True grit

Excitement is building about wines from volcanic soils. Jim Clarke set out to learn more about this intriguing category.

The First Annual International Volcanic Wine Conference was held in New York.
The First Annual International Volcanic Wine Conference was held in New York.

Trade tastings are a dime a dozen in New York City, but a recent event drew a cross-section of sommeliers, retailers and press by representing a cross-section of regions — 16 from six different countries. What they shared in common was not a regional identity, nor an importer’s portfolio, but soil; all the wines were made from grapes grown on volcanic soils. 

Volcanic wines, as they’re called, have staked a claim as a new category, one that transcends region and even the Old World, New World divide. The March event, billed as the First Annual International Volcanic Wine Conference, featured wineries from Hungary, Italy, Portugal and Greece as well as the US and Chile. John Szabo, MS and author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, was the man behind the event, which included five seminars and a walk-around tasting.

Volcanic soil

Soil type is not a new subject for wine industry professionals, but this may be the first time a single category of soil has become a fixation across varieties and countries. The suitability of limestone for Chardonnay is a commonplace, but volcanic soils support a wide range of grape varieties, from Cabernet Sauvignon in the mountain vineyards of Napa, to indigenous varieties such as Assyrtiko in Santorini and Furmint in Tokaj. 

This is partly because the soils themselves are more varied than the monolithic designation “volcanic” would suggest. Santorini’s 3,700-year-old soils are largely volcanic ash; in Eastern Washington, the basalt — hardened lava flows — began forming 17m years ago. Climate also has its way with those raw materials, giving Oregon’s Jory soils a very different structure from the hills of Campania in Italy. In some volcanic areas, less familiar varieties avoided extinction by the destructive pests of the 19th century; ash and pumice seem to be hostile to phylloxera, accounting for the survival of grapes like Campania’s Aglianico and Greco di Tufo, among others. 

Despite the diversity, Szabo and others argue there’s a common thread not just in the bedrock, but in the wines. “I like to simplify things as much as possible,” says Szabo. “If you take the world of wine and cleave it into fruity and savoury, the volcanic wines almost always tend to be on the savoury side.” He also finds the wines have a certain salinity. “It’s pretty universal. You expect it more in whites, but I found a number of crunchy, salty, red wines from volcanic soils. Take Napa Cabernet, probably the last wine you think of as crunchy and salty. But mountain-grown Cabernets from desperately poor volcanics up in the Vacas are distinctly different from the valley-floor wines and have a different acid profile and more savoury character within the fruity character of typical Napa Cab.”

The science is still out. At the conference, Dr Kevin Pogue of Whitman College in Walla Walla tamped down suggestions that we can literally “taste the soil” or metaphoric expressions of terroir. “There’s a human desire to connect a volcano’s explosivity to a wine — it ‘explodes out of the glass’ the same way lava explodes out of the volcano. I’m not a big fan of that kind of talk.” Nonetheless, that doesn’t rule out similarities. “Grapes do in fact absorb iron in proportion to the iron in the soil,” adds Dr Pogue. “Iron content affects wines and basalt has a high iron content.” Volcanic rocks as a group also tend to have relatively high heat conductivity and transfer heat into the soil comparatively rapidly, he added.

The scientific consensus was that more research is needed — but producers of volcanic wines aren’t waiting for the thumbs up from geologists. Promoting volcanic wines predates Szabo’s book, published in October 2016. He first wrote about the subject in Wine Access magazine in 2009, the same year that Giovanni Ponchia, lead oenologist for the Soave Consortium, created Vulcania, an annual event focused on Italian white wines grown on volcanic soils. Even in 2016, interest in volcanic wines was running ahead of Szabo’s book. That February, the Institute of Masters of Wine held a volcanic wines tasting, featuring wines from Italy, Santorini, Germany, Washington and Madeira.

It’s no surprise that sommeliers have taken to the subject of volcanic wines; soil type is a common enough subject for those studying the various wine regions of the world. The US distributor the Winebow Group, in particular with its import portfolio Leonardo LoCascio Selections, embraced the volcanic message in February 2017 as a tool for its salespeople. “There was a lot of buzz about volcanic wines,” says Italian portfolio specialist Christina Comito, “and a lot of interest in the wine world and somm culture.”

Building on that interest, Comito and her team developed a brochure that highlighted the volcanic wines in their Italian portfolio, breaking down the category into pumice, tufa, basalt and lava. “We have honestly had the most positive response for a programme like this that we ever had. The volcanic wine brochure and whole concept was really embraced by the sales team. Customers were loving the level of engagement we were able to provide.”

Perhaps more surprising is the level of interest among regular wine drinkers. “We were able to hit the consumer level because there was such a strong interest on our restaurant and retailers’ part,” Says Comito. Salespeople could work from the brochure to create a dinner or tasting that would begin in Soave Classico and work its way down the Italian peninsula to Campania or Basilicata. “It was really well received all the way down to the consumer level. Imagine stumbling into a wine shop on a Saturday afternoon and instead of the old ‘we’ve got some Cabs and some Chiantis’ you get ‘we’re doing a volcanic wine tasting, come on over’. There was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm behind that.”

New promotions

Consumer events have sprung up on their own as well, even outside the major urban markets. A casual internet search turns up a tasting in March at the Wine Guild of Charlottesville in Virginia, and in April, a series of four separate volcanic wine tastings at Fearrington village, a residential development in North Carolina.

Because volcanic regions are scattered, it is hard to put solid numbers on sales growth of volcanic wines as a category. Even individually, Greece and Hungary do not separate export growth for Santorini or Tokaj and the Lake Balaton area in their reports. The DOP Islas Canarias does report that its exports, mostly to the US, almost doubled from 2014 to 2017, but it’s hard to extrapolate from that to the whole of the volcanic category.

Small regions seem most likely to benefit. Szabo says taking part in the “volcanic wines movement” gives regions with little heft in the market like the Azores or the Canary Islands a chance to associate themselves with heavy hitters such as Napa, Sonoma and Soave. It gives them a new, higher-profile way to get into the marketplace.

There may also be synergies within each region. According to Szabo, Hungary is considering focusing on the volcanic message rather than the more traditional approach of promoting a signature grape variety. That would help cross-promotions with the country’s many hot springs as well as its large mineral water industry, the third largest in the world. “It creates a nice package, easily understandable and recognisable by drinkers and tourists of all types,” says Szabo. “You don’t need to be an expert to understand volcanics and hot springs and what not.” In the Veneto, Consorzii over several areas — including Soave, Lessini Durello and Breganze — are uniting with various accommodation facilities to form what they call the “Volcanic Wine Park”, an experiential tourism programme focused around wine and food.

Are people really ready to order wines by a soil type? At Husk, a farm-to-table restaurant in Nashville, they have no choice; that’s how the list is organised. “With the list separated like that we can show the terroir of a region or of a soil rather than just point at the grape,” says sommelier Nicolette Anctil, adding that guest reaction is mixed. “Obviously some guests are like ‘that’s stupid’, Everyone has their perspective but I think the idea of dining is for us to showcase what’s important to us whether you buy into it or not.” Some guests are big fans, though. “What is funny is we have a small percentage of geologists who come in and go nuts. ‘I don’t even drink wine, but this is great!’,” says Anctil. In any case, the restaurant has been satisfied enough with the results to duplicate the organisation on wine lists at its three other locations.

Alice Feiring also endorses a soil-based approach in her 2017 book, The Dirty Guide to Wine: Following Flavor from Ground to Glass. “With climate change and with everything you can do to a soil, to a plant and in the winery, the one thing that doesn’t change is bedrock,” says Feiring. “I was just offering that as a new way to learn about wine.” The book is dotted with “cheat sheets” that break down the wine regions in the world by their soils and climate. “So if you like Assyrtiko then try a Carricante from Etna.” She admits that we’re nowhere near a tipping point where soil types become part of the lingo of wine sales, but has had feedback from some shops about “people coming in looking for limestone or schist wines”.

While Feiring says she has a proclivity for whites from granitic soils, it was an experience with volcanic wine that reignited the idea for her book. “My light bulb went off with volcanic wines when I was tasting with Frank Cornelissen years in 2011. We tasted all his wines, his olive oil and his grappa. I was blown away because I got the same finish from them all, including the olive oil, including the grappa. I got that same ashy coarse finish. And I said ‘OK, I get it, this is pretty profound’.”

But even before you taste a volcanic wine there’s an appeal. “When you’re talking about schist or limestone and you’re talking about vague geographical areas; with volcanic wines you have a volcano to anchor it all,” says Feiring. “And there’s always been a fascination with volcanoes.” 

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