“I feel the earth move under my feet”. The ferocious drama of an exploding volcano is a world away from the near imperceptible unfolding and recycling that gently shapes the living crust of our planet. Dirt isn’t really singular, but we tend to speak of it as though it’s one thing. The myriad physical matter contributing to the creation and character of the soil in a vineyard presents a colossal task of imagination. Who can hope to fully envisage the true scope and scale of its origins? As well as flora, fauna and weather, the silent remains of former inhabitants of this place all play their part. I think that’s why the sites of vineyards always feel poetic to me, gathering things that fall and giving life back through the vines. The soil is an ongoing opportunity, inseparable from the precise spot in which it exists yet always beneath our feet wherever we go.
I’ve always been struck by the impact volcanic soil has on wine. Whether it’s the acidity that flares out from a rich glass of Madeira or the intense finesse of Etna reds, an urgent cadence seems to be present across wines from volcanic soils which leads me to buy, keep and share a lot of them myself. Tokaji is one of my favourites and while it may not be top of everyone’s list, the thrilling zing of a bottle of sweetly charged 5 Puttonyos amplified by noble rot as well as the land of an old volcano is a lifelong delight of mine. The island of Santorini is another favourite, perhaps producing some of the most vivid volcanic wines. Great bottles typically deliver heroic intensity as well as thrilling, bristling zing across reds, whites and sweet wines pristinely charged with mineral-purity.
I first visited Santorini with Steve Daniel and Yiannis Paraskevopoulos many years ago when Campari was bafflingly unfashionable. Sipping Campari sundowners we discussed the pulse that seemed to pull through the dirt and pep up the fruit of the local vines. The nature of this UNESCO protected soil creates a phylloxera-free environment fostering spectacular vine age on the island which, coupled with different soil densities, elevations and aspects, gifts possibilities to intuitive wine growers and makers. One of the notable influences is the sea surrounding the vineyards on all sides. Yiannis famously experimented with aging his Assyrtiko called Thalassitis (‘from the sea’) underwater with really intriguing evolution, surging texture while still driving pure zing like a trident through the tastebuds. Without Santorini’s magic dirt, I’m not sure the wine would have evolved with quite the same spell-binding tension and focus.
Tasting wines from specific soil types for this piece was a revelation of tension, concentration, length and balance thanks in large part to old vines planted in specific soil. Let’s take a look at the specifics of some white wines and the dirt behind the label.
This blend of 70% Pošip, 20% Chardonnay and 10% Vugava is dry farmed in the Stipančić vineyard dating back to the 15th century on the Croatian Island of Brač. Vines are pain-stakingly grafted onto centuries old roots that plunge deep into limestone soil. The aspect subtly favours the sea at an altitude of 420 to 550 metres and the resulting wine initially reminded me of an Assyrtiko from Santorini. Aromas of salty smoke and a flash of white pepper, lemon so bright I wrote ‘ignition’ in my notes and the palate is remarkable, packed with salinity and invigorating as a citrus meteorite. This wine took my tastebuds into orbit, lifted by pristine acidity with a finish that just keeps on rising. And such depth. A truly stunning wine.
Imagine the wafting niff of ashes from the barbecue of the gods! This wine leaps out of the glass with a sherbet ash eruption of salty lemon rind. There’s a subtle sense of roasted nut along with a lacing of dried oregano and lemon thyme. It’s gorgeous. And to taste? My first note simply reads “Wow. What a lovely glass of wine.” It latches on to every single part of the palate, richly textural together with a presence of throbbing zestiness. You know that feeling of sunshine glinting off a very beautiful sea on a hot day? That’s what this wine is, two things in one: a sense of depth underpinning blinding freshness. And it simply doesn’t fade easily – like a suspension bridge attaching to the tip of your tongue reaching towards an endless archipelago of bright glimmering light.
This is 100% Vijariego Blanco from La Guancha in northern Tenerife. The ungrafted vines inhabit a century-old volcanic plot with low yields of between 3000 and 4000 kg per hectare. Wild yeast fermentation in Allier oak barriques of 225 and 350 litres of varying toast levels. The wine was subsequently aged in oak on fine lees for four to six months. The result is a wine of presence, tension and scrumptiousness. And it made me crave fresh shellfish for days.
My late grandfather would always order Frascati. He adored the stuff and I can clearly recall his appetising glass, flecked with sunlit condensation and a glinting promise of refreshment. As soon as my nose hits the glass in this case, memories begin turning in my mind, but they are soon overtaken by the realisation that this is Frascati of a different magnitude. The instantly fresh edge makes me think of a swimming pool in a grove of limes. And then it begins to unfurl, a deeper late summer scent of subtle peach and a Mediterranean herb garden fringed with jasmine on a balmy breeze.
This is gorgeous, one of the most precise and saline wines I’ve tasted in recent years – If you love Manzanilla, you’ll adore this. It really reminds me of taking a dip in the sea on holiday and licking your lips – invigorating stuff. This is sublimely poised, a bright sky of a wine that calls out for feta, green bell peppers, tomatoes – all the good stuff. And of course, ocean bounty. Blended from Malvasia del Lazio 70%, Trebbiano Giallo 20%, Bellone 5%, Bombino Bianco 5% on volcanic soils south of Rome, this wine has an immense sense of focus, or largesse coaxed into finesse. Volcanic soils rich in potassium and phosphorus have a way of delivering moisture and mineral freshness to the vineyard, planted at 5,500 vines per hectare to limit vigour. The Santerelli family are rightly to be hailed for bringing Frascati into the realm of classics to rival some of the world’s most famous white wine appellations. And for respecting and harnessing the discreetly mysterious power of volcanic vineyards.
This Croatian gem is hauntingly pale exuding exotic scents of pineapple, peach and passionfruit. There’s a salty sage hint here too, and again a sense of salinity. It’s utterly mesmeric to taste, finesse is the hallmark and it’s super textural. Its boulders turning to diamonds, finely shredded coils of exotic fruit ground through a salt cellar, a wine of charm a lazer-guided precision. Hard to think of a finer aperitif, pass me a bowl of salted cashews and I’m all set.
This is 100% Pošip from Brač, Dalmatia, Croatia – famous for its gleaming white stone that famously made the White House in Washington. Dry farmed, the Stipančić vineyard traces back to the 15th century between 420 to 550 metres above sea level. Mainly tank fermented with a small proportion in wooden vats, this is benchmark brilliance.
All of these whites have a sense of mineral purity with intensity and delicacy in near perfect balance. Magnitude framed with finesse. They all deliver a sense of vitality, that the vineyard is giving electrification to the experience of tasting. Along with volcanos, quartz is a mineral in dirt which has been whispered to me in hushed reverence for the freshness it can bring including Marc Kreydenweiss in Alsace, Johannes Leitz in Germany’s Rheingau and Pedro Parra in Chile’s Elqui Valley whose precision viticulture has since become world famous.
And there’s another famous white wine whose dirt is almost as famous as the bottles themselves, the Albariza soil behind the fortified wines of Jerez. Antonio Flores, Winemaker and Master Blender at Gonzalez Byass in southern Spain’s Jerez told me recently, “The albariza soil is a white, porous soil which is very poor in organic material. Even though it is not a characteristic soil for winemaking, it somehow shows a perfect symbiosis with the Palomino Fino grape variety, which accounts for 95% of the current total production in Jerez. The Albariza soil is purest (based on amount of chalk in the soil) in the most renowned pagos such as Carrascal and Macharnudo, which is where González Byass has the vast majority of its vineyards. The white colour of the soil supports the maturation of the lower grapes in the bunches as it reflects the sunlight. The albariza soil is capable of providing our wines both with life and personality. Firstly, life, because the Albariza soil is made of millions of layers and has a significant capability of retaining rain water. We help it along by digging trenches (the Aserpia) in the ground after harvest and just before the rainy season starts. The soil then stores this underground and feeds the vines bit by bit. Most importantly, it is capable of storing the rainfall all the way throughout the long, warm summer, and this way keeps the vines alive through its natural water supply system. It also provides personality to the wines. Through the ageing of the grapes, the Albariza soil provides a saline touch to the grape which later is pronounced in the wines. This is why you will find that the dry sherries all share the same kind of salinity (in the sweet wines this is overwritten by the sweetness).” I love the passion here, the way in which soil and the work with the soil is spoken in terms of an ally, method as well as place, the ultimate author of the wine’s character even after such intricate stewardship through the bodega.
How about red wines? Most winegrowers I’ve spoken to attest to the value of low vigour soils when it comes to vineyards. Katie Jones of Domaine Jones in south west France is clear that “soil or ‘terre’ is so much part of the word Terroir – or what gives my wines their personality. I only have old vines, and the soils in my vineyards are basically not soil at all but stones and clay. But the vines love it – cool clay to retain the moisture (we hardly have any rain) and stones to allow the roots to penetrate the soil. Coming from Leicestershire I was shocked by what the locals called soil but the poorer the soils, the lower the yields and the more characterful the wine. I do believe too that you can taste the stone in my wines especially the whites planted on schist.” I tasted three reds from disparate corners of the world, once again, the identity of their dirt was the thumbprint behind each bottle. Let’s take a look…
Initially there’s a lovely warmth to the aromas, baked strawberry, dried rose petal, cherry, baked almond, tobacco, dried herbs and a whiff of ash. And yet there’s a mysterious tension here. As soon as you sip it the palate is alive with acidity, incredibly fine, very firm tannin and a glass designed to enjoy with food. Umami, black olive and tomato richness with a pleasing micro-bitter thrill, I’m drawn to pair with glossy shellfish dishes such as lobster or prawn served in rich tomato sauces. Fillet of beef is the bullseye, I’d also love it with sausages from the barbecue. This is a wine of concentration and intensity without being overbearing. With volcanic soils, wines like this show gravitas. And drama. You may think you’re going for a walk with a poet but it turns out you’re in for a training session on a cliff edge with a boxer.
I adore the wines of Feudi San Gregorio. I remember on a holiday in Rome many years ago working my way steadily through as much of their output as I could find. This 100% Aglianico from Taurasi, Campania is a superb example of the right grape thriving in the correct conditions, it simply couldn’t be any more expressive. The volcanic soils are thanks to the violent eruptions of Vesuvius, some distance away which last erupted in 1944. Great events crafting an intimate moment, worth a thought when you’re next sipping this wine.
Wow! This red has that quintessentially Rioja scent – the tickle of oak and the smoky allure -but beneath it is a layer of something special, a little like the faint fine ashy mist that softly billows when you’re clearing out a fireplace. This wine is impeccably judged. Whoever harvested picked exactly the right moment! In terms of ageing, this wine has the next five years to evolve and unfurl thanks to very fine grippy tannin and eruption of redcurrant acidity. Super turbo-charged finesse is how I’d describe this wine’s overall impression. It feels like a chapter distilled into a sentence and the palate travels – you start with fruit and end with a mineral core of presence, structure and fine density. Vitality, a word that seems to cover all the wines in this tasting! This wine unites the long tradition of Rioja with an invigorating vision for the future.
100% Tempranillo from Rioja Alavesa this youthful wine project founded in 2018 emphasizes site rather than ageing. The bush vines are ancient, low- yielding, many planted in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s planted on clay-limestone with altitude. And the results are exhilarating.
Lovely to taste a red with a bit of evolution, glowing garnet in the glass with a sweet and savoury aroma that I could happily enjoy for years. Cigar, blueberry, ripe raspberry, leather, black peppercorn, black olive and a tiny whisper of cola nut. Just lovely in its complexity and the same on the palate, a real sense of ease with intrigue. It’s a diverse spectrum of richness, plush, and beginning to enter its prime time. Firm fine to medium velvet tannin and the hallmark here is tastiness, enhancing rather than shutting down flavour. I’m tempted to nibble a piece of cheddar alongside, but roast lamb would be a treat, or a mushroom and red pepper kebab. This wine has density, raspberry zing, blueberry depth, baked black olives, rich umami – all held in thrilling tension. The secret headline is lovely minerality that shines through the tannin as the fruit fades and svelte structure takes gentle command. This lingering textural feeling to the wine is immensely moreish and totally satisfying. I have a feeling this red is one of the great the sleeper hits of the wine world and this vineyard will some day command prices to make many European vineyards blush. It has the charm and grace of old Bordeaux with audacious pride in the sheer quality of its fruit.
Undurraga has nailed this blend of 85% Cabernet Franc and 15% Merlot. We are in Catemito, Maipo Valley an alluvial terrace formed in the Holocene period around 10,000 years ago. Sandy-clayey texture and lots of gravel for good drainage and a hand in balanced vigour and yields. These vines have barely begun at around 12 years old (own rootstocks) but the low-yield of 1.5kg already reveals what this vineyard is capable of. I couldn’t be more excited for its future. The wine is aged for 16 months in French oak barrels which for this rich style is just about bang on. Hard to resist a wine of this calibre and a daring look at Chile’s bright future.
These reds share a core of finesse, all the flavours in the world can dance around them but what seems to really matter here is structure, texture and a sense of density worn lightly. I remember standing with Nick Mills in Rippon vineyard overlooking Ruby Island glimmering in Lake Wanaka, New Zealand. I’ve always found Nick’s warm style of straightforward speaking to be as endearing as it is life-affirming. He held up some soil as he we were chatting, I forget his exact words but more or less described it as a heap of life in his hand. We went over to some steaming compost and the remarkable heat of it instantly showed how much energy was at play. Soil is a bit like a vinyl record. It can be in good shape, delivering a resonant experience. Or it can be in poor shape, not well looked after, creating a more hollow, glitchy experience.
Soil types, of course, are different from place to place, sometimes footstep to footstep. But a reassuring constant is soil’s ability to recover. It may take time, but a patch of earth that’s been farmed using chemical intervention seems to be able find its way back to balance given enough time. Today, soil and environmental health is a question more and more consumers are tuning in to. Coupled with the idea of the microbial activity in the soil, the symbiotic role played by mycorrhizal networks in the sharing and distribution of nutrients through dirt, the paradox of this silent yet characterful force is the loveliest thing to contemplate over a glass. We can’t escape it, the dirt is the land, the land is our planet and we are all joining forces with it sooner or later along with all beings that have passed before us. One love? I’ll raise a glass to that.