Vineyards and volcanoes may sound like an unusual pairing, but in truth, it’s one that has long been established. For hundreds of years, from Italy, Spain, to Greece, grape vines have flourished in the mineral-rich particles of battered volcanic rocks. How is it that wine grapes not only thrive in this soil but produce wines of distinct character?
Typically found on extinct volcanic sites or even the edge of a live volcano – Mount Etna or Vesuvius come to mind – soils of weathered ash and lava are surprisingly fertile, dense with vine-friendly nutrients including magnesium, calcium, and potassium. The porous ash creates a hospitable terrain for plants to draw water through their roots. Grapes grown in volcanic soil have adapted to their environment and often achieve surprisingly long vine age. While the varieties vary by region, including everything from Fiano, Assyrtiko, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, to Nerello Mascalese, a commonality bears out: acid structure, palate weight, ageability, and a distinct impression of minerality. To understand what is meant by the hotly debated term “minerality,” imagine the sensation of salinity, slate or powdered rock – or go lick one to find out.
Here are three volcanic regions to try.
Located in the southwest of Italy, this stunning region known for Neapolitan pizza and the Amalfi Coast, is also home to Mt. Vesuvius. This infamous cone once responsible for casting Pompeii – and its people – forever into stone, redeems itself today by giving a smoky saltiness to whites made from the Fiano grape. Typically labeled as Fiano di Avellino, named after the region, these wines are full-bodied, floral and rich, full of intensity and complexity. While Fiano is grown elsewhere in the world, the result rarely competes with the Campanian terroir. Other Campanian grapes include white Greco di Tufo and red Aglianico.
Wine to find: Mastroberardino Radici, Fiano di Avellino, 2015
Considered a prime honeymoon destination the world over, tourists and lovers have long been drinking the “local white” of Santorini with little knowledge of the history and increasing rarity of the grape responsible for it. Assyrtiko is a survivor. This white variety has adapted to the dry conditions and a windswept climate. Perhaps that bestows the plant with too much credit, however, as human ingenuity is responsible for weaving its vines into earth-hugging baskets. This training system keeps grapes low to the ground, helping them withstand the harsh elements of the climate. Unfortunately, tourism and development are putting pressure on available vineyard land. But it would be a shame to lose this wine – its singular personality, brimming with seawater and citrus, is like no other in the world.
Wine to find: Domaine Sigalas, Kavalieros Single Vineyard Assyrtiko, 2015
3Mount Etna, Sicily
Wines born from the slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano on the northeast coast of Sicily, have been growing in popularity. Consumers have become more open-minded to tasting unfamiliar indigenous varieties of which Nerello Mascalese is one. This cherry-scented, floral red looks light in appearance, is practically Burgundian in its elegance, but delivers the texture, tannin and complexity of a Barbaresco. The mix of volcanic soils bring an unmistakable mineral sensation to the wines, a result of a varied and evolving landscape that changes composition with every eruption.
Wine to find: Passopisciaro, Passorosso, 2014