Volcanic Wine 101: What You Need to Know About This Booming Category
From Mount Etna on Sicily to the Spanish island of Lanzarote, grapes grown in volcanic soil are producing some of the world's most interesting wines.
Regions directly in range of a looming magmatic eruption, or soil filled with remaining expellants from volcanic explosions past, share something in common—the potential to grow some of the most mineral-laden and distinct wines on earth. And though Volcanic earth represents a mere one percent of the total surface of the planet, the grapes grown in this soil are vast and varied. “What surprised me most was the number of indigenous grapes—true regional specialties—that have been preserved in volcanic terroirs," says Master Sommelier John Szabo, the wine business's master volcanist, who recently published Volcanic Wine: Salt, Grit and Power after a decade's worth of reconnaissance.
So what exactly makes soil volcanic? Using Szabo’s definition, it’s “soils that formed from parent volcanic material.” This includes everything from lava in all of its forms—like jet-black basalts—to other fragments expelled from a volcano's vent, all the way to pumice and volcanic alluvium that's settled in valleys. The often remote and rugged terrains where this soil is found act as nature’s preservation policy, eschewing vineyard mechanization and forcing work to be done by hand, resulting in some of the most fascinating wines out there. For anyone looking to get acquainted with this booming category, here are seven regions to pay attention to, and what to look out for from each one.
Italy: From Campania to Sicily
Southern Italy owes much of its identity to volcanoes, especially Mount Etna on Sicily, and the formidable Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples in Campania. They’ve heavily influenced entire civilizations; imagine what they do to your wine!
One of Italy’s most formidable red wines, Taurasi DOCG, is grown near Campania’s Avellino. Here, the black Aglianico grape creates wines imbued with volcanic spice and a meaty density. These are true wines of consequence.
Producer to look for: Mastroberardino (The Winebow Group)
Mount Etna is quickly becoming recognized for its red wines made from Nerello Mascalese. The high altitude—sometimes tickling 3,000 feet (915 m); the age of the vines, many of which are well over 100 years old; and very active volcanic soil all form a tripod of distinctive influences. The resulting wines may be lightly colored in the glass, but their phantom structure and ethereal aromas are not unlike Barolo to the north.
Producer to look for: Pietradolce (Empson USA)
Hungary: Lakeside to royal hills
There may not be a volcano in site, but much of Hungary’s topography is the ramification of robust volcanic activity. North of Lake Balaton is a phalanx of basalt columns called Somló-hegy—or Somló Hill. It's an isolated, basalt bedrock formation that rises 1,417 feet (432 meters), and has seen viticulture for 2,000 years. Here, vines create wines of sheer power, whether from the terroir-transparent white Juhfark grape, or the white Furmit grape, creating cuvées that are compact, savory, herbal, and full of textural grip.
Producer to look for: Apátsági Winery (Blue Danube Imports)
Located in Hungary’s northeast is the Zemplén Hills, formed 16 to eight million years ago from intense volcanic activity. In it is the entire Tokaj-Hegyáljs, the region known to make some of the world’s most famous botrytis-affected sweet wines, Tokaji Aszú. The region has also turned its attention toward making weighty and angular dry wines, using the same native Furmit and Háslevelű for both styles.
Producer to look for: Samuel Tinon (Blue Danube Imports)
Greece: Island-formed wines
Greek Islands are a volcanic wine royalty. Camera-ready Santorini is postcard perfect with whitewashed buildings adorned with blue rooftops, and a harrowing caldera looking out to the Aegean. But it's what is below the surface that makes Santorini a truly special—the layering of volcanic aspa resulting from a devastating volcano 3,700 years ago. The Assyrtiko grapes that grow on circular shaped basket vines create some of the most outright savory mineral-laden wines on earth.
Producer to look for: Vassaltis Vineyard (Skurnik Imports)
A spoil of other volcanic island wines emerging from Santorini’s shadow are also worth getting to know. Northern Aegean Lemnos Island was said to be the home of Hephaestus, Grecian god of fire and volcanoes. Try the structured, acidic, and endemic red Limnio grape. Or seek the heady floral and dry wines from white Muscat of Lemnos.
Producer to look for: Manolis Garalis (Eklektikon Imports)
Spain: Moon-like Lanzarote
The volcanic archipelago of the Canary Islands held global winemaking fame nearly 400 years ago, and Lanzarote Island, where swaths of black volcanic ash run for miles, is largely responsible for its comeback. There you’ll find circular crater-like-bunkers where old vines grow in the ash-heavy earth. Each plot is outlined by half-moon-shaped-low-stone-wall, which protects vines from the oppressively hot North African wind. The extreme effort is worth it to sustain native grapes. Red Listán Negro is medium bodied, floral and peppery, and the white Malvasía Volcanica is salty and refreshing.
Producer to look for: Los Bermejos (David Bowler Wine)