'What I drank on my holidays': The best wines to sip in the sun
Sampling the local wines is one of the great pleasures of visiting the Mediterranean
Thursday 09 June 2011
They are the "local" wines many of us enjoy on our Mediterranean holidays – quaffed on warm nights on the terraces of Mallorcan or Corsican villas or sipped in beachfront tavernas in Sardinia and Corfu to the sound of lapping waves.
These and other Mediterranean islands are where vines have been cultivated from the very earliest times and where indigenous grapes can produce distinctive wines that challenge the dominance of "international" varieties such as syrah and cabernet sauvignon.
So back in Britain, why do we see so few of these wines in our local wine shop, online retailer or supermarket? Where are the celebrated reds of Mallorca or the fantastic whites and rosés of Corsica, easily the equals of some of those produced in mainland Spain and France? And what vinous treasures might be lurking in wines from, say, Elba or Sardinia, rarely seen in Britain? Yet these are all European islands we know well, much closer geographically than many other countries, like Australia or Chile, whose wines vie for our attention.
Until recently, quality control among such small producers was poor and their wines a little old-fashioned, but a new generation of winemakers have realised that improved production methods and stricter standards are needed to make modern wines for export.
But Franck Autard, managing director of Skalli, a French company with two vineyards in Corsica, says there are other factors preventing export: "Firstly, small producers cannot always guarantee the high volumes demanded by British supermarkets to ensure wines are in most of their branches and, secondly, those producers have not been as good as they should have been at selling their wines to the outside world."
The picture is slowly changing. The successful Sicilian wine industry is waking up other islands, while consumers can find interesting island wines online at specialist retailers. This week, Marks & Spencer begin selling a key Mallorcan wine and are making promising noises about wine from some of the Croatian islands.
As Doug Wregg, of wine merchants Les Caves de Pyrene, says: "There are some amazing indigenous grape varieties and wines made in unlikely places, that give a real sense of the area and its land, that are just waiting to be discovered by consumers and sommeliers who are becoming just a bit bored with the big-name wines."
So, as the summer holiday season nears, we present The Independent's guide to what to drink when you are over there – and what to buy when you are back here.
Given France's pre-eminence, it is surprising Corsican wines are not more available in Britain. Gault Millau's wine guide editor, Pierre Guigui, says: "I'm convinced that Corsica has some of the greatest white wines in the world. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it's still not well known."
The mountainous landscape restricts wine growing to certain areas – vines grown around Ajaccio are said to be the highest in France. Like southern neighbour Sardinia, the best whites come from the richly fragrant vermentino grape, grown in the north-east of the island, while the southern area around Porto Vecchio produces excellent, pale pink rosés made from the sciaccerello and nielluccio grapes, perfect with the local seafood. A luscious sweet muscat is also produced in the north, around Cap Corse. Back home, look for Skalli's terrific Clos Poggiale wines at Jeroboams (www.jeroboams.co.uk) and www.winestory. co.uk while Yapp Brothers (www. yapp.co.uk) also has a selection of Corsican wines.
Originally known for the fortified wine marsala (devised by a British trader using the same techniques as sherry) from the local grillo, inzolia and catarrato grapes, Sicily has become the leading player in Mediterranean island wine, switching from sub-£5 gluggers to some good wines in the £10-plus bracket. There are emerging new producers, using expert oenologists and a multitude of wine areas and styles. It now rivals Apulia as Italy's largest wine-producing region.
Most interest is around big, robust red wines using the native nero d'avola grape, while there are excellent whites made from grillo and catarratto grapes. Massimo Rotoloni, of Italian firm Calatrasi, says it will only use "international" grapes such as syrah or merlot to assist blends. "We are very proud of our indigenous grapes," he says.
Surrounding Sicily are islands producing interesting wines. Among the volcanic Aeolian Islands is Salina, which produces a sweet wine from malvasia grapes dried in the sun for up to three weeks, a technique known as passito. A similar method is employed on Pantellaria, to the south, where syrupy Passito di Pantellaria is made from the local zibibbo grapes.
Try Italian specialists www.amordivino.co.uk, while Calatrasi wines are at everywine.co.uk or at www.oldbutcherswinecellar.co.uk (for a really special treat try the A Naca Rosso 2006, for about £28); Majestic, Waitrose and M&S all have Sicilian wines.
In Malta, winemakers want to emulate Sicily's success and are hoping to move on from chardonnay and merlot-based wines to those based on local grapes gellewza (red) and girgentina (white), said Johnny Borg, winemaker for Camilleri Wine, one of only four serious producers. "Give us two or three years and we hope to be competitive with other countries," he says.
At last week's London International Wine Fair (LIWF) there were many Sicilian winemakers on show, but none from Sardinia. Wregg, from Les Caves de Pyrene, says: "The island just does not seem geared up to making large amounts of quality wines yet. Yet there are some gems to be found."
Grape varieties reflect Sardinia's successive rulers from Aragon and Piedmont. The most well-known wines are made from the vermentino, monica and cannonau (known as garnacha or Grenache elsewhere). The reds can be very high in alcohol and on the sweetish side, but the vermentino grape, which thrives in rocky areas near the sea, can produce exceptionally fragrant wines, full of lemony flavours and with a distinctive salty tang. The best are the Vermentino di Gallura wines, the only ones on the island to achieve Italy's top Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status and are perfect with the local smoked swordfish. The Malvasia di Bosa, a semi-sweet wine, is also worth seeking out. Back in this country, Sardinian wines are not easy to find, but www.lescaves.co.uk have some.
Even harder to track down are wines from Elba, the third largest Italian island, despite being once praised by Pliny the Elder. Its most famous wine is the DOCG-status passito-style Aleatico dell'Elba, made from the red muscatel variety grape and much admired by Napoleon, who perhaps should have stayed in exile there to savour it, rather than going to meet his Waterloo.
Mallorca and the Balearics
Very little of the two million litres of wine produced annually in Mallorca's main wine areas finds its way to Britain, despite the fact that around three million of us find our way over there. Which is a shame, because the Mallorcans have been producing wine since the Romans arrived in 123BC, although the vineyards were decimated by the phylloxera pest in the 1890s and did not recover until mass tourism in the 1960s.
Bulk production for sangria has been replaced with higher quality wines, which benefit from often ideal conditions: sheltered vineyards, lime-rich soils and short winters. Holidaymakers should seek out wines from native grapes such as manto negro and callet for reds and moll blanc for whites.
Majorcan wines have been difficult to find, but M&S's decision to stock the red Macia Batle Tinto 2010 (£9.95), a manto negro/cabernet sauvignon/ merlot blend, may herald the start of something. Jo Ahearne, M&S wine buyer, says: "The indigenous grape varieties offer completely different flavour profiles to the rest of Spain. They're a lighter, more reserved style, with intriguing aromatic, wild herb and bramble berry notes." A small selection of Mallorcan wines are also stocked at Thomas Panton (www.wineimporter.co.uk) and Noel Young wines (www.nywines.co.uk). The only other Balearic island to produce wines of note is Formentera, where limestone soils and cooling sea breezes produce good red wines from Spain's native monastrell grape, with wines from the Cap de Barbaria said to be worth seeking out.
As the historic birthplace of wine culture, oenophiles have despaired at the lack of decent Greek wines, while holidaymakers have struggled for anything beyond a coarse local rosé or white to accompany their grilled sardines. That is now changing, with many new artisanal winemakers emerging over the past decade, determined to make wines that do justice to its history. On the islands, the picture is uneven; although almost all produce wines using local grape varieties, the discerning drinker will still have to work hard to track down interesting local wines in, say, Corfu.
Unquestionably, the current leader is volcanic Santorini, where grapes have been harvested since ancient times. Ancient pre-phylloxera vines produce white wines from the native assyrtiko grape, said to have an almost "ethereal minerality". Around the other islands there are also new wines from Crete blending traditional grapes with modern varieties such as syrah, or dessert wines from muscat and its varieties. In this country, WaitroseWineDirect sells the highly rated and refreshingly acidic Hatzidakis Assyrtiko 2009 (£7.59) from Santorini and the award-winning dessert wine, Anthemic Muscat of Samos 2002 (£10.21). Also try specialists www.vickbarwines.co.uk
Okay, it's the Adriatic, not the Med, but the vines were first planted by the ancient Greeks and the Dalmatian coast is becoming an increasingly popular destination for British holidaymakers, who enjoy the local wines with their seafood or grilled lamb. Now the Croatians are coming here, exhibiting for the second year running at last week's LIWF on the back of a sweep of medals in some of the big wine awards.
The industry is growing rapidly, with a classification system, hundreds of producers, many different regions and a bewildering variety of grapes, although the majority of the production is white, with relatively small amounts of red and a little rosé. The most popular grapes are the grasevina, malvazia for white and teran and plavac mali grape for reds, while some of the islands have their own: Krk is known for the zlahtina grape and Korcula, reputed birthplace of Marco Polo, is the home of posip, both white. But most island production tends to be red, such as the the medium-bodied red Mediterano Plavac Mali 2008 from Hvar, stocked by WaitroseWineDirect (£8.06).
And as M&S's Ahearne says, there is no doubt about the potential for more Croatian island wines on our supermarket shelves in the future: "Watch this space..."
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