Mediterranean climates are characterized by strong seasonal contrasts between dry summers and wet winters. Changes in winter rainfall are critical for regional socioeconomic development, but are difficult to simulate accurately1 and reconstruct on Quaternary timescales. This is partly because regional hydroclimate records that cover multiple glacial–interglacial cycles2,3 with different orbital geometries, global ice volume and atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations are scarce. Moreover, the underlying mechanisms of change and their persistence remain unexplored. Here we show that, over the past 1.36 million years, wet winters in the northcentral Mediterranean tend to occur with high contrasts in local, seasonal insolation and a vigorous African summer monsoon. Our proxy time series from Lake Ohrid on the Balkan Peninsula, together with a 784,000-year transient climate model hindcast, suggest that increased sea surface temperatures amplify local cyclone development and refuel North Atlantic low-pressure systems that enter the Mediterranean during phases of low continental ice volume and high concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases. A comparison with modern reanalysis data shows that current drivers of the amount of rainfall in the Mediterranean share some similarities to those that drive the reconstructed increases in precipitation. Our data cover multiple insolation maxima and are therefore an important benchmark for testing climate model performance.