Born From Fire: What’s So Special About Volcanic Sparkling Wine?
6th March 2023
What is unique about sparkling wine made from volcanic vines? Wine buyer Ben Franks explains why these fire-born fizz producers are some of the finest he’s ever tried.
Over the years I have built a career on knowing the weird and wonderful wines of the world that we don’t get to try enough of here in the UK market. One of the things this exposes you to more than drinking the traditional western European wines is wine from volcanic vineyards. These wines are said to bring “minerality” to wine, very much a buzzword of wine aficionados but a difficult descriptor to decipher if you haven’t spent your time licking rocks.
Minerality, for me, is a byword for two things: the first is an unrivalled intensity when it comes to tasting purity of fruit; the second is a saline, salty freshness that turns the finish of a wine long and mouth-watering. Volcanic wines bring both characteristics.
My head was first turned towards what this tasted like in a sparkling format at a Japanese masterclass when I tried Shigeki Kida’s Lumiere Koshu Sparkling, grown in the volcanic Yamanashi prefecture. I was already a fan of Koshu, particularly from Ayana Misawa’s Grace Winery, and I thought Lumiere’s fizz take on it was a stunner. Somehow light and fresh but at the same time full of length. I was tasting its citrussy layers for ages afterwards. Maybe it was a one-off? I sought out Grace Winery’s Koshu sparkling (which is hard to find in the UK) and got even more excited. There was something about these wines.
Maybe it was unique to Japan?
Since this discovery, I’ve tasted widely. On a trip to Lanzarote in 2020 just before we were all locked down for Covid-19, Ollie Horton introduced me to several mouth-watering volcanic sparkling wines. These wines were from twisting old vines curving through the black ash, defended from winds by low hand-built walls. The wines were as bracing as the breeze – as well as being moreish and bold. Even in Greece, the smoky and oily Assyrtiko is making intriguing fizz. Seek out the traditional method Santo Wines co-op sparkling from the volcanic island of Santorini. This Greek wine is peachy, honeyed and bursting with tides of citrus fruit.
Sparkling wines from one of the world’s oldest protected vine-growing regions
Hungary is one of the lucky countries in Europe with volcanic land aplenty. Its most famous volcanic wine region is usually renowned for its sweet wines, but Tokaj in the northeast is also producing some lovely traditional method sparkling wines from its Furmint grape variety. This grape retains high acidity on Tokaj’s soils and has a lot of orchard fruit that is not too dissimilar from Chardonnay’s characteristics, which you’ll love if you’re a Blanc de Blancs fan.
Possibly one of the region’s leading winemakers, Dr Endre Demeter, spoke to me about his very exciting project that shines a light on Tokaj’s other major grape variety: Hárslevelű, an almost Viognier-esque oily, floral and honeyed variety with beautiful body and style.
Demeter made a very special 2017 single vineyard expression of Úrágya 57, a single acre plot of hundred year old vine Hárslevelű with no topsoil, just lumps of volcanic rock, forcing the vines to sink deeply into the mineral-rich hill below.
“The reason I made this wine is that the madi kör origin control (a local quality control body organising the rules for the top crus in the village of Mád in the west of Tokaj) only allows 100% single variety wines. My 57 parcel is now 103 years old and is not exclusively Furmint, but a quarter is Hárslevelű. Instead of putting this in Délceg (Demeter’s still Hárslevelű wine), I wanted to make a sparkling wine at home by hand.”
It is no easy feat with such low yielding fruit, but Demeter has done a PhD on the effects of volcanic soils on vines and he is convinced it is worth every effort.
“I know from my studies that there are matching minerals in the plants as there is in the subsoils below the ground. You can feel it in the glass, even on the nose. The sparkling Úrágya 57 Hárslevelű is a speciality of 400 bottles. It is not really similar to any sparkling wine you may have tasted because of the mineral notes and the wider body of the low, half kilo yield.”
“Everyone who’s tried it, loves it.”
Magma fizz from the heart of a volcano
In another of Hungary’s famous volcanic wine growing regions, this time the Lake of Balaton to the west of the country, you’ll find the young and innovative winemaker Tamas Kovacs. Tamas is the current generation proprietor and winemaker of his family’s estate, Szent Donat. He is a major purveyor of the Csopak commune, a sub region of hilly aspect on the central-western part of Lake Balaton.
The base wine for Tamas’ fizz is grown further south on the Tihany peninsula, a volcanic stretch of land that looms into the centre of Lake Balaton. The defunct volcano here has a crater that is large and broad, dotted with crater lakes, and Tamas’ vines grow on the sides of this crater. It is literally fizz from the heart of a volcano.
Tamas is passionate about the effect of Balaton’s volcanic soils on creating something different. “Volcanic soils are like a fresh start for all living things with lots of minerals and nutrients of which life is based upon,” he tells me. “It is this high mineral content, and the soil’s ability to hold water well, that makes the wines really unique.”
In the Szent Donat range, Tamas makes the fruity and creamy St Donat ‘Magma’ Rosé Brut from the local grape variety Kekfrankos (you may know it better by its Austrian name, Blaufrankisch). Selected from fruit grown on the Aranyház and Ráta vineyards of the Tihany peninsula, you get all the foaming, creamy lees texture you’d expect from a traditional method fizz, but you also get an intensely fruit-driven palate bringing red cherries, strawberries and spice.
“We select grapes for sparkling from cooler vineyards,” Tamas says. “The cool acidity resonates with the saltiness of the terroir and makes sparkling from volcanic soil so special.”
There’s certainly something of that salinity on the finish that I’ve noticed in almost all the volcanic sparkling wines I’ve tried. It translates into great length, but with a piercing freshness and intensity that – in the right hands – is beautifully poised.
Begin exploring this exciting world of volcanic sparkling wines
While only ~1% of the earth’s surface is covered with volcanic soil, you don’t just have Greece, Japan and Hungary to explore. Another very interesting example of sparkling wine came from Mount Etna in Sicily. Terrazze dell’Etna is a co-operative producing traditional method sparkling wines from the Nerello Mascalese grape variety that ripens on the slopes of Mount Etna, an active volcano. While this is made as a Blanc Brut style, it has rosé-like aromatics with crushed berries and plums shining through. The palate is textured and saline with peach, more red fruits and creamy lees, but with that trademark saline lift.
What better way to start exploring fire born bubbles than to sip a glass of cold fizz on the Sicilian coastline?
Ben Franks FRSA
Co-founder of Novel Wines and Canned Wine Co. He uses his experience and reputation to help wineries establish their route to market strategy and build market share in the UK through his consultancy, Ben Franks Wine. Instagram and Twitter: @BenFranksWine