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The Power in a Glass of Volcanic Wine

Why wines from volcanic regions come packed with drama

John Szabo MS By July 1, 2021
vineyards in Etna volcano region
Vineyards in the Etna volcano region in Sicily, Italy. Photo courtesy of iStock.

In multiple volcanic wine regions around the world, there’s an uncanny preponderance of indigenous, often rare, very old, hyper-local grape varieties found almost nowhere else and farmed in ways unfamiliar to almost anyone born in the 20th century or later. 

In a world now thirsting for new flavors, exotic local varieties, and traditional wine styles, this alone makes volcanic wines worth a look.

An eruption of diversity

A number of reasons collide to explain the wealth of old vines in so many volcanic regions. Chief among them is the phylloxera-inhospitable nature of many volcanic soils, from fine sands, pumice, and ash, to gruesomely stony and lumpy variations. The effort and expense of farming steep vineyards on the sides of volcanoes also surely discouraged industrial speculators looking to rip out and replant in modern, tractor-ready fashion, as did the potential for destructive eruptions on those still active. And while generally neither fertile nor watered, volcanic soils often contain all the major macro- and micro-nutrients required by plants – potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, iron, etc. – to ensure longevity through a broad and balanced diet, but delivered in micro-spoonfuls.

It’s worth considering how biodiversity was once the norm. But beginning with the ravages of phylloxera in the late 19th century, and accelerated by the industrialization of vineyards in the latter part of the 20th century, minor local varieties were often abandoned in favor of the monoculture of just a few headlining grapes, and old vines ripped out in favor of more productive young vines.

This makes the few remaining ancient vines on the planet an even more scarce resource worth preserving. Ancient vineyards represent a priceless resource of genetic material, a rich treasure trove of biodiversity. Vines anchored in place for more than a century have adapted to the local conditions. Not only do these ancient vines yield singular wine, their cuttings could also prove an invaluable advantage in the struggle against climate change

What’s more, the pruning and trellising methods used on these vines provide invaluable lessons on how to farm vineyards for extreme longevity, rather than the normal 30 to 50 year lifespan of a typical commercial vineyard.

None of this would matter as much if the wines themselves weren’t also worth preserving. But here, too, volcanic wines have something distinctive to offer. While each is of course unique, the volcanic family resemblance is observed through their common mouthwatering quality, sometimes from high acids — grapes from old vines are almost invariably lower in pH then their young counterparts — almost always from detectable saltiness, sometimes both. Thanks to that broad diet, mineral salts involving elements present in wine, like potassium, magnesium, and calcium, have been implicated, along with salty succinic acid; in seaside vineyards it’s often garden-variety sodium chloride from sea spray, not soils, that adds the salinity. Mineral salts and exotic acids can also explain the vague but refreshingly bitter taste found in some wines.

Vines anchored in place for more than a century have adapted to the local conditions. Not only do these ancient vines yield singular wine, their cuttings could also prove an invaluable advantage in the struggle against climate change. 

It’s also a decidedly savory family. Volcanic wines have some fruit flavors, naturally, but they’re often accompanied, if not dominated by non-fruity flavors in the spicy, earthy, and herbal spectrums, along with all of the nuances covered under the magnificently useful, multi-dimensional term minerality and all of its varied definitions. Simply put, volcanic wines from mostly semi-parched, semi-starved vines produce less fruit, smaller bunches, thicker grape skins – where most aromas and flavors are stored, and result in more concentrated, structured, and age-worthy wines with a broader range of flavors. They can be gritty, salty, hard, maybe even unpleasant to some, but unmistakable. 

Major volcanic regions to know

Consider, for example, the phylloxera-free volcanic Island of Santorini, where vine root systems anchored in ash and pumice are calculated to be several hundred years old, and native grapes like Assyrtiko still dominate as they have for 2000 years or more. Here, Assyrtiko is expressed in utterly unique ways, almost devoid of fruit, yet richly concentrated with an essence of saline sea spray and scorched stone, and acidity more common in northern Europe than the southern Aegean. Assyrtiko from mainland, non-volcanic Greece, on the other hand, is decidedly softer and much more aromatic, even fruity.

The volcanic archipelago of the Canary Islands, too, is phylloxera free, and harbors a Jurassic Park of some 80 grape varieties brought from mainland Europe 500 years ago, still flourishing there while their counterparts back home have since vanished. Few comparatives thus exist, but look no further than the rather bland and neutral Palomino of mainland southern Spain, best employed in the production of sherry, compared to its expression from the volcanic ash and stone of Tenerife, where it’s known as Listán Blanco, where smoke and flint add infinitely more interest to its green apple zest.

In the hinterland of Campania in Italy, inland from Naples, there are precious treasuries of ancient native grapevines and pruning/training methods that were very nearly lost to humanity. Although there are no volcanoes in the immediate vicinity, tons of loose volcanic ash from the eruptions of the nearby Campi Flegrei, Roccamonfina, and Vesuvius, accumulated over eons, may provide an explanation why phylloxera remains impotent here. These vineyards have an utterly unique appearance, more like a sparse forest of vine-trees. In some cases vines actually climb up scattered trees, while others lean on thick wooden chestnut posts at least three meters high. Multiple thick and rugged old trunks grow up from the same spot to high wires stretched between the posts, while their arms run overhead along the wires and other armlets droop and loop at irregular intervals like imperfect seahorse tails. These more than 200-year-old Fiano and Aglianico vines are not only museum-worthy pieces, they’re also the source of the most layered, textured, and exquisitely concentrated examples of two of southern Italy’s finest appellations, white Fiano di Avellino and red Taurasi.

Further south in Italy, plots of pre-phylloxera Nerello Mascalese still dot the slopes of Mt. Etna, preserved in part by the once-desperately unfashionable style of wine they produced — pale, acid, and astringent, shockingly gritty and mineral for red wine — but also by the dispiriting reality of farming on the side of an alarmingly active volcano. For most of the 20th century, these old vines were not even worth ripping out, thankfully, as Nerello Mascalese grows nowhere else of any consequence. Today, Etna is one of the hottest appellations in Italy, no pun intended.

Similarly unfashionable over the same period, the wines of volcanic Upper Piedmont, or Alto Piemonte, in the appellation of Boca are now garnering more spotlight. Made from Nebbiolo and another dozen minor native varieties co-planted in loose volcanic soils and trained in the Maggiorina style, similar in appearance to the vine trees of Campania, these wines were all but forgotten, and thus survived. Less obviously powerful than the Nebbiolos of Barolo, here wines unravel a more savory, potpourri-like perfume in time, with the common salty-gritty profile of so many volcanic wines.

The Azores and Madeira retain their quirky 16th century varieties like Arinto and Verdelho, Sercial and Bual, incomparable to any renderings from elsewhere in the world. Though, suffice to say that, for example, were Madeira an outcrop of limestone in the middle of the Atlantic, the wine Madeira as we know it, made from a searingly acidic base wine that steels it through the tortuous process it undergoes, would not exist. 

Singular expressions of Hungary’s exotic natives like Furmint, Hárslevelű, Juhfark, Kéknyelű, and Kékfrankos, among others, are produced on the long strip of volcanic northern Hungary from Lake Balaton to Tokaj. Try Furmint from a region like Somló, an extinct volcano north of Lake Balaton, to experience the variety’s dark, smoky, diesel, and yellow-fleshed fruit articulation, more severe and authoritative than the breezier apple flavors born on other geologies.

And volcanic preservation is not limited to Europe. Chile’s oldest vineyards, in the south in the volcanic ash-laced trumao soils of Itata and Bío-Bío, for example, were largely forgotten during the industrial boom when Cabernet and Chardonnay came to dominate Chile’s vineyards. Still today you can find ancient plantations of País, first brought by Spanish missionaries from the Canary Islands, where it’s known as Listán Negro. The oldest vines are said to be two, or even three hundred years old, and are now experiencing a renaissance.

These and many more volcanic varieties, and the wines they produce, are both a taste of history, and a window on the future. The world can benefit from the genetic diversity of the vines that give them life and the farming lessons the ancients left written on them. But most importantly, they’re delicious.

5 volcanic wines to try:

bottle of Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso Sicily 2018

Tenuta delle Terre Nere Etna Rosso Sicily 2018 ($18)

One of the first widely available Etna Rossos in the U.S., and still among the best values. Pale, gritty, smouldering red fruit, dried porcini, and Mediterranean herb flavors lead.

bottle of 2019 Somloi Vandor Juhfark

Somlói Vandor Somlói Juhfark Somló 2019 ($20)

Tamás Kiss’s tiny holdings on the extinct Somló volcano are crafted into authentic regional expressions, like this broad and angular, sharp and tangy, honeyed, beeswax, and yellow orchard fruit-flavored Juhfark.

bottle of 2018 Suertes del Marques Vidonia

Suertes del Marqués Vidonia Valle de la Orotava Tenerife 2018 ($40)

Centenary Listán Blanco pruned in the unusual cordón trenzado fashion and fermented in old 500 liter oak, this is a volcanic white of extreme class and elegance, more about the texture and layers of stony flavors than aromatic fireworks.

bottle of 2015 Mastroberardino Radici Riserva Taurasi

Mastroberardino Radici Riserva Taurasi Campania, Italy 2015 ($42)

Classically dark and savory, this Aglianico shows a rare blend of power and refinement, and stately composure. Drink or cellar another decade or more. 

bottle of Gaia “Assyrtiko by Gaia” Wild Ferment Santorini

Gaia “Assyrtiko by Gaia” Wild Ferment Santorini, Greece 2018 ($47)

A Santorini reference with its steely character, broad and deep, incisive palate and firm, saline finish.