Mediterranean wines

The region is producing some of the most remarkable and undiscovered wines in the world
December 12, 2012

Picking grapes at the Cornelissen winery, Etna

Whether it was first in Turkey, Georgia or Armenia, the area to the east of the Mediterranean is the birthplace of wine. Winemaking here stretches back throughout ancient civilisation, from the Mesopotamians to the Phoenicians.

While many wines from the wider Mediterranean region fell into obscurity over the last century—a result of image problems, caused by generally unremarkable winemaking—the area has been in the throes of a high renaissance during the past 25 years. Small producers in Sicily, Santorini, and Lebanon are currently making some of the most expressive and nuanced wines in the world. And they are set on representing their roots.

One of the most exciting new-old wine regions is Sicily’s Mount Etna, where ancient vines over 100 years old crouch precariously along the steep slopes and foothills of Europe’s highest active volcano. The wines from Mount Etna are some of Italy’s most unique, as each small plot has its own distinct terroir defined by the specific elevation, exposure and lava in the soil. The dominant grape variety is the lean and graceful nerello mascalese, which produces delicately spiced wines with a certain noble elegance that has seen Etna Rosso coined “the burgundy of the Mediterranean.”

Ten years ago, there were eight wine producers in Etna; now there are more than 60. The region’s winemaking revolution began around 2000, when producers like Benanti, Biondi, Foti and Cornelissen pushed to preserve and revive its ancient vineyards. Cornelissen’s wines are the most exotic example of Etna’s unique terroirs. With a traditionalist attitude to winemaking, the grapes are grown with minimal human intervention, and the wine is fermented in terracotta amphorae and buried underground, using the Etruscan technique. While Cornelissen’s grand cru wine Magma may ring out your pockets, at about £95 a bottle, his entry-level wine Contadino is a brilliant introduction to old school Etna funk. Be warned, his wines are not for everyone. For tamer examples of Etna Rosso, look for Vini Biondi Outis Nessuno 2007, Murgo Etna Rosso 2009 and Calabretta Etna Rosso 2002.

Within the Mediterranean, the Greek island of Santorini may have one of the richest histories of winemaking, boasting a small collection of sandy vineyards that have been continuously cultivated for 3,500 years. While it has taken years for Santorini to shake its singular reputation for Retsina and Vinsanto, the island is finally becoming known for its full-bodied dry whites from the ancient and indigenous assyrtiko grape, which are rapidly gaining international prestige as some of the finest white wines in the world. The best are characterised by bracing acidity, intense minerality and citrus notes.

Founded in 1991, Domaine Sigalas was a pioneer of organic viticulture on Santorini, and produces some of the finest white wines on the island. The Sigalas “Santorini” Assyrtiko 2010 is both excellent and affordable with notes of lemon zest, sea salt, and wet stones. The Hatzidakis Winery was founded even more recently, by a husband and wife duo dedicated to organic farming and non-interventionist, traditional winemaking. Showing incredible complexity and soul, look for the lean Hatzidakis “Santorini” Assyrtiko 2011, or the riper, oak-aged Hatzidakis Nikteri Assyrtiko 2009.

Some of the finest wines in the Mediterranean hail from the drink’s spiritual homeland: the Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon, where winemaking has been ongoing for over five millennia. Château Musar remains the most exceptional producer in Lebanon, three decades after first putting Lebanese wine on the map. Located in an 18th-century castle in Ghazir, 15 miles from Beirut, Musar has produced every one of the last 53 vintages, despite instability and civil war—except 1976, and 1984, when battle among the vines forced a halt in production.

Serge Hochar produces some of the most brilliantly honest and idiosyncratic wines in the world. The reds are Bordelais in structure, comprised of a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cinsault and carignan. Look for the Château Musar, from any vintage, really. The whites are blends of the indigenous obaideh and merwah grapes, similar to chardonnay and sémillon respectively. They produce complex, savoury and robust white wines that are both substantial enough for winter and lively enough for spring.

The wines from the Mediterranean offer unbeatable diversity, idiosyncrasy and allusion to ancient tradition. In the last two decades, regions that had been entirely overlooked have started producing some of the most exciting wines in the world, and at some of the greatest prices. The best new-old wines from the Mediterranean are not trying to be anything other than what they are. They are not as universally lovable as Bordeaux or Burgundy: they have crooked teeth, narrow shoulders and sharp elbows. But that is why you will love them.