Wine Time: Volcanic Wines Aren’t Just Trendy, They’re Timeless

Illustration by Joel Hedstrom

Acutting edge. A little spice. Some heat. A walk on the wild side, perhaps? 

It’s easy to get caught up in wine trends. They often present themselves with a splash, a tagline, maybe as a little taboo, and they’re gone before we have time to consider: “Do I really want to commit to this?” Still, here’s one you absolutely should consider:

Wines from volcanic soils are not just trendy, but timeless. 

Volcanos and wine are both pretty old, yet they continue to shape present-day landscapes both cultural and geographical. They also make pretty good partners in crime. Grapes grown in volcanic soils tend to possess an unusual abundance of non-fruit and savory characteristics, as well as crunchy acidity. The soils, while having a fair amount of nutrients, are typically low in potassium, which helps cultivate higher-acid grapes. 

Additionally, volcanic regions tend to be quite a bit hotter, which leads to greater ripeness, but the soils retain the necessary water for the vines—conditions that stress the vines to produce the best possible grapes with balanced acidity and body and texture to follow. These wines are food friendly as well as somewhat dazzling in personality, but also taste broadly familiar. 

White wines from the assyrtiko grape of the volcanic island Santorini may call to mind a glass of crisp, briny Chablis. Assyrtiko is known for laser-focused acidity and a salty snap, but maintains a surprising touch of ripeness and body thanks to its thick skin and the hot climate.  

Red wines of the nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio grapes from Mount Etna, Sicily, have refreshing red fruit and dried herb notes, with a structure reminiscent of Burgundy or perhaps even nebbiolo. Nerello mascalese is high tone and French in style, but midway through your sip, an ashy, umami flavor creeps in, reminding you of the lava rock from where it comes.

Thankfully, these wines are becoming more recognizable and available to consumers, and the wine world is taking note. In 2018, the first annual International Volcanic Wine Conference was held, bringing together grape growers and winemakers from volcanic regions such as Sicily, Hungary, Chile, the United States, and more. The conference was led by John Szabo, a Canadian master sommelier whose book, “Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power,” is dedicated to understanding the terroir of volcanic soils and regions on a whole new level. 

There is a bit of surprise in each sip of these volcanic wines, so won’t you join me for a glass of something a little wild?

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