Islands in the sun
DRINKVolcanic soils have a profound effect on the wines made from grapes grown in them, on islands such as Santorini, Lanzarote, Sicily and Pantelleria
Most wine lovers will be familiar with the idea of terroir, a French term used to explain how a wine reflects the soil and climate in which a vine grows. The effect of climate is easy enough to understand, but the influence of soil is more controversial. A grower in Chablis, Sancerre or Champagne will contend that the chalk or limestone-derived soils are crucial to producing their unique fine wine. A colleague in the Mosel will maintain the same for the local slate soils, whilst a producer in the northern Rhône would argue in favour of the crumbling granite terraces that are responsible for the great wines of Côte Rôtie, St Joseph and Hermitage.
Despite what some people say, science is clear that a soil does not transfer a flavour to a wine; there simply isn’t any known mechanism for it to do so. Tasting terms such as mineral, chalky or earthy are descriptors and cannot be attributed directly to the soil in which the vine grows.
However, the makeup of a soil does have a profound effect on a wine, in two ways. Firstly, the vine likes well-drained soils without too much competition from other plants. This is why the finest vineyards of Europe are frequently found on the poorest, stoniest soils, often on some of the steepest slopes. The best soils appear to have the ability to drain freely yet at the same time store moisture. In addition to this, the nutrients and minerals contained in a soil can be absorbed by a vine, and will make a big difference to a finished wine.
Some of the most ancient vineyards of Europe are to be found on the youngest soils – that of volcanoes. These can be startling to look at – inhospitable, completely bare, jet-black in colour, looking more like a moonscape than anything here on earth. Volcanic soils are incredibly fertile and for centuries famers have been drawn to them despite the inherent dangers of working so close to a volcano. The soils around Mount Vesuvius have been intensively cultivated for thousands of years. As well as being rich in minerals, volcanic soils have that sought-after ability to drain quickly yet retain water, perfect in a dry climate.
There is a very long tradition of producing wines on many of the islands in the Mediterranean. It is not a coincidence that many are the result of volcanic eruptions. Today we look at the volcanic wines of four islands, three in the Mediterranean.
If you are seeking new and exciting wines, you could do worse than look to the most ancient of all states, Greece. Although you will find the usual international varieties, Greece has a host of its own indigenous grapes. Santorini is a medium-sized volcanic island with the aforementioned black volcanic soil. Here the vines are formed into low basket shapes to protect them from the wind.