The Elba DOC was created in 1967 for red, white and pink wines but was subsequently amended to include the passito wines which initially had been ignored due to small production. Elba is also home to one DOCG, a sweet dried-grape wine called Elba Aleatico Passito or Aleatico d’Elba Passito DOC.
Wine was of great economic importance here in ancient times, and the elder Pliny (24-79 AD) described the island as “rich in wines”. Until the second half of the C20th the extraction of iron ore and metallurgy were the main economic activities. In 1917 840,000 tonnes of iron were produced (due to the First World War) but in the Second World War the iron industry was hit hard by the Allies. By the beginning of the 1980s iron production was down to 100,000 tonnes. Tourism has now taken the place of mining and smelting.
Getting there | By air Via the island’s aerodrome at La Pila. By boat Ferry from Piombino which is 15km away to the north east on the Italian mainland (about one hour away).
Elba has been inhabited since the Iron Age, Ligurian tribespeople being the island’s first inhabitants, followed by the Etruscans and Greeks from Magna Graecia. The iron business was established by then, making the island doubly attractive for rich Romans who built holiday villas here. After the Pax Romana the island became a haven for those fleeing the barbarian invasions on the mainland.
By the C11th the island came under the control of Pisa (and Piombino). Fortresses were built to ward off attack from Muslim raiders and pirates operating out of North Africa. In the C16th, Cosimo I de’ Medici obtained land in the north of the island, where he founded the port town of Cosmopolis – today’s Portoferraio. At the same time the Spanish acquired the southeastern strip of the island. In the C18th Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo II encouraged land reform, the drainage of swamps and agricultural efficiency. But iron remained the major industry.
In the 19th-century Elba was the first location to which emperor Napoleon (1769-1821) was exiled after signing the Treaty of Fontainebleau. He was awarded the island as his own private fiefdom, and lived here from 3 May 1814 when he was dropped off in Medici harbour, Portoferraio by the English frigate ‘Undaunted’. Napoleon lived in what became known as the Residencia dei Mulini in Portoferraio. Napoleon’s Villa dei Mulini is in the old centre of Portoferraio, a town house and now museum containing Napoleon memorabilia. When he was living on the island Napoleon is said to have taken an interest in the vineyards which revived an interest in winegrowing. He also instituted a programme of public works, such as improving the island’s iron ore mines, boosting agriculture, initiating a road-building programme, draining marshes, overhauling the legal and education systems. Mass is still said in his honour on May each year at the Chiesa della Misericordia.
Main towns | Portoferraio on the northern side, Porto Azzurro on the eastern side, and Marina di Campo on the southern.
Terroir | Climate The climate is arid. The island has several museums dedicated to geology. Surface area 223 km², 28km long and 19km across at its widest point. Terrain The island is mountainous. Topography The highest peak being Monte Capanne (1,018 metres). This has views of the whole island, with the Tuscan coast to the east and the east coast of Corsica to the west.
Wine-growing | Wine-growing on Elba has a long history. ‘Pliny the Elder described Elba as ‘insula vini ferax’, meaning an island with an abundant production of wine (OCW: 2015, p257). This continued until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when a quarter of the cultivated surface was occupied by vines (OCW: 2015, p257). Emigration and tourism saw wine-growing decline (OCW: 2015, p.257).
Vineyard area | Until the beginning of the 20th century, around a quarter of the arable area was planted with vines. In 1950 there were 3,000 hectares of vines apparently. Rosemary George MW (2004, p.325) found 130 hectares and a dozen bottlers. Figures published in 2015 said Elba had 100 ha (250 acres) of vines in production, three-quarters of it white wine (OCW: 2015, p.257). The whole of Elba is covered by one DOC, called Elba.
Gastronomy | Produce Cherry tomatoes, olives, rosemary and olive oil. Cakes The traditional Elba cake is called schiaccia. Game Wild boar, and other game. Honey The rarest Elban honeys are from rosemary (rosmarino), of which Elba has over a dozen species, thistle-flower (cardo), called Galactites tomentosa, corbezzelo (the ‘strawberry tree’) or Arbutus unedo, which grows wild in the scrub. Unusually this plant produces its flowers and fruit at the same time in late autumn. Seafood Locally caught species include ‘the blunt-headed gallinella (a type of gurnard), purplish octopus, slim anchovies, and striped oval-bodied sarago (a kind of bream)’ says Capalbo (p.167).
Elba Ansonica DOC | This is made in secco, amabile and dolce styles from a minium 85% Ansonica Bianca.
Elba Bianco DOC | Elba Bianco is a dry white made from 50-100% Trebbiano Toscano or ‘Procanico’, 0-50% Ansonica (Sicily’s Inzolia) and/or Vermentino, and 0-20% other permitted white varieties. The wine is produced in secco, amabile and dolce styles. The same grape varieties are used to make a dry bottle fermented Spumante.
Elba Bianco DOC Moscato | 100% Moscato Bianco made in a dolce (sweet) style from dried grapes. The grapes are picked and dried in the open air or in appropriate facilities. Minimum 16% alcohol and sweet.
Elba Bianco DOC Vin Santo | Elba Bianco Vin Santo is a white blend, and made in secco and amabile versions from the same grapes as for Elba Bianco DOC. The grapes are picked, dried and must be crushed between November 1 and March 31st of the year following harvest. Minimum 16% alcohol. Dry to sweet. Must age three years or four for Riserva.
Elba Ansonica Passito DOC | Elba Ansonica Passito is made from grapes which are picked and dried in the open air or in appropriate facilities. It must contain a minimum 16% alcohol and is sweet (amabile) to very sweet (dolce). Ansonica may have arrived here from Giglio (an island in the Tuscan archipelago) hence is known locally as the Uva di Giglio. See Ansonica Costa dell’Argentario for more details on this grape.
Elba Rosato DOC | Made from the same grapes as for Elba Rosso.
Elba Rosso DOC | Elba Rosso (also made as a Riserva with two years of ageing) and Rosato are made from Sangiovese (known locally as Sangioveto; 60-100%), as well as from other permitted varieties (up to 40%, of which a maximum of 10% white varieties).
Elba Aleatico DOC | Elba Aleatico must come from a minimum of 85% Aleatico and is made in amabile and dolce styles. As Aleatico does not always set well it is so good for drying because the bunches are loose.
Elba Aleatico DOC | Elba Aleatico Passito DOC is made from 100% Aleatico. The grapes are picked and dried in the open air or in appropriate facilities. Can be deep pink to dark red. Minimum 16% alcohol and sweetish. Capalbo (p167) says to watch out for wines labelled ‘Aleatico Vino Liquoroso’ produced in Sicily with additives and sugars.
Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice DOC | Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice is made from the same grape varieties as for Elba Rosso DOC, and is made in a dolce version. Both have an alcohol level of 16% vol, and may be called Riserva if matured for four years. The grapes are picked, dried and must be crushed between November 1 and March 31st of the year following harvest. Dark pink to red. Minimum 16% alcohol. Dry to sweet.
Carla Capalbio, The food lovers companion to Tuscany (2000).
Nicolas Belfrage MW, From Brunello to Zibibbo: The Wines of Tuscany, Central and Southern Italy (London, 2001), p.152.
Oxford Companion to Wine 4th edition ed. Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW (Oxford University Press, 2015), p.257 by David Gleave MW & Walter Speller.