What's in Volcanic Soil, Why Does Volcanic Wine Taste So Good, and Where to Find It
Thousands of years ago, Mount Vesuvius erupted, and the blast smothered the city of Pompeii. Years later, archeologists discovered the city, preserved at the moment of its destruction in layers of ash.
Today, Campania — where the tragedy occurred — is recognizable for its rich culture, outstanding food, and delicious wines. Because volcanic activity, however destructive, can lead to life. Volcanic soils sustain agriculture, including grapegrowing 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. Terroir — sense of place — encompasses everything from the soil type to the weather and climate to the person who makes the wine.
There are many different types of volcanic soils formed from lava flows, ash deposits, volcanic and even rocks hurled through the air. As a rule, these soils have a dramatic impact on winemaking.
Wines made in volcanic regions are striking and electric. They can be salty, savory, and sometimes have a gritty feeling. They are perfect representation of the drama, destruction, and beauty of volcanic landscapes.
What is volcanic soil?
Put simply, volcanic soil is soil that has been influenced by volcanic activity. That could mean it comes from ancient deposits near tectonic plates or 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 cool on the earth’s crust. To this day, volcanos act as 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 comes in many forms and affect vines in different ways.
How does volcanic soil affect wine?
In most cases, volcanic soils don’t retain lots of water, which means the roots of the vines have to work harder to survive. Like an Olympic athlete or a surgeon in the emergency room, grapes perform best under pressure. These dry soils can lead to some great wine.
Also, volcanic soil is mineral-rich. It acts almost like a multivitamin for the vines, imparting them 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 and sparse, which means a lot of flavor is concentrated in just a few little grapes.
Where can I find volcanic wine?
Canary Islands, Spain
Some of our favorite winemakers in volcanic regions contrast modernity and tradition in the cellar. 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. Their vineyards 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 intense winds.
The four friends behind Envínate — Roberto Santana, Alfonso Torrente, Laura Ramos, and José Martínez — make wines that are strikingly rustic, smoky, and wild. Taking a sip is like looking the molten core of Mount Teide directly in the eye. We can’t get enough.
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 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.
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 are wines with a wildness that’s 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. But one thing remains constant: the wines are always electric.
Want to try more volcanic wines?
Discover incredible producers working in volcanic wine regions.