Volcanoes are the super villains of mountains and their thunderous evil laugh instills fear in the heart of those close enough to hear it. Unless they’re winemakers in the world’s volcanic soil regions. They’d be harvesting on the outskirts of Mordor itself while watching Sauron in the eye -sunglasses on, obviously- while sipping on a glass of the sharp, mineral and haunting bottles they produce.
Some Mediterranean islands have volcanic soils in which phylloexera never dared to set a foot and, neighboured by beaches of coal-coloured sand, they’re inhabited by a mix of locals for whom normality involves the occasional ash cloud and ensuing black rain, and visionaries with a mission that at times feels as difficult as throwing at the ring into a pit of lava in Tolkien’s masterpiece.
And while these hot terroirs are among the top wine trends to watch this year, they are not the only regions where the influence of volcanos rules from underground. The following is an overview of some of the world’s top volcanic soil regions in which these stone dragons -roaring or dormant- contribute to make wine epic.
The volcanic islands of the Mediterranean might not hold the monopoly on volcanoes, but they surely have some of the biggest, meanest specimens geography has to terrify mankind with.
The Spanish island of Tenerife sees its vineyards grow under the relaxed watch of Mount Teide, whose last tantrum was in 1909. This might seem like a couple of lifetimes, but as your friendly neighbourhood geologist would point out, it’s actually relatively recently.
In insular Italy, Sicily hosts the biggest monster, Etna, while Sardinia is not without a peak itself, Montiferru, which unlike Etna, is not open for business anymore. Let’s remember that even after they die, a volcano’s influence remains within the soil leaving ash, porous rocks and minerals such as calcium, potassium and iron, among others.
Greek tourist hot spot Santorini has been a trendy wine topic for a while, and if you want to take two words home from the region, one should be Assyrtiko, the grape of choice -responsible for razor blade sharp whites- and the other Caldera, a geological depression -in this case of volcanic origin- mostly submerged and of which Santorini is actually a visible part of.
Mainland Europe hosts a few volcanos of its own. Many of them are covered in snow and have names that wouldn’t be out of place in an Ikea catalogue, but there are some wine regions in which the soils tell the tale of sleeping titans. Soave, from the eponymous medieval village in northern Italy is one of them.
Compared to the Sicilian whites, Soave’s are… well… soft, but not necessarily weak because of that. Volcanic rock and limestone are literally cornerstones of the DOC and while many of the mass produced Soave is on the bland side, step into the Classico appellation and you’ll find elegant, floral whites at a very good value for their quality.
France’s Alsace is another region in which volcanic influence can be felt. The soil structure varies noticeably from cru to cru as the region is one of the most geologically diverse areas in the planet but neighboring the Vosges fault line, ancient volcanic rock feeds Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat. Rangen Grand Cru is the ultimate spot in the area to try what was described in Medieval times as “the warmest and most violent wines of the region.”
Not too far, Germany’s Baden gets its volcanic forces exerted by the ancient Kaiserstuhl. The range of hills of volcanic origin located in one of the warmest parts of the country offers the mix of sunshine and soil needed to produce wines that are pleasing both to the neophyte and to the connoisseur hoping to be surprised.
As lava doesn’t always travel with a European passport, it is a good time to give a bit of spotlight to some New World wine regions that also have volcanic soils.
Chile’s spine-shaped wine map finds volcanic soils in its southernmost vertebrae. The valleys of Itata, Bio Bio and Malleco widely differ from the rest of the country’s terroirs: they’re cooler, rainier and the winemakers that inhabit it snub the commonly coveted Bordeaux varieties and Burgundian flagship Pinot Noir in order to favour less famous names such as País and Cinsault.
Underneath Auckland’s ancient bedkrock in New Zealand’s northern island, volcanic soils are also present. Light clays of volcanic origin, sand and ashes are intertwined with organic matter, resulting in fertile soils that still are able to provide interesting character. The Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions, in the upper part of the north island, are small but gaining interest and among the local roots, volcanic minerals are plentiful.
Finally, Oregon’s own Willamette Valley is another one to watch. Its distinctive basalt-based volcanic soil known as Jory is reddish and high in clay and iron. Other types of volcanic soils are also present in the region, all brought millions of years ago by eruptions that also touched the soils of Washington. Expect elegant, high-end world class Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
Here are six wines from different regions rich in volcanic soil to give you a taste of what these must-try wines are like…
Suertes del Marqués Trenzado Blanco 2015
€27 – Available at 64wines, Baggot Street Wines, Green Man Wines
From Tenerife’s Valle de la Orotava, this is a blend of one of the region’s most significant white varieties -Listán Blanco- along with Marmajuelo and Baboso Blanco. A portion of skin contact provides depth and structure and the centennial vines are to thank for a wonderful concentration.
Thrillingly mineral and with a dash of tannins, sharp and almost salty, it has a delicate nutty character and flinty aromas. A rare beauty.
Atlantis Santorini 2015
€15.50 – Available at Marks & Spencer
This crisp wine comes from grapes hand harvested from old vines -50 to 60 years- grown on phylloxera-free soils rich in pumice and sand in a region in which weather is hot and rain scarce. It has a remarkable freshness preserved thanks in part to steel tank vinification.
Zesty limes and the minerality of sea water are the main characters of this light bodied, textbook Assystiko -the island’s flagship variety-. One for summer sipping.
Il Padrino Grillo
€8.76 (on offer from €10.95) – available at O’Briens Wine
Grillo -not Pinot Grigio- thrives in the hot lands of Sicily. While it had its day as a big part of the blend for Marsala, the variety is enjoying a new moment in the sun thanks to a growing trend of using it for dry wines.
This one is uncomplicated, fresh and citrusy, with a refreshing nose of lemon and nectarine and a mouth-watering, light body. More fruit than mineral, a very friendly and approachable bottle, contrasting with more restrained volcanic wines.
Balestri Valda Soave Classico 2015
12,5% ABV, Organic
€14.60 (on offer from €15.50) – Available at Wines Direct
Volcanic terrain nourishes the vines and cool evenings allow them to ripe slowly. Its kindness is its strength: its pale appearance and fresh citrus and white floral aromas are met on the palate by a low acidity and a medium body.
The minerality -more steel than stone- gives it an edge. When tasting, the fruit evolves into a mix of limoncello and crisp nectarines; juicy, mellow and inviting. Fresh, vibrant and slightly richer than other namesakes.
Donnafugata Tancredi 2009
€35.50 – Available at Terroirs
A blend between Cabernet Sauvignon, Nero d`Avola and Tannat. While Sicily’s whites are having a moment, the reds are noteworthy to say the least. This powerful bottle is a fine example of an age-worthy red from the region.
Deep coloured and fragrant, its perfume brings blackberries and licorice. Intense tannins will grab you while you enjoy flavours of ripe black fruits, forest floor and toasted cocoa nibs. Pleasant, long lasting and complex.
De Martino Gallardía Cinsault DO Itata
€17.95 (on offer from €19.95) – Available at O’Briens Wine
Southern Chile’s Itata Valley is rich in volcanic soils and features a cooler climate. While Cinsault is not on Chile’s speed dial list, the family-run winery De Martino has made the grape its own. This organic red is a gentle and smooth example of a very different side of Chile.
Juicy red berries and cranberries with a delicate floral presence make a promise on the nose which the wine delivers on the palate. Smooth and with mild tannins, it feels balanced and silky, elegant and lively.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.