). As a result, Sardinia’s most famous red wines are made from Cannonau, the local clone of the Spanish Garnacha.
The best white wines comes from the Vermentino (known as Rolle in France) grape, a variety that retains acidity in warm climates, and is showing great potential both here and in Corsica as well as mainland France and Italy. The wines of Corsica are less easy to find. The lesser wines go under the wonderful title of Ile de Beauté. The more expensive wines tend to stay on the island, or can be found on mainland France.
Moving to Greece, the island of Santorini once supplied Eucharistic wines to the Russian Orthodox church. Today, this arid windy volcanic outcrop produces some unique fresh, crisp mineral dry white wines from the indigenous Assyrtiko grape. The vines are formed into basket-like circles that stay close to the ground.
Pantelleria is a small volcanic island that is closer to the coast of Africa than Sicily. Here the ancient practice was to shield vines from constant wind by digging small craters in the volcanic rocks. The Muscat grapes, called Zibibbo here, are dried in the sun, before being fermented into a luscious sweet wine.
This is only scraping the surface. There are so many more. For the tasting I have sourced wines from Corsica, Malta, the Canaries, as well as those below. Space does not permit me to cover them all here, but if you are free this Sunday, why not come along?
Light juicy easy red fruits with a refreshing acidity. Perfect summer drinking.
Tesco; C&T Supermarkets; Carpenters, Castleknock; Amber,Fermoy; Joyce’s, Galway.
Fresh floral and mineral, Chablis-like with crisp fruits and a lingering dry finish.
Delicious welcoming warm herb-scented wine with soft red fruits.
Stockists: 64wine, Glasthule.
Soft smooth strawberry and plum fruits overlaid with dark chocolate. Wonderful wine.
Stockists: www.cabotandco.com; No. 1 Pery Sq.; Market 57; Grapevine, Dalkey; Corkscrew; Red Island; Listons.