Islands in the sun

DRINK Volcanic soils have a profound effect on the wines made from grapes grown in them, on islands such as Santorini, Lanzarote…

DRINKVolcanic soils have a profound effect on the wines made from grapes grown in them, on islands such as Santorini, Lanzarote, Sicily and Pantelleria

Most wine lovers will be familiar with the idea of terroir, a French term used to explain how a wine reflects the soil and climate in which a vine grows. The effect of climate is easy enough to understand, but the influence of soil is more controversial. A grower in Chablis, Sancerre or Champagne will contend that the chalk or limestone-derived soils are crucial to producing their unique fine wine. A colleague in the Mosel will maintain the same for the local slate soils, whilst a producer in the northern Rhône would argue in favour of the crumbling granite terraces that are responsible for the great wines of Côte Rôtie, St Joseph and Hermitage.

Despite what some people say, science is clear that a soil does not transfer a flavour to a wine; there simply isn’t any known mechanism for it to do so. Tasting terms such as mineral, chalky or earthy are descriptors and cannot be attributed directly to the soil in which the vine grows.

However, the makeup of a soil does have a profound effect on a wine, in two ways. Firstly, the vine likes well-drained soils without too much competition from other plants. This is why the finest vineyards of Europe are frequently found on the poorest, stoniest soils, often on some of the steepest slopes. The best soils appear to have the ability to drain freely yet at the same time store moisture. In addition to this, the nutrients and minerals contained in a soil can be absorbed by a vine, and will make a big difference to a finished wine.


Some of the most ancient vineyards of Europe are to be found on the youngest soils – that of volcanoes. These can be startling to look at – inhospitable, completely bare, jet-black in colour, looking more like a moonscape than anything here on earth. Volcanic soils are incredibly fertile and for centuries famers have been drawn to them despite the inherent dangers of working so close to a volcano. The soils around Mount Vesuvius have been intensively cultivated for thousands of years. As well as being rich in minerals, volcanic soils have that sought-after ability to drain quickly yet retain water, perfect in a dry climate.

There is a very long tradition of producing wines on many of the islands in the Mediterranean. It is not a coincidence that many are the result of volcanic eruptions. Today we look at the volcanic wines of four islands, three in the Mediterranean.

If you are seeking new and exciting wines, you could do worse than look to the most ancient of all states, Greece. Although you will find the usual international varieties, Greece has a host of its own indigenous grapes. Santorini is a medium-sized volcanic island with the aforementioned black volcanic soil. Here the vines are formed into low basket shapes to protect them from the wind.

A great many Irish people have visited Lanzarote, but how many have tasted the island’s wines? It has a dark volcanic soil, with each vine planted in a scooped out hollow with a little wall of rocks to protect it from the wind. Yields are very low, costs are high, and the distance to the mainland means these wines are never going to be cheap. But there are plenty of tourists to buy the wine locally. And they really are worth trying.

The Benanti vines (see bottles below) are grown on the slopes of Mount Etna on the island of Sicily. The soils here are black too, rich in tufa, volcanic ash and potassium. Historically, the region was famous for its wine, although many vineyards had fallen into disuse until recently.

Pantelleria “the island of wind” is a small volcanic outcrop in the Mediterranean, halfway between Italy and Libya. Occupied by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, French and Spanish, more recently it has become the summer home of celebrities, including Giorgio Armani. The bush-trained Muscat vines, nestling in small hollows dug into the volcanic rock, are used to make a unique dessert wine. The wine is made from a blend of fresh and raisined grapes that have been dried in the sun.


Atlantis 2011, Santorini, Greece, 13%, €14.99The quirky but very attractive Atlantis 2011, made from the Assyrtiko grape, is very dry, with a crisp mineral acidity. The opposite of what you would expect from a sunny Mediterranean island but delicious nonetheless. Stockist: M&S

Bodegas Bermejo Malvasia Seco 2011, Lanzarote, 13%, €19.99This is light, fresh and crisp, with lemon zest, a faintly oily texture and minerals too. It improved as the evening went on; I may have served it too cold initially. Stockist: Black Pig, Donnybrook,

Benanti Serra della Contessa 2003, Etna Rosso, 14%, €45This wine is now fully mature, with subtle aromas of milk chocolate, coffee and dark fruits that continue into the medium-bodied palate. Stockists: Red Island Wines Skerries; Jus de Vine, Portmarnock.

Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata, 14.5%, €69.99Harmonious and perfectly balanced, this might be worth a splurge for all those desserts over Christmas. Stockists:, Drink Store, Stoneybatter; Fallon & Byrne, Exchequer St; 64 Wine, Glasthule.

John Wilson

John Wilson

John Wilson, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a wine critic