In the past, when most wine consumers thought about a Mediterranean island, the first and often only name that came to mind was Sicily.
Not anymore, at least among the savvy set.
These days, isles large, small and tiny are worthy of any enthusiast’s attention, showcasing indigenous grapes as well as more familiar ones under a different name.
Take cannonau, the Sardinian term for what’s known as grenache in France and garnacha in Spain. These wines pack more oomph than most of their continental cousins, but are often lower in alcohol. Red-berry flavors, spice notes and a swell power/grace interplay are hallmarks of cannonau.
Further incentive to try some: Sardinians are among the longest-living folks on the planet, widely attributed to their diets. Because the cannonau grape has thicker skin than most grenache, it’s believed to have large amounts of polyphenols and other antioxidants linked to heart health. Cin cin!
Just in the past few years, the offerings available here have mushroomed. Among my favorite wineries: Pala, Argiolas, Olianas, Cardedu, Panevino and Vigneti Zanatta. (Most of these wines, and others in this column, cost about $20.)
But it’s not just about red wine on the Mediterranean’s second-largest island (just behind Sicily). A boatload of tasty vermentino, a sauvignon-blanc-like white that also thrives on the mainland in Italy and France (where it is called rolle), emanates from Sardinia. Some reliable producers are Santadi, Santa Maria La Palma, Olianas and the aforementioned Argiolas, Pala and Vignetti Zanatta.
Vermentino also shines on the island just north of Sardinia. Corsica (which actually is part of France; Napoleon was born there) offers up great renditions from Nielluccio, Maestracci and Clos Signadore.
Corsica’s prime red grape, nielluccio, is similar to sangiovese in its lighter color, red-berry flavors and lower tannins. Oh, and its food-friendliness. Clos Marfisi and Clos Signadore Patrimonio are signature bottlings, and nielluccio’s adept blending qualities show through in Santa Giulietta, Pétroni Vin de Corse Rouge and Domaine Maestracci.
Indigenous grapes also dominate Mallorca. It’s a more recent player here in Minnesota, with only one winery represented (and surely more to come). But Anima Negra makes up in quality what the market lacks in quantity.
Interestingly, callet is used in both white and red wines, even though the grape is of the latter hue. It joins fellow native grapes premsal and giro ros in the downright delicious Quíbia white blend; stands sturdily on its own in the rich, complex red Àn and plays beautifully with manto negro and syrah in the spicy, racy red blend Àn/2.
Interestingly, a significantly smaller island spawns more wines available here, but again a single grape is the absolute star. Assyrtiko is the indomitable force behind some surpassingly heady bottles from Santorini’s 29 square miles.
It’s hard to imagine more inhospitable conditions for growing grapes (aside from bitterly cold climes): volcanic soil with little or no organic matter, brutal sun, harsh winds. The locals decided to combat that by training bush vines into coils that curl around themselves and come to resemble baskets.
What emerges is a grape that produces truly noble wines, providing a rich, racy, dynamic quaffing experience. The salinity and mouthwatering minerality make this perhaps the wine world’s foremost match for seafood.
Among the stellar options: Gai’a, Santos, Argyros, Sigalas and D. Kourtakis Greek Wine Cellars.
It’s hard to overstate just how expressive these wines are. And evocative: It takes little effort to imagine oneself sitting at a Santorini taverna while sipping one. It’s not the worst idea to stock up on some for a midwinter transporting experience.
Bill Ward writes atdecant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.