Overcoming Hardship in Paradise - Volcanic Island Wines

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  • By Brett Chappell, CS, CWE
Overcoming Hardship in Paradise - Volcanic Island Wines

Grape growing is not easy even with the best of conditions. Volcanic island weather and soils are tough on the vine. Yet, the tenacious grape and thirsty humans meet the challenge of coaxing great wine from inhospitable lands.

Grape growing is not easy even with the best of conditions. Grape growing on volcanic islands is even harder and requires considerable adaptation for challenging conditions. Over millennia humans have adapted viticulture to specific local climates to enjoy the fruit of the vine. Their work and ingenuity pay off with delicious and unique flavors that compliment the cuisine of these island volcanoes.

Island climate is the main hazard that winegrowers battle. While sunshine is plentiful, too much of a good thing can be, well, too much. Grapes vines love sunlight and must have it to set and ripen fruit. Grapes and their leaves can, like people, be burned by harsh ultraviolet rays. Clonal selection and adaptation, long before it was understood, was being practiced first by nature and then by humans cultivating particular grapes where they grow well. Assyrtiko, the native vine of Santorini in Greece, has thick skin to withstand desiccation by the sun.

These skins also help hold in the little water that the grapes acquire through their roots systems. Santorini has a scant five inch rainfall during the growing season. Most water falls on the island in the winter and sinks deep into the nutrient poor aspa, or volcanic soils, that comprise the island.

To make sure that the vines produce enough grapes for a sustainable wine crop, the island natives have adapted growing the vines close to the ground in a wreath or basket shape called a kouloura. The vine itself is woven into a wreath shape that sits on the ground. As the fruit sets and matures, the bunches are moved to the inside of the wreath and the leaves pruned to cover the growing bunches. The fruit is protected from the violent drying winds and is helped to capture and retain precious moisture by limiting surface area.

Though these harsh conditions make viticulture challenging, the wines produced are a great reward. Assyrtiko wine with high acidity and loads of lemon and lime peel and exotic notes of mango and passion fruit flavors. There can be savory notes of beeswax and herbs with a fresh salinity. The wines pair beautifully with almost all fishes and Mediterranean foods like salty feta, olives, tomato, and beans.

The volcanic soils of the Aeolian Islands and Etna of Sicily are as fertile as the soils of Santorini are infertile. The heat that creates these volcanic soils breaks complex compounds into smaller chemical elements that are easier for plants to assimilate. These mineral laden soils are a root’s playground for extracting nutrition.

Yet, super fertile soils can be a curse also. Vine-growers must limit vigor in order to produce optimal fruit for winemaking. A plant reproduces or grows two ways, vegetatively and sexually. Vegetative reproduction produces a new leaf, branch, root. Sexual reproduction creates a flower and then a seed in order for the plant to create offspring. Left to their own devices, and in a fertile environment, grapes vines will grow and produce very little fruit or overgrow weak fruit.

Vine-growers want to limit the vigor that creates sub-par fruit. On these fertile soils, humans work with very old vines that by nature produce less fruit. Less fruit means higher concentration of nutrition for individual berries thus creating better flavors. Vine-growers in the the Aeolians as well as on Sicily use the vine training method alberello. This technique grows the vines as little trees with a thick main trunk. The method allows for more vines per acre, or density, and hence, more competition for nutrients. Most vines trained this way will only produce six to eight clusters.

But what glorious fruit and wine. Red grapes from active volcanic soils usually have a whiff of sulfur or smoke about them and a depth of character often belied by a lighter color. What the wines themselves lack in density to the eye and broadness on the palate is replaced with depth of flavor and aroma. These wines are built as much, if not more, on an acid structure than a tannin structure. This framework pairs well with the seafood plentiful on these islands. Look for the grapes Nerello Mascalese and Cappuccino, Corinto, Nero d’Avola, and Frappato. Try them with heavier fish dishes and the larger wines with wild game. They will taste of bright cherries and strawberries with strength that does not overpower the delicate fruit.

Volcanic soil wines are a departure from the everyday. Who, though, doesn’t love an island vacation? Catch a fish, start a grill, and sip away.

Brett Chappell is a Certified Sommelier and Wine Educator. He and his wife Jen, a Wine and Spirits Education Trust Level Two, own MF Chappell Wine Merchant in Atlantic Beach.