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As summer fades, I’m feeling wistful. I should’ve spent more time at the beach, said yes early and often, gotten so deliciously sun-drunk that I forgot to reapply SPF. But instead of wallowing in my regret (we have all winter for that), I’ve been seeking out island wines, which instantly transport me back to the season’s peak.
Island wines, a catch-all term describing wines from Southern European island locales (think Sardinia, Sicily, and Santorini, among others), are full of freshness and verve, perfect for early-fall porch hangs, when the warmth still lingers in the air. While every island has its own terroir, climate and, indigenous grapes, there are a few key elements that help explain the defining features of this easy, breezy wine style.
Quick geology lesson: Islands are typically formed by volcanic activity, and the resulting soil is porous with great drainage, the right combo for encouraging vine roots to grow deep in search of nutrients. These austere conditions yield more flavorful wine, as the hardy vines vigorously soak up minerals and channel all their energy into fruit production. Constant ocean breezes help keep moisture-loving diseases and pests at bay, and proximity to the sea encourages the kinds of temperature shifts that produce high-acidity thirst quenchers. Some pros even argue that these wines deliver an intriguing saline quality, as if kissed by salt carried on a sea breeze.
These natural advantages gloss over the human ingenuity of ancient winemaking, though. In some places, wind can be a particularly challenging growing condition, requiring creativity. Head to the Canary Islands and you’ll find cratered vineyards that look like the surface of the moon, which helps prevent young vines from being uprooted by stiff gales. The grapevines of Santorini are as iconic as the white-washed, blue-domed architecture; for generations, winemakers have trained each of their vines into a basket-shaped kouloura, which shields the precious grapes growing within from harsh winds. These factors yield wines that almost always fascinate. Though flavors range, aromatic island whites can be refreshingly bracing, like licking a salted lemon on the beach. Reds are more seductively ethereal, like catching a whiff of cardamom and clove wafting through a market square.
At their best, these wines are as transportive as a time machine. To me they are summer in a bottle, a reminder that though the days grow shorter and the world drains of color, I can still say yes to the things that matter.
Indigenous to Sicily, frappato produces a light red that is wonderful chilled. Pair with the last of the tomatoes.
Domaine Santamaria La Boutanche Rouge
A lip-smacking Corsican blend that plays as well with grilled veg as it does with hearty pastas.
Garalis Terra Ambera
This wine from the Greek island of Lemnos has the acidity and light tannins of a perfect Arnold Palmer.