Most wine aficionados are very aware of certain soil types in which many of the wold’s famous wines are grown in. The Kimmeridgian clay and fossilised oyster shells attributing to the crisp minerality of the wines of Chablis are possibly the most well-known. Also the gravel and clay-influenced soils of the Left and Right Banks of Bordeaux and their more suitability for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot respectively are well-recognised. Closer to home, the major influencing soil type in our vineyards in New Zealand is the sedimentary greywacke. Interestingly, a number of Marlborough producers are differentiating the styles of their wines on whether the fruit comes from the river stone-greywacke soils as against the higher clay-influenced soils of the hills.
John Szabo MS, a Toronto-based author and wine critic has taken a novel approach in writing a book about wines grown in volcanic soils. In his book ‘Volcanic Wines’ sub-titled ‘Salt Grit and Power’, the author asserts the differences and unique character of wines grown on volcanic-based soils, these being infrequently discussed or lesser-recognised relative to other soil types.
How Are Volcanic Wines Different?
The first question the reader will ask is how do wines grown on volcanic soils differ from those from other soils? Szabo immediately provides his thoughts, with a concise and compact introduction on volcanoes, how they are formed from the movement of the planet’s tectonic plates, and the types of lavas from the different kinds of volcanic eruptions. In essence, he sees the volcanic soils with their relative commonality of high potassium, high pH and curiously also high acidities result in wines that are savoury and earthy, with salinity, fresher textures, higher acid mouthfeel and creaminess. It is noted that these characteristics are not exclusive to volcanic-soiled wines. Szabo does not set out to tightly define and categorise volcanic wines, but desires to show that a wine enthusiast can appreciate many wines from any one of many angles.
It is this relaxed approach to the subject that permeates the book, the writing and the specific regions and wines, and indeed lends an easiness of reading and degree of personable charm to it. The author visits 22 different regions in 9 different countries describing volcanic wines. The list of regions included was guided somewhat by “commercially relevant production and commendable quality”. He regrets omitting many qualified regions, such as southern Austria and Slovenia, Japan, New Zealand’s North Island, British Colombia, France’s Auvergne region and a multitude of other volcanic regions in California and Italy, partly on “mundane constraints” and what I see are his personal attractions and interests!
The Volcanic Regions
For each of the regions the author devotes chapters to, he provides an overview of the geology, from ancient to modern times, the geography, and how volcanism is manifest and in what form in the soils. It is done clearly and this is linked to the wine growing areas and appellations thus reinforcing the concept of the influence of the soils to the style of the wines. The author highlights the successful wine varieties as well as the styles that appear to emanate in each district. I find this information to be some of the most interesting that Szabo puts forward.
This discussion leads to profiles of the significant producers in each region. The profiles include the philosophies of the people, the particular individuality in land and soil, as well as winemaking. And a rating system up to 3-stars provides an indication of the best or most interesting producers that are covered. A label of a wine from each profiled producer is also shown. Each chapter of the book is very well illustrated, with many beautiful and evocative photos, and there are detailed maps showing the topography, spread of the volcanic-soiled areas and locations of mountains and volcanoes, as well as the profiled producers.
Interestingly, the author visits the regions closest to home first. The Pacific Northwest chapter covers the Columbia River Basalts, in Washington State and Oregon. Then a chapter on Northern California with Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Lake County. He finishes the Americas with Chile, and its Andean Volcanic Belt.
I found the chapter on Macaronesia the most interesting. The unique wine production of the Atlantic islands of the Azores, Madeira and the Canary Islands was most intriguing. While the wines of Madeira are historical and continue to be commercialised with moderate success in today’s world, the uniqueness makes them valuable in potential.
Then onto more familiar ground with Alsace and Germany, covering the Upper Rhine Graben and Eifel Volcanic field. The Alsace section is dedicated to the Rangen de Thann Grand Cru, whereas the German section takes the reader around much of the country from the Ahr and Mittelrhein, Mosel, Nahe, Rheinhessen, Pfalz, and Baden, the home of the Kaiserstuhl Volcanic Complex.
Italy commands the largest chapter. The Margins of Eurasia and Africa and their tectonic plates provide a huge amount of area and material to cover. One senses that the author is in one of his favourite countries here, as his writing takes a step up in emotion and passion. Who would not, when discussing the regions of Mount Etna in Sicily, Basilicata, Campania, and even the backwater of Pitigliano, Tuscany? And the well-known region of Soave has its ‘opposing’ limestone and basalt soils described.
It is obvious the author has a particular fascination for the incredibly special wines of Santorini island, in the Aegean district of Greece. But from my reading, I believe Hungary is his most loved country. The Badacsony and Balaton-Felvidek, Somlo nd Tokaj-Hegyalja districts are written about with great enthusiasm, as the wines possesses great history, uniqueness, quality, as well as modern potential.
I admit I have not travelled as extensively visiting the world’s wine regions as I’d like to have. Before reading this book, I’d have had on my must-visit list the usual suspects of Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhone, Tuscany, Rioja, Jerez, and Portugal. But now, I want to visit the Azores, Santorini and Hungary as much. By doing so, my voyage in discovering and learning about wines would be greatly enhanced and widened.
Volcanic Wines, By John Szabo, MS
Jacqui Small LLP, London, 2016, ISBN 978-1-910254-00-4