When you taste as much wine as I do, it is occasionally easy to get bored with certain styles or varieties that you last flooded your cellar with. I go through phases when it comes to taste in wine. I had my Alsatian/aromatics phase, Riesling phase (well, I still do, let’s be fair – it’s just not a winter wine), Chardonnay phase (currently slightly in sleep mode) and so on. Most recently, my ‘obscure varieties’ phase has slightly moulded into a volcanic phase. I am slightly obsessed with volcanic wines and would actually be quite happy not to drink anything else at the moment! It just so happens most are made from indigenous, slightly obscure varieties.
So, what do I mean by volcanic wines? I’m talking about wines made from grapes grown on volcanic sites – whether currently active or passive, or previously active at some point in their geological past. Volcanic soils are geologically young soils, rich in minerals and quite fertile. They are formed of lava, ash (which can form tuff) and pumice rock (scoria) and were formed either as a result of rock ejection from volcano eruptions or from lava flows. The Canary Islands, for instance, were formed as a result of submarine volcano eruptions. Basalt is the main component of lava-based volcanic soils. Basalt is dark in colour and therefore heats faster and this is useful in viticulture, especially in regions with high diurnal differences. This is what makes such soils unique.
So what is special about volcanic wines? Well, they are very distinct and quite different from everything else! Volcanic wines are not what I would consider ‘fruity’ but a little bit more interesting than that. The wines tend to have this amazing salty and oily quality to them but are also quite rich and aromatically complex. Their acidity is somehow rounder, less austere than that of say, Chablis. The whites go incredibly well with cheese, especially Comte. The reds can be a perfect match for salty, oily jamon iberico. You can tell me off for saying so but volcanic wines are incredibly mineral. I know some people hate this term, it is fashionable to hate it but it’s a very useful word and I know what I mean by so I shall continue using it if that’s ok (even if science says no). Words like sulphurous, salty, crushed oyster shell and wet stone (it may not be the actual stone we are smelling but it does have a smell) spring to mind and these all apply to volcanic wines. They are texturally rich and lip-smackingly good.
So where do you find such wines, you ask? Well, although there are some regions in the new world (Gisborne in New Zealand) and elsewhere (Golan Heights in Israel) that have such soils, most volcanic wine regions are to be found in Europe. Italy has by far the most these: Sicily (Etna), Pantelleria, Campania (Vesuvius), Ischia and Soave are the main ones. Below you will find a list of regions and grape varieties of interest and some of my favourite producers that are definitely worth trying!
Volcanic regions and their wines
Varieties of note: Nerello Mascalese (red); Catarratto, Carricante(white)
Nerello Mascaleseis native to the Etna region. Mascalese comes from ‘Mascalli’, a small place on the slopes of Etna. It’s a variety that tends towards reduction. It is hard to mature and has high tannins and acidity but shows beautiful perfume, sometimes edging towards ‘sanguine’ (blood).
Star producers: Graci,Tenuta delle Terre Nere
Graci produce both Etna Bianco and Etna Rosso. The whites are very fresh and zippy and evoke memories of swimming in the sea – that salty, marine freshness. The reds remind me of wild mountain herbs and balsamic. Alberto Graci’s top red wine, Quota 1000, is planted at an altitude of 1000m, this is one of the highest red vineyards in Europe.
Pantelleria (a small island off the coast of Sicily)
Variety of note: Zibbibo(Muscat of Alexandria)
Star producer: Donnafugata
Try their Passito di Pantelleria, in my opinion one of the greatest sweet wines on this planet. Forget oaky, alcoholic Sauternes. This wine makes you feel like you’ve just fallen into a basket of overripe apricots. (Not the kind of apricots you can sometimes buy in English supermarkets, mind. The ones you find falling off trees in central Europe towards the end of August.)
Wines of note (white): Falanghina, Fiano di Avellino, Greco Di Tufo, Pallagrello
Who says Italian whites are boring? Well, the ones from Campania are not! These are amongst the most characterful in Italy. The theme here is yellow fruit: quince paste, golden delicious apples and conference pears.
Star producer: Mastroberardino
Variety: Garganega from hillside vineyards, which have volcanic soils.
Star producer: Inama,Vicentini Agostino (brought in by Philglas & Swiggot, particularly impressed with this one!)
Basic Soave can be very bland indeed so look out for producers with good reputation and from hillside vineyards.
Varieties of note: Listan Negra (red), Listan Blanco(white) – both indigenous varieties
Star producer: Suertes del Marques.
Try their wonderful ‘Vidonia’ Listan Blanco. At about £20 a pop, it is worth every penny. Amazing with Comte cheese!
Regions of note: Tokaj (Furmint and blends, sweet wines), Somló (Juhfark)
Star producer: Tokaj Oremus, Mád, Royal Somló, Borbély
Dry Furmint can be quite rich and full bodied and is worth trying if you generally like varieties like Chardonnay. There are lot of Juhfark producers that I like, not so easy to find in the UK, sadly.
Star producer: Hatzidakis, Gaia
Assyrtiko is a great alternative to something like Sauvignon or Chenin, it has vibrant acidity but is much more interesting. Can be quite ‘sulfurous’ and reductive at times so give it some air. Hard to pick blind in an MW exam, as we found out.
Lenka (The Evil Monkey)