Salina, in Sicily’s Aeolian Islands, might just be one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to. It took no time at all to slip into island life, relax and unwind following the annual madness of Vinitaly. But, we weren’t here to just relax. Our excuse? We’d come to visit the leading winery on the island, Hauner.
Located off the Eastern tip of Sicily, there are seven islands in this volcanic archipelago – Lipari, Salina, Vulcano, Stromboli, Panarea, Filicudi and Alicudi – all UNESCO World Heritage sites. Salina is the second largest island at 27 km² and is important for vulcanology, with two non-active twin peak volcanos of Monte Fossa delle Felci (968m) and Monte dei Porri (886m). In the wake of phylloxera and two world wars, the islands were left decimated by mass immigration, much of it to Australia. Talk to a local here and they all know someone in Australia. In fact, there are so many people from the islands in Melbourne that they sometimes refer to Melbourne as the eighth island!
Carlo Hauner Snr, a renowned artist and designer from Brescia first visited in 1963. Falling in love with the island’s natural beauty, he initially came to paint and draw but it was the once famous sweet wines made from Malvasia, recently recorded as being planted on Salina at the end of the 16th century, which he became increasingly fascinated with. He subsequently purchased a collection of abandoned vineyards and researched the history of Malvasia delle Lipari (Lipari is another name for Aeolian Islands). Today, the winery is managed by his son Carlo and Gianfranco Sabbatino, and it produces dry whites and reds along with the famous sweet wines. I’m not into scoring points for wines, other wine professionals can do that. For me, giving a wine points will never convey the culture and natural beauty of it’s origins or the friendships formed with it’s creators, in this instance Carlo, his son Andrea and Gianfranco. Salina is essentially a unique place, but it is made even more so for growing vines and the wines have a definite ‘sense of place’ which makes great wine so, well, great.
Hauner’s vineyards are on the islands of Salina (mostly Malvasia) and Vulcano (whites and reds) and are planted with grapes also found in Sicily. Although the temperatures are hot during the summer, the vineyards are moderated by their elevation and the prevailing sea breezes which help to keep the vines healthy and disease-free. Salina Bianco, a blend of Inzolia and Cataratto, shows the classic characters of the Medditerranean with sage, juniper, myrtle and citrus. Its red partner, Salina Rosso, is mostly Nero d’Avola with 40% Nerello, un-oaked and brimming with fresh dark berry fruit and hints of spice. Both wines go with just about anything, especially if the dish includes the island’s other typical product, capers. Hierà, the flagship red, is a blend of 60% Nero d’Avola, 30% Alicante and 10% Nocera. It’s literally my favourite of Carlo’s labels, depicting the lava flow into the sea, and one of my favourite drinks, a classy go-to red for just about any occasion, full of fruit with spice and mineral notes that handles full flavoured dishes of meat and fish with a little chilli, not to mention the ever-present capers!
Malvasia is grown in the valley between Monte Fossa delle Felci and Monte dei Porri where the altitude and prevailing winds keep the vines healthy and disease free, allowing the harvest to go late into September and early October. The average yields are 5 tonnes per hectare and the juice is further reduced by the late harvesting and drying of the grapes. Malvasia Passito must be made with a small addition of Corinto Nero, recently shown to have the same DNA as Sangiovese, but is entirely local. The grapes are dried on traditional cannizzi (racks made from reeds) during the day for between 15-20 days and the yield here is just 45% of the potential. It has a warm, golden amber colour and the nose offers a complex bouquet of dried figs, dates, apricots, honey and sweet spices. The palate is rich and velvety and is perfect for full flavoured desserts (Sicilian cassata) and hard cheeses like pecorino.
What is there to do on Salina? Nothing! Except sleep, swim, eat and drink, read, relax, swim and eat and drink some more. We stayed at Hotel Signum in Malfa, about a ten minute drive from the main port. The place itself is beautiful, with sweeping views towards two other islands, Stromboli and Panarea, and the hospitality is warm and generous, but, the restaurant deserves a special mention. We dined there both nights and chef Martina served up some incredible dishes. The fish was sensational and I particularly loved the pasta with wild fennel, capers and sardines and ricciola with lentils, perfect with a glass of Hierà (yes that’s red wine with fish). Sommelier Vincenzo’s wine list is superb, thoughtfully composed and perfectly cellared. The list features few of the big names favouring smaller, hard to find growers. Martina is clearly a chef who considers wine, building each course and its flavours without backtracking and zigzagging (my usual complaint with degustation style menus). The local capers, arguably the best in the world, appear throughout the menu, right through to a caper infused ice cream sandwich! I know it sounds odd, but it totally works.
After dinner, you can relax on the terrace with a digestive and keep your eyes on Stromboli. You never know – it might just erupt.