Monthly Archives: November 2013

Volcanic Wines – my current obsession

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


Sicily (Etna)

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.

GREECE, Santorini


Variety: Assyrtiko

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)

How an old soak like me ended up training for a marathon

On a recent flight to Amsterdam to cheer on my crazy marathon running friends, a lady on the flight asked me if it might inspire me to run one.  42 unforgiving km? Not a chance in hell!  I have a bad knee; that is my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Less than a week later, in a fit of potentially misguided enthusiasm, I find myself signed up for the Copenhagen marathon.  I have never run more than 5km in one stretch, but having stood in the streets of Amsterdam watching people of all shapes and sizes running past me with emotional dedications to friends and family on their shirts I felt less than worthy of the beer I was holding. 

Those dedications hit a nerve for me.  When I was a child my father fought and won the battle against Leukaemia.  Last November my family were given the heart breaking news that once again my father was going to have to do battle against an unseen enemy.  This time it was Prostate Cancer.  Two weeks ago he completed a gruelling 7 week course of radiotherapy and the prognosis is, thank goodness, looking positive.  Stacking up these facts I decided it was time, bad knee and all, to take on a challenge I never thought I would be capable of completing; a full marathon.  The irony that a healthy dose of wine was what finally pushed me into signing up for the marathon is not lost on me, and some serious training will no doubt mean I must reassess my vinous intake. 

So how am I to reconcile my NDWI (necessary daily wine intake) with this new super fit, marathon running chick that I am to become?  At no point is abstinence an option so a plan must be formulated (all ideas welcome)

So far I have had three weeks of ‘training’.  My intrepid running partner (Peekay the 6 month old Jack Russell) and I have managed 3 runs per week, each week, including one in Monday’s storm (that must get brownie points surely?).  Alex’s Dry days = 0 

Despite my lack of will power when it comes to the sirens call of the bottle, we have managed 6.30am starts (smile not a prerequisite) and 5km runs each time.  This bodes well.  Perhaps the ‘demon drink’ is not such a demon when not drunk in litre bottle quantities at 40% proof?  Perhaps (hang onto your hats here) but just perhaps in moderate quantities, drunk with food, good company (Peekay again) and by the glass there might be some benefit? I realise that I am going to have to up the pace of my training efforts and that my NDWI might drop proportionally, however I am a firm believer that a healthy life style can include marathon training and my NDWI.

I am somewhat over-awed by the immensity of what I have agreed to do – 42km without collapsing, but then I remember what a small challenge it is in comparison to the one that my father, and many other brave men like him are facing.  All support for the charity would be gratefully received and hopefully, come May 18th, in the streets of Copenhagen, sweating, cursing and struggling to remain upright, I will be able to hand over a sizable chunk of cash to the charity that is saving so many lives.


A tale of Purley wine (part 2)

See A tale of Purley wine (part 1)

November 3rd was an important day in my wine calendar for it marked the start (and end) of the 2013 harvest of my grapes. After the perfect weather for flowering and fruit set back in July the grapes gradually swelled over the summer, enjoying the warm weather as much as we all did. My 2 large bunches and 5 rather smaller ones seemed pretty happy and other than the odd addition of fertiliser everything progressed nicely.

Young bunches of grapes…still a long way to go

As the long summer days turned a bit cooler my grapes finally softened and turned from bright green to a more dusky yellow/green. This indicates a stage called veraison when ripening occurs – and indicated that harvest wasn’t far away. Visions of the wine we could make loomed large – this wasn’t just going to be any Chardonnay but really rather top-notch Chardonnay. Chardonnay that would please my fellow monkeys.

Nearing ripeness

But I had forgotten the key facet of a winegrower’s year – its not over until its over. As great as the grapes may look on the vine all it takes is the weather to turn to change the whole course of a vintage. A winegrower’s eyes should be as much on the skies as on the vines.

Rain at and around vintage is the fear of winegrowers throughout the world. It can damage grapes in two ways – firstly by swelling the grapes and so diluting the flavours and potentially splitting the skins, and also by promoting the growth of both mildew and rot. Both of which can negatively affect both yield and quality and add off-aromas into the wine.

So the cool weather and rain in the run up to our harvest wasn’t ideal and meant we had a bit of rot to contend with when we did pick the grapes. Luckily when processing such tiny quantities of grapes, hand destemming and sorting is not really an issue – so we were able to easily remove the rot-affected grapes, though it did impact on our yield. Here follows a photo journal of the first stage of our harvest from picking, destemming, pressing, cold settling and inoculation.

Harvest time
Our grapes
Some of the rot affected grapes
After destemming and sorting
Into some old tights for crushing and pressing
The juice begins to flow
After cold settling in the fridge – note the layer of gross lees at the bottom
Racking with some straws and gravity
Clear juice after racking

As you can see we didn’t exactly get much juice from our grapes. Not so much micro vinification as nano vinification. But that wasn’t going to stop me. First up was a touch of chaptalisation to increase the potential alcohol of the wine by literally adding some sugar. 17g/l of sugar is enough to increase alcohol by 1%. and as we estimated the amount of juice at a mere 108ml, 1.8g of sugar was deemed to be sufficient. A touch under half a teaspoon. Next up was inoculation. Gavin Monery, winemaker at the new urban winery London Cru, had helpfully announced on twitter a few days previously that he had some open packets of yeast looking for a good home. So, I swiftly snapped up some VL2 yeast which should be perfect for Chardonnay. However, it turns out yeast packs deal in addition amounts per hectolitre….not per 100ml, so a sprinkling seemed like the best amount. Perhaps not the most scientific addition ever, but hopefully it will be enough.

And then we were off! Ferment has begun…

I’ll report back once the wine has stopped fermenting. Looking forward to the first taste already.