Whenever the subject of Italy's world-class wine comes up in conversation or print, such mainland regions as Tuscany and Piedmont usually get most of the recognition for vino supremo (great wine). However, some of the country's lesser-known, intriguing wine is like a well-guarded secret, as if the winemakers would rather keep it all to themselves. Specifically, wine from Italy's archipelago of islands, all smaller than prominent Sicily and Sardinia.
Italy is surrounded by 80 islands, most of which mere dots on the map. Sicily and Sardinia are expansive enough to have their own network of vineyards and wineries. But others have such limited landmass that their production capabilities are downsized and confined. Grape and type variety vary from one island to the next. But it is this individuality that ultimately defines these unique wines. They could be some of the best you probably never tasted.
We've selected six such isles, including Sicily and Sardinia, to uncover wine that seldom, if ever, finds its way to retail shelves. Come aboard as we go island-hopping with stops and sips at Sicily, Sardinia, Elba, Ischia, Capri and Pantelleria.
Sicily: 7th Largest Worldwide Wine Producer
If Sicily, at the toe of Italy's boot-shaped configuration, was a freestanding country, it would rank seventh in worldwide wine production. Over the past three decades, no other region in Italy has developed vineyards and winemaking as much as this largest island in he Mediterranean.
Blessed with abundant sunshine and moderate rainfall, Sicily's climate is ideally suited to the cultivation of grapes. The warm, dry weather keeps mildew and rot to a minimum, particularly in areas well ventilated by coastal breezes. The low disease rate means that chemical sprays are rarely needed, so most of the wine derives from organic grapes.
Sicily's soil is extremely beneficial in the island's viticulture. Mount Edna, the towering stratovolcano that dominates the eastern skyline, is responsible for the dark, mineral-rich soil that characterizes the vineyards; Grapes are planted on high slopes so they thrive on cooler air and lush volcanic soil.
Spanish Rule Gives Way to Signature Sardinian Wine
The most prestigious wine comes from the namesake, western coastal region of Marsala, one of the finest aged and fortified of its type. Its main grape Grillo also creates a first-rate white table wine. Among reds, the indigenous Mero d' Avolo expresses deep black cherry hints with a lingering acidity, mildly tannic finish.
Sardinia, in the middle of the Mediterranean about 200 miles west of Rome, is a mixture of natural beauty, multi-cultural history and certain aloofness. Conquests by the Romans and Spaniards have influenced both the island's customs and winemaking. Over time, new techniques and foreign grapes were introduced, each contributing to the identity of Sardinian wine today.
Of all the populations that have inhabited Sardinia, the Spaniards were the most instrumental in terms of wine. During four centuries of rule by the Aragon dynasty, the structure of local vineyards revolved and Spanish grapes were planted. White Vermentino, the most highly regarded on the island, is of Spanish origin, as are the top two reds Cannonau and Carignano. Whites such as Vernaccia di Carigano and Malvasia di Bosa (both DOC) have a Spanish sherry imprint .
Sardinia has 19 DOC and one DOCG zones, each representing wines recognized as international as well as local. Vermentino di Gallura is one of only four Italian DOCG whites. Distinguished by delicate fruit flavors and fragrant notes of bitter almonds, it is the perfect companion to smoked cernia (grouper), one of the island's signature seafood dishes.
While Vermentino rules the northern half of Sardinia, the white Nuragus grape dominates the south. Some of the better Nuragus wines, such as those produced from Argiolas and Meloni Vini grapes, display supple sour apple and almond flavors with assertive acidity.
Elba's Wine Praised by Napoleon
The island of Elba, six miles off the coast of Tuscany, is perhaps best known as where Napoleon was exiled during the French Revolution. He once reportedly commented, "Inhabitants of Elba are strong and healthy because of the local wine."
Though viticulture here ranked among the leading economic resources during the 19th and 20th centuries, it has declined over the past 50 years. Vineyard space has been reduced from 3,000 to 300 acres, mainly due to the dramatic increase in tourism. Despite the downsizing, the wine has not suffered. In fact, it has actually improved and is quite admirable in its own right. Elba Bianco, made almost entirely from Trebbiano Tuscano grapes, is the principal white wine. It is dainty with a fruity bouquet and straw yellow color.
Another white, Elba Ansonica, is made from the grape of the same name and has unique accents of grapefruit and freshly mowed grass. Each is in harmony with many of the seafood-based dishes of the region. Noteworthy reds include Elba Rosso produced from Sangiovese grapes, and Aleatico, a dessert wine with a vibrant aroma of roses, strawberries and raspberries.
The Island of Ischia
Just off the coast of Naples, the island of Ischia has a pronounced Spanish tone to its enological history. The island is rightfully proud of Ischia Bianco and Bianco Superiore whites, produced from somewhat rare Biancolella and Forastere grapes. Both are dry and delicate, with enough body to complement the trademark grilled cuttlefish and octopus common on local menus.
Ischia Rosso, the lone red of the island, makes a strong statement of its own. It is fashioned from Guarnaccia, Biancolella and Forastere grapes, a blend that results in a medium-bodied tannin that goes well with rustic fare.
The Isle of Capri, Home of Capri Bianco
The acclaimed Isle of Capri is as rich in history as it is in wine. Anchored off the tip of Sorrento, this tourist paradise is where Capri Bianco made from Falaghina and Greco grapes comes from. The heralded white has fruity touches of peach and green apple.
Capri Rosso, made primarily from Piedirosso grapes, is defined by its rich, luxurious, spicy red tone. It's another example of how wines from Capri pair favorably with not only seafood-intense island food, but with more robust mainland dishes as well.
Pantelleria Known for Dessert Wine
Anchored off the west coast of Sicily, Pantelleria is geographically closer to Africa than to Italy. But appearances are deceiving, since the desert island is unmistakably Sicilian in nature and culture. The main wine is produced almost entirely from Moscato grapes, in naturally sweet and passito versions. The latter refers to the process by which grapes are dried after harvest on straw mats to further concentrate the sugars. Grape sugars are intensified when subjected to the fiercely dry wind that sweeps in from Africa to bolster the island's hot, dry climate.
Grapes tend to wither in this weather, resulting in sturdy dessert wines with plump, raisin-like accents. Anyone with a sweet tooth can't go wrong with a glass of Ambrosial Moscato di Pantelleria to wash down a cannoli or slice of delicious Cassata Siciliana fruitcake.
All of which makes Italy's island wines sometimes hard to find, but always easy to savor. Salute!