VinTrends: Volcanic Wines

We're proud to introduce our new monthly column devoted to all things trending and new in wine—VinTrendspenned by David Furer, a New York-based wine writer, educator, consultant, and speaker who's worked for over 30 years in the wine trade. This first edition takes a look at the growing commercial interest in volcanic wines.

 

Welcome to my first foray for Bar & Restaurant News. A bi-continental wine pro of over 30 years, I'm neither renowned nor unknown; it's lonely in the middle.

Key to many influences by which wines are grown, commonly referred to by the overarching French term 'terroir,' are its topsoil and subsoil. Broader soil types are comprised of sedimentary, alluvial, and many others including those formed by volcanoes, whether by rocks once ejected into the air by eruptions or shaped by lava that flowed from such fissures.

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David Furer with Mt. Etna.

Research into the influence of volcanic soils upon wines has predominantly been centered in Italy, a country with numerous dormant and active examples running from tip to toe, with its most notable active ones Campania’s Vesuvius and Sicilia’s Etna. The Volcanic Wines project, created in 2009 by Soave Consorzio's then-director Aldo Lorenzoni with Giovanni Ponchia, grew to embrace several more of Italy's wine districts sporting volcanic soils. A 2016 gathering in Soave brought not only producers from throughout Italy but from Greece’s Santorini. Yet, recent academic interest in and commercial rise of volcanic wines has flowed to the U.S.

Following the publication of his 2016 book Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, Canadian Master Sommelier John Szabo directed the first Volcanic Wines International (VWI) conference in Manhattan. Its third, most recent edition occurred this June 21 and sported many from Santorini led by Professor Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gai’a Wines along with a cadre of Lake County California producers that included Obsidian and Sonoma County's Hamel Family. (Note: Next year's conference will be held June 18, 2024.)

“Our higher lava-driven soils are rich in magnesium and iron while the southern valley ones on our ranch are more silica-based through its decomposed volcanic ash,” said Hamel Family’s General Manager Geoff Labitzke MW. “We derive more palate tensity from grapes grown on basaltic, lava soils much like you get when adding a bit of cayenne to a dish. It may be due to the magnetite in the soils, similar to the aromatics many Etna Rosso wines possess, and best accomplished with lower yielding vines.”

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Edoardo Ventimiglia launches Ritorno 2021 Etna Bianco Superiore. (Photo: David Furer)

Consistent VWI presenters whose Maremma estate I visited in 2018, Sassotondo’s Edoardo Ventimiglia and Carla Benini, told me that “the next step is scientific validation of volcanic terroir, and we’ve begun an Italian certification of this through a professional association.”

Their pronouncements spurred me to join Ventimiglia in Sicilia’s Etna district this month for its annual ViniMilo where Edoardo launched his Ritorno 2021 Etna Bianco Superiore. Why Etna? Baron Gaetano Ventimiglia, his grandfather, was from Catania.

While Sassotondo’s location in Toscana’s Maremma district finds he and Benini focusing upon the red Ciliegiolo, Etna’s eastern slopes are dominated by the native white Carricante grape variety. With the support of winery Eredi di Maio at its old vine Carricante dominant Contrada (‘contrada’ is Sicilian for ‘single vineyard’) Caselle, Ventimiglia created 200 magnums with proceeds going to research on native cultivars, an outgrowth of his work with GRASPO (Group for the Research and Ampelographic Safeguards and Preservation of Originality), organized to preserve the genetic material of old Italian vines.

Catania’s recently opened Piazza Scammacca was the site of a four-course tasting menu paired with wines made from GRASPO-approved, ungrafted, 80-plus-year-old vines, coordinated with the launch of the group’s book. Its presiding sommelier, Nicola Sofia, told me that, “The education from this project is important. Italy has the most wine biodiversity anywhere with wines of unique identity throughout it.”

The final of the four was Sicilia’s Salvo Foti who took pains describing his Caselle vineyard, which hosts century+ ungrafted Carricante vines that’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of eastern Etna Milo’s greater precipitation, cooler temperatures, and sandier nature of the volcanic soils that differ from the rockier slopes of Etna’s north, which support its red Nerello Mascalese grapes.

“For this system, you need much work and detailed attention,” no less as Foti and his sons employ a massive circa 18th-century old wooden press, a ‘palmento,’ to create this rarity. The entirety of the Foti family’s production is organically grown, surrounded with native plants of varying aromatic character to infuse a sense of biodiversity into the resultant wines.

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Sicilia’s Salvo Foti and his sons employ a massive circa 18th-century wooden press called a palmento. (Photo: David Furer)

Tasting Notes

Prices are SRP, some vintages may not yet have landed.

Salvo Foti - I Vigneri 'Palmento Caselle' Etna Bianco Superiore 2019 $125 (Louis Dressner Selections)

A wine for deliberation, this set a new standard for complexity and reflection of nature for Etna’s pre-phylloxera Carricante wines. The dynamic character of its palate, imbued by the soils and the handiwork, gives way to an undulating, hauntingly long finish. The acacia barrel used alongside that of used oak adds an unusual dimension that’ll serve its aging well. I also tasted 2016, 2017, 2020, and 2021 with Salvo and at a special tasting at ViniMilo led by the fellows at Verticale, its Jacopo Cossater exclaiming that the value of selling Italy’s finest white wines like Palmento Caselle “is necessary only after a few years to offer its best point of drinking.”

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The white Carricante grape variety dominates Etna’s eastern slopes. (Photo: David Furer)

 

Maugeri Etna Bianco Superiore Contrada Volpare 2022 $47 (Oliver McCrum Wines)

Dynamic for such a "young vine," north-facing wine vinified in steel, helped by the technical expertise of master vintner for hire Emiliano Falsini. Its strength at the moment lies within its saline, minerally finish.

 

Barone di Villagrande Etna Bianco Superiore 2022 $23 (Omni Wines)

As BdV is the oldest continually operating winery in Etna, this is a cornerstone wine both for the producer and the district—and far more affordable than any listed here. From a warm vintage, it shows lots of forward fruit. Enjoyed on site at its restaurant with cuttlefish colored with its ink over a mix of rice and spring onions.

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Nerello Mascalese grape variety at Barone de Villagrande, the oldest continually operating winery in Etna. (Photo: David Furer)

Frank Cornelissen Munjebel VA Etna Rosso 2019 $138 (Zev Rovine Selections)

As the fourth wine I've tasted from this outsider pioneer, it didn't disappoint. Amongst the most difficult to find, Cornelissen's are also some of Etna's most 'wriggling' in that they change character over a long period in the glass, always for the better and for the intellect. A special occasion wine to be sure.

 

Girolamo Russo Feudo Rosso 2020 $75 (Oliver McCrum Wines, Grand Cru Selections)

These Nerello Mascalese vines are grown at 700m altitude. Dried cherries, plum, wild berries, myrtle, firm tannins, and a punchy, high acid finish that lingers. The aforementioned Falsini's penchant for oak plays a role in Giuseppe Russo's wines, albeit with lesser impact in this example than others, and never to distraction. The ultimate iron fist nestled in a velvet glove.

                                                                                                 

Since 1986, David Furer has served in the on- and off-premise trenches in his native U.S. and former adoptive homes of Great Britain and Germany; directed & hosted international wine business conferences in Europe, Asia, and online concerned with its future and climate change; and contributed to wines & spirits media outlets in the U.S. and Great Britain. He also provides marketing & communications expertise to organizations throughout the world from his New York home while somehow finding time to host the consumer-facing podcast Drinking on the Edge. You can reach him at [email protected].

 

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