By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 7 May 2016
When I was a wine student, I was always being told that volcanic soils gave wines special properties from high acidity, minerality and salinity – to a potential for longevity.
The idea that anyone would want to live on the slope of an active volcano like Mount Etna in Sicily [pictured right], let alone try to grow vines, fascinated me. Delving into the volcanic wine world, I was blown away by the number of examples I found – from islands of Madeira and Pantelleria to Veneto’s slopes in northeast Italy and Somlo in Hungary – to Willamette Valley in Oregon and Napa valley in California in the USA.
All benefit from the wonderful nutrient-rich time capsule of volcanic soil deriving from activity from active, dormant or extinct volcanoes: where earth’s 17 tectonic plates have converged or diverged.
Volcanic eruptions give certain properties very useful for vinegrowers. Good water retention (particularly helpful on dry viticultural islands with no rivers like Lanzarote [pictured right], Tenerife or Santorini) where tiny crevices in basalt lava can store water up to 100% of their weight. Soils are rich in calcium, iron, copper, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium giving special characteristics to wines – and high acid levels give grapes with high acidity – the essential backbone of wine.
In simple terms, there are two basic types of volcanic soils in wine regions. Firstly, vent-based soils from ‘tuff’ rock material ejected into the air and cooled before settling to earth; like the ‘green tuff’ consolidated ash in Campania [pictured right] blown from Ischia’s Mount Epomeo eruption – to soils mixed with limestone or clay as in Kaiserstuhl in southern Germany’s Baden region.
Secondly, the red hot lava flowing down a volcano slope is rapidly cooled creating basalt or andesite soil types: this can be black in colour like the fresh lava flows heaped up in Etna’s vineyards, grey andesite [pictured below in France's Massif Central] or degraded over time like Oregon’s red-brown hard dense ‘Jory’ soil.
To determine what these volcanic wines had in common – and whether their quality really is ‘red hot’ – I gathered an eclectic range from around the world.
Our tasters found that volcanic reds tended to be lighter, more elegant and occasionally less tannic than those from other soil types. The white wines were more distinctive – with brighter fruits, freshness from high acidity, steely minerality with a certain salinity, savoury and spicy notes – often with a very pithy persistent finish.
Veneto, Italy: SOAVE CLASSICO 2014 Pieropan
(£13.99 Henderson Wines; Aitken Wines; Valvona & Crolla; Drinkmonger; Lockett Bros; The Wine Society; Laithwaites)
Soave’s ‘Paleo’ soil, a mix of basalt, clay & limestone, gives bright appley fruits, freshness, savouriness with a rich full taste. Alc: 12%
Santorini, Greece: ASSYRTIKO 2014 Hatzidakis ***STAR BUY***
(£12.50 The Wine Society; £12.99 Waitrose)
Santorini’s light porous Aspa soil gives very fragrant, spicy herby notes and persistent spicy length. Alc: 13.5%
Campania, Italy: GRECO DI TUFO 2013 Valdiperti
(£14.95 Caves de Pyrene www.lescaves.co.uk)
Green tuff soil gives bright citric fruits, pearskin flavours and vibrant acidity alongside Campania’s characteristic nuttiness. Alc: 13%
Pantelleria, Sicily: PIETRA NERA ZIBIBBO 2013 de Bortoli ***STAR BUY***
(£26 Caves de Pyrene www.lescaves.co.uk)
Pietra Nera is the name of Pantelleria’s black lava soils giving wonderfully intense dry Muscats with minerality and steely length. Alc: 12%
Alsace, France: CUVEE RANGEN, CLOS ST URBAIN GRAND CRU PINOT GRIS 2013 Zind Humbrecht ***STAR BUY***
(£55 Woodwinters, Edinburgh; Berry Bros & Rudd)
Alsace’s only volcanic vineyard [pictured right], with volcanic rock mixed with decomposed sandstone, gives incredibly intense aromatic and full-flavoured Pinot Gris with spicy depth and lingering finish. Alc: 13.5%
Cotes du Forez, France: CUVEE VOLCANIQUE GAMAY 2014 Logel & Verdier
(£12 Caves de Pyrene www.lescaves.co.uk)
From France’s oldest volcanic area of the Massif Central in Auvergne; Gamay grape grown on grey andesite [pictured below right] gives a very savoury, sappy, minerally style. Alc: 12%
Tenerife, Canary Islands: 7 FUENTOS 2012 Suertes del Marques
(£14 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Earthy savoury baked blend of Listan Negro and Tintilla grapes grown on basalt. Alc: 13%
Sicily, Italy: ETNA ROSSO 2013 Alberto Graci
(£12-£18 Woodwinters, Edinburgh; www.italvinus.co.uk; AG Wines; Berry Bros & Rudd)
Elegant youthful Nerello Mascalese gives a rich silky texture and fine length from high altitude (700m) regosol basalt soils on active Etna. Alc: 14%
Oregon, USA: PINOT NOIR 2013 Domaine Drouhin ***STAR BUY***
Red fruits, minerally and fine tannins; a very elegant Pinot from the basalt-based ‘Jory’ soils of the Dundee Hills. Alc: 13.5%
Santorini, Greece: VIN SANTO 2003 Hatzidakis ***STAR BUY***
(£19.95 hf bt Berry Bros & Rudd)
Superb dried figgy fruits, raisiny and dense from Vin Santo’s original homeland; made from Assyrtiko grown on Aspa basalt soil. Alc: 13%
Tokay, NE Hungary: TOKAJI ASZU 5 PUTTONYOS 2009 Royal Tokaji
(£12.29 for 25 cl bt Waitrose; £21.50 for 50cl bt Majestic Wine; The Wine Society)
Honeyed caramel, orange peel, apricots and spice: a delicious fresh bright sweet wine from Furmint and Harslevelu grapes grown on Tokay’s andesite igneous rock. Alc: 11%
Join Rose’s Taste of Scotland Wine & Food Matching at Abode, Bath St, Glasgow on Friday 1 July £40 www.rosemurraybrown.com