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Volcanic wines

While writing an article for the Wine Access magazine, John Szabo discovered there wasn't much research or information about the effects of the volcanic soil on the wines, so he decided to take it on as a project and it became a passion. Now, after several years of toil, global travel, research, and lots of pics (over 90% of the images are Szabo's own... "I've always been a photography buff" he says), Volcanic wines: salt, grit and power is out. "I'm not a geologist," says Szabo, "I'm a wine lover and I wanted to take people on a journey," he says of the book, which has a strong visual focus. The informed yet accessible prose will fill you in on this relatively new category of wine.

So what should you expect from a "volcanic" wine? "I'd say there's a mouth-watering quality to the wines. High acidity certainly, but also a saline quality," says Szabo, accounting for his book's sub-title, "Salt, grit and power." More about the power later. 

While acknowledging that there are a multitude of factors that contribute to the final product, and that there is yet no scientific proof of the impact of volcanic soils on wine, Szabo says that, generally speaking, volcanic wines are "more savoury than fruity and they tend to be more extracted - there's a real density and weight to them, with measurable dry extract." Extracted means very concentrated flavours from the grapes, and is usually used to describe reds. So, more of everything, but especially tannins. This is the "power" of the volcanic wines. 

Another discovery Szabo made is that in many of the European volcanic areas, there was no phylloxera, the nasty sap-sucking parasite that nearly destroyed the European wine industry a hundred and fifty or so years ago. I'd thought only remote and isolated Chile had been spared, but it turns out many of the volcanic zones in Europe also proved inhospitable to the tiny insect - the Canary Islands, the Azores, Sicily and other areas were also spared, "and you can somtimes find crazy two or three-hundred year old vines there," says John.

There seem to be some similarities between "volcanic" wines the concept of "minerality" in wine. The latter term is more often applied to white wines and suggests hints of stone or gravel and also, coincidentally, a saline note. Tasters have credited limestone-heavy soils as a factor, but recent scientific studies have failed to prove a link (as in, direct evidence that minerals in certain soils are present in the finished product). And, while "stones" or "gravel" have been used to describe wines for many years, "minerally" is relatively new: just in the last decade or so. 

Volcanic, it seems, is on the same trajectory: "before I started this," says Szabo, "I cannot recall seeing the word 'volcanic' on the back of any wine label." As Canada's first Master Sommelier, Szabo had read many thousands of wine labels by that point. He says that now there's a "volcanic" DOC in Italy, a UK importer who specializes in "volcanic" wines, and that more and more wineries from volcanic regions are highlighting the nature of their soil. 

In the book itself, expect informative but not inordinately detailed summaries of the volcanic process and subsequent soil characteristics combined with a world tour – Washington to Chile to Hungary to the Azores – and discussions of each region’s wines. There are also snapshots of some of the people making the wine as well as listings of wineries and wines, all paired with pretty (and sometimes awe-inspiring) pictures in this impressive volume.



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