Wine School: History, Heat and Soil
Wines from volcanic regions have many stories to tell
Italy. Santorini. Armenia. Canary Islands. Madeira. New Zealand. North America’s Pacific Northwest. All these regions (to name a few) have a common denominator: volcanoes and wine. At one point in time, recent or ancient, they all have had their agricultural landscape shaped by lava. Even the islands of Madeira, Azores, and Santorini can attribute their formation to them. These viticultural epicenters have benefited greatly from volcanic activity by creating a complex ecosystem of vegetation and soil.
Over time, cataclysmic eruptions layered the earth with mineral-rich properties. The ejected matter include fragmented rocks (like pumice—a porous rock great for water retention), carbon dioxide, silicate, hydrogen, and sulfur dioxide—to name a few. Basalt, a rock that is formed after the cooling of lava, is rich in iron, magnesium, and potassium. These mineral deposits and rock structures furnish a hospitable environment suitable for viticulture (and other agriculture) while adding a colorful mosaic of tastes and health benefits to wine that is produced.
John Szabo, Canada’s first Master Sommelier and educational lead for Volcanic Wines International explains at the Second Annual Volcanic Wine Conference in New York that terroir, its soil complexities and parental geology play an important part (but not the only one) in winemaking. “Comparable characteristics exist, but volcanic regions around the world have even more unique features,” he says.
Mount Etna wine
One of the world’s most active volcanoes is Mount Etna in Sicily. It frequently spews ash, and causes earthquakes. Vines on the slopes of Etna can reach over 3,000 feet in elevation. The location of volcanic agriculture and frequent blanketing of ash on the slopes and surrounding valleys has pros and cons. Ash can enrich soils, fruit from vines grown at those the elevations retain balanced acidity (making them more ageable), and the sun exposure ripens the grapes. However, In addition to unpredictable lava flows, the high elevation slopes can be hard to irrigate and harvest, adding extra expense to cultivate. Yet it’s worth seeking out wines styles from Etna DOC, which range in price and style, but always produce vigorous and earthy flavors.
Island wines at their purest
Another bonus for volcanic soils is their are not hospitable to phylloxera, and therefore no vine grafting is necessary, so grapes are at their purest. Santorini and the Canary Islands can credit part of, if not all of, their phylloxera-free vineyards to volcanic soil types and geographical isolation.
Santorini, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea formed by an underwater volcano, produces vibrant white wines from the assyrtiko grape. The island’s aspa soil, a sandy, mineral-rich composition of pumice and volcanic ash proved to be inhospitable for the root-eating pest. Ferocious winds are frequent on Santorini resulting in winemakers using koulara vine training (a.k.a. Basket method) as well as burying the vines in large open holes in the ground to protect the grapes. one example of these balanced wines is made by Artemis Karamolegos. The winery farms these soils and bottles an assyrtiko that is pleasantly salty, crisp, and the perfect companion for oysters.
The dark black earth of the the Canary Islands give this Spanish archipelago an ominous appearance reminiscent of Jurassic Park. The group of islands sit in the Atlantic Ocean close to Africa and is enriched with vibrant viticulture. Many wine grapes are cultivated on the islands, as well as tropical flowers, bananas and vegetables. Lanzarote, the most populated island, had large eruptions between 1730 and 1736 covering the land with thick layers of lava nearly 5 meters deep. The violent, Saharan sandstorm Calima blows over the Canary Islands every winter. To protect the grape vines, the basket method of vine training is in place, with large stone walls surrounding the hoyos of buried vines. The highest point in the Atlantic Ocean is Mount Teide (rising close to 13,000 feet!), which last erupted in 1909 on the island of Tenerife. One of the wineries in the area, Bodegas Viñátigo, farms a variety of vitis vinifera on Tenerife including verdello and negramoll. Viñátigo’s Elaboraciones Ancestrales Blanco is 100% gual, erupting with a cornucopia of orange hues and flavors of tropical fruit and honeysuckle. Only 3,000 bottles are made each year.
Wines to try
The tumultuous environments where these vines live in can give viticulturists numerous challenges, but there is a method to the madness, and consumers are wanting more. However dangerous, these regions produce concentrated wines bursting with character. Below are some standouts from volcanic regions around the world.
Ararat Valley, Armavir Region, Armenia ($25)
Armenia has a rich history in winemaking dating back 6,000 years. The most prominent winemaking region is Armavir at the base of Mount Ararat. The now extinct volcano sits on the border of Armenia and Turkey and last erupted in 1840. According to the Book of Genesis, Mount Ararat is also believed to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark. Since the early 2000s, Karas Wines (a reference to ancient wine making pots) marks the revival of winemaking for contemporary Armenia. The Ernikekian family along with consulting winemaker Michel Roland produce wines from syrah, tannat, malbec and the indigenous grape khndoghni grown in the region’s basalt soils. The Classic Reserve Red is a blend of syrah, tannat, malbec, cabernet franc, and Montepulciano. Notes of vanilla spice, cedar, and violets define this red blend that, well, erupting with elegance.
Campania, Italy ($23)
Mastroberardino wines and quality are synonymous with Campania and have been for generations. The region is home to Mount Vesuvius, which famously destroyed the village of Pompeii in 79 AD. Vesuvius has erupted many times over history but has been inactive since the 1940s. Its winemaking dates back to the 5th century BC. “Lacryma Christi” meaning “the tears of Christ” refers to the tale of Lucifer’s fall from grace and the subsequent tears that Christ cried over it. Legend has it that as Christ’s tears fell from the sky, vines miraculously sprang up on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The Lacryma del Vesuvio DOC was established in 1983 and aims to focus only on grapes indigenous to the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, including piedirosso for reds and coda di volpe for whites. Mastroberardino’s 2017 bottling of Lacryma del Vesuvio is 100% piedirosso and emits aromas of luscious red fruit layered with black pepper.
Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($65)
The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to volcanic activity. Who could forget Mount St. Helens violent eruption in the 1980s? Mount Rainier, the iconic landmark of the Seattle skyline, last erupted in the 1800s, and scientists warn that a new eruption is nearing. Millions of years ago the Missoula Floods and the geological activity of Idaho’s Blue Mountains gave Columbia and Willamette Valley its unique soil made from clay, decomposed basalt and marine sediment. Located a few hours west of Oregon’s Mount Hood (also due for an eruption) Native Flora Winery of Dundee Hills make wines on their 33 acre biodiverse estate composed of jory, nekia and saum soils. Pinot blanc, riesling, sparkling, rosé, and of course, pinot noir are all made here. The Heretic Pinot Noir is made from a single block of land and is brilliant, smokey and highly acclaimed. It won the Silver Medal of Best Oregon Pinot Noir at the 2019 New York International Wine Competition.
Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand ($15)
Believe it or not, New Zealand has a handful of volcanoes, both active and dormant. Situated on the North Island, Taupo Volcanic Zone includes Mount Ruapehu and Mount Tongariro, which had activity as recent as 2012. The viticultural regions of Waikato and Hawke’s Bay lay close to this hotspot range. Monowai Estates farms 22 ha in Hawke’s Bay Crownthorpe District. Winemaker Emma Lowe grows chardonnay, pinot noir, and sauvignon blanc in the high elevation vineyards. Monowai Estates 2018 Sauvignon Blanc is a playful mix of tropical fruit bursting with mouthwatering zippiness. The estate took home the gold medal at the 2019 New York International Wine Competition for best New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc under $16.99.
Seven Hills Vineyard, Walla Walla Valley ($20)
A family run estate, L’Ecole No. 41 was one of the first commercial wineries in Walla Walla producing their first vintage in the early 1980s. The Clubb family farms estate vineyards in addition to vineyards in the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley. The Estate Ferguson Vineyard contains high elevation basalt soils dating back 15 million years. In the shadow of Idaho’s Blue Mountains both in Washington and Oregon, the vineyards grow syrah, cabernet sauvignon, semillion and chardonnay including many others. The Bordeaux blanc style of the Estate Luminesce comes from the Estate Seven Hills and its acclaimed wind-blown loess (a mixture of quartz, clay, and silt) soils. Semillon does the heavy lifting in this wine providing tropical and floral notes with sauvingon blanc playing a supporting role bringing bright acidity.
For locals or visitors in the New York City area looking for a great spot to enjoy some volcano juice, check out Cardoncello DiVino at 43 W. 27th Street between 4:30-10:30 Monday through Saturday. From August 2nd to Labor Day weekend, the restaurant is offering a flight of three wines from some of Italy’s volcanic regions for $25, paired with small bites from Chef Massimiliano Convertini.