Tahiti, the remote French Polynesian island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, is one of the world's least-known wine regions. As unlikely as it might seem, grape wine is made on this tropical island, albeit in tiny quantities.
French Polynesia, thousands of miles from the nearest significant land mass, is made up of several hundred islands and atolls (ring-shaped coral reefs) spread over nearly one million square miles (2.6 million sq km) of ocean. Their combined land area occupies 0.15% of this area, just 1,600 square miles (4,143 sq km). As implied by its name, French Polynesia (and thus Tahiti) is a French overseas territory, and has had close connections with France since the 19th Century. Today, all Tahitians are French citizens, and many of the island's inhabitants were born in France. It was only a matter of time before an enterprising French-born vigneron tried to grow grapevines there, and in the mid-1990s, this is precisely what happened.
Due to the high humidity of its climate, Tahiti island itself is unsuitable for viticulture, so wines made there are vinified from grapes grown on the nearby Rangiroa atoll. Rangiroa is part of the 'neighboring' Tuamotu archipelago, some 215 miles (350km) to the north-east. This might seem like a vast distance, but it is tiny when viewed in the context of Polynesia and the Pacific Ocean. One of the largest atolls on Earth, Rangiroa encircles a vast lagoon some 45 miles (75km) across. The atoll is one of very few viticulturally suitable sites in French Polynesia, thanks to its relatively dry climate. (Humid climates, and specifically the fungal diseases that thrive in them, pose major health threats to tropical vineyards.)
The terroir in which Tahitian wines are produced is very much a product of Rangiroa's location in a tropical, oceanic location. By definition, atolls are composed largely of calcium carbonate, which is secreted by corals as a natural part of their life cycle, so Rangiroa naturally benefits from fast-draining calcareous (limestone) soils. Dominique Auroy, Tahiti's only winemaker, is quick to point out the similarity between the soils there and in his native Burgundy. The climate, however, is quite different from anything found anywhere in mainland France.
Rangiroa's location in the middle of the Pacific, at a latitude of 15 degrees south, gives it a climate entirely distinct from the world's traditional wine-producing regions. As is true of any tropical location, there is minimal seasonal variation on the atoll, and no winter. Almost every other wine region on Earth (the vast majority of which lie between 30 and 50 degrees latitude) has four distinct seasons. This climatic variation is vital to the vines' lifecycle: the winter season allows the plants a dormant period for recovery after the growing season. Viticulturists in tropical climates employ various techniques to replicate the vines' natural seasonal cycles, most of which revolve around pruning and careful control of the water supply.
Warmth and sunshine are plentiful in the tropics, but summer days are shorter than at temperate latitudes, and particularly intense. As a result, vines are deprived of the kind of cool, bright mornings and long evenings that steadily bring grapes to optimal, balanced ripeness. Further, the fierce solar radiation creates the need for canopy shading, to protect the grapes from 'sunburn' during the middle of the day. Pergola-style vine training has so far proved a workable solution to this problem.
Happily, one viticultural challenge faced in almost every wine region on Earth is not a problem in Polynesia. The dreaded sap-sucking phylloxera mite has never made it there. The most significant pests in the vineyards are the large land crabs that live on the atoll and pluck leaves from young vines.
The most widely used wine grapes on Tahiti are Carignan (red) and Muscat Hamburg (white). Both varieties are known for their ability to survive heat. Also used is the little-known 'Italia', a large-berried table grape crossed from Muscat Hamburg and the near-extinct French 'Bicane' variety.
In addition to grape wine and fruit wine, Tahiti also produces beer, from malt imported from New Zealand (2,500 miles/4,000km away) and France. It is brewed at the Brasserie de Tahiti beverage-manufacturing site in Papeete, the Tahitian capital, and is sold almost entirely under the iconic Hinano label.