Rocks In Your Glass

A Review of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power


Vineyard ‘hoyos’ from La Geria in Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands
Vineyard ‘hoyos’ from La Geria in Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands

This may well be the first book examining wine through the lens of a single bedrock type. As such, it’s an important one, and it fits the times. Because there is nothing more current in wine than soils and rocks. It seems we are suddenly intrigued by not only the concept of terroir, but also the significance of what vines bury their roots in. How does the interrogation of the vineyard site by the vine roots influence the way that wine tastes? What is minerality? Does it exist, and what’s its relationship to the soil? These are topical questions, and so John Szabo’s book on volcanic wines is well timed.

Szabo is Canada’s first Master Sommelier, and, after working his way from the kitchen to the front of the house, is now one of the country’s best known wine commentators. He’s in demand as a writer, lecturer and wine judge, and has traveled the wine world widely. His Hungarian roots—he even makes some wine there—have no doubt helped incubate his interest in this topic.

Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, by John Szabo, MS (Jacqui Small/Quarto Publishing Group, Beverly, MA, 2016; $45)
Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, by John Szabo, MS (Jacqui Small/Quarto Publishing Group, Beverly, MA, 2016; $45)

“Many wines that grow on or near volcanoes happen to be particularly good,” notes Szabo in his introduction, describing them as “stubborn holdouts in a world of merging flavors.” He adds that volcanoes have had a role in preserving rare varieties after the 19th-century phylloxera crisis, a global event that acted as a bottleneck, resulting in the loss of many varieties and even some vineyard areas that were deemed less commercially interesting. Many volcanic soils proved inhospitable to the pest, and so vineyards survived without the need for expensive regrafting.

We are told that volcanic soils make up just one percent of the world’s soils, but a higher (undefined) percentage of the world’s vineyards. Coming up with a figure is difficult because of varying definitions of what constitutes “volcanic.” Szabo defines them as soils that emerged from parent volcanic material, which mostly means extrusive igneous rocks (lava), but also includes the stuff that gets ejected, known as tephra. He includes soils with a volcanic ash component, and also volcanic soils that washed or tumbled down into valleys: colluvium and alluvium.

Pico Mountain in the Azores, Portugal
Pico Mountain in the Azores, Portugal

In terms of their composition, volcanic soils vary greatly, but Szabo outlines some features that he believes volcanic wines share. There’s a common mouthwatering quality from high acids, and/or a palpable saltiness. Here, he implicates potassium, magnesium and calcium ions plus chloride, sulfate and carbonate. Second, there’s a savory character, the earthy and herbal spectrum of flavor. “Minerality and volcanic wines walk hand in hand,” claims Szabo.

After this introduction, Szabo takes us on a tour of the volcanic wine world. He starts with Washington State, and an overview of the remarkable geology of the Columbia Valley, which is a combination of a huge basalt flow (the volcanic bit) coupled with more recent repeated catastrophic flood events that led to the deposition of the soils—loess—which were moved a considerable distance west by the Missoula floods tens of thousands of years ago. Most Washington vineyards are rooted in loess, but above
a certain altitude vines are influenced by the basalt. Szabo describes this geology ably.

Where the book becomes really interesting is where Szabo begins to get to grips with the way that volcanic soils might actually impact wine flavor. In the chapter on Oregon, he begins discussing work by Scott Burns and his PhD student Kathryn Barnard on this very subject, and compares the flavor of pinot noir grown on marine sediments (Willakenzie soils) versus volcanic-derived soils (Jory soils). This is fascinating, and I wish he’d spent more time on it, but perhaps this reveals more about me as a wine science geek than it reflects the level of coverage in the book.

Öreg Király vineyard in Tokaj, Hungary
Öreg Király vineyard in Tokaj, Hungary
“Many wines that grow on or near volcanoes happen to be particularly good,” notes Szabo in his introduction, describing them as “stubborn holdouts in a world of merging flavors.”

Later on, he discusses the remarkable work of Ulrich Fischer from Neustadt in Germany. Fischer has done some very elegant science on the sensory impact of bedrock. He’s shown that riesling grown on the same soil type shows greater similarity than riesling grown in the same climate, even across wine regions. Soil trumps climate, to a degree. In covering this sort of material we find Szabo at his best. Szabo also covers the more famous volcanic-influenced terroirs, such as Etna, Hungary, Santorini and the Napa Valley, but the book’s other strength is where it ventures into lesser-known regions, like Pico island in the Azores, which is making interesting wines from some of the most extreme-looking vineyards you could imagine, and Madeira, with its singular wines.

This is a big, profusely illustrated book, coffee-table in style. But with Szabo’s evident curiosity, and his fluent writing style, I’d have liked to see him take the slightly harder road and tackle some of the more intellectually intriguing issues such as minerality and the influence of bedrock and soils on wine flavor in greater depth. For example, that this is a current controversy in the world of wine isn’t even mentioned. These minor points aside, it is refreshing to see a wine book that focuses not only on place, but also on soil and geology—what vines stick their roots into. The wine world needs more books like this.

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