Vulcanologists and enophiles share interests


At the summit of Mont Brouilly sits Notre-Dame-des-raisins, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of the Grape. Photo by Maison Joseph Drouhin


THE ERUPTION OF Kilauea volcano in May of 2018 received intense coverage. Cable news channels ran frequent stand-up reports accompanied by dramatic video of burning houses and cars.

Later in 2018, journalists reported on an eruption of Indonesia’s Krakatoa (and a related tsunami) that killed about 1,350 people. The name Krakatoa was eerily familiar. Its eruption in August 1883 was one of the deadliest volcanic events of modern times, killing more than 36,000 people.

Even the Krakatoa catastrophe of 1883 pales in comparison with the explosion of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora in 1815, the largest such event in recorded history. The death toll was 90,000.

More than 800 miles from Tambora, the lieutenant governor of Java heard explosions one evening. He assumed the sounds were cannon firing, but the next morning “a light rain of ash provided evidence that a volcano somewhere

in the region had erupted.” Other government officials up to 1,000 miles from Tambora heard the sounds and logged them. As William K. and Nicholas P. Klingaman wrote in The Year Without Summer: 1816, a series of explosions five days after Tambora’s initial eruption “destroyed the top three thousand feet of the volcano, blasting it into the air in pieces, leaving behind only a large crater three miles wide and half a mile deep.”


The Center for Science Education reports that the Tambora explosion “ejected so much ash into the atmosphere that the sky darkened and the sun was blocked from view. The large particles spewed by the volcano fell to the ground nearby, covering towns with enough ash to collapse homes.” And that was only the beginning.

Smaller, lighter particles rose much higher—well into the stratosphere. Volcanic dust slowly spread around the globe, veiling the sun. Sunrises and sunsets became redder as miniscule dots of debris floating in the upper atmosphere refracted the sun’s rays. Stuck indoors on the many dark, rainy days that ensued, glum poets and novelists composed somber works. Scientists estimate that the global average temperature cooled by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit in 1816. Land temperatures cooled by 5.4 degrees. Climate disruptions led to crop failures and famines worldwide.

Volcanic eruptions occur all over the world, though Indonesia seems most likely to suffer calamities like the explosions of Krakatoa and Tambora. Curiously, some of the world’s most interesting wine regions are in areas that have experienced volcanic activity. Why? It’s the lava.

Canadian wine expert John Szabo writes in Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power that the composition of lavas expelled from volcanoes—and of the soils they eventually weather into—affect vines grown in them.

White smoke indicates Mount Etna is idling. Photo by John Szabo


Szabo adds that although there is no such thing as clearly identifiable “volcanic wine,” wines from volcanic areas tend to exhibit common characteristics—minerality and a mouthwatering quality, sometimes from high acid, almost always from saltiness.

Enologist Giovanni Ponchia agrees. “There is … not a unique flavor profile attributed to volcanic soil, but … wines produced there are often salty, good for ageing and come with aromas more complex [than those from] wines produced with the same variety [of grape] in different soils.”

Few of us have experienced a volcanic eruption, a fearsome prospect. But when thirst calls, we can all cozy up courageously to a bottle of complex, mouthwatering wine from a volcanic region. We sampled three recently.


Named for a 1,587-foot cone of volcanic origin at its center, Brouilly is the largest of 10 areas at the north end of Beaujolais known as crus.

Although Beaujolais is part of Burgundy, where Pinot Noir reigns supreme, virtually all the wines of Beaujolais are made from a grape called Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc—Gamay, for short.

Joseph Drouhin Domaine des Hospices de Belleville Brouilly 2015 ($22) is deep purple with a maroon overtone. Its characteristic but restrained Gamay fragrance incorporates ancillary whiffs of plums and apples. Refreshing and juicy, this wonderful wine is loaded with mouthwatering flavors of grapes, blackberries, currants, cherries and apples. Dining in Beaujolais, you might pair it with local sausages, cheeses and crusty bread. In truth, it pairs well with anything, anywhere.


Soave lies east of Verona in the Veneto region of northeast Italy, where volcanic activity ended about 25 million years ago. Other geologic processes have tossed and tumbled the landscape since then, but a good deal of volcanic material remains, laden with nutritious minerals. The crunched-up lava provides good drainage for vines.

The principal grape in Soave is Garganega (Gar-GAH-neh-ga), a vigorous white variety.

Famiglia Pasqua’s Romeo & Juliet PassioneSentimento Bianco Veneto IGT ($16) may be the only dry white created by any Veneto producer using appassimento, a process where grapes are dried before they are crushed and fermented. Famiglia Pasqua harvests Garganega grapes for this wine early and dries them for about 15 days.

Rather pale in color, the PassioneSentimento Bianco emits enticing aromas of tangy citrus, almonds and peaches. Its flavor is an intriguing blend of citrus—especially grapefruit—with peaches, apricots and peach stones. Tasteful minerality and acidity add to the wine’s charms.


Mount Etna is relatively young in geological terms—600,000 years and counting. It continues to erupt frequently; its eruptions are usually (but not always) preceded by seismic activity. According to Wikipedia, in the 1970s (and in 2000 and 2013), Etna puffed out smoke rings, a rare accomplishment.

Firriato is a family-owned company with vineyards in several locations across Sicily. Its Cavanera Estate is located on the northeastern slope of Etna.

The principal indigenous red grape around Mount Etna is Nerello Mascalese, which is said to be related to Sangiovese.

Firriato Le Sabbie dell’Etna Rosso Etna DOC 2016 ($24) comprises

80 percent Nerello Mascalese and 20 percent Nerello Cappuccio. The wine is a slightly translucent garnet color with allusions to cherry and orange. Its bouquet is tart and fruity. Knowing of Nerello Mascalese’s relationship with Sangiovese, we couldn’t help comparing the Etna Rosso to Chianti—full of dark cherries with hints of pepper, minerals and bright acidity that make this great to pair with steak or seared tuna.

The variegated soil of Soave has been tossed and turned over the ages. Photo by John Szabo
bottom: Vines basking in the sunlight in one of Famiglia Pasqua’s vineyards. Photo by Famiglia Pasqua



Robert Calvert drinks and writes in Louisville. Questions or comments?Email Robert: RBCalvert@att.net.


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