Volcanic Agriculture and Wines of Europe

Volcanic Agriculture and Wines of Europe.

When you hear the word combination ‘volcanic wine,’ which tasting profile would you associate it with? Most people would answer ‘minerality.’ The subsequent question would be: ‘what does minerality stand for?’

Dr. Richard Smart said: ‘Minerality is an invented term as a wine descriptor.’

Let us try to deep dive into the world of minerals and try to decipher such a mysterious word as ‘minerality’.

Recently our Jelena attended a special seminar to further be chaperoned in the world of volcanic agriculture of Europe. The session was presented by Fred Nijhuis, who with the support of the European Union guided us through an international project: “Volcanic Agriculture of Europe” (you can read more about this project here).

During the seminar we experienced three different Volcanic regions in Europe, two in Italy and one in Greece: Monte Lessini, Soave, Soave Superiore and Santorini (Greece). All three classified as PDO’s (Protected Designation of Origin) .

The project is aimed at promoting, emphasizing and making consumers know the extraordinary characteristics of a form of agriculture and diary production of these four regions, who differ from the rest due to the volcanic origin of the soil.

The Origin of Volcanic Agriculture

Volcanic agriculture of Europe, born from lava soils whose origin is more than 50 million years old. The synergy of not only having a unique organoleptic characteristic, but also an incomparable human history. When we speak about volcano, we should be able to understand the miniscule coverage of planet earth by volcano’s; just 1% and the grandeur of its effect on our planet when it outbursts is 10%. Volcano eruptions release cyanides, which brings electrons to our atmosphere (energy) viable for production of biological molecules, meaning life on earth. Moreover, volcanos create new landscapes and terroir, adds diversity whether fixed or in the form of gas elements or minerals to soil. As the result, it diminishes the necessity of manually adding those elements to cultivated soil. The term sustainable viticulture finds its roots here.

In the last 11.500 years around 1500 volcanos erupted. As of today, worldwide around 600 of those giants are known, with 60 being active and 20 of those erupting every day. The highest volcanic activity happens where tectonic plates connect, for example, on the west side of North and South America, where land meets the Pacific Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea coast in Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Most volcanos bring lava with itself after a forceful outburst which is rich on silica (~65%). This corresponds to being a very acidic matter.

Important to note is that initially this organic matter is too porous, and thus not fertile. No sign of life; fertility of soil requests patience. The region in Naples was ready for cultivation only 4.000-5.000 years after outburst and in New Zealand only after 4.000-40.000 years after eruption. Volcanic subsoils are diverse in their chemical composition.

Flight 1: Monte Lessini, Italy

The Lessini Durello region is situated between Verona and Florence. Its soil is compacted of marine fossils, lots of basaltic rocks and tuffs. The first flight of sparkling wines has showcased the versatile nature of ancient grape variety Durello from the Monte Lessini region. It is suitable for various sparkling wine production methods with its dynamic nature and freshness while its high acidity is ascribable to the grape’s peculiar identity.

Franchetto Lessini Durello DOC 2016

Grapes come from an altitude of 550-600 meters a.s.l. Vinification in RVS tanks according Martinotti method and 36 months on the lees.

On the nose an explosion of ripe exotic fruits mango, pineapple, golden kiwi, papaya with layers of tropical florality. On the palate high acidity with persistent freshness. The finish is medium+ with determined salinity.

Cantina Di Monteforte Lessini Durello DOC 2015

100% Durello harvested from the vineyards located at 200 meters a.s.l., vinified by Charmat method.

Olfactory senses are being touched by more restrained scents of orchard garden fruit with savory undertone of fennel. The flavors on the palate are in accurate equilibrium with aromas on the nose. High acidity delivers freshness and concentration. Finale is medium+ with clear saline character.

Vitevis Lessini Durello DOC Le Masine

The nose unveils the delicacy of floral aromas, perfume and scents of quince. The palate conversely is driven by savor of flavors yet balanced by unmistakable high acidity. Finale is medium+ driven by salinity.

Important to understand is not only the primarily instinct of the wines, but to understand and follow its evolution in the glass. All three examples have illustrated the positive dynamics and unmistakable commonality: saline finale.

Function of Minerals

Minerals are essential for existence and growth of organisms, therefore for metabolism of grapevine. Minerals influence the formation of ATP molecules which store energy and cells supplying energy for growth, restoration and functioning of root system, photosynthesis, maturation of grapes etcetera. Minerals as carbon, Sulphur, hydrogen and nitrogen are important building bricks for amino acids and therefore proteins.

Grapevines are autotroph organisms that produce complex organic compounds vital for their life such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins. By using carbon from simple substance such as carbon dioxide, generally using energy from light – photosynthesis. Shortly speaking, mineral elements play a vital role in the biochemical processes of the life cycle of a grape vine. The roots can not directly obtain minerals from soil. A chain reaction has to be created, between roots on one side, vector like water in between and fungi, bacteria and minerals on the other side. Roots interexchange with the bacteria sugars and bacteria with fungi create hummus where minerals are integrated, and roots are ready to absorb it and feed on it. In nature it is all about interchangeable synergy.

Flight 2: Soave and Soave Classico, Italy

The Soave production zone is situated in the eastern part of the hills in the province Verona. Diversity of Soave soils are also in the hands of winemakers, the choices in the vineyard and winery, to amplify or restrain the peculiarity of terroir. After talking about the geographical characteristics of the landscape we have tasted 4 examples of Garganega during the second flight.

Vincentini Soave DOC Terrelunghe 2022

On the nose aromas of pineapple, yellow apple and candied pear. On the palate strong savory character with medium+ acidity. The finish is driven by fennel flavors. The evolution in the glass has kept it in shame. No change has appeared.

Balestri Valda Soave Classico DOC 2022 Biologico

The sensory system receives firstly savory aromas with some green herbal notes. The undertone of white peach and melon mixture. The palate is refreshed by medium+ acidity with discreet flavors. Finale has slight bitter back palate. The evolution in the glass has been adverse as the loss of the fruity flavors happened.

Fattori Soave DOC Motto Piane 2020

On the nose amicable aromatic profile with pineapple, peach, warm apple skin sprinkled by all spice. Appealing undertone of perfumed florality. On the palate medium acidity of restrained character. Finale is salty with bitter back palate. Evolution in the glass has shaped the flavors from fruity ones to savory.

Le Mandolare Soave Classico Superiore Monte Sella 2020

100% Garganega harvested from 200m altitude. A part of grapes was dried, partial cryomaceration. Aged for 1 year in oak.

On the nose ‘L’extravagance gastronomique’. Scents of camphor oil layered by honey, honeysuckle, dried hay, sun-dried pineapple & seasoned by Sicilian spice mix. On the palate refreshing high acidity of iced texture.  Climax is saline. The evolution in the glass is decadent & enticing.

Flight 3: Santorini, Greece

The third flight brought us to Greece, Santorini. There is archeological evidence supporting cultivation of the vine on Santorini 5000 years ago. However, the devastating volcanic eruption 1600 BC has halted the viticulture until VIII century BC and created the Santorini we know today.

Interestingly, the unique soil of Santorini known as “aspa” has been left there to form after explosion, a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone, pieces of solidified lava and sand. The star of the island, one of the most noble white varieties of Europe – Assyrtiko, found in an ideal habitat here in the contours of Santorini. 

The island is beautiful yet brutal to vines for its extreme microclimate, which corresponds to its unique ecosystem. We are talking strong winds, very low rainfall and intense summer heat. The solution to its special training system “kouloura” – vines are pruned in a circular basket directly on top of the soil. Subsequently grapes are trained to grow inside of the basket to be protected against wind and sun. 

Gaia Assyrtiko Wild Ferment 2022

Spontaneous fermentation and vinification in mixture of vessels.

On the nose the dance of exotic garden meets the orchard garden under the Greek sun. The palate is tight and unleashed by high acidity. The finish strikes with salinity.

Santo Wines Assyrtiko Santorini 2022

Old vines of 60-80 years old from 400m elevation.

The aromas on the nose are led by honeyed profile complimented with variety of yellow perennials like yellow rose, yellow apple, yellow kiwi. A dash of maple syrup reflects the sweetness of scents. On the palate high electric acidity directs you to almost chalky dryness on the cheeks. Finale is salty.

Estate Argyros Assyrtiko Santorini 2022

The aromatic profile has been blanketed by reduction and odors of volatile acidity. The wine has lost itself.

Effect of Minerals

To conclude, the direct effect of minerals on ‘minerality’ of wine has never been proven. The descriptive is yet mysterious, magical and mythical.  What is proven is that minerals in nature are odorless and tasteless elements. Science verifies the direct effect of minerals on the growth of the grapevine, subsequently its influence on vinification.

As Prof. Alex Maltman said: ‘Nutrients are coming from hummus, not geology.’

We would like to add, without peculiar geological composition of soils, no hummus could be created to help grapevine obtain nutrients.

This event was covered by our own Jelena van Eerdenburg. We would like to thank Fred Nijhuis (Fred Nijhuis Consultancy) and the Association for Volcanic Agriculture in Europe for organizing this excellent masterclass.