Wine regions are closely tied to the dirt in which they grow because the composition of the soil makes a difference in how the plant grows. For example, clay-based soils retain water better than well-draining sandy soils. Just like the tomato in your backyard garden, grapevines depend on soil conditions for their production.
One soil type that gets a lot of attention is volcanic. You’ll hear wines that are grown in this environment often referred to as, simply, volcanic wines. Curious what that means in terms of flavor and wine knowledge? Let’s jump in (not actually in a volcano, but into the topic).
What are volcanic wines?
These are wines from vineyards grown near active, dormant, or extinct volcanoes—here rich ash and lava from eruptions are present in the soil. There are over 1,300 volcanoes on Earth that are still considered active. The term “active” is relative to the life span of the volcano, not the life of a human, so many of them will not erupt in generations, but they still have an impact on the agricultural functions that surround them. Volcanic soils are quite porous, and you can imagine that those pores allow for good drainage. This means that the soil near the surface isn’t holding onto rainwater or humidity to hydrate the vines, so they develop deep roots in their search for moisture and nutrients.
Where are volcanic wines produced?
Two of the most famous spots for volcanic wine are in Italy: Mount Etna on Sicily and Vesuvius in Campania. Santorini in Greece, the Canary Islands of Spain, the Azores in Portugal, Lake County in California, and Somló in Hungary are other key examples. The Earth is covered in soil with volcanic origin—up to 80%, but much of it’s below sea level. This means that there are pockets of volcanic soil even if the volcano itself is less apparent.
What makes volcanic wine regions distinct?
Some regions, like the ones listed above, have a predominance of volcanic soil. Others have this composition scattered throughout. For example, only select slopes in Soave and Soave Classico have volcanic makeup, while the soil in the plains does not. Also, depending on when the volcano last erupted, soil material will be in a phase of decomposition. Mt. Etna, for example, erupted again shortly before this article was written, while Provence’s single volcano felt its last eruption 17M years ago.
What does volcanic wine taste like?
Many wine tasters note heightened complexity and structure in volcanic wines. The terms smoky, mineral, salty are often used, yet researchers say scientifically that these flavors aren’t a direct transfer from the soil. But water and nutrient uptake are factors of soil type, along with regional winegrowing practices such as the use of indigenous grapes associated with these locales. Many volcanic spots are rugged island or sloping locations, which means that plenty of hand work goes into the farming—another thing that volcanic wine enthusiasts find interesting.
How can I try volcanic wines?
Take a visit to a volcano! Seriously though, one of our favorite regions to try is Mt. Etna, a semi-circular denomination surrounding the volcano, with an array of slopes, so that terroir really varies in terms of altitude, exposure, and marine influence. Producers such as Benanti use native grapes like Nerello Mascalese for reds and Carricante for whites, making this one of the most interesting spots to experience volcanic terroir in situ. We also love the wines coming out of the Canary Islands of Spain. Envínate, for example, farms vineyards that are planted wild on primary volcanic rock. They use a mishmash of native grapes, all harvested by hand or with the help of animals because the vineyards are perched right on the cliffs of the Atlantic.
Enjoying volcanic wines can be incredibly fun, especially due to the exotic and far flung nature of some of these growing environments. The topic really tends to spark the imagination. Grab a few bottles for yourself to explore, because the truth about volcanic wine is that there is plenty of diversity in the category.