Gourmet Mediterranean wine islands, by Tristan Rutherford
Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, September 2018
Mazzorbo last boomed during the 7th century. Byzantines used the tiny Venetian island to import spices and spirits into the lagoon. Five hundred years later it became an orchard for the Doges’ dinner table. Heirloom artichokes and Anatolian apples evolved in watery isolation. Island grapes metamorphosed like dinosaurs in a Lost World. For a millennium, Dorona di Venezia vines grew in size until their grapes reached the dimensions of a bantam egg. Years of sea mists tinted each bunch with a saline tang.
As the Most Serene Republic declined as a maritime power Mazzorbo collapsed into rural abandon. In 1966 disaster swept away the last vestige of an obscure history. An unprecedented acqua alta caused lagoon waters to rise by two metres. A few kilometres away in St Mark’s Square residents paddled through the piazza by canoe. The Dorana grape was lost to civilization. Or so it was thought.
In fact, around 80 Dorana vines had clung to vegetable plots and convent gardens in the surrounding lagoon. Saving the species became a race against time. In 2002 the Bisol Prosecco family replanted cuttings inside their original home of Mazzorbo’s walled garden. A decade later the single hectare vineyard, known as Venissa, produced a mere 2,500 litres of a wine that starts as sweet as syrup, fireworks the palate with oriental spice, then departs with a saline whipcrack that leaves drinkers parched for more.
“Our yacht jetty is more popular every year”, says Francesco Brutto, the Michelin-starred head chef who manages the Venissa estate’s tiny island restaurant. “We source as much as possible from the island, where the salty lagoon imparts a deep minerality to our grapes and our ingredients.” As in the Doge’s days, white turnips are planted between the vines to act as a natural fertiliser. Mazzorbo’s tiny castraura artichokes, which are so supple they are served raw as antipasti, sprout anywhere they choose. Other plants are so archaic that nine pensioner gardeners are shipped across from the neighbouring island of Burano – they are the only folks who remember how to tend them.
“Like on a yacht, all meals must be planned in advance,” explains Brutto. “Being on an island away from the Venetian crowds is wonderful, but if you forget anything it’s a problem!” Each dish is a lesson in hyper-locality. Gnocchi come filled with smoked oysters and island walnuts. Crab cakes are topped with foraged fennel and wild mustard. Half-bottles of Venissa cost around €150 but oenophiles must beg to take one home. Years of allocation have been pre-purchased by the likes of Venice’s Gritti Palace and Milan's Ristorante Trussardi alla Scala. If you want to pair a topographically unique dinner with the world’s rarest wine, set the GPS for here.
Another yacht-friendly wine island has offered fine dining for longer. Like Mazzorbo, the island of Porquerolles near St Tropez has a providential backstory. And once again, its population would barely fill the interior of an Airbus jet.
In 1912 Porquerolles was purchased by Latin American gold miner François Joseph Fournier. The 7km-long island was a wedding present for his young wife Sylvie. She must have been very grateful indeed. To toast the deal Fournier planted 200 hectares of vines. His former fields now comprise the all-organic Domaine de l'Ile. Their predominant rosé production is based around Tibouren, a sun-loving grape brought by Provence’s Greek colonisers. The wine sings with seawater salinity, dusky maquis incense and cool summer breeze.
Like Venissa, Domaine de l'Ile’s wine rarely travels far. Much is sold in Le Mas du Langoustier, Porquerolles’s Michelin-starred restaurant. “Dining here is naturally unique,” says head chef Julien Le Goff. “Our kitchen is a reflection of what you see growing around you.” A Porquerolles fisherman delivers lobster, red mullet and squid. “The only destination you can pair this boat-fresh seafood with this island wine is here.”
The island’s allure doubles at 7pm when the last tourist boat departs to mainland France. Yachtsmen and residents are left to enjoy a botanical fantasy of eucalyptus, lemon blossom, juniper and tamarisk. High above peregrine falcons and turtledoves crisscross the goldening sky. Evening bike rides through Domaine de l'Ile’s vineyards blend with sunset swims.
“Despite our star in the Michelin guide, our restaurant is not stilted,” notes Le Goff. “For example, our yacht clientele come by RIB, paddleboard and kayak. Some guests even swim in.” Although tenders disgorge discreet captains of industry and heads of state throughout summer it doesn’t matter what they wear. “We are an island. You do not have to come in evening dress. It's what's on the plate that counts.”
No gourmet wine island is stranger than St Honorat, a short sail down the Cote d’Azur coast off Cannes. It was colonised by religious hermit Saint Honoratus on AD410. Sadly for him, news of his sun-drenched El Dorado travelled faster than a Novamarine tender. Honoratus was inundated with ‘disciples’ whether he wanted them or not. To make paradise even tastier, the monks planted heat-loving wine varieties on their eight-hectare plot. These include Viognier, an ancient Roman grape that worships the sun as gamely as a British office worker. And Mourvèdre, a mettlesome red that also bathes under the azure skies of Alicante, Arizona and New South Wales.
Wine from the 2km-long island isn’t cheap. A magnum of topographical uniqueness costs around €150, as one might expect from a terroir that uses the Cap d’Antibes as a windbreak. A better idea is to tie up the tender at St Honorat’s dock and stroll the vineyards on foot. Wines are served, just metres from where the grapes were plucked, in the seafood restaurant La Tonnelle. The eatery remains popular with starlets from nearby Cannes – if only because the monks’ Cistercian principles forbid them from speaking to each other, let alone the celebrity press. Only one of the order’s 30 residents, Brother Marie, is allowed to converse. A trained oenologist, he leads wine tasting tours of the domaine.
St Honorat’s wines are revered by Christian Sinicropi, the Michelin two star chef at Cannes’ La Palme d’Or. The island vineyard twinkles across the bay from his restaurant terrace above the Hotel Martinez. “Christian Willer, my predecessor at La Palme d’Or, venerated the wines of the island monks,” he recalls. When Sinicropi assumed the mantle of head chef in 2008, island vintages continued to be paired with San Remo shrimps and Provençal pigeon. “I also use the olive oil made from the monks’ trees. Any chef can make luxury cuisine. But here you can taste history too.”
Mediterranean island travel stories are a specialism of Kathryn Tomasetti and Tristan Rutherford