There’s no question that islands are dreamy, picturesque vacation destinations, many of which have likely been flooding your Instagram these past few months. But it may surprise you to learn that islands around the world are also producing some of today’s most exciting wines.
While each island wine region has a different climate, terroir, and wine style, there are some similarities. Islands tend to have some volcanic soil, as most islands were originally formed by volcanic activity. This soil, and specifically its volcanic ash, has ample minerality and is very porous. The latter traps minerals and allows vines to dig deep through the soil. This creates stronger vines and arguably more flavorful wines. Some also say that volcanic soil enhances a wine’s aromatics, perhaps making these wines more enticing.
Most islands are also not incredibly large, meaning that island wines are often grown in close proximity to major bodies of water. The resulting ocean breezes dry out moisture to help prevent grape diseases and cool vineyards in areas that might otherwise be too hot for quality grape growing.
There are more than a few islands making excellent wine right now — be sure to check out the Canary Islands, Sardinia, and Crete — but these four islands in particular are making waves with their wines right now, and there’s only more exciting juice yet to come.
Just north of a much larger island neighbor, Crete, which also produces wine, Santorini is popular among tourists for its dramatic ocean views, sun-drenched beaches and iconic whitewashed buildings. Better still, Santorini is one of Greece’s most exciting wine regions. It is known for white wines made from the local Assyrtiko grape, either produced as a varietal wine or blended with Athiri and Aidani.
While Assyrtiko is in and of itself a compelling grape, with powerful, ripe, mineral-driven wines with citrus, stone fruit, and smoke, it’s impossible to separate it from the region in which it is grown. First of all, Santorini was blanketed in lava and ash when a volcano erupted over a millennium ago, so the soil has a strong volcanic influence. Additionally, the island receives very little rainfall, so vineyards depend on sea mists and nighttime sea fog for water. Fog and precipitation soak down through the porous, volcanic soil into the earth below, forcing grapevines to dig down to water. These conditions boost the intense minerality and saline quality in Santorini’s wines, both of which are defining characteristics of Assyrtiko.
Santorini’s vineyards will probably look curious to anyone who has not grown wine on an island. Winemakers protect their plots from the incredibly strong winds coming off the Aegean Sea using the koulara method, or grapevines woven into a basket shape with grape bunches in the middle.
On the upside, strong winds prevent disease in the vineyards, meaning it’s much easier to work organically in Santorini. The lack of clay in the island’s soil also prevented phylloxera from attacking vines, allowing many old vines to survive and continue producing wines.
Sicily is so hot right now. While American somms have recently turned their attentions to this Italian island, Sicily has actually been making wine since before 750 B.C. The region’s wine was overlooked until recently because much of Sicily’s modern history has been based on bulk winemaking, and the region is still the third-largest producer of wine in Italy.
Lately, more quality-over-quantity producers have come to the forefront of Sicilian winemaking. Now there are several key regions leading the charge and providing diversity in this island’s wines.
Etna, located in eastern Sicily, is the island’s best-known wine region and is greatly influenced by the active Mount Etna volcano on which vineyards are planted. Not only does the volcanic soil influence the minerality of the wines, but slopes provide the benefit of both elevation and sun exposure, creating a unique combination of ripeness and intensity mixed with elegance and acidity. White wines, labeled as Etna Bianco, are based on the Carricante grape, and red wines, labeled as Etna Rosso, are based on Nerello Mascalese, often blended with its juicier counterpart Nerello Cappuccio.
The southern coast of Sicily is home to the Vittoria region, which is best known for Cerasuolo di Vittoria, a red blend of the deeply fruited Nero d’Avola, and the bright, floral Frappato. These two grapes provide bass and the tenor, respectively, to the blend. The resulting wines are typically medium-bodied and easy-drinking, less influenced by volcanic soil but still distinctly earthy.
Rounding out the diversity of this island is the region of Marsala in western Sicily, which produces the fortified wine of the same name. Once thought of solely as cheap cooking wine, Marsala, particularly when made with the Grillo grape, can be rich, layered, and nutty in either dry or sweet styles.
Welcome to the most under-looked Australian wine region. Tasmania has grown immensely over the past 10 years, more than tripling its production. Thanks to its cool, maritime climate, winemakers from the mainland are flocking to this island located off the coast of Victoria. Much of Tasmania’s vineyards are located on the drier eastern side of the island in valleys and on lower slopes, as the center is dominated by mountain ranges and the west by dense forests.
Tasmania does have a bit of volcanic soil influence, but the vineyards are mostly dominated by sandstone and mudstone. What really characterizes this island’s wines are the cool temperatures, which give Tasmania the ability to create a completely different style of wine than the boozy, jammy wines of much of Australia’s mainland. The region specializes in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well as excellent sparkling wine.
Corsica is an island still searching for a wine identity, but with a promising and exciting future ahead. Located off the coasts of both France and Italy, just above Sardinia, Corsica is technically under French rule, but don’t tell the locals that; they are Corsican first and foremost. Wine is produced around the entire coast of the island, but the most promising regions right now are located along the western edge of Corsica. These regions, however, have incredible diversity; soils range greatly from north to south, and a wide variety of international and ancient grapes are being experimented with. The climate is largely Mediterranean and mountain-influenced, with frequent rain balanced by strong wind.
If Corsica had to pick a few key grapes at this moment, though, they would likely be Vermentino (known locally as Rolle) for whites and a tie between Sangiovese (known locally as Nielluccio) and Sciaccarellu.
Vermentino can range in style from racy to rich but is typically much stonier than it is on the Italian mainland. Sangiovese and Sciaccarellu are often blended, with Sangiovese providing more intensity and Sciaccarellu providing more freshness. The reds are often herbal and rustic and can be downright funky.
Overall, Corsica is the island to look out for next; it has more experimentation to do, but many exciting possibilities ahead.