Character and Value: Italian Volcanic Wines
Italy is located just above the convergence between the Eurasian Plate and the northward moving African Plate, which helps explain why it possesses the only active volcanoes in mainland Europe. Italy is also the world’s second largest wine producer, boasting the largest number of indigenous wine grape varieties of any single country.
Is there a connection between Italy’s volcanic activity, or volcanic soils, and wine production?
Probably not, at least no direct connection. Recent scientific studies have shown that the presence of various minerals in soil has no direct impact on wine flavors and aromas, except perhaps by reacting with yeast substances that produce flavor sensations. And Finland, the Philippines and Indonesia all have active volcanoes too, but none of these countries are considered sources of fine wine.
Some regions with dormant volcanic areas are known for excellent wines, like Germany’s Mosel, Napa in California and New Zealand’s North Island. Nonetheless, evidence for any clear connection between volcanic regions and soils and the production of fine wines has yet to be shown.
That didn’t stop Giovanni Ponchia, lead enologist for the consortium of wineries of Italy’s Soave region, from founding a group called Vulcania that has met annually since 2009 to discuss the impact of volcanic soils and volcano proximity on winemaking. The focus of this group, which most recently met for four days this past month in Lipari, Italy, has been white wines. Its participants have included wine producers from Sicily, Naples, Israel, Cape Verde, Hawaii’s Big Island and Madeira.
I had the opportunity last week to taste wines from five producers whose vineyards are all located in volcanic regions of Italy. I was impressed by the quality, characterfulness and relative value of most of those wines. Rather than their primary connection being their volcanic soils, however, I suspect what caused these wines to be so intriguing and of such high quality is that they are all represented by the same California importer. That importer—Oakland based Oliver McCrum—was founded in 1994 and has focused exclusively on Italian producers since 2007. Oliver and his team look for wines with “clarity and focus,” made from indigenous Italian grape varieties using traditional winemaking techniques and no obvious oak influence.
McCrum’s portfolio includes about three dozen Italian producers. The five whose tour of California last week included a stop at San Francisco’s Arlequin Wine Merchant were Biondi, Grifalco, Girolamo Russo, La Sibilla and Villa Dora.
The only two of these producers I was familiar with going in were La Sibilla–the source of well priced, minerally white wines from the Falanghina grape I’ve enjoyed for several years now–and Biondi, whose unusual, characterful reds had triggered my interest on a few occasions over the past couple years. So it was a great treat to try three wines from each of these five producers, and to talk briefly with the winemaker or winery representative on hand from each of these producers.
Most impressive of all to me were the wines from Biondi. The Biondi family vineyards are located on the southeastern slopes of Mount Etna in the commune of Trecastagni. They are reported to have been in the Biondi family since the early 1600s, and were the basis of some award winning wines Ciro Biondi’s ancestors made beginning in the 1880s. The family had ceased to make wines and neglected the vineyards after World War II. Ciro, an architect, decided to revive the family vineyards in 1999 with the help of renowned enologist and Italian indigenous varietal specialist Salvo Foti.
The Biondi white wine, a single vineyard bottling called Chianta, is based on old vine Carricante, with small amounts of Catarratto, Mannella, Muscatella and Bianco di Candia. It is reminiscent of a mellow, intentionally oxidative wine from the Jura, with baked pear, almond and mineral flavors. Even more impressive are the reds, based largely on the Nerello Mascalese grape, with about 20% Nerello Cappuccio. The Outis, from high altitude, own-rooted, very old vines, is densely textured and flavorful, while the single vineyard Cisterna Fuori, from 80 to 130-year-old vines, is somehow both delicate and power packed. The latter is fabulously aromatic and very complex, with flavors reminiscent both of an older Barolo and a maturing red Burgundy.
The Biondi wines were also the priciest of the tasting, with the white averaging $28 and the ’08 Outis about $35. The amazing Cisterna Fuori bottling is priced even higher, at about $60.
The greatest values in red wines at the tasting were from the Aglianico grape produced by the Piccin family under their label Grifalco. The family moved to the area near the Monte Vulture region of Basilicata from their original winemaking home in Tuscany. They produce three different bottlings from the flavorful Aglianico del Vulture grape. The first, from younger vines, is a juicy, fresh tasting stunner, filled with dried berry and candied violet flavors, called Gricos. It sells for only $15. They also make a very flavorful Grifalco bottling, and from a single vineyard that is about 40 years old, a wine called Damaschito. I rated the latter 94 points and at $30 it is still a pretty amazing value.
Also in the value range, with plenty of complexity and minerality, were the La Sibilla Falanghina (white, $17) and Piedirosso (red $18), from own rooted vines in the volcanic Campei Flegrei region that the di Meo family has worked for five generations.
Pricier, but worthy of attention, are the wines from Girolamo Russo. Giuseppe Russo, a trained pianist, has been organically farming his family’s old vines on the northern slopes of Mount Etna since 2005. He makes three bottlings, the entry level A Rina ($25), and the single vineyard, old vine San Lorenzo and Feudo (both $48). The latter are very ageworthy, complex versions of mountain grown Nerello Mascarello, with a small amount of Nerello Cappuccio.
The final member of the McCrum volcanic quintet was Villa Dora. They age all of their wines, made in the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio region of Campania, for years until they feel they are ready. Theirs was the white wine I found most impressive at the tasting, from a blend of organically grown Coda di Volpe and Falanghina that sees no oak or malolactic fermentation. It is aged four years before release and retails for about $21. Their ageworthy reds are made largely from Piedirosso with about 20% Aglianico.
If you’re looking for fresh, natural tasting wines with complexity, unusual flavors and minerality, these “volcanic wines” imported by Oliver McCrum are all worthy of attention.
For my tasting notes on all 15 wines, see below.
2011 Vini Biondi Etna Chianta – Italy, Sicily, Etna DOC
Light golden yellow color; lightly oxidative, almond, baked pear nose; mellow, lightly oxidative, almond, baked pear, mineral palate with a fuzzy sort of texture; could use 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (mainly Carricante, with small amounts of Catarratto, Mannella, Muscatella and Bianco di Candia) 92 points
2008 Vini Biondi Etna Outis Nessuno – Italy, Sicily, Etna DOC
Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; aromatic, dried berry, blueberry, clove nose; very tasty, light bodied but densely textured, dried cranberry, mineral, tart raspberry palate with medium acidity; could use 2-plus years; medium-plus finish 93+ points
2010 Vini Biondi Etna Rosso Cisterna Fuori – Italy, Sicily, Etna DOC
Medium dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; appealing, aromatic, floral, dried cherry, dried berry, tar nose; very tasty, fresh, characterful, delicate and complex dried cherry, ripe cranberry, mineral, tart orange palate with firm tannins; medium-plus finish 94 points
2010 Girolamo Russo Etna a Rina – Italy, Sicily, Etna DOC
Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; appealing, tart berry, tar, fresh nose; tasty, fresh, juicy, light-medium bodied, blueberry, ripe berry, violets, mineral palate; could use 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (95% Nerello Mascalese, 5% Nerello Cappuccio; 14% alcohol) 91+ points
2010 Girolamo Russo Etna Feudo – Italy, Sicily, Etna DOC
Dark cherry red color; mineral, dried berry, charcoal nose; tasty, juicy, tight, ripe berry, blueberry, mineral, dried berry palate; needs 3-plus years; long finish (mainly Nerello Mascalese with a small proportion of Nerello Cappuccio; 14.5% alcohol) 93+ points
2011 Girolamo Russo Etna San Lorenzo – Italy, Sicily, Etna DOC
Very dark cherry red color; appealing, dried berry, violets, ripe black cherry nose; tasty, fresh, juicy, tart blackberry, dried berry, candied violets palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (mainly Nerello Mascalese with a small proportion of Nerello Cappuccio; 14.5% alcohol) 93 points
2010 Grifalco di Lucania Aglianico del Vulture Gricos – Italy, Basilicata, Aglianico del Vulture
Dark red violet color; appealing, fresh, tart berry, violets nose; tasty, juicy, dried berry, violets, candied violets, mineral palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (a great value at $15) 92+ points
2010 Grifalco di Lucania Aglianico del Vulture Grifalco – Italy, Basilicata, Aglianico del Vulture
Very dark purple red violet color; Fresh, tart berry, violets, dried berry nose; tasty, dried berry, deep tart blackberry, wild berry, mineral palate with medium acidity; could use 2 years; medium-plus finish (18 mos in large and small Slovenian oak) 93 points
2008 Grifalco di Lucania Aglianico del Vulture Damaschito – Italy, Basilicata, Aglianico del Vulture
Very dark red violet color; evocative, mineral, dried berry, iron, tar nose; tasty, characterful, tight, dried berry, tar, licorice, anise palate; could use 2-3 years; long finish (extraordinary value at $30) 94 points
2011 La Sibilla Falanghina Campi Flegrei – Italy, Campania, Campi Flegrei
Light golden yellow color; tart peach, tart apricot, tart pear nose; tasty, juicy, tart apricot, tart peach palate; medium-plus finish (good value at about $17) 91+ points
2011 La Sibilla Piedirosso Campi Flegrei – Italy, Campania, Campi Flegrei
Medium dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; earthy, charcoal, dried berry nose; tar charcoal, smoky, mineral, peat palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (lots of character for $18) 92 points
2011 La Sibilla Piedirosso Campi Flegrei Storiche – Italy, Campania, Campi Flegrei
Dark cherry red color; appealing, fresh, dried berry, anise nose; tasty fresh, dried berry, anise, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (from 85-year-old vines) 92+ points
2009 Villa Dora Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Vigna del Vulcano – Italy, Campania, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
Light lemon yellow color; baked lemon, preserved lemon nose; tasty, juicy, medium bodied, tart baked lemon, preserved lemon, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (80% Coda di Volpe, 20% Falanghina; stainless steel fermentation) 92 points
2007 Villa Dora Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Rosso Gelsonero – Italy, Campania, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
Dark red violet color; appealing, fresh, tart blackberry, tart black raspberry, saline nose; tasty, tight, charcoal, tar, very tart red currant, mineral palate with firm tannins; needs 5-plus years; medium-plus finish 90+ points
2007 Villa Dora Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio Forgiato – Italy, Campania, Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
Very dark purple red violet color; reduction, tar, tart black fruit, clove, dried berry nose; intense, tight, tasty, tart blackberry, dried berry, licorice palate; needs 5-6 years; medium-plus finish (20 months in new French oak) 91+ points