The arrival of summer invariably conjures thoughts of warm-weather playgrounds, some of the best of which are Mediterranean paradises such as St. Tropez, Ibiza, Capri, and Mykonos. It seems appropriate, then, that the Mediterranean is also home to a number of vineyards that produce exactly the kind of crisp, thirst-quenching white wines that one craves when the mercury is rising. I’m thinking of Vermentinos from Corsica, Sardinia, and the Tuscan and Ligurian coasts; Assyrtikos from Santorini; Cavas from Catalonia; and Fianos from Campania.
All of the above wines are great at any time of year, but they pair particularly well with the fresh foods on summer menus, such as grilled fish, fresh fruit, and vegetables. The Mediterranean region’s winemaking heritage goes back thousands of years, but the recent surge in popularity of these Mediterranean whites speaks to the revived fortunes of indigenous grape varieties. It’s a good time to be a Mediterranean wine enthusiast.
Less of a region than a state of mind, the vast Mediterranean Sea laps at the shores of three continents and, as a result, has historically been home to an incredibly diverse variety of native grapes. But that diversity has been threatened in recent decades as young people in many a nation fled the country for the city, leaving local wine industries to wither on the vine. Those who remained on the land faced intense pressure to replace native grape varieties with so-called international varieties, or consumer-friendly grapes that would play well in London or Chicago, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.
Fortunately, a few wise vintners recognized that indigenous grapes such as Fiano and Nero d’Avola represented a viticultural heritage worth preserving. And that’s heritage with a capital ‘H’—it was Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder (AD23 – AD79) who dubbed Fiano grapes Vitis Apania, or “beloved by bees.” (The insect family Apoidea takes a particular shine to Fiano.) Some vintners also believed that if they could improve the quality of native wines, regional bottles could be the ticket to prosperity. It was, in essence, a bet on the idea that terroir not only matters, but also can provide a competitive advantage. Rather than going up against the Americans, Chileans, South Africans, and Australians with Chardonnay, winemakers decided to cultivate a following for their local grapes. The gamble has paid off. Helped along by subsidies from the European Union and improved farming and winemaking techniques, Fiano and other Mediterranean varieties are enjoying a renaissance.
Of course, the renaissance wouldn’t have happened if consumers hadn’t been willing to give these grapes a shot. Thanks to the energetic proselytizing of importers, wine writers, and sommeliers in the United States, Britain, and other countries, consumer interest in these obscure regional wines has surged in recent years. It hasn’t hurt the Mediterranean producers that their wines are relatively inexpensive, while competitors in Bordeaux and California have experienced some serious price inflation in recent years. But don’t be fooled by their price tags – Spanish and Italian vintners in particular are unmatched when it comes to marrying quality to affordability.
So what Mediterranean wines are must-haves this summer?
I’m a big fan of the Domaine Sigalas Assyrtiko—a quintessential Mediterranean white that’s crisp, zesty, and thoroughly refreshing.
Zipping over to Sicily, I also love the Cantina Benanti Carricante, a rich, delicious wine that is evocative of a great Alsatian Riesling and a noteworthy testament to the viticultural promise of the island’s indigenous Carricante grape.
Mastroberadino Radici Fiano di Avellino is a mouthful of a name, but those who manage to order it will be rewarded with a delicious Campanian white, made from the native Fiano grape. It’s floral and nutty, with a hint of tropical flavors, buttressed by good acidity.
I adore the Comte Abbatucci Cuvée Faustine, a Corsican white made from the Vermentino grape. It’s a lip-smacking white with terrific minerality and a beguiling whiff of Mediterranean herbs.
Lastly, a cava from Spain. We don’t usually think of the Mediterranean zone as a source of sparkling wines, and in general, it isn’t. But Catalonia produces some excellent sparklers. I’m partial to the Cava Avinyo Brut Reserva, an elegant, complex bubbly made of a blend of the traditional cava grapes (parellada, macabeo, xarel-lo), which can serve as an excellent Champagne substitute.