1. At the end of the world
Last island south of the Cyclades, Santorini, ancient Thera, is a piece of crater erected in the sea, of what remains of a volcano that exploded 16 or 17 centuries BC.
On one side a cliff that falls into the sea, on the other an arid slope, almost treeless with a sandy volcanic soil very poor in clay, maintained by terraces with low walls.
The vine, probably established by Phoenicians, survives by sheltering itself plant by plant in a basin “in basket” because the long branches are rolled up on themselves in the form of basket (Kouloura) , which offers the best shelter to the bunches of grapes. “Kouloura” is thus, a vine pruning technique which protects vines from strong winds and the scorching sun.
Phylloxera has never reached the island, and the vines are mostly 60 to 70 years old on average and some even are 100 years old!
The grape varieties have not changed for centuries and assytriko, indigenous or of distant Phoenician origin, remains the great white grape of Santorini, one of the finest in all of Greece.
In these extremely difficult conditions, it gives a dry and lively white wine of great character and, according to an old tradition which has earned it an immense reputation from the 13th century until the 19th century, a sweet wine done by passerillage baptized by the Venetian vinsanto or visanto. Long forgotten, this sweet wine was reborn in the 1980s thanks to a new generation of winegrowers, such as Yannis Argyros or Pâris Sigalas.
This phenomenon is also found in the Canaries, with the same insular character, the same type of volcanic soil and conditions which make it necessary to plant each vine in a small hollow of the ground and to protect the plantations with stone walls.
Here too, exempted from phylloxera, some vines are centuries old, in particular those of moscatel and malvasia which give deliciously sweet wines on Lanzarote and La Palma. Or those of white listan, known for their very aromatic dry wine in the regions of Abona, in the south of Tenerife, the highest vineyard in Europe with plots of up to 1,800 meters above sea level.
Confronted with unfavorable climatic conditions and sterile soil on the surface, the inhabitants of the volcanic island of Lanzarote developed an ingenious system of vine cultivation almost 300 years ago, making it possible in particular to compensate for the lack of rainfall.
Part of the Lanzarote vineyard was indeed installed on volcanic deposits dating from the eruptions of the Timanfaya volcano between 1730 and 1734 after which fine black gravel (lapilli) and ash covered the ground to a thickness of between one and three meters.
South of Arrecife, the capital of Lanzarote, in the Geria vineyard, the wine growers dug funnels (hoyos) several meters in diameter, or trenches (zanjas), in order to reach the more clayey soil below the layer of ash and planted vines that develop their roots in the underlying soil remained moist.
This technique (called enarenado) allows vines to be cultivated without irrigation in a region subject to intense sunstroke and which receives barely 150 or 200mm of rain each year. The ash layer acts as a mineral mulch which reduces evaporation while the lapilli soak up the scant precipitation.
When the loose layer is not very thick and the funnel is not very deep, the winegrowers have completed the protection system of their vines by building walls of circular or semi-circular blocks of lava that protect each vine from the scorching and drying winds from the Sahara.
This technique of cultivating the vine has shaped extraordinary landscapes in the middle of a lunar setting where the vines represent, with small touches of color, the only visible sign of the presence of plant life.
Another island, another volcano: Sicily and Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe, which rises 3,295 meters above the nearby sea. Here, in the oldest appellation, the vines are clinging to the terraces which retain a soil of ash and sand of volcanic origin, overlooking the port of Catania and the sumptuous site of Taormina, in balcony on the sea.
The particular pedology of these deep volcanic lands, rich in salts and minerals, naturally gives the vineyard a unique character. The climate plays on all the contrasts, between the winter snow and the summer sirocco as well as the temperature differences between day and night and between wind and volcanic eruptions.
There, the Etna appellation is undergoing a rebirth with the vines spread between 450 and 1000 meters of altitude, with grape varieties such as carricante, a local white grape with lively and nervous wines; and nerello mascalese, a red variety sometimes associated with nerello capuccio to produce fleshy, fruity and expressive wines. These grape varieties are the few survivors of the pre-phylloxera era.
On Madeira, the Ilha de Madeira, standing in the Atlantic Ocean, the vines cover the barely accessible terraces of the slopes of the old volcano, which descend towards the sea in the rare parts of the island where viniculture is possible.
The negra mole has become the dominant grape variety there, and only a small part of these plots is still devoted by a few large traditional houses to the hard work of noble authentic Madeira grape varieties, those which in the past were improved during long journeys at sea and which are today aged by heating in estufas to acquire the oxidative character and the elegant note of bitterness so typical.
2. On the top of the world
These specificities are also the major attraction of the Aosta Valley, in the Italian Alps. With Mont Blanc as the background, the vines are staggered at an altitude of more than 1000 meters, offering the astonishing white of Morgex and La Salle with its floral aromas from the white grape of valdigne or, for the red, l’Enfer d’Arvier made from a fruity and spicy grape called petit rouge.
The German vineyards of the Moselle valley and those of the Austrian Wachau, are also vertiginous although not very mountainous.
Another continent, another high-altitude vines: The Argentine vineyard. On the eastern side, the Argentinian vineyards are fond of the highlands. However, it does not hesitate to set out to conquer the Salta region which rises to an altitude of over 4000 meters. The small town of Cafayate, 1600 meters high, has several of the most important bodegas in the country, while further and higher in the mountain are some of the highest wave areas exceeding 2000 meters above sea level.
Other regions such as the Douro in Portugal, the land of Porto or the spectacular Rhône Valley in France are also regions known for their narrow terraces which appeal to the ingenuity of winegrowers.
These wines from the end of the world are rare and sought after, little treasures of vineyards that have made a wealth of what almost pushed them into decline and their disappearance a century earlier.
3. Warmest vineyards of the world
Morocco now has around 6,500 hectares of vines, ten times less than in the 1950s, when “pinardiers” boats loaded with Moroccan wines intended for coupage (a mixture of different wines) were sailing in large numbers towards the major European ports.
Today, thirteen estates are giving Morocco back its letters of nobility, sharing nearly 7,000 hectares of vines, for around 50 million bottles produced per year. They are divided into 3 AOCs and a few PGI (called AOG). The major wine regions are located between Casablanca and Meknes with a few vineyards in the regions of Essaouira and Boulaouane.
In this semi-arid region, temperatures sometimes exceed 50 degrees. The “Chergui”, a strong warm wind coming from Sahara Desert put the vines and its cultivation at test. Due to all these extreme conditions, it is not rare for wine growers to lose up to 60% of their crops per year.
If you wish to discover the Morocco vineyards, you have to visit Castel Wine Estate, which is one of the country’s major players in the wine production field. Located at 700m of altitude, the vineyard of 500 hectares, of a single plot is mainly planted with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, grenache and cinsault, and worked in sustainable agriculture.
In total, the Castel estate covers 1,400 hectares. One of the specialties of the estate – which produces a wide range of wines – is Vin Gris, a delicious wine with a pale pink color, very refreshing and obtained by direct pressing of grenache and cinsault grapes.
Le Celliers de Meknès, 2,400 hectares, is another of Morocco’s must-see vineyards and a major player in Moroccan viticulture since the 1950s. It is located along the foothills of the Atlas. Thanks to the protection of the mountains, the region remains temperate, with an average of 34 ° C in summer, and strong climatic variations in winter. It is not uncommon to see snow there in January.
A very specific terroir, with unique fatty and clayey soils, that Brahim Zniber, founder of Celliers de Meknès and the leading wine producer in Morocco, has always wished to highlight. Les Celliers de Meknès were thus pioneers in the establishment of appellations of controlled origin, with the creation in 2005 of Coteaux de l’Atlas, the first Moroccan AOC. Then in 2012, with the first traditional method of the Kingdom and the creation of the AOC Crémant de l’Atlas.
4. The coldest vineyard of the world
Canada is a New World country producing Icewines of remarkable quality. In fact, Canada is the world leader in the production of this type of wine.
The Vikings, while discovering the current lands of Canada, would have also come across many wild vines. Historians speculate that these vines led explorer Leif Ericson to name one of the Canada Lands Vinland. European settlers tried without much success to cultivate vines from grape varieties imported to Canada at the beginning of the 19th century, but the vines did not resist the country’s climate.
Prohibition in Canada at the beginning of the 20th century destroyed small wine regions but strengthened Ontario which took advantage of its exception for wine production.
Canada experiences a harsh climate, with spring frosts and a short period of grape ripening. The most important wine-growing areas are generally found near large lakes to enjoy cooler temperatures, ideal for icewine. It results from grape varieties like riesling, frozen on the vine. The grapes are harvested late in the year when temperatures are largely in the negative. The grapes are then pressed to separate the frozen water from the must. The residual liquid is fermented to make ice wine, a very concentrated and sweet dessert wine.
The main areas of wine production in Canada are the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario and the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. Quebec and Nova Scotia are considered the emerging wine regions of the country. Inniskillin is Canada’s largest ice wine producer, its Icewines are considered among the best in the world.
5. A vineyard grown under water
For the most conscientious winegrowers, only one harvest in the dry season is done.
Then, with a product called the Dormex – a plant growth regulator applied generally within 48 hours of harvest – it promotes a uniform stop of budding; so that the plant can come to rest.
Therefore, the difficulty is to create a balance between the two and to ensure that the soil is well drained or irrigated as appropriate. There are even floating vines, which give the estates an air of a planted Venice. However, due to the atmospheric pressure and the permanent humidity, it is impossible to make organic wines as the vine needs to be treated against grey rot and meldew.
Thailand, with a dozen wineries, mostly in the Khao Yai region (in the north), spans less than 4,000 hectares.