Around the world, soils created by volcanoes produce exceptional wines, but especially so in Soave in Italy. For publication in the week starting 31 July 2017.
Volcanoes have a strong grip on Mankind’s imagination. They have been seen as the playground of the ancient gods, a place of myth where traditions are forged in heat and mystery.
Events relating to them usually occurred in an atmosphere of fire, noise and smoke. Ulysses encountered the gods in the Pastures of the Sun near Mount Etna. The shield of Archilles was created on Vulcan’s forge. The gates of Hades were said to be at the foot of Mount Vesuvius.
In his recent book Volcanic Wines, Canadian sommelier John Szabo notes that the oldest civilisations of the Mediterranean developed around volcanoes. Volcanoes could be creative as well as destructive. Szabo wrote they could be a “huge plough which nature uses to overturn the bowels of the earth”.
Volcanoes produce a range of soils. These in turn can produce a range of intricate wines, given that soil and climate – known as terroir – exert such a major influence on wines. Volcanic soils give special properties to wines including high acidity, minerality and salinity plus a potential for longevity.
Szabo doesn’t claim that soil is the only factor. He believes the preservation of indigenous grape varieties and ancient cultivation methods also make volcanic wines distinctive. His book cites examples of great volcanic wines on the Canary Islands, in Madeira, on the Greek island of Santorini, in the Golan Heights, around New Zealand’s Lake Taupo and in the Andes Mountains in Chile.
Recent research conducted in the Soave region of Italy shows how volcanic soils there have evolved and acquired complex structures, deeply influencing flavours in the wines. Soave produces about 50 million bottles a year from about 7,000 hectares of vines. Main export markets include Germany, the UK and the USA. Only about 16 per cent of Soave is consumed in Italy.
Garganega is Soave’s main grape and can comprise anywhere between 70 and 100 per cent of the blend in both DOC and DOCG wines. For Soave DOC the other part of the blend can be Trebbiano di Soave, also known locally as Verdicchio and Nestrano, up to 30 per cent. Yields for DOC wines must be no more than 14 tonnes per hectare and wines must have a minimum alcohol of 10.5 per cent.
DOCG Soave also contains mainly Garganega, though the other 30 per cent can include Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Trebbiano di Soave. In France Trebbiano di Soave is known as Ugni Blanc, where it is used to make cognac. It is different from the Trebbiano Toscano variety grown in Tuscany in northern Italy.
Garganega can produce a range of styles from dry and fresh through to a sweet nectar known as Recioto di Soave. Mists from the Po River valley influence the region’s climate though humidity can create problems for winemakers because of mould and other fungal diseases. Garganega’s thick skin helps it resist disease.
The Consorzio Tutela Vini Soave represents winegrowers in the region. The general manager of the Consorzio, Aldo Lorenzoni, believes that its wines are “a happy combination” of terroir and the Garganega grape. Lorenzoni said an on-going study of sub-zones in the region and cultivation methods had boosted knowledge of “how truly expressive the Garganega grape can be”.
Earlier this year Lorenzoni’s Consorzio published a report, Soave Volcanic Wines. In it he writes that cultivation of soils since ancient times have meant the gradual evolution of a terroir that provides an ideal environment for making great wine.
The Soave region only produces whites. It is in north east Italy, stretching east of the city of Verona to the foothills of the Lessini Mountains. Soave has DOC and DOCG designations, the latter also known as Soave Superiore. Both are sub-divided into general and “Classico” designations for wines produced in the heartland of the Soave region.
“Wines from volcanic areas enjoy a special reputation, … and they have always been readily traded thanks to their richness, alcohol content and ageing potential,” Lorenzoni wrote. White wines are often distinctive with bright fruits, freshness from high acidity, along with steely salinity, plus savoury and spicy notes.
Increased temperatures because of global warming have become a concern when grapes get burned. Professor Federica Gaiotti, from the CRA wine research centre in Conegliano, stressed the importance of protecting young grapes through careful cultivation of leaves to form an umbrella. Based on research she had conducted between 2003 and 2011, she said the Soave region needed to use a pergola style of cultivation for better shade management. “Compared with Guyot and Double Guyot trellis methods this means four to six degrees lower temperature in the vines,” she said via an interpreter at a wine conference in Soave.
Professor Gaiotti also noted that the heat from Guyot trellising increased sugar levels whereas pergola meant less sugar and more pronounced aromatics in the grapes. “The training system has a huge impact on grape flavours,” she said.
Pergola vines tend to be up to two metres from the ground, compared with Guyot which can be just over half that height. The main limitation of the pergola training system was the need to pick grapes by hand, which was more expensive than mechanised harvesting. “Pergola is labour intensive; the pickers have sore shoulders from having to reach up for the grapes,” Professor Gaiotti said.
Only about 12 per cent of all the vines in Italy are grown using the pergola vine training methods, but in Soave pergola represents about 85 per cent of all vine structures.
Professor Attilio Scienza, a wine historian at the University of Milan, said the pergola method developed about 3,000 years ago along the Po River. It probably evolved from natural wild vines that clung to trees and shrubs. He showed images from Medieval manuscripts depicting pergola methods, and noted that the great Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci had developed pergola methods in a special vineyard in Milan in the fifteenth century. Sadly, during World War 2 American bombs destroyed that vineyard, Professor Scienza said. He has published more than 400 academic papers on wine history.