Drama and Beauty: Why You Should be Drinking  Volcanic Wine

Drama and Beauty: Why You Should be Drinking Volcanic Wine

Thousands of years ago, Mount Vesuvius erupted in a massive blast that smothered the city of Pompeii. Years later, archeologists discovered the city, preserved at the moment of its destruction in layers of ash.

But today, Campania — where the tragedy occurred — is most recognizable for its rich culture, outstanding food, and delicious wines. It goes to show that volcanic activity, however destructive, can lead to life. It produces soils that sustain agriculture — including grape growing — and consequently, the production of wine.

It’s no secret that soil type and landscape have a huge impact on how a wine tastes, smells, and feels. And while there is more than one type of volcanic soil — just think of all the ways it can form: lava flows, ash deposits, volcanic rocks hurled through the air — as a rule, it has a dramatic impact on winemaking. Wines made in volcanic regions are striking and electric: a perfect representation of the drama, destruction, and beauty of volcanic landscapes.

It might be odd to imagine something as beautiful and celebratory as wine coming directly from the aftermath of something so cataclysmic, but that contradiction is what makes it so exciting. Somehow, across the globe, the volatile, dramatic presence of volcanoes shapes and anchors the wine in a way that cannot be replicated.

What is volcanic soil?

Put simply, volcanic soil is soil that has been influenced by volcanic activity. That could mean ancient deposits at tectonic plates or proximity to an active volcano. Sometimes the land is covered with dried lava, basalt, or layers of ashy loam.

Millions of years ago, while the planet was still forming, tectonic plates shifted and adjusted and crashed into one another, allowing gushes of molten rock to rise to the surface and dry on the earth’s crust. To this day, volcanoes act as openings or vents in the earth’s surface, often found where tectonic plates meet, to allow lava and gasses to escape into the atmosphere.

So, between ancient and recent deposits of dried lava (also known as basalt), and layers of ash from past eruptions, volcanic soil can take many forms and affect vines in different ways.

How does volcanic activity affect wine?

In most cases, the result is soil that retains little water, causing the roots of the vines to work harder to survive. While this might sound detrimental to the health of the plant, grapes naturally like to be a bit stressed out by being planted in challenging conditions like dry soil. In other words, like an Olympic athlete or a surgeon in the emergency room, grapes perform best under pressure.

Additionally, volcanic soil is mineral-rich. It acts almost like a multi-vitamin for the plant, imparting it with nutrients and minerals, which eventually manifests as a razor-sharp and deeply complex minerality in the wine. Combined with lower yields from the stress of growing in drier soils, grapes grown in volcanic environments are often small, sparse, and enormously concentrated with lush flavor.

Therein lies the beautiful tension in volcanic wines: while it can be difficult for vines to survive, that struggle is alluringly evident in the resulting wines.

Where can I find volcanic wine?

Canary Islands, Spain

Some of our favorite winemakers in volcanic regions tend to play with the idea of contradiction inherent in volcanic wines in the cellar by contrasting modernity and tradition. Volcanic landscapes are some of the oldest in the world, but the wines coming out of these regions have the potential to be shockingly modern in style.

Take Envínate from the Canary Islands. This winemaking project is based in Tenerife, where the grapevines are some of the oldest in the world, with their roots reaching deeper than most to reach fertile soil. Their vineyards, like many others in the islands, resemble a surreal, dark moon landscape spread out beneath the volcanic Mount Teide. The basalt-based soil is jet black and rocky, and each vine is individually planted in a small crater to protect the plant from damaging winds.

The wines that come from those crater-spotted vineyards are out of this world. The four friends behind Envínate — Roberto Santana, Alfonso Torrente, Laura Ramos, and José Martínez — take their volcanic surroundings to the next level. Their wines are strikingly rustic, smoky, and wild. Taking a sip is like looking the molten core of Mount Teide directly in the eye, and we just can’t get enough of it.

Etna DOC, Sicily, Italy

In the northeast of Italy’s famous island region lies the austere Mount Etna. The 1,100-foot, frequently active volcano overlooks all of the vineyards in the region and erupted 11 times in March 2021 alone. Plumes of smoke and glowing rivers of lava mingle just miles from the vines, sometimes even closer, reminding winemakers daily of Etna’s power and volatility. Maybe that’s why the wines coming from this region are so electric: they live on the edge of destruction.

Rosanna Romeo and Chiara Vigo of Romeo di Castello know Etna’s unpredictability and power. After a particularly destructive eruption in 1981, their small vineyard of Nerello Mascalese was narrowly missed by a fiery river of molten lava. Once cooled, it formed a jagged, jet-black wall around the vineyard. In the distance, beyond the vines, it almost looks like the fortified ramparts of an ancient castle and imparts a distinctive, rocky minerality to the wines. Stories like theirs are not unique either, with winemakers all over the region constantly reminded of the fragility of life in their vineyards as Etna looms just in front of them.

Willamette Valley, Oregon

Don’t worry, there’s no secretly active volcano in Oregon. However, millions of years ago, fissures in tectonic plates near the Oregon-Idaho border caused enormous volcanic eruptions which resulted in a high volume of volcanic matter in the soil. Mount St. Helens in Washington is a present-day reminder of that ancient activity.

In contrast to the porous lava-based soils of the Canary Islands and Sicily, the land in the Willamette Valley, particularly in the Eola-Amity Hills district, is lush and nutrient-rich. Grapes are happy here, as opposed to the natural stress they endure in drier soils. They have a lush ripeness while still maintaining a distinctive minerality. The result is wines whose wildness is not as untamed as Sicilian or Canary Island wines but instead simmers just under the surface.

Try the sparkling Blanc de Blancs from Evening Land to get a taste for yourself. It's somehow both lusciously rich and laser-focused with minerality: leaning into the inherent tension of volcanic soil yet again.

Volcanic wine is not a one-size-fits-all style: it’s vast and varied, and the influence of volcanic activity can manifest itself in surprising ways. However, amidst all the idiosyncrasies and drama of volcanic winemaking, one thing remains constant: the wines are always electric.