Grapevines thriving in volcanic soil with a backdrop of an active volcano

Why Is Volcanic Soil Good for Grapes and Fine Wine?

Why is volcanic soil good for grapes? This question helps us understand why some wines are so unique. Volcanic soil from the earth’s crust contains minerals that help grapevines grow healthy and tasty. It has excellent drainage and a mix of elements and can make fruit better. These features create the perfect conditions for unique and flavorful wines. In this post, we’ll explore the benefits of volcanic vineyards and how this soil shapes the taste of our favorite wines.

Key Takeaways

  • Volcanic soils have minerals like iron, potassium, and magnesium that help with superior drainage. These soils support a diverse ecosystem of fungi and bacteria, leading to wines with unique flavors, complex mineral qualities, and smoky undertones.

    Volcanic soils are usually stony and have low fertility, which stresses grapevines. This stress results in thicker grape skins, better sunlight absorption, and smaller, more intense grapes. These factors give wines a “salty sweetness” and a savory quality.

The Magic of Volcanic Soil: Unearthing Its Unique Qualities

Volcanic soil with visible layers of volcanic rocks and minerals

Winemakers respect volcanic soils, a unique mix of mineral-rich volcanic rocks, ash, and lava. Even in ancient times, the Romans sought out this particular soil. The rich mineral content, superior drainage, and diverse ecosystems give wines a distinctive character, setting them apart from those grown in other soil types. The soil’s unique qualities promote smoky notes and a complex structure that leaves you wanting more.

It’s no wonder that Italy, with its diverse and abundant volcanic soils, is a prime place to discover the magic of volcanic terroir and wine.

Mineral Richness

Volcanic soils, often enriched by volcanic ash, contain minerals like iron, potassium, and magnesium. These nutrients add a distinctive “salty sweetness” to wines, giving them depth. This mineral richness is unmistakable in wines from Italy’s volcanic soils, where you can taste flint, crushed rock, and salinity.

A sip of Etna Bianco DOC, for example, is an adventure. It starts with an elegant bouquet, teases your palate with notes of gunpowder, and leaves a fresh taste of mandarin orange. Its distinct mineral qualities and intense aromas show the wonders of volcanic soils.

Superior Drainage

Volcanic soils are naturally porous, which is a fantastic feature of these unique soils. This means that water can pass through easily, draining exceptionally well. This attribute of the soil produces smaller berries with more intensely flavored juice. The vineyard acts like it’s in a drought, so it’s forced to pull up water and focus its energies on fewer berries than a “normal” vineyard. This translates into a uniqueness in the grapes, often manifested as a pure, intense flavor we seek in fine wines.

This excellent drainage isn’t just a physical characteristic of the soil. It’s a vital aspect of the wine’s profile, affecting how the grapes grow and the flavors they develop. From the lush ripeness of a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir to the crisp minerality of a Mount Etna Bianco, the impact of superior drainage on the wine’s profile is easy to detect.

A Unique Terroir

Volcanic soils, despite their common origin, are by no means homogeneous. They can have very different compositions and soil pH. They are also found in many climates, from the warm Mediterranean coast to the temperate valleys of Oregon. All of these factors help create unique terroirs with a distinct wine profile.

For instance, the Atlantic climate of the Portuguese Azores Islands amplifies the concentration of acidic compounds and mineral flavors in the grapes. On the other hand, active and dormant volcanoes create different ecosystems and soil types, resulting in even more complexity in the wines.

The Impact of Volcanic Soil on Grapevines

Grapevines thriving in volcanic soil with a backdrop of an active volcano

The magic of volcanic soils goes beyond their unique features. They also significantly impact grapevines, causing stress that promotes thicker grape skins and lower yields. While these factors seem challenging, they help produce wines with exciting tension, edginess, and savory quality, often perceived as minerality due to the high content of stone, metal, and minerals.

The wines that result are striking and electric in both taste and aroma, making their mark in the wine world.

Vine Stress

Despite sounding alarming, vine stress is actually a vintner’s ally. The stony, low-fertility conditions of volcanic soils, such as those in Atlas Peak AVA and Pritchard Hill of Napa, cause stress in grapevines. This stress forces the vines to grow more slowly and produce less fruit, producing more concentrated flavors.

The stress is increased by more significant temperature fluctuations and more concentrated sunlight that volcanic vineyards on a slope receive compared to those on the valley floor. This results in a greater pigment concentration in grapes, adding depth and intensity to the wines. The high-temperature ranges often found in volcanic soil regions offer the best conditions for complex and fully developed grapes.

Thicker Grape Skins

High levels of UV radiation (a result of elevation and volcanic soil) naturally produce thicker grape skins. Thicker skins intensify both the color and flavor of wine. The porous and well-drained nature of volcanic soils also naturally produces smaller berries with an even greater concentration of flavor-enhancing anthocyanins and phenolic compounds.

Combining thicker skins and greater concentrations of these essential flavor compounds creates a more intense flavor profile in wine with a characteristic savory note. Whether it’s an aggressive Aglianico from Campania or a delicate Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley, the mark of thicker skins and greater concentrations of primary flavors is a recognizable trait of wines from volcanic soils.

Lower Yields

In most farming, high yields are indicative of success. In winemaking, the opposite is true. Lower yields are blessings, especially from volcanic soils. The relatively few grapes that reach maturity have the vine’s full attention and energy, resulting in:

  • intense aroma

  • flavors

  • color

  • tannin structure

The resulting wines are often of stellar quality.

Iconic Volcanic Wine Regions Around the World

Vineyard in a volcanic wine region with unique terroir

From the Sun-Kissed Slopes to Iconic Terroirs

From the sun-kissed slopes of Italy’s Mount Etna and Vesuvius to the moon-like landscapes of the Canary Islands and from the ancient vines of Santorini to the fertile valleys of Oregon, volcanic wine regions are as diverse as they are iconic. Each region has a distinct terroir, influenced by its unique elements like altitude, exposure, and varying levels of marine influence. This creates a symphony of flavors as diverse as the regions themselves.

Italy’s Volcanic Treasures

Italy, with its rich volcanic history, has many volcanic wine regions. From the heights of Mount Etna in Sicily, with its varied slopes, altitudes, and exposures, to the volcanic soil-rich hillsides of Soave, each region has unique characteristics shaped by volcanic activity.

These volcanic regions, such as:

  • Etna

  • Soave

  • Vesuvius

  • Irpinia

  • Vulture

produce a rich array of volcanic wines that reflect the diversity of Italian winemaking. From Etna’s mighty reds to Soave’s refreshing whites, volcanic wines from Italy will astound with their variety and intriguing flavors.

Otherworldly Vines of the Canary Islands

Next on our list of volcanic wine regions is Spain’s Canary Islands. An archipelago of volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean, the Canary Islands’ terrain is dominated by volcanic rock. The warm climate and fertile yet nutrient-poor soil yield fruits with high acid levels, which in turn produce wines from the islands that exhibit notes of volcanic soil in their profiles.

Producers like Envínate utilize native grapes to create their wines, ranging from the rich red Listán Prieto to the bone-dry white Malvasía Volcanica. The Canary Islands’ otherworldly vines, active volcanoes, and skilled producers create some of the most intriguing and delicious volcanic wines from the Atlantic.

Santorini’s Ancient Vines

Santorini is our Aegean Sea gem, known for its volcanic wine region. The volcanic soils lend distinctive profiles to the wines from this island in the Aegean, most notably the savory, minerally wines made from Assyrtiko grown on volcanic soils.

Assyrtiko of Santorini offers high acidity, minerality and intensity of flavor. From vineyards clinging to the volcanic cliffs of this lovely island, the flavors burst forth in your glass as you sip. Santorini’s ancient vines and enchanting volcanic soils work their magic in these notable wines.

Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Oregon’s Willamette Valley, in the Pacific Northwest, is surrounded by fertile, iron-rich volcanic soils. These soils lend lush ripeness, distinct minerality, and grape happiness, and the wines reflect all this goodness in a beautiful way.

The valley’s Pinot Noir is a happy, expressive example of volcanic soil influence. Evening Land’s sparkling Blanc de Blancs offers crisp vitality and fine bubbles to highlight Willamette Valley’s exceptional terroir.

Volcanic Soil and Indigenous Grape Varieties

Indigenous grape varieties thriving in volcanic soil

One of the most intriguing aspects of volcanic wines is their relationship to native grape varieties. In volcanic soils, these original grapes truly express the character of their terroir and produce profiles worth discovering.

Taurasi DOCG: Campania’s King Aglianico

Buried deep within the Campania region of Italy, near the city of Avellino, is the powerful Taurasi DOCG. A full-bodied red wine made from the black Aglianico grape, Taurasi is an authentic product of its volcanic terroir. Taurasi DOCG typically displays the following notes:

  • Intense ruby hue

  • Notes of ripe red fruit and underbrush, along with leather

  • Full-bodied with good persistence

  • Velvety tannins

  • Long aging potential, evolving with increasing complexity

  • Taste of dark cherry, plum, chocolate and spice

An excellent pairing for red meat dishes, game, and mature cheeses.

Nerello Mascalese: Sicily’s Mount Etna Specialty

Mount Etna is one of Sicily’s premiere volcanic wine-growing areas. The red wines from Nerello Mascalese grapes are known for their distinct minerality and complexity, which are a product of the high-elevation old vines and actively volcanic soils.

Nerello Mascalese typically displays a rich array of aromas, including red fruit, licorice, and spice, with a beautifully balanced palate of fruit and herbs. The wines are lifted by striking acidity and an almost weightless aroma that unites fruit flavors and earthy undertones with the dominant impression of minerality.

Fiano di Avellino: An Italian White Worthy of Michelin

Buried deep within Italy’s Campania region are two native grapes, Fiano and Greco, prized for their aromatic richness and textural depth. While Greco di Tufo typically produces a crisp, mineral-driven wine, Fiano di Avellino presents a richer, more rounded mouthfeel.

So you’ve found yourself a couple of Volcanic Wines… What next?

First and foremost, enjoying volcanic wines is a scientific adventure, a sensory journey across terroirs forged by our planet’s fires. To track down volcanic wine, you’ll want to look at sites like Mount Etna in Sicily and Campania, just north of Mount Vesuvius.

You’ll want to notice a marked minerality, high acidity, and distinct flavor profiles typical of the volcanic territory, like the flintiness of a white or the earthy hints in a red. And keep an eye out for native grapes thriving in the volcanic soil, like Etna’s Nerello Mascalese or Campania’s Fiano and Greco—grapes that express the authentic voice of their volcanic terroirs, their profiles as unique as the soils that nurture them. Magic.

The Last Pour

From mineral density to enhanced drainage, varied ecosystems, and distinctive grapevine effects, volcanic soil encourages unique characteristics. And because these soils are born of the fires that roared within the Earth in bygone days, they carry with them a testament to the captivating dance between rock and vine.

Whether it’s Italy’s bold reds or Oregon’s refreshing whites, whether it’s native grapes thriving in the volcanic soil or terroirs unique to the soils, volcanic wines are a sensory feast. So next time you open a bottle, think of its terroir. If it’s a volcanic wine, you won’t just enjoy a bottle of wine; you’ll be sipping a bit of our planet’s past.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why are volcanic soils ideal for wine growth?

Volcanic soils are ideal for wine growth because of their mineral composition, excellent drainage, and varied ecosystems. These aspects create unique taste profiles in the wines, making their flavor and quality truly outstanding.

What are some famous volcanic wine regions?

Some of these regions include Mount Etna and Vesuvius in Italy, the Canary Islands, Santorini, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and sections of Napa. Wines from these areas produce distinct and delicious tastes.

How do heirloom grape varieties play into volcanic wines?

Heirloom grape varieties play into volcanic wines in that they highlight the expression of their volcanic terroir. These grapes grow especially well in volcanic soils and create wine profiles that are unlike any other, highlighting the unique characteristics of their surroundings.

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