If you’re feeling the need for a summer getaway, but don’t have the budget to really get away, make it a wine-themed staycation. With a few bottles, you can traverse the terroir from islands to rivers to mountains to extreme latitudes.
Due to the efforts of pioneering winemakers and daring importers, as well as key critics and boots-on-the-ground restaurant sommeliers, we’ve seen more and more great wines from the world’s islands on our store shelves and wine lists.
Beneath the boot, Sicily gives us bright, bold red wines from native varieties like Frappato and Nero D’Avola. To Italy’s west, Sardinia (a blue zone) offers vibrant red Cannonau and brisk white Vermentino. Just north of Sardinia, and officially an island of France, Corsica has a (wine) culture all its own, with grapes grown nowhere else and, unlike the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, soils of non-volcanic origin.
Each of these Mediterranean islands is unique, but their common island flair makes them enjoyable with a range of dishes and to a range of palates.
What ties these distinctive wines together?
Each island is a dot of land surrounded by a ton of water. The temperature of a body of water changes more slowly than that of the surrounding air. The water stays cool, which becomes especially evident when the sun sets.
Think of your experiences at the beach. In the summer, it’s usually a bit cooler right off the water, and, especially at night, when you end up buying an overpriced sweatshirt from a boardwalk vendor. While you have intense summer sunshine during the day, you also have those cool breezes and cooler nights.
This is grape heaven.
Sunshine encourages flavor development. Breezes keep vines cool and grapes dry. They encourage thick skins, which is where the flavor and color for red wines is concentrated. Cool nights maintain freshness, giving wines a buoyancy to contrast the intensity of flavor.
Mediterranean islands have long histories of winemaking rooted in the trade and conquests of the ancient world. Their strategic importance and diversity of culture over the years have helped make them unique wine regions.
Island wines around the world
But it’s not only Mediterranean islands that make wine. Off in the Atlantic, Portugal’s Madeira makes a very distinct style of oxidized wine. Tasmania is known for sparkling wine, as well as cool climate varieties, like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling. The surrounding water there keeps the island warm enough, reducing risks of late frost in spring and early frost at harvest. New Zealand burst onto the wine scene with Sauvignon Blanc and continues to make waves with a growing selection of Pinot Noir. The narrow width of New Zealand’s two islands place most vineyards close to the coastline, again providing for longer growing seasons and slower ripening. You could also try an up-and-coming sparkling wine from England.
While seas and oceans are much larger, rivers, too, can affect the local climate. Major German wine regions are centered along rivers, as is the Douro Valley of Portugal, Ribera Del Duero in Spain, and the Loire and Rhone Valleys of France. World-famous Bordeaux has three rivers. On the other side of the world, in Patagonia, Argentina, the valley of the Negro River is home to a burgeoning wine region.
Rivers offer some moderating effects on temperature. Beyond this, river water also encourages humidity. In most cases, humidity is not a wonderful thing for growing grapes, as it can lead to issues with disease. For some sweet wines, however, this very same humidity is absolutely necessary. These dessert wines are made from grapes affected by Noble Rot, (Botrytis cinerea, scientifically speaking). Noble Rot needs free water to get to work. Humidity rising off a river in late summer and early fall is essential for Botrytis to take hold, rot grapes and yield shriveled raisins for some delicious dessert wines.
This is the cause for the great dessert wines of Sauternes, located along the Garonne River, as well as the botrytized Rieslings from the Mosel region of Germany. Such wines are also produced along the Okanagan River in British Columbia. And, Tokaji aszu, arguably the original Noble Rot wine, comes from the Tokaj region of northeastern Hungary, which is found at the confluence of the Bodrog and Tisza Rivers.
Vineyards on mountain slopes benefit from intense sunshine and cool temperatures. Topsoil is carried by gravity, rain and wind to the valley floor, leaving behind dry, nutrient-poor soils that put stress on the vines, limiting berry size and yields. Flavors concentrate in these small grapes with thick skins to protect them from the sun’s rays – especially since some vineyards are above the fog line – and hold in precious moisture. Yet the wines also retain freshness because of the cooling effect of high elevations.
In the northern hemisphere, growers in cool regions plant vineyards on south-facing slopes to catch the sun. The opposite is true in warm northern hemisphere climes, where growers plant on the other side to extend the ripening period and protect grapes from sunburn.
California’s Napa Valley is bounded on the west and east by the Mayacamas and Vaca Mountains. The Mayacamas Range is home to Spring Mountain and Mount Veeder, and the Vaca Range to Howell Mountain and Atlas Peak. Spring Mountain has vineyards as high as 2600 feet and Howell as high as 2500 feet above sea level, elevations that dwarf the 1480-foot summit at Mountain Creek in Vernon, NJ, for my NJ readers. In California’s Central Coast region, the Santa Cruz Mountains are home to vineyards 2600 feet high, overlooking the Pacific.
In Chile, high-elevation vineyards on the Andes’ western edge produce red wines with great structure, fruit and acidity. On the eastern edge of the Andes, in Argentina, Mendoza’s pioneering growers show the beauty of high-elevation wines, with vineyards of Malbec, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and others.
We typically say the “Goldilocks range” for wine grapes spans latitudes 30 to 50 degrees (though this may change with a changing climate). That’s a broad range. Considering the variations of topography and geography, we find wines in some unexpected places, like Mexico.
There are plenty of wineries on the Baja Peninsula, which extends south of the 30 degree North latitude line, towards the equator. Surrounding waters moderate the climate, keeping Baja cooler than would be expected from latitude alone.
The northern wine regions of Argentina also fall outside of this 30-50 range, closer to the equator. Here, elevation makes all the difference. Salta, far north in Argentina’s interior, near the borders with Chile and Bolivia, has vineyards 1,280 – 3,100 meters (4200 – 10000 feet) above sea level. Those upper limits are elevations at which the CDC recommends taking precautions against altitude sickness.
At the other extreme, inching towards that 50 degree mark, Champagne is 49 degrees 15’ N and England’s wine regions at 49.9 and above. At this extreme edge of winegrowing, grapes struggle for ripeness. There is ample daytime sun during the growing season, but the season is short and relatively cool. With vibrant acidity, the grapes are perfectly suited for sparkling wines, like those that made Champagne famous and put English wines on the map.
Considering the extreme diversity of wine regions allows us to traverse terrains from coast to mountaintop, from subtropics to northern temperate zones where sparkling wine can save the harvest. How will you spend your staycation?
Karen MacNeil. The Wine Bible
Guild of Sommeliers. GuildSomm
Howell Mountain Vintners and Growers Association. http://www.howellmountain.org/media-trade/facts-and-faqs/
Spring Mountain District. http://springmountaindistrict.org/appellation/
Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association. http://scmwa.com/about/the-region/