Volcanic Wines

You’ve heard of organic wine, and maybe even of biodynamic wine or ‘natural’ wine. But volcanic wine? With the wine industry evermore preoccupied with uniqueness, there’s a new, but very ancient fascination: wines grown on or near volcanoes.

Although volcanic soils account for only about one percent of the world’s land surface, grapes occupy a disproportionate share. That’s because they have many useful properties that make them especially suited for high-quality wine. This fact is only now coming into better focus on an international level. As David Elswood, International Head of Wine Sales for Christie’s Auction House, points out: “The link between vineyards of volcanic origin is not yet well acknowledged in the fine wine world. However, when you consider the common, intense, and distinctive smoky-salty character of wines from volcanic regions such as Hungary’s Tokaj, Madeira, and some of the best Riesling vineyards in Germany, volcanic sub-soils clearly have a strong influence on the vines and wines.”

So what’s the secret?

For one, young volcanic “soils” formed on recent lavas are often more rock than soil – they haven’t had time to weather into water-retentive clays – and thus hold little moisture. It’s well established that less water favors higher grape quality. Volcanic ash and sand likewise drain readily, and by the nature of where they form, volcanic soils are often on hillsides where water runs off.

Mount Etna in Italy
Mount Etna in Italy
Gnarly old vines, Taurasi, Campania
Gnarly old vines, Taurasi, Campania

Secondly, despite their reputation in the world of food crops and coffee shrubs, the best volcanic soils for wine growing are infertile. Although lavas contain generous amounts of nutrients (and a wider range than most rocks), they’re not readily available. That’s because these elements must first be weathered into an available form, and then be dissolved in water to be taken up by roots. But water, as we’ve just learned, is not often available, and minimally weathered soils/rocks release precious few nutrients.

As a result, the vines get a broad diet, but in small quantities (low fertility but without particular deficiencies), which triggers them to focus on ripening fruit rather than growing shoots and leaves. Semi-parched, semi-starved vines produce less fruit, smaller bunches, thicker grape skins (where most aromas and flavours are stored), and result in more concentrated, structured, age-worthy and complex wines.

Styles vary given the range of grape varieties and climates and the precise makeup of soils, not to mention variable winemaking approaches around the planet. But there are some recurring features: a mouth-watering quality, more savory than fruity flavors, and a density that can only come from genuine extract. Volcanic wines can be gritty, salty, powerful, maybe even unpleasant to some, but distinctive.

Sunset over vines, Ischia
Sunset over vines, Ischia

There are many volcanic wine regions around the world, some obvious, others less so. Mount Etna on Sicily’s northeastern corner, for example, is regularly in the news as Europe’s most active volcano, and the occasionally perilous home to vines for the last 3000 years. Today, about 120 winemakers produce Etna Rosso from the nerello mascalese grape, the best of which offer the perfume and finesse of Burgundy with the structure of Barolo. In both regions, the obsession on Etna is to reflect the mountain’s complex terroir. “The challenge is to take this great traditional grape and coax from it the images of my encounter with these different patches of land, each of which produces a distinct wine,” says Italian-American Marc de Grazia of Terre Nere (“Black Earth,” in reference to the dark volcanic soils) in the poetic terms of a winemaker. And Terre Nere’s single-vineyard wines clearly show fascinating terroir-derived nuances.

Much of Campania on Italy’s mainland is likewise obviously volcanic, looming under the shadow of the world’s most famous, and dangerous, volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, as well as the nearby Campi Flegrei, or “Fields of Fire”, on the other side of Naples, a massive volcanic field so named by the Greeks because of its multiple volcanic vents. Many of southern Italy’s finest reds and whites grow here in soils heavily laced with volcanic ash from countless eruptions. Aglianico-based reds from the Taurasi appellation, and star whites Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, are among Italy’s most age-worthy.

The aerial view of Santorini leaves little doubt of this Greek island’s volcanic underpinnings, blown into a sliver over successive cataclysmic eruptions, and leaving behind the world’s most visually arresting volcanic caldera. Santorini’s white wines from the ancient assyrtiko grape are considered Greece’s most distinctive, the very definition of salt, grit, and power, eked out of parched volcanic pumice under the hot Aegean sun. Bordeaux-trained winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos recognized this back in 1994 when he and partner Leon Karatsalos established Gaia Estate, one of the island’s leading producers. “The assyrtikos of Santorini are astonishing,” says Paraskevopoulos. “There’s nothing else like them in Greece.”

Cellars of the Tokaj Trading House
Cellars of the Tokaj Trading House
Clos St. Urbain, Rangen de Thann, with Witches eye
Clos St. Urbain, Rangen de Thann, with Witches eye
Note taking in a Tokaj cellar
Öreg Király vineyard, Mád, Tokaji
Öreg Király vineyard, Mád, Tokaji

Hungary may not leap to mind for either wine or volcanoes, yet this small central European country has plenty of both. But while the volcanoes are long extinct, the wine industry has been heating up since the end of communism in the early 1990’s. Tokaj in northeastern Hungary, in particular, has been regaining the fame it enjoyed during the Renaissance. “We are sitting on a treasure chest. We just need to open it up,” shares Ats Károly of the Tokaj Trading House, one of the region’s most experienced winemakers. “It’s a privilege to work here.” Sweet wine lovers will revel in a traditional tokaj aszú, a luscious but perfectly balanced, botrytis-affected wine grown in the region’s volcanic clay called nyirok.

Other wine regions are less uniformly volcanic, such as Soave near Verona in northern Italy. Here, garganega produces fragrant and finessed whites from vineyards on limestone, and more deeply colored, dense and powerful wines from basalt soils – proof positive that soil matters. Volcanic Soaves also require more patience. “The volcanic wines are more closed in youth. They need more time to open,” confirms Claudio Gini of Azienda Agricola Gini. “But in time there’s more character, more longevity.”

Similarly, the mid-Atlantic isles of Macaronesia (Madeira, Canary Islands, and the Azores), slices of Alsace and Germany, and swaths of Chile, northern California, Oregon, and Washington – to name just a few of many more, each have their volcanic wine treasures to offer the world. It’s time to add the word “volcanic” to your wine vocabulary.