Our Favourite Things: Exploding Flavours
Volcanoes add magic to soils
I don’t have a favourite wine. I do, however, really like volcanoes.
Indeed, like much of civilization since the dawn of time, I am attracted to the potentially lethal fissures that vent the immense energy trapped beneath the earth’s crust.
But it’s not the thrill of putting one’s life in peril. Rather, magical things seem to happen around volcanoes. And I’m obviously not alone in my belief: tracking the expansion of Greek and Roman civilization is like a connect-the-dots game, linking their outposts to the thermal hot springs that arise in volcanic zones.
Such baths have long been held to have healing properties and it was also soon realized that drinking the water from these highly mineralized sources did wonders for your health.
But more important to me are the magical things that grow in volcanic soil. Some of the world’s most intensely flavoured tomatoes, coffee beans, capers and aromatic herbs grow on the sides of volcanoes. Wine grapes, too.
How Soil Affects Wine
Precisely how soil types affect wine flavours is still somewhat mysterious, though some indirect impact on flavour can’t be empirically denied. Perhaps it’s the high levels of sulphur, calcium, iron and magnesium; perhaps it’s the pH of the soil. Whatever the case, wines from vines grown on basalt, pumice, tufa and other volcanic-derived soils always seem to taste like liquefied rock and have ripping acidity — two essential components of top-class wine, in my view.
It doesn’t really matter what grape or particular region we’re talking about. It’s the dirt. No matter where in the world, vines that grow in volcanic soil seem to have another, or at least a different, dimension. And I love it. It may be the assyrtiko of Santorini, the cabernet sauvignon of Mt. Veeder in the Napa Valley, the pinot gris of Badascony or the furmint of Tokaj in Hungary, the rieslings of Rangen de Thann Grand Cru in southern Alsace, the nerello mascalese of Mt. Etna in Sicily or the aglianico of Taurasi in Campania: despite the dramatically different grapes and climates, all of these wines are linked by an extra degree of finesse, saliva-inducing acidity and a common, compelling mineral-saltiness that can only be explained by the dirt. (I have yet to taste the wines of Volcano Winery on the big island of Hawaii, but I’m hopeful.)
Though many of these growing areas are historic, with centuries, if not millennia, of winemaking history, they are just beginning to recapture our attention. These are the wines of the distant past and the near future, a future in which wines with elegance and a strong sense of place grab your attention like an exploding volcano.
Read about more of Our Favourite Things about wine.