What To Drink Now: Volcanic Wines

Assyrtiko basket vines in Santorini

Portions of this story were originanly printed in “West Hawaii Today” January 28, 2020

There is energy in the majestic mountains of Hawaii island — breathing life, capturing the imagination, supporting spirituality, bringing stability, connecting us to the universe, grounding us to the earth. Hawaii’s volcanic mountains are like others in the world, bringing unmistakable energy to their surroundings. In wine, that translates to a unique mark of power and strength.

Volcanic wines, or wines from grapes grown in soils filled with volcanic ash, basalt, and rocks, tend to have vibrant acidity melding with robust tannins, delivering unique character. These are not fruit driven. Instead, volcanic wine are terroir driven, telling the story of place, highlighting savory, salty, umani notes.

Sicily’s Mount Etna, the highest volcano in Europe, sitting at just over 10,000 feet above sea level and still growing, is home to distinct wines with history. For over 3500 years, wine has been produced on Sicily, rising to acclaim from the days of the Roman Empire through the 19th Century. However, when the volcanic mountain began to rumble in the 20th Century, the industry became stunted, due to looming fears of destruction. Today, the country is having a re-emergence.

Wine Enthusiast’s current “European Winery of the Year,” Sicily’s Tasca d’Almerita has been crafting terroir-driven wines from volcanic soils for over 190 years. Following traditional methods, intertwined with sustainable viticulture, the Tasca family is a role-model for environmental winemaking. From vineyards sitting high atop the volcano, Tascante Ghiaia Nera ($23) is a youthful expression of the Nerello Mascalese variety, revealing brambly blackberry, savory balsamic, and a note of umami.

Courageous for her curiosity to produce mineral-driven wine in Sicily, as well as her strength as a female in a heavily male-dominant industry, Silvia Maestrelli began Tenuta di Fessina in 2007. Today, she specializes in producing indigenous variety wine with traditional methods. Tenuta di Fessina Etan Bianco A’Puddara ($45) is a vibrant, fresh white wine crafted from 70-year-old Carricante vines sitting at almost 3000 feet above sea level in soils filled with limestone, basalt, volcanic ash, and clay. The mix of soils adds intense mineral character to the briny, citrus, and crushed stone-filled wine.

Assyrtiko grapes on the Greek Island of Santorini undergo some of the harshest growing conditions in the world. Yet, grapes have been grown on the wind-blown island with nutrient poor, volcanic soils for centuries. Afternoon and evening winds are so strong, that the high elevation vineyards dotting the island must be wrapped around themselves in a basket formation to protect the fruit from the harsh gusty conditions. Very hot days give way to very cool evenings, delivering luscious wines with intense acidity. Producers like Boutari ($30,) Gaia ($40,) and Domain Sigalas ($45) craft exceptional Assyrtiko wines filled with steely, briny salinity perfect for pairing with island seafood, shellfish, and sunsets.

Napa’s Atlas Peak, with volcanic soils at its origin, is a rugged, expansive area of over 11,000 acres. Today over 1500 total acres planted across the region. Atlas Peak’s Acumen farms 116 acres of fruit sitting at elevations from 1300 – 1600 feet above sea level. This elevation, combined with the red, iron-rich, volcanic soils of the mountain creates structured, well-defined wines. Acumen “Peak” Sauvignon Blanc ($75) shines with viscosity, luscious complexity, and style, highlighting the minerality the soils impart, and freshness high elevation vineyards lend to hand-crafted wine.

From a mix of both volcanic rocky soils, and dense clay coils in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, Dueling Pistols Dry Creek Red Blend ($50) brings spicy Zinfandel together with smoky Syrah for an interesting blend layering pepper, black tea, red and black fruit, and meaty heartiness. A relatively young region geologically, Sonoma’s Alexander Valley’s walls were created by volcanic acitvity, delivering nutrient poor soils with highly arid, sunshine filled days. The vines in the hillsides and mountains of the region are forced to dig deep in to the ground to find their sustanance, deep into the ground to find their voice. The resulting wines, specifically Cabernet Sauvignon, makes a statement. EDGE Caberent Sauvignon ($25) from Ray Signorello is robust, luscious, inky, and intense with layers of cassis, currant, blackberry, soft herbs, and licorice.

Founder of Jackson Family Wines, the late Jess Jackson, had a love of Cabernet Sauvignon and mountain fruit, creating Cardinale ($325) to showcase the best expression of both. Focusing on fruit from iron-rich Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder, along with a mélange of sub-AVAs, the concentrated wine is expressive, harmonious, and beautifully balanced. From one of the vineyards in the Cardinale blend, Mount Brave on volcanic Mount Veeder crafts wines with restraint, refinement, and earthy elegance. Mount Brave Merlot ($80) is a bold Merlot for Cabernet lovers, revealing purple and black fruit, dark chocolate, licorice, and wildflowers, with a velvety finish.

Rocky, basaltic-volcanic soils from ancient lava flow in Willamette Valley’s Eola-Amity Hills Ava delivers highly concentrated, small cluster bunches of fruit, producing complex, textured wine. With a non-interventionist style, Lingua Franca Avni Pinot Noir ($40) highlights tension with freshness, revealing, wild rose, earthy forest floor, and dried herbs.

Within Italy’s Veneto region, Soave shines as a leading white wine of the country. Crafted from the Garganega variety plated in soils filled with basalt from volcanoes that dotted the countryside 65-million-years-ago. Inama Soave Classico ($20) shines with elder-flower, lily, honeydew, and blanched almond.

From grapes grown in the Golan Heights, the coldest region in Israel, and Galilee, the country’s most northern region, Yarden Wines deliver intensity and robust character, while maintaining freshness and clarity. Full-bodied, dense, and concentrated, Yarden Petit Verdot ($25) melds anise, black cherry, and woody herb with crushed stone and graphite.