Volcanic wines, by which we obviously mean wine made from vines grown directly on volcanic soils (or, in some cases, pretty much bare rock), have been a talking point for a few years. When John Szabo MS wrote his wonderful book on the subject (Jacqui Small/Aurum Press 2016, see my review here) there was obviously deemed to be a market for an in depth study. Somehow we all felt that “volcanic wines” were something a little bit special.
Volcanic terrain suitable for viticulture stretches right down the West Coast of America, from the Pacific Northwest, through California and down through Chile, where tectonic activity has been at its worst most recently. Europe has a whole host of regions with volcanic soils, but on the whole more recent activity has been limited. There are outcrops in Alsace and Germany, Italy, Greece and Hungary, as well as the islands off Europe’s Atlantic Coast grouped together as Macronesia (essentially Madeira, The Canary Isles and The Azores).
The big question, when we met at Foxlow Restaurant in London’s Soho last night, was can we find any distinguishing features in volcanic wines? It is perhaps timely to look at a question like this when the view that geology doesn’t have a direct influence on wine is in the news. There are a number of scientists who will state with certainty that the vine is not able to take up minerals from the rocks below, through its root system.
I have no issue with science, but I do observe that thing which all lovers of wine find self-evident – that the flavour and structure of wine can change in ways that our senses can detect over quite small distances (Burgundy’s Crus provide the classic example), and that these differences are reflected (surely not coincidentally) in often subtle changes in geology on the ground. The ultimate question, which Andrew Jefford asks in the Foreword to John Szabo’s book, is (to paraphrase) “do we believe the wine we experience is the result of winemaking, or do we also believe in terroir?” Do we believe, as the world’s best winemakers state almost without exception these days, that “wine is made in the vineyard”?
What have wine lovers previously noticed about volcanic wines? There is often (or sometimes) a certain mouthfeel and texture, which can occasionally be mistaken for tannin, and which does not appear to be a result of winemaking. There is often salinity too. Higher acidities are almost ubiquitous, which seem to give the wines freshness. Although we are not supposed to use the term “minerality” according to the scientists, the term is an apt descriptor if we allow ourselves a little license. The wines also often show a savoury, more than fruity, character (see the Gamays tasted below). This can be combined with a touch of earthiness.
That has been my experience. Let’s see how the wines shaped up. I must say that we tasted some lovely wines. There were one or two stars for me. Not necessarily the same as those everyone else (a table of eight) would have identified as such, but there was some broad agreement nevertheless. Sadly we didn’t have any American examples, so this dinner and tasting was confined to Europe. But we did cover some key regions.
Foam Somló , Meinklang, Somló (Hungary) – Meinklang is the Austrian producer based at Pamhagen at the southern end of the Neusiedlersee, but this wine comes from repurchased old family vineyards at Somló, where an ancient volcanic plug rises from the flat Hungarian plain between the Austrian border and Lake Balaton.
The grape varieties in this tasty petnat are Hárslevelü (a secondary Tokay variety) and Jühfark (a variety special to the Somló hill). A perfect aperitif on a very hot and quite humid day in London, this is more foamy than fully sparkling, with initially quite large bubbles which quickly dissipate, leaving a little spritz. Unfined/unfiltered, it’s cloudy near the bottom of the bottle, and it has a refreshing apple-like acidity with a tiny bit of a salty bite on the finish. This is one of several wines which Meinklang produce from their vineyards here.
Assyrtiko de Mylos Vieilles Vignes 2016, Hatzidakis, Santorini (Greece) – The idyllic holiday island of Santorini in the Greek Cyclades is an active volcano in what is known as the Hellenic Arc, which runs from Greece, across the Aegean to Turkey. It was the scene of one of ancient history’s cataclysmic eruptions in the Second Millennium BCE, an event which may have terminated the great Bronze Age Civilisation of Minoa.
The result today is a still potentially active crater sitting partly beneath the sea, the island of Santorini forming the edge of a classic caldera lake, semi-open as a bay to the west, partly closed by the island of Thirasia. Minoan Akrotiri was covered in a thick layer of ash during that great eruption, thus providing archeologists with a perfect opportunity to study this early civilisation intact.
Santorini may now be one of the most beautiful, and often expensive, of the Greek islands, but it undoubtedly produces its finest, and most ageworthy, white wines. Assyrtiko is the main grape, and makes up around 75% of plantings. It’s a unique variety, one capable of astonishing quality. The best Assyrtiko has body combined with fresh acidity, and we were tasting one of the very best, albeit quite young.
Deliciously limey, but also textured, one could loosely say “like Clare Valley Riesling with tannin”. The texture is palpable, but so is the freshness. There is no doubt that the old vines give this a great deal of extra depth. A fabulous wine, potentially, because I know this ages really well and really needs a bit more time. Yet it was still damned good.
Greco di Tufo 2015, Pietracupa, Campania (Italy) – Campania is the Italian region under the influence of perhaps her most famous volcano, Mount Vesuvius, another source of one of ancient history’s cataclysmic eruptions, which buried Pompeii and Herculaneum in the Roman era. Because it was witnessed by Pliny the Younger, whose accounts brought to life the horrors of the event (more than 1,500 bodies have been found in the ruins, but it is known that the combined populations of Pompeii and Herculaneum were around 20,000 people), we know so much about what happened here.
Sabino Loffredo makes wine in Montefredane, which sits near both the Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino terroirs in Campania. As well as these whites of repute, he also makes a fine version of the regional red speciality, Taurasi. Fiano is often lauded above Greco down here, but Pietracupa Greco di Tufo is a delicious wine. If it has a “volcanic” characteristic, it is a touch of salinity, and a texture which adds depth, but this is overlaid with a creamy pear flavour and a squeeze of lemon freshness. The bottle age of this 2015 shows that the variety need not be one to drink immediately on release when from such a reputed producer.
Verdelho o Original 2015, Azores Wine Company, DO Pico, Azores/Açores (Portugal) – The Azores forms a remote archipelago roughly nine hundred or more miles off the coast of Portugal, direction America. The islands are part of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge of volcanic activity, where as America pulls away from Europe at a rate of around two centimetres a year, magma oozes up from the gap between the plates.
The Azores may be windswept and remote, but what a fortuitous location they provided for sailing ships crossing the Atlantic. After the advent of steam, viticulture declined, but didn’t die. Its commercial revival by António Maçanita and his Azores Wine Company, and the selection of the Azores as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique viticulture, is a fascinating story. Pico is the largest island, and is basically a towering volcanic peak with viticulture possible from the shore (where vines are lashed by the Atlantic) up to around 200 metres above sea level.
The vines are planted low to the ground in fissures which look barely capable of harbouring any vegetation. They are protected by low stone walls, currais, which from above look more like the remains of an ancient civilisation. You can read about when I met António and tasted his wines in June this year here.
This Verdelho, which is not the same as Madeira’s Verdelho (some say it could be closer to Godello from Galicia) is dry, smooth, ever so slightly bitter. There is some “fruit”, but it is dominated by salinity. There is a stony mouthfeel and 13% abv. What ever you do, don’t over chill this wine otherwise its genuine personality won’t come through…and it is fairly unique on so many levels. It’s a shame that these wines just have to be expensive, a factor of their production costs. But they should be tried, truly. For me, this is a lovely, and fascinating, wine.
Soave Classico DOC “Vignetti di Foscarino” 2015, Inama, Soave (Italy) – When people think about “Volcanic Italy” their eye naturally wanders southwards, but in fact much of Italy is of volcanic origin. In the Northeast, especially in the area where Soave (and Valpolicella) is made, there are outcrops of weathered black basalt (amid a limestone terroir resulting from the earlier shallow water lagoon, with additional clay deposits) which date from the time (broadly) when the Alps were formed, when Africa piled into Europe, in plate tectonic terms.
The resulting wines of Soave are capable of complexity and longevity, as attested by the region’s most famous single vineyard wines from top producers such as Pieropan, Tamellini, and Inama. Stephano Inama, whose father set up the estate in the 1960s, has been one of the drivers towards a rebirth of quality in Soave.
Vignetti di Foscarino is an old vine site of southeast-facing vines in the classico zone. It’s a rich wine, perhaps a facet enhanced by the vintage. It begins with some characteristic lemon freshness before the pear and stone fruit kicks in. It has that classic touch of almond on the finish. It’s clearly a multidimensional wine with many facets, but more than any other, it is surely one of those wines which tempts you, like the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with his candy, into using the “m” word – “minerality”. To which one would certainly need to prefix “complex”. But a wine to keep a while, even from 2015.
Vino Blanco 2000 “La Time”, Llanos Negros, DO La Palma, Canary Isles (Spain) – The Canary Islands are very much part of the wine consciousness of many wine lovers these days, but perhaps more for the wines of Tenerife than the smaller, more westerly, La Palma.
Although becoming Spanish in the 1400s, the Islas Canarias archipelago lies a mere 60 miles (100 km) off the coast of Morocco. The fortunes of wine here declined for roughly the same reasons as production similarly declined in the Azores, only recovering in the current century, with producers like Suertes del Marques and Envinate bringing Tenerife’s wines to international audiences. The wine which originally made the Canaries famous, Sack, is no longer produced.
Llanos Negros is a producer wholly new to me (and one that didn’t appear in Szabo’s book). La Time is made from sixty-year-old Listàn Blanco (aka Palomino in mainland Spain) grown on five contiguous plots which, although on volcanic rock, are on soils of sandy loam.
Winemaking involves skin contact (six days) and fermentation in concrete tank, then the juice was kept on lees until it was bottled a decade-and-a-half later, in 2015 (approximately 2,350 bottles). In keeping with the producer’s instructions this was decanted for three hours before being brought to the restaurant. It is golden yellow, tactile almost, in its rich mouthfeel and texture. A unique and brilliant wine, in my humble opinion. Almost Burgundian, certainly, in its complexity at almost eighteen years of age. Why have I not heard of this, and why does no one I know import it? I understand it costs less than €20 retail in Spain.
Riesling Grand Cru Rangen de Thann 2009, Domaine Paul Zinck, Alsace (France) – There was another table at this dinner, but I naturally didn’t get to taste their wines…except for one. I want to mention this Rangen because it is Alsace’s only volcanic terroir, that despite the proximity of the ballons of the Vosges mountains.
The Vosges were pushed up around 500 million years ago when the Rhine Graben was formed, and they have since been weathered and eroded. They correspond to the area we now call the Black Forest, on the opposite, German, side of the Rhine, where vines sit on the lonely volcanic outcrop of the Kaiserstuhl.
The 600 metre high volcanic hill further south and west, in Alsace, is the Grand Cru Rangen, which rises above the small town of Thann. The site has shallow and complex soils over bedrock and the vineyard is often scattered with stones. These retain warmth, so that every wine I have tried from this cru has had a certain warmth and richness to it as well.
As far as I know there are only three proprietors of vines here. Perhaps the two best known are Domaine Zind-Humbrecht (whose Clos St-Urbain from here is one of the most famous wines in Alsace), followed by Domaine Schoffit. The third is Domaine Paul Zinck, which has had access to some of the fruit from a mere hectare of Rangen since the early 2000s.
The 2009 we tried last night had that characteristic richness, so much that a couple of us debated whether it was really a Vendanges Tardives (I gently demurred). It was powerful, for sure, and maturing. It was in some ways the least “volcanic” wine of the night for me, but that is a mere stylistic comment, certainly not qualitative. It was not my favourite style of Riesling either, but it was a privilege to try a wine which is not bottled every vintage, and when it is just a few hundred bottles are filled. I certainly missed the flintiness of some tasting notes in this richer and more softly mature example.
Susucaru Rosato 2015, Frank Cornelissen, Etna, Sicily (Italy) – Etna! This is almost certainly why we are interested in Volcanic Wines. The journey to perhaps one might say “greatness” for the wines of the lower slopes of Mount Etna is one of the great wine stories of the past thirty years.
The ring of vineyards around Sicily’s famous crater look uncannily like the shape of Santorini, and John Szabo in fact calls Etna “like an island on the island”. Etna rises over 3,300 metres on the Sicily’s eastern side, built up over half a million years of successive eruptions, between Messina and Catania. Today those weathered and eroded volcanic soils, added to by more recent eruptions which continue today, make for some of the best viticultural land in Italy, land whose wines have achieved fast fame since quality production was instigated at the end of the 1980s.
Although several grape varieties thrive on Etna, including international varieties, the great red grape of the region has to be Nerello Mascalese. In Susucaru this Nerello strain is paired with three white varieties: Cattaratto (in other places you will read Insolia), Moscadella and Malvasia. The wine is made in exactly the same way as the other Cornelissen wines, which includes skin contact (ten days here, for texture and, as Frank says, “territorial identity”), fermentation in epoxy tanks/containers and no added sulphur. Remarkably (when you taste it) there are around 25,000 bottles of Susucaru.
Cornelissen has earned a reputation which sees him, unfairly, as the wild man of the mountain. He is a deep thinker, but wishes (and suceeds in doing so) to create wines with passion and soul. For those afraid of wine “as a living thing” it may also be fair to say that his wines show greater consistency these days – although I’m convinced that poor retail storage affected them in the early days, before cool shipping and aircon were deemed essential.
This wine is a real bad boy, clean and fresh with great acidity, but also with grip, a high toned bouquet, and so much going on. An excellent and complex (perhaps complicated) rosé (actually more of a light red in reality). I loved it. One of the most profound wines you will find labelled as a rosato in Italy.
Gamay sur Volcan “La Madone” 2016, Gilles Bonnefoy, Côtes du Forez (France) – Although many people won’t have come across this region, near the volcanic Massif Central, in the Upper Loire, but which in reality sits quite near the edge of Lyon, I can remember that the Sunday Times Wine Club sold an example of Forez as far back as the 1980s. Today the co-operative cellar is joined by a handful of independent vignerons, at least one of which is making a name for himself.
Bonnefoy farms around eleven hectares of Gamay biodynamically, the vines sitting on the slopes of two extinct volcanoes at Champdieu. La Madone is one of them. This 12% wine is bright but a little more “Pinot” in colour than what one might expect from Gamay here. The nose is fresh and fruity, but with a smoky edge.
The palate continues the Pinot Noir riff. The savouriness and depth of the fruit give more than a hint at a slightly structured Pinot, although nice rounded cherry flavours do come through as well. Winemaking does not include whole bunch/carbonic maceration, but is of a more classic red wine technique.
I think what we are seeing is a wine that is way more complex than its lowly AOP and price would suggest, but also a wine to enjoy without pomp. After all, at just £11.50 from The Wine Society this is probably the bargain of the day.
Morgon Côte du Py 2015, Dominique Piron, Beaujolais (France) – We did have a discussion as to whether the Côte du Py is truly “volcanic”, a discussion I was embroiled in over the Côte de Brouilly cru at the 2018 London Beaujolais Tasting quite recently. Quibbling aside, I am happy to accept that the dominant terroir for this particular cuvée is on igneous rock.
This is not quite the contrast one might expect between these two Gamays. Piron’s is, thankfully, quite restrained, but nevertheless shows some of the characteristics of the atypical 2015 vintage in the region. It has also, thankfully once more, just 13.5% abv. It was served quite chilled, and of course is a young wine. It would not jump out as classic Gamay, having a hint of meaty steak with blueberries, which reminded one of our number of Cabernet Franc. Nevertheless, it’s an elegant wine with great purity, despite possibly a little oak influence yet to integrate. Hmm! My praise seems a little damp, but that is not what I intended.
Etna Rosso “Guardiola” 2006, Tenute delle Terre Nere, Etna, Sicily (Italy) – Marc de Grazia fashioned a famous estate from extremely old vines, some being pre-phylloxera, on Etna’s north side, near Randazzo. In doing so he did as much as anyone else to promote this up-and-coming region. Terre Nere means “black earth”, and much of the topsoil here is fine volcanic ash mixed with stony basalt.
Although I’ve been a fan of this estate for many years, it is more often the generic entry level wines (red and white) which I’ve drunk. The Terre Nere single vineyard, or cru wines, are something else entirely. Complex wines, they all show the nuance of their site, all being demonstrably different.
This nicely aged Guardiola comes from the estate’s highest planted vines at above 1,000 metres. There are only three producers of this cru, and the vines sit behind a locked gate to try to protect the grapes from an increasingly common problem on Etna, theft. The cuvée is made from Nerello Mascalese, which has a reputation of being slow to evolve from this site, a wine of restraint. This 2006 was, for me, actually quite rich and lifted, with a slightly meaty edge. That mature palate combined with a complex bouquet make for a superb, joyful, wine. Excellent, and I felt very lucky to try it with decent bottle age.
So, as we are through with the wines, were there any conclusions to draw? The fact that the wines were all good sadly means nothing – we could easily have found some faulty or poor wines, but we were lucky. Yet certain descriptors did crop up throughout, which we had mentioned at the beginning: salinity, texture and freshness being three.
It’s still difficult to generalise, but on the balance of probability, given that some broad characteristics did run through the tasting, I think there is an argument for the proposition that volcanic soils or rocks can influence the resulting wine in some way. As the science appears to suggest I’m wrong in terms of the traditional “soil to glass transfer” idea, we shall need to look for other explanations.
In the meantime, I shall continue to drink these wines. You see, they are some of the most interesting and exciting wines around.
For interest, wines of the day (so difficult to choose) might be the Azores Verdelho, the Llanos Negros from La Palma (Canary Is.), Cornelissen’s Susucaru and the majestic Terre Nere cru, Guardiola. For sheer value for money, Gilles Bonnefoy’s Forez “La Madone” was a glugging miracle if it really does cost £11.50.
Foxlow deserves more than a throw away mention. With free corkage the meal came to a little over £30/head, way cheaper than the next cheapest meal I’ve had this year in Central London. As part of the Hawksmoor Group, the food was very good. Simple, yes, but simple is good when you want to concentrate on the wine…and that’s not to say it wasn’t really flavoursome, it was. Would I go back for another wine event? Like a shot.