The viniculture of islands is a wonderful discovery for oenophiles. There’s something quite special about the differences that occur away from the mainstream production methods. The unique soil compositions, indigenous grapes and winemaking techniques passed down through the centuries can yield wines that can certainly please the palate in a very surprising way.
I consider myself very privileged to have indulged my love of wines in some of the most beautiful and bountiful parts of the world, but it’s the distinctive flavours of the varietals of the islands that I am most fascinated by. It’s hard to pinpoint the source of their quirky differences; while to a certain degree it may be attributed to the oceanic climates of these diverse islands, the locals of Mallorca, Madeira, Lanzarote and Sicily take pride in their individuality, and this is reflected in their produce.
Mallorcan producers do not generally export a lot of their wines (if any), instead keeping them for domestic use. The rich soil and Mediterranean climate provide the perfect conditions for grapes, and the wines are compared to those from France and Italy.
The two main winegrowing areas are around Binissalem and Pla i Llevant, which are labelled under the Denominació d’Origen classification. The four native Mallorcan grapes are Callet, Moll, Manto Negro and Monastrell, which are used to produce regional wines under the regulated Vi de la Terra labels.
While many are very tasty, there are some Mallorcan wines that stand out – not just to me but also to the real experts. The excellent Nounat, a blend of Chardonnay and the local Prensal Blanc, from Bodegas Binigrau, is one of the highest selling whites. I discovered the aromatic Collita de Fruits Callet 2006, from Armero i Adrover (made from the local Callet grape), on an evening with local friends and it’s become one of my all time favourite reds. For a not so guilty summer pleasure, the Twenty Twelve Pink, Bodega Es Fangar combines five different grapes to produce a bright, deeply flavoured rosé.
For a luxurious stay in one of the island’s most unspoilt regions, Es Moli is a true rural gem, offering fantastic views and a warm, authentic ambience. Just a short walk from the pretty town of Deia, the hotel is surrounded by delightful terraced gardens. After a busy day exploring the bodegas and vineyards, you can come back to a treatment at the onsite wellness centre and dinner at the very lovely Buganvilia Restaurant.
Madeira’s unique geography, volcanic soil and warm, humid climate have given rise to a range of fortified wines that are just as notable for their character and complexity as the island itself.
It’s somewhat of a miracle that Madeira (the wine) even exists at all with the many challenges that come with growing grapes in such a humid, volcanic environment, but the island’s importance along the Atlantic trade route saw the market for its wine flourish. Originally, the wines were taken on board passing trade ships and fortified to preserve them for the journey. Over the course of their long ocean voyage in hot and tumultuous conditions, they developed their interesting flavours and history was made.
Today, the wine is still produced by traditional methods, with a few modern concessions. During the process the grapes are crushed then fermented, but alcohol is added before final fermentation in order to fortify it. Then a specialised heating process exposes it to high temperatures over a long period of time, during which the flavours expand. Madeiras can be cellared – or even stored once opened – indefinitely as they are averse to oxidization.
Many people don’t realise there are a variety of styles, so I recommend trying a selection, from the very dry to extremely sweet in order to do this complex wine justice.
If you’re scheduling your visit to the island in late August or early September, why not ensure that it coincides with the Madeira Wine Festival?
I highly recommend the outstanding Quinta Das Vistas, a delightful manor house with stunning views over the Atlantic. Its location just outside of Funchal puts you close to the action but slightly removed from the hustle and bustle, so you can really enjoy the natural surroundings. With an onsite spa, restaurant, pool with a view and choice of rooms right up to the Presidential Suite, the hotel is the perfect base from which to explore the island.
I’ve always had a soft spot for the dramatic volcanic landscape of Lanzarote, and I’m pleased to say the wines it yields also do not disappoint. The traditional wine growers of the island have overcome adverse conditions (low rainfall, high oceanic winds, sub-tropical climate, volcanic eruptions) to produce artisan wines that not only please the local palate, but are also increasingly attractive to oenophiles around the world.
The islanders’ ingenious method of cultivation – by planting the vines in individual dug-out depressions in the rich volcanic soil, and surrounding each by a stone semi-circular wind break – give the elevated vineyards an otherworldly look. The hillsides of La Geria, the 20 square mile region that produces the majority of the local Malvasía grapes, are covered with these odd-looking constructions, but they certainly serve their purpose. The Malvasía grapes are used in the production of three-quarters of all the wines produced on the island, which cover the gamut from sweet to dry across reds, whites and rosés.
If you’re interested in tasting as many different varietals as possible (which I highly recommend), there are numerous excellent bodegas where you can enjoy tastings. Some of the best I’ve found include Bodega Reymar, Bodega Guigan (both in Tinajo) and Bodega El Grifo, in San Bartolomé.
If you’re visiting Lanzarote specifically for a wine tasting experience, I’m delighted to be able to recommend La Casona de Yaiza as part of the Prestige Holidays’ collection. With a very authentic and artistic ambience, there are just 10 rooms in this lovely little hotel, which is situated in a tranquil part of Yaiza. As well as making an excellent base to visit numerous bodegas, it’s within easy access of the natural surrounds of Timanfaya National Park and the beaches.
Sicily is one of Europe’s oldest winegrowing regions and it’s probably most associated with the sweet, fortified Marsala, which boasts an alcohol content of around 20%.
Traditionally produced from the local Inzolia, Grillo or Catarratto grapes, Marsala is enjoying a resurgence in popularity after many years in the wilderness, so to speak. I think its newfound fame is wonderful, as it’s been underrated for far too long. The wine can be either dry or sweet and is designated in three standards: oro, amber and ruby. Some makers age it for up to seven years in traditional oak barrels dating back to the 1800s. My suggestion is try it – you might just be pleasantly surprised.
The excellent Sicilian wines are not restricted to Marsalas, however, and those made from the Zibibbo grapes (similar to Marsala) have been produced since the Middle Ages. Along with numerous liqueurs and grappas – made from not just grapes but also prickly pears and artichokes (Cynar) – the vineyards of Sicily produce some excellent varietals. These include some delightful Chardonnays, Pinot Grigios and some increasingly acclaimed reds, under the Nero d’Avola labels.
One of my top recommendations for accommodation in Sicily is Masseria Susafa, which is situated in an absolutely breathtaking rural location with views over the rolling hills of Sicily. You truly feel a million miles from anywhere in this blissful bucolic location, and this tranquil agriturismo offers just 13 rooms, ensuring optimal peace and privacy. With a traditional décor and cool vaulted interiors, you’ll also enjoy contemporary luxuries, including a swimming pool.