If you are feeling brave, we’ve got the bottle!
When we set up Vin Cognito three years ago, the very first wine we bought was a Listán Blanco from the volcanic island of Tenerife. Looking back on it now, it was a bold move for a new company, a Sancerre might have been safer, but we weren’t trying to be quirky just for the sake of it. It was a wine that thrilled us to the core, bristling with mineral aromas and intense citrus flavours tinged by a wispy smokiness that made us think of how a Puligny-Montrachet from Domaine Leflaive might taste if the vines grew on the side of a volcano, as these did. Since then we have added a wide variety of ‘volcanic’ wines to our list, from Crete to the Canary Islands, without realising that a trend was gathering behind us, like surfers calmly unaware of a huge wave approaching. In the last couple of years, sommeliers and wine writers have been banging the volcanic drum and wine-lovers have either been embracing the trend or childishly protesting that they spotted it first. Ahem.
One of the most exciting things about ‘volcanic’ wines, apart from the exciting flavours of endemic grape varieties grown on porous, mineral-rich soil, is that many of the vines are still on their original roots, unlike almost all of Europe’s vines, which have been grafted onto American rootstock, due to the phylloxera bug that gnawed its way through almost all of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th Century. The sandy, pumice- and basalt-rich soils found in volcanic vineyards, however, resist against phylloxera, so the combination of original, age-old vines, volcanic terroir and proximity to the sea or ocean lends itself to wines that have mouthwatering acidity, exuberant aromas, a maritime salinity and a flinty minerality, not to mention counterintuitive longevity. We thought we would put together six different examples for you to try, either as a case of twelve (2 bottles of each) or a case of six (1 bottle of each). Below you will find wonderful examples from Sicily, the Azore Islands, Santorini, Sardinia and Tenerife.
If you are unfamiliar with the style, it’s probably worth mentioning that first impressions don’t count here. Don’t be surprised if the flavours elicit a quizzical frown initially. They are wines that haven’t been contrived to please you at first taste, the minerality usually greets you before the fruit, but keep going back to the glass, because new aromas and flavours are released as the wine relaxes.
“Volcanic wines are highly terroir-driven and should be enjoyed in this context.” - Decanter Magazine
Trenzado, Suertes del Marques, Tenerife, Spain 2015 - £19.95
This is a wine that can divide a room. It won't be to everybody's taste, thanks to the mineral and maritime influence that informs the aromas, but for us, this is what a white Burgundy would taste like if the grapes grew on a volcano (and these do!). The nose has the chiselled mineral cut of a flinty Puligny-Montrachet allied to a dry, salty tang. It’s a thrillingly wild, sea-sprayed shipwreck of lemons, grapefruit, crushed rocks, and smoked almonds… the sort of wine that whets your appetite in a distinctly Spanish way, like a fino sherry but without the surplus alcohol. We make no apologies for loving this style of white wine, and acknowledge that it won’t please every palate, but if, like us, you crave these pithy, sappy, unfiltered wines informed by the vineyard’s soil and microclimate, then don’t hesitate. Oh, and don’t drink it all on day one, it’s even better on day two and three and four. 13.5% alc. Drink now-2021.
Arinto dos Açores, The Azores Wine Company, Azore Islands, Portugal 2015 - £28.50
The Azores are a group of volcanic islands that lie about 800 miles west of Lisbon in the Atlantic Ocean and this white wine is made by a young winemaker on a mission to reclaim Pico Island’s centuries-old, dry stone-walled vineyards. It’s a scintillating, unoaked Arinto, which caught the public’s eye when it was included in Elin McCoy’s ‘Top 10 Wines of 2016’, calling it her “discovery of the year”. Arinto is an indigenous variety to the Azore Islands and not the same as the Arinto grape found on mainland Portugal (it’s actually a cross between Verdelho and Serceal). The Wine Advocate wrote as follows: "A potential blockbuster for those who like their wines crisp and fresh, this has big acidity, but fine fruit as well. It shows good concentration, tension on the finish and a certain sternness early on. This is just a bit unevolved as of yet. It actually needs some time to settle down. It was impressive enough to make me lean up a bit just now. There were just 5,048 bottles produced. 93 points.”
Gaia ‘Wild Ferment’ Assyrtiko , Santorini, Greece 2016 - £24.95
We could write paragraphs about why the Assyrtiko grape deserves to be recognised as a ‘noble’ grape variety alongside the likes of Chardonnay and Riesling, but the market has a shorthand way of saying the same thing by the fact that it has gone up from €0.60 per kilo to €3.00 per kilo in the last 2 years. Gaia’s ‘Wild Ferment’ is the finest expression that we know, a wine with the most extraordinary aromas, thanks to the fact that Gaia source grapes for this cuvée from the upland vineyard of Pyrgos, considered to produce the most aromatic Assyrtiko on Santorini and the fact that each barrel undergoes a wild ferment, meaning that every barrel is slightly different depending on the particular yeast strain that initiates the fermentation, not to mention the fact that the wine is aged in stainless steel, French oak, American oak (some new, some used) and acacia barrels. It’s an astonishingly complex, intense, rich, bone dry and refined white wine that perfectly balances varietal expression with winemaking influence. Yiannis Paraskevopoulos thinks 2016 is the best he has ever produced (the first vintage was 1994).
Etna Rosso Guardoilvento, Pietro Caciorgna, Sicily 2014 - £21.50
When asked to choose a favourite from their list, wine merchants tend to compare their wines to their children, diplomatically saving themselves from having to voice a preference. Not us. If any one of our wines were wandering towards a cliff edge and this one was wandering towards a disused mine shaft, we'd save this one. It has everything we love in a red wine: aromatic lift, juicy moreishness, terroir expression, varietal identity and bags of personality. It is made from our favourite Sicilian grape variety, Nerello Mascalese, which is a thin-skinned black grape, producing pale-coloured wines, similar in depth and weight to a Pinot Noir, and capable of translating the rocky minerality that comes from vines growing on the side of a volcano. Take a moment to savour the extraordinary aromas. You may find a strong mineral presence at first, but it soon dissipates to reveal apricot, jasmine, cherry and frankincense, which lead you to a seriously fine and elegant palate of red stone-fruits and cool pebbles. It's a very digestible, food-friendly wine with high acidity and a refreshing purity that leads you to demand another sip. 13.5% alc. Drink now-2021.
Cannonau Riserva, Olianas, Sardinia, Italy 2014 - £24.00
Cannonau is the Italian name for Garnacha (arguably Spain's most important grape variety) and it proliferates in Sardinia, because the Spanish ruled here for nearly four centuries and, you may be surprised to know, Catalan is still spoken in the northwestern Sardinian port of Alghero. This is an expression of Cannonau at its richest and most voluptuous and you can thank Vegas and Dinette for that. They are the two pack horses, who plough the rows of these organic vineyards, ensuring that the plants have to delve deep into the soil to find nutrients. Hard-working vines produce concentrated berries (thicker skins, less pulp) and that translates into a richer wine. This is a full-bodied, oak-aged evocation of inky blackberries, vanilla, blackcurrant cordial, sandalwood and black cherry compote. 18 months in French and Slavonian oak. Organic. 14.5% alc. Drink now-2024
Envinate 'Benje', Tenerife, Spain 2015 - £23.50
Only a few bottles of this graceful beauty have made it to the UK and we put our hands up for as much as we could have. As much as we could have turned out to be 30 bottles, so it's not going to stretch very far, but this is one of the finest reds we have tasted from Tenerife (and, no, that's not like saying he was the best-looking guy in the burns unit). It's incredibly fine, with a real sense of the rocky, volcanic, Atlantic soil, but not in such a way that it smothers the fruit, which is bright and succulent. It's a blend of 98% Listan Prieto and 2% Tintilla from 70 to 120 year-old vines sitting at 1,100 metres altitude on the cliffs of northwestern Tenerife and it has a wonderful freshness and purity and, despite being light-bodied, a fascinating scope of flavours both fruity and mineral. It should appeal to anyone who loves Loire reds, cool climate Pinot Noir, Etna Rosso... that kind of thing. Pale and haunting and very evocative. 12.5% alc. Drink now-2019.