Victoria Moore: appreciating wines made on volcanic soil

Pico, Azores, Portugal
Author John Szabo has pinned down the elusive ‘X-factor’ uniting wines made on volcanic soil...

Pico is an island in the Azores that is just 300,000 years old. It was created by a series of volcano cones on the floor of the Atlantic to the west of Portugal, the largest of which, Mount Pico, towers 7,713ft above sea level, with a crater 546yds across. Mount Pico is a colossus; when it erupted from its flanks in 1718 the lava flow reached both coasts. The land here is tough to cultivate.

“In places it’s too young for soil to have formed,” says Nik Darlington of Red Squirrel wines. And yet, in this harsh territory, grapes are grown. Darlington imports a Pico wine called Tinto Vulcânico, made from a mixture of eight red grapes including castelão, merlot and touriga nacional.

It’s hard to describe the taste but it is underlaid by an intriguing, savoury sensation, almost as if the volcano is trying to make its presence felt.

Mount Etna Credit: Marco Ossino/Fotolia

There is currently a huge interest in volcanic wines. In Italy, one of the most fashionable places to make wine is on the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna, where recent lava flows criss-cross some of the vineyards.

Madeira’s vineyards are not new...Perhaps we could learn to appreciate them once more

By day you can stand among the vines and watch the smoke plumes billowing into the sky; at night an eerie calm descends. In Santorini, in the midst of the Aegean, they have grown vines on the slopes leading up to the caldera for almost 5,000 years – you may have tasted some of the energetic assyrtikos made by Hatzidakis and sold in Waitrose and the Wine Society.

Wines are made on volcanic soil all around the world: from Tenerife to Campania; Oregon to northern California to Chile. But do they have a uniting factor? John Szabo thinks so. He is the author of the book Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power (Jacqui Small, £30), which won an André Simon award earlier this year.

There are many different types of volcanic soil, as Szabo is quick to point out. So many, in fact, that the term is only “slightly more descriptive than ‘cheese’.”

Credit: Zoe Barker

Still, he finds – anecdotally rather than scientifically – two common characteristics in the wines made on them. One he calls a “mouthwatering quality”; the other a “savoury character”. I know what he means. I’ve tasted those salts and those acids, and run my tongue over wines that seem to have a fugitive earthy or pumice-like personality, wondering exactly what it is I can taste.

There is a lot of disagreement over what exactly soil contributes to the flavour of a grape and, ultimately, to a wine. But few would argue with the idea that its structure, and drainage properties have a huge effect – essentially, the way in which the ground delivers water to the plant, or make the plant work for water.

Szabo’s book is interesting in part because it’s refreshing to read a discussion on wine that doesn’t take as its focus a grape or a place; one which draws parallels and makes links, connects rather than separates. What I found most exciting is that his analysis does not merely seek to explain but to project into the future. It’s normal for books about terroir to collapse in on themselves, trying to explain the ethereal presence of a wine by trudging pebble by pebble through the ground at the vine’s feet. Instead Szabo takes flight.

Chile is bounded on one side by the Andes Credit: Oriol Alamany/Corbis

Chile is a slender country bounded on one side by the Andes, on the other by the Pacific, and it nurtures around 500 volcanoes, many of them active. The country forged its reputation on wines that were safe and reliable, but it has been quietly branching out, as its growers investigate more and more extreme territories in which to plant vines. Some of these sites include the rocky basalts south of Maule and close to Villaricca, one of Chile’s most active volcanoes – an eruption in 2015 sent plumes of smoke and molten lava into the sky to twice the volcano’s height.

Szabo also highlights a type of soil called trumao, mixed with volcanic ash, found in the cooler southern regions of Bío-Bío, Itata, Malleco and Región Astral. In both cases, he predicts, we can expect to see more winemakers heading there.

I wonder if the new interest in volcanoes might even rekindle our desire for a wine that so many now ignore. Lanzarote and Tenerife are two Canary Islands whose wines are now on every hipster sipper’s map.

But what about another in the Atlantic, one whose dark cliffs rise steeply out of the sea, and whose acidic soils produce a fortified wine that, though sweet, whips smartly through the mouth with a mouthwatering flash of bright acid?

Madeira’s vineyards are not new. It has been shipping wines to us for centuries (and its wines still taste good when they are centuries old). Perhaps we could learn to appreciate them once more.

Volcanic wines of the week

From left: Hatzidakis Santorini; Inama Soave Classico, Henriques & Henriques

Hatzidakis Santorini 2015, Greece (13.5%, The Wine Society, £13.50)

Made from assyrtiko grown in the volcanic soil of Santorini, this unoaked white tastes of white grapefruit pith and crystallised lemons. Fierce and bracing.

Inama Soave Classico 2016, Italy (12%, Majestic, £15.99/£13.99 single bottle/mix six price)

The region of Soave in north-east Italy lies on ancient volcanic soil. The garganega grapes used to make this rounded, slightly honeyed, white are grown on basalt. Try it with stracchino cheese.

Henriques & Henriques Verdelho 15 year old Madeira NV,  Portugal (20%, Telegraph Wine from Waitrose, £20.99)

Verdelho is one of the grapes used to make the paler, drier styles of this fortified wine. Think baked apples, green figs and raisins with a hint of roasted almond. Drink chilled with a slice of seedcake.