If you look at it from the Tyrrhenian coast of Sicily, Salina looks exactly alike the other Aeolian islands floating on the horizon. It is only when you get close that you notice that it is much greener.
Geranium, wisteria, jasmine, poppies and hundreds of bushes make up green and colorful spots, while chestnut trees, oaks and strawberry trees climb up the slopes of the twin mountains that rise on the island, the extinct cones of as many volcanoes.
The reason for this verdant fertility is precisely the height of these mountains, together with the presence of fresh water springs. The clouds that pass over the island remain “entangled” up there, releasing humidity which, sliding downwards, gives fertility to the earth. This is why the inhabitants of the island are mainly farmers, just like their ancestors who settled in Salina in the 16th century, to cultivate the volcanic land.
An island of farmers
They built vegetable gardens, orchards and vineyards and planted caper bushes between them. And they assembled a fleet of a hundred ships to export their products to the mainland, especially the capers (which grow everywhere, even on the most inaccessible rocks, and are very decorative, with the large white flowers) and the sweet and fragrant wine, Malvasia.
According to tradition, the Malvasia vine arrived in Sicily about 2000 years ago, but we have to go up to the sixteenth century to find reliable indications regarding its presence in Salina. The name, which derives from the Venetian pronunciation of the word Monembasia, a Greek city which, in the sixteenth century, was a colony of the Republic of Venice, dates back to the same period. All the wines that came from there were called “malvasia” and all the Venetian inns where they were served were called “malvasie”.
From Greece to Sicily
How exactly the vine came to Salina is not known and probably will never be known, but the cultivation spread easily and quickly in the new land, so much so that today the vine is called Malvasia delle Lipari. The wine was prepared following ancient Greek techniques. In 1788 Lazzaro Spallanzani, one of the founders of modern biology, wrote a detailed description of the vinification procedures. Among other things, we read that it is necessary “not to detach this grape from the vine if it is not perfectly ripe, which you can tell by the beautiful golden color and the sweet taste it takes”. Afterwards, the clusters must be left to dry in the sun on woven reeds for a couple of weeks, before being pressed.
Spallanzani’s text served the architect Carlo Hauner when he decided to devote himself to the production of this wine. In love with Salina, Hauner settled on the island in the 1970s and here he met Malvasia, which at the time was only produced in a limited way by a few farmers. The destruction of the vineyards by the phylloxera at the end of the nineteenth century had brought the island’s economy to its knees and forced many Salinesi to emigrate. The remaining vines were practically abandoned. Thanks to Hauner the production was resumed, arousing the interest of wine lovers. Today, several thousands of bottles of Malvasia DOC are produced in Salina – in the “natural” and “passita” versions – and the Hauner winery, which today is led by Carlo jr. and his son Andrea, has been joined by others such as Colosi, Caravaglio, Pollastri, Virgona and Fenech.
One of the biggest wineries is that of the Tasca d’Almeritas, who have bought an estate on the northern coast of the island, on the top of a cliff with a beautiful view on Panarea and Stromboli. An amazing spot, from every point of view, in which the production of wine coexists with hospitality: Capofaro Locanda & Malvasia is an excellent structure, with a five-star welcome in Aeolian houses surrounded with vines, geraniums and bougainvillea. Here at the end of the summer you’ll find yourselves in the middle of the grape harvest (and you can take part in it, if you want to).
At the end of the day, you must obviously enjoy a glass of malvasia! Order it in the bar and take the glass outside, to enjoy the wine together with the view, and maybe send a thought to Alexandre Dumas. The French writer, who visited the island in 1835, wrote in his diaries that he was served “the most fantastic wine” he had ever tasted … Guess what it was!
(The opening photo is by Matteo Carassale)