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Under The Volcano

Posted on  | March 26, 2013   Bookmark and Share
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Is there a special white magic for wines coming from black soils? No and yes.

Donnafugato grows Zibibbo grapes both in Sicily at the Contessa Entellina estate and on the island of Pantelleria, where volcanic soils impart more aromatics.

Ask anyone in Soave where the best wines are made, and surely they will point to the hillside vineyards above this small town east of Verona in northern Italy. This is hardly surprising. In most wine-growing regions, hillside grapes are the most prized. They enjoy enhanced sun exposure and drainage; plus the elevation draws in cooling winds to modulate the daytime heat on ripening grapes.

But there is another reason that the hillsides of Soave are deemed to be special by local growers: Many of the hillside soils are volcanic, the product of ancient eruptions that came at a time when most of northern Italy was still under water.

Wine regions such as Soave, where all or part of their soils come from such eruptions, are not rare, but they are far from the norm. Among the better known ones are the vineyards around Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy, on Sicily and in the Greek Islands, especially Santorini. Parts of the Baden region of Germany and Tokaji in Hungary are volcanic, but there are few examples in France and Spain.

In New Zealand, a part of the Gisborne region on the North Island has been affected by both ancient and recent volcanic blasts, and, in the U.S., parts of the Pacific Northwest were formed by volcanoes or otherwise covered by volcanic ash.

Four years ago, the ruling Soave Consorzio Tutela decided to draw some of these regions together by staging an annual conference, called Vulcania, to conduct scientific symposia and to have comparative tastings of white wines grown in other volcanic regions around the world.


Can we actually “taste” volcanic minerals from grapes grown in volcanic soils? Scientific studies firmly say “no”—at least not directly. Dr. Carole Meredith, co-owner of Lagier Meredith Vineyard in Napa Valley, is a former member of the viticulture and enology faculty at the University of California at Davis. She explains the scientific rationale: “Plant roots do not take up complex soil minerals like chalk, slate, lava, flint, etc.,” she says. “Those are large molecules, and plant roots take up only very, very small molecules.” So, she says, there is “no flint or chalk in wine!”

 However, she explains, “The flavor of grapes and wine do reflect the physical setting of the vineyard. But it’s an indirect effect. The composition of the soil—chemical components, soil acidity, particle size—certainly does influence the physiology of the plant and the composition of the fruit that the plant produces.”

 These influences can result in noticeable taste differences, especially when comparing “volcanic wines” to those they make from nearby vineyards that are not volcanic in composition.

 Konrad Salwey, proprietor of Weingut Salwey in Germany’s Baden region, grows grapes on both loess-lime soils and on volcanic soils containing thephrite and leucite. He is certain there is a strong influence. “I taste [wines from volcanic soil] as less fruity and more salty,” he says. “They are more able to balance high acidity or high alcohol or high sugar.”

 Sofia Perpera, a enologist working on the Greek island of Santorini, believes that the soils of that extinct volcano are “absolutely” reflected in the bottle. Wines made from the popular white grape Assyrtiko in other areas of Greece, she says, are “less mineral and a bit more aromatic.”


 Véronique Drouhin-Boss produces Pinot Noir and Chardonnay both in Burgundy and at Domaine Drouhin in Oregon, where the soils are volcanic in origin, unlike those at Drouhin properties on the Côte d’Or and in Chablis. With the Oregon Pinot, Drouhin Boss says, “What I have noticed over the past 24 years is that consistently—no matter the clone of Pinot or rootstock—the wines show a lovely spiciness. Also, the tannins are excellent—round and velvety.”

 In northern Italy, Giovanni Ponchia, enologist for the Soave consortium, says, “The basalt here cooled quickly, because we were under the seas at the time of eruption, so we are probably ‘more volcanic’ than most areas. In fact, the hills of Soave were first formed as tropical volcanic islands.” Today, he says, wines made from vineyards in the Soave hills with volcanic soils exhibit a sense of oiliness on the palate, and white and tropical fruits, while those from the chalky areas have higher acidity.

 Of course, not all volcanic soils are the same, nor are their effects on growing conditions. James Millton, owner of Millton Vineyards in the Gisborne region on New Zealand’s North Island, explains that his Clos Ste. Anne vineyard has a base of limestone and sandstone layers covered with thin coatings of pumice from eruptions in the Lake Taupo area.

 “So as the soil is not totally volcanically derived—the last volcanic eruption from Mount Ruapehu was in 1995 when we had about three centimeters of volcanic ash over the whole region—we do notice a complex minerality coming from Chardonnay in this vineyard,” says Millton. “There is a slight wet-stone character, and the acidity—malic—is quite pronounced and squeaky, but more Meursault-ish than Chablis.”

 Several different volcanic soils exist in Mád, the center of the Tokaji region, where István Touóczi is winemaker for Royal Tokaji. “Some of them have high zeolite content,” he says, which helps accumulate water and provide nutrient spots for microorganisms. “Many of these soils show nice mineral smells and tastes, so even sweet wine at plus 200 grams per liter sugar level shows these very distinct tastes.”

 Southern Italy is well-known for its volcanoes, dead and alive, and one that has been interesting to grape growers is the island of Pantelleria off the coast of Sicily. Alessia Panzeca of Donnafugata, which makes wine there from the Zibibbo grape, a type of Moscato, says, “In particular, the Zibibbo in Pantelleria is much more aromatic compared to that of Sicily, thanks to the pH of the soil, which is sub-acid, 6.5 or neutral.”

 Both Perpera and Millton note that the proximities of the nearby seas to their vineyards may have as much effect on how their wine tastes as the soil. And Dr. Meredith also says influences other than soil (e.g., temperature, wind and water availability) affect a grape’s physiology and hence its character.

 At a tasting of wines from volcanic areas conducted at the Vulcania 2012 conference this summer in Soave, most participants agreed that the wines all had lots of mineral flavors and more spicy notes than floral ones. The wines also all seemed to have good structure. Beyond that, there was a general reluctance to say that volcanic wines had any distinguishing characteristics separating them from other wines.

 “I couldn’t say that I could pick out which wines were volcanic and which were not in a blind tasting,” one participant commented.

 Still, if the folks in Soave have continued success with their concept, we may someday see “Under the Volcano” sections on American restaurant wine lists.


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