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Sorting Through The Certifications: Sustainable

This is the third of a 5-part series of posts covering the most common certifications found on wine labels by guest writer John Szabo MS. Read Part I on Organic Certifications and Part II on Biodynamics.

Sustainable is yet another category of certification, growing worldwide, which takes an even broader view. As the word implies, and like organic and biodynamic farms, sustainably-run winegrowing operations consider the environmental impact of their actions. But the philosophy expands to also encompass social and economic aspects of wine production.

In short, sustainable winegrowing is a comprehensive set of practices that are environmentally sound, socially equitable and economically viable. Sustainable does not mean organic (or biodynamic), though many sustainable wineries are also organically/biodynamically certified. But water and energy conservation practices are emphasized, along with maintaining healthy soil, and protecting air and water quality, and preserving local ecosystems and wildlife habitat.

Additionally, wineries are encouraged to enhance relations with employees and communities, and improve the economic vitality of vineyards and wineries. Examples of such programs include re-investing a percentage of company profits in community infrastructure, building schools or community centers, for example, or providing medical coverage to employees and their families, or continuing education.

Sustainable viticulture, hence, has been defined as a “global strategy on the scale of the grape production and processing systems, incorporating at the same time the economic sustainability of structures and territories, producing quality products, considering requirements of precision in sustainable viticulture, risks to the environment, product safety and consumer health, and valuing of heritage, historical, cultural, ecological, and aesthetic aspects.”

Strictly speaking, however, virtually nothing that is allowed in conventional farming and winemaking is expressly forbidden, even if reduction is encouraged. Maximums for sulphite additions, for example, follow guidelines for conventional wines.

Sustainable certification schemes exist mostly outside of Europe, where organic/biodynamic certifications are more common. Most new world growing regions have implemented some form of certification, Notably California, Oregon, Chile, New Zealand, South Africa and British Columbia, among others. New Zealand, Chile and Sonoma county have even pledged to make their wine industries 100% sustainably certified in the coming years.





For the most part, these are all voluntary certification programs, self-assessed, and only rarely with third-party auditing. Each association provides educational tools to growers and winemakers to increase adoption of sustainable practices and to measure and demonstrate ongoing improvement. Partners from government, academia, and community and environmental groups contribute resources and expertise, and help to identify strengths and opportunities for improvement, and set goals to increase use of sustainable practices.

There is of course significant variation in the details of what is assessed and how from association to association, and how progress is measured. Of all the certifications discussed in this series, “Sustainable” is at once the most comprehensive and laudable, and the most loose and unclear. Since “Sustainable” is not a government-regulated term, the claim from any association around the world can appear on wines sold in Canada.

Detractors of sustainable certification consider it “the easy way out” of full organic or biodynamic certification, a way to greenwash their business without having to adhere to strict regulations. But wineries that take it seriously make a genuine effort to reduce not just their environmental footprint, but also to improve the lives of their employees and communities, while ensuring their own financial survival, which is of course in the interest of employees. A biodynamically and sustainably certified operation would be the ultimate combo.

At Phantom Creek, we are working towards organic and biodynamic certification under the guidance of Olivier Humbrecht MW. Olivier initiated Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s transition to organic and biodynamic practices in 1997, and is now the President of Biodyvin. Led by the tireless efforts of John Pires and Ryan McKibbon, our farming does not include any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. We have also completed an Environmental Farm Plan as part of our sustainability initiatives.

Master Sommelier John Szabo is the Author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, published in October 2016. When not drinking the essence of lava, he writes for WineAlign.com, or can be spotted somewhere around the world researching his next book project.

 

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Sorting Through The Certifications: Biodynamic Wine

This is the second of a 5-part series of posts covering the most common certifications found on wine labels by guest writer John Szabo MS. Read Part I on Organic Certifications.

Biodynamics takes organics a step further. Biodynamics is a philosophy and method of farming originally devised by Austrian Rudolf Steiner in the early 1920s. Steiner laid out his ideas in a series of lectures, which included a healthy dose of spiritual science, with the practical aim of increasing the nutritional value of food (physical and spiritual). In the post-WWI period, when chemical fertilizers became prevalent, it was noticed that industrially-grown foodstuffs were not providing the same level of nutrition as traditionally-farmed products. Steiner and his followers sought to remedy the situation by using a more “holistic approach to agriculture in which farms and vineyards are considered as living organisms and farmers take into account every aspect of their natural environment.”

In practice, Biodynamic farming meets the organic standard including the prohibition of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. The maximum allowable use of other vineyard treatments are generally lower than what is authorized under organic standards. Only half the amount of copper, for example, used to fight mildews, is permitted under Biodynamic standards compared to organics.

Biodynamic preparations, essentially homeopathic treatments, are also used. Made from medicinal plants (e.g. yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle) and other natural products (cow manure), these preparations are applied to boost the vines’ own immune system, and proactively eliminate the causes, not just the effects of diseases, and to improve soil health. Work in the vineyards and in the winery follows the earth’s natural daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms (lunar, solar, astral), maximizing vineyard health, and ultimately, it’s believed, wine quality.

Going even further, biodynamic farmers also seek to maintain the balance of their ecosystem by integrating animals and animal feeds, perennial plants, flowers and trees, water features, and composting, and setting aside acreage to encourage biodiversity (riparian zones, wetlands, grasslands, and forests, etc.). The goal is to be fully self-sufficient, with nothing entering or leaving the farm (except the final product, eventually).

In the winery, permitted sulfite additions are also lower than for organic compliance, and the list of processing ingredients in the winery is likewise considerably shorter. No laboratory-selected, aromatic yeasts (only wild/native/indigenous yeasts carry out the fermentation), bacteria, or enzymes additions are permitted, for example, and acid and sugar adjustment is forbidden. In practice, most biodynamic winemakers use virtually nothing other than minimal amounts of sulfites in the winemaking process, and sometimes none at all.

Biodynamic Certification

Demeter International, a private, non-profit organization, controls the trademark for the term Biodynamic® around the world (capital “B”), and was the first, and still is the largest certifier of Biodynamic farms. In order for a winery or a vineyard to refer to itself as Biodynamic, it must adhere to the Demeter Farm Standard for a minimum of three years if formerly conventionally farmed, or a minimum of one year if organically farmed, before certification is granted. Farms are inspected annually by Demeter employees, and the whole process is extremely rigorous. The Demeter certification is recognized in all Canadian provinces. Nikolaihof estate in the Wachau, Austria, was the first winery to begin farming vineyards according to Biodynamic principles in 1970, and today, some 700 wineries are Demeter-certified worldwide.

 

 

Two other private organizations also offer certification for biodynamic operations (small “b”). Biodyvin, originally established in France in 1995, currently counts 135 members in Germany, Italy, Portugal and Switzerland, in addition to France. The splinter biodynamic association of wine producers called Respekt was founded in 2007 by a group of Austrian vintners, and now counts 22 members, including several German producers. Both essentially operate according to Demeter standards, and their certifications and logo/wordmarks are recognized in Canada. Many other wineries around the world have adopted some or all of the principles of Biodynamic winegrowing, but opt not to seek certification, as it’s a costly process, in both time and fees. But according to the Demeter website, to use “some Biodynamic practices” is a bit like being “a little pregnant”. These folks take it seriously.

 

 

Detractors of biodynamics scoff at the perceived pseudo-science of the processes and new-age, faith-based beliefs in scientifically unverifiable claims, as traditional medical practitioners might roll their eyes at homeopathic remedies or Chinese medicine. In my experience, however, a disproportionate percentage of the world’s best wines are made biodynamically, an unlikely coincidence. But whether quality is due to the harmonization with the Cosmos, or simply the considerably higher time, energy, care and observation one must put into biodynamic production that makes the difference, is still up for debate.

At Phantom Creek, we are working towards organic and biodynamic certification under the guidance of Olivier Humbrecht MW. Olivier initiated Domaine Zind-Humbrecht’s transition to organic and biodynamic practices in 1997, and is now the President of Biodyvin. Led by the tireless efforts of John Pires and Ryan McKibbon, our farming does not include any synthetic herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. Biodynamic farming requires meticulous attention to detail, which in turn makes us more attuned to our vineyards. It is a sustainable approach, which we think yields exceptional wines.

Master Sommelier John Szabo is the Author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, published in October 2016. When not drinking the essence of lava, he writes for WineAlign.com, or can be spotted somewhere around the world researching his next book project.

 

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Sorting Through The Certifications: Organic

We’re thrilled to welcome back guest writer John Szabo, MS. This is part one of a five-part series on the most common wine certifications, and what they mean to you.

Of all the labels for consumables, those for wine surely offer the most confusing tangle of nomenclature. Countries, regions, sub-regions, vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking techniques, fantasy names, cuvée names, lot numbers and other codes, and much more, can appear. Some mentions are legally required, others are applied by whim, and the order and placement of these mentions change from label to label. It’s no wonder even trained sommeliers have difficulty sorting out what’s what.

But there’s more. Official-sounding certifications are also turning up on wine labels with growing frequency, along with a whole new harvest of logos and word marks from the various private and government entities who control their use, making the label landscape even more inscrutable.

And certifications like organic, biodynamic, sustainable, natural, and vegan all have different meanings and degrees of legitimacy. Some are government-regulated, others are bestowed by private companies or industry associations. Others still have no universally agreed upon meaning. So, what’s what?

Read through this special 5-part series to learn the differences between the most common certifications, and what they might mean to you.

Part I: Organic

Let’s start with the term that’s most likely familiar to you: organic. Use of the term “organic” for wine, as for food, is legally defined in most countries, even if the definition varies from country to country. There is no international governing body that regulates a unified standard for what it means to be “organic,” so practices vary, but typically, organic wines must be made from grapes grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. There are further restrictions on allowable processing agents in the winery, most notably limits on the use of sulphur dioxide as a preservative agent, as well as permissible fining/clarifying agents.

Wines produced in Canada with an organic claim and wishing to be sold across the country must comply with the federal Canadian Organic Regime, which is regulated by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA creates, oversees, monitors and enforces the requirements of the Canada Organic Regime using an accredited third-party auditor.

 

 

British Columbia was one of the first provinces in Canada to establish an organic standard in 1993. As such, it was one of the front runners in developing certification systems. Today all products labeled as organic in BC must be certified to either provincial standards, a process administered by the Certified Organic Associations of British Columbia (COABC), or federal standards, if the wine is to be sold outside of British Columbia.

Foreign wines wishing to be sold in Canada with an organic claim must also comply with Canadian Organic Regulations, regardless of the country of origin. Compliance is verified by the provincial monopolies responsible for alcohol sales in each province. Wineries must provide a certificate from an organic agency recognized by the CFIA, which also establishes organic equivalency arrangements with other countries. The CFIA currently recognizes organic claims certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the European Union, Switzerland and Japan. Wines from other countries claiming an organic certification that is not recognized by the CFIA are required to bear a sticker stating that “Organic claim not recognized in Canada”.  These claims are taken seriously.

 

 

Aside from the bonus of having no pesticide residue (though fear not, conventional wines won’t harm you), likely of greatest interest to you is the reduced sulfite levels in organic wine. Sulfites are the most effective anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial wine preservative, and have been used for centuries. Organic wine does not mean totally sulfite-free (even if no sulfites are added, they are produced naturally during fermentation), though the legal maximum of how much can be added is less than for conventional wines (which also have limits). The limits are determined by the amount of residual sugar (RS) in a particular wine – the more sugar, the higher the permitted sulfite level, mostly to prevent refermentation.

For the record, according to the Canadian Organic Regime, wines with less than 50 grams/litre RS (dry to semi-sweet) may contain up to 30 mg/L (ppm) free sulphur dioxide, up to 35 mg/L for wines between 50 and 99 g/L RS, and up to 45 mg/L for really sweet wines with more than 99 g/L RS. By contrast, the allowable SO2 limits for conventional wines in Europe, for example, is 150mg/L for red wines, 210mg/L for white and rose wines, and 400mg/L for sweet wines. In the US, the legal limits top out at 350mg/L and in Australia at 250mg/L.

Detractors of organic certifications point to the overly long list of permitted agro-and-oenological products permitted, and the generous maximums set for the use of certain products. Imagine, if you will, the discussions to create a pan-European Union organic certification, acceptable to all member states. An exercise in compromise and flexibility.

At Phantom Creek, we farm our estate vineyards without the use of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or fertilizers. Instead, we rely on traditional techniques such as the use of organic compost and hand hoeing for weed control. We’re currently working towards certification for all of our vineyards, with a target date for organic certification of 2020. We believe certification is important in an era of greenwashing and exaggerated organic claims.

Master Sommelier John Szabo is the Author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, published in October 2016. When not drinking the essence of lava, he writes for WineAlign.com, or can be spotted somewhere around the world researching his next book project.

 

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Wine Summit 2017

Photo credit: Post Hotel

The Wine Summit at the Relais & Château Post Hotel in Lake Louise has just concluded, and the 13th edition of Canada’s premier wine and food event lived up to its billing once again, largely thanks to our gracious hosts, the Schwarz Family.

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From June 1 to 4, some 120 devoted wine aficionados packed the luxurious yet cozy Rocky Mountain chalet for a three-day celebration of great wine, fabulous food, and newfound friendships. The Post Hotel and its team radiated a sense of warm hospitality and guests were thrilled to have unprecedented access to the winemakers and owners, not just to taste their wines and learn about their regions, but to share breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the weekend.

Well-known wine writer, Anthony Gismondi, expertly moderated the tastings and discussions of the wines. Both Old and New World wines shared the spotlight and left lasting impressions on the tasters.

Leading off was Maison Louis Latour, family owned and operated since 1797, with a Corton Masterclass lead by the charming Mark Allen. This “once in a lifetime” Grand Cru tasting featured Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs grown on the limestone-clay-marl soils of Burgundy’s most famous ‘Hill’: Corton Charlemagne 2015 and 2014; Corton Clos de la Vigne Au Saint 2015, 2014, 2010, and 2006; and Château Corton Grancey 2015, 2014, and 2010. The latter wines are unique and exclusive (to Latour) blends of four south-west facing Grand Cru sites, which combines the strengths of several parcels across the appellation. My overall impression: across the board, the wines illustrated inimitable Burgundian winemaking, perfectly balanced precision fruit, and tension with density and power. This doesn’t happen everywhere. I will never again describe non-Burgundian Chardonnays and Pinot as “Burgundian-style.”

Next up was Castello Banfi, the pioneering Tuscan estate founded in 1978 by the Italian-American Mariani family from New Jersey. Legendary winemaker, Ezio Rivella, guided Banfi to become one of the most important producers of Brunello until his retirement in 1999. Co-CEO, Cristina Mariani-May, together with General Manager, Enrico Viglierchio, gave a dynamic account of Banfi’s ground breaking research on the Sangiovese vine. Cristina suggested that Sangiovese mutates readily into its environment, and “is not a variety, but a family of varieties and dialects.” With more than 45 registered Sangiovese clones, Banfi today works with 15 unique clones (registered for all to share). The nine wines presented wowed the audience: Brunello di Montalcino 2004, 2007, and the classic 2010; Brunello di Montalcino “Poggio alle Mura” 1998, 2001, and 2004; and Brunello di Montalcino Riserva “Poggio all Oro” (Montalcino’s Hill of Gold) 2004, 2006, and 2007. Overall impression: careful selection and painful attention to detail result in an astounding range of age-worthy Brunello wines.

Simone Horgan-Furlong is the charmingly elegant dynamo and co-CEO at Leeuwin Estate. The winery’s Chardonnays are widely considered to be Australia’s finest, and the Cabernets among Western Australia’s most sought-after reds. Some of the lowest yields in Australia and a near-perfect microclimate lie at the root of this estate’s success. According to Simone, “here on the western edge of the continent, where the temperate Indian Ocean meets the cold Southern Ocean, magic happens.” A vertical tasting of her family’s Art Series Chardonnay was the highlight of her animated presentation.

Closing out the day was a classic pairing of Champagne and caviar: Graham Gaspard’s farm-reared Black River Caviar and Taittinger 2006 Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs (10-years on lees – grapefruit, tension, salinity). What an utterly fascinating and wildly indulgent tasting! One of the truly great prestige cuvées together with a pioneering Southern Hemisphere caviar producer. Four different malossol (little salt) caviars from Uruguay’s Alcade Family in the Rio Negro region were on offer: Siberian (jet black, fine saltiness, creamy finish), Oscietra ‘Royale’ (light green, more savoury than salty), Oscietra ‘Master Reserve’ (light greenish-brown, fresh, precise, great flavour intensity), Kaluga Hybrid (light brown, saltier, intense marine flavour). Altogether a wonderful learning experience, particularly for the chance to try this New World generation of caviars which represent the future for this rare, luxury product.

When one thinks about Austrian wines and its famous Grüner Veltliner and Riesling producers, none are more iconic than Weingut Bründlmayer, one of the world’s top white wine producers. The estate’s engaging Thomas Klinger explained Austria’s classification system of 2010 with a range of shockingly good ‘Erste Lage’ or ‘First Growth’ wines, all Reserve wines from the estate’s most pedigreed vineyard sites in the Kamptal appellation (DAC). First up a mini-vertical of Langenloiser Käferberg Grüner Veltliner (2015, 2014, 2013, and 2011), then turning to their top Riesling ‘Erste Lage’, Zöbinger Heiligenstein, the Bründlmayer ‘Grand Cru’ (2015, 2014, 2008, 2003, and 2001). Overall impression: finesse-driven, powerful, dry wines that are subtle and restrained in their youth, but can attain an almost biblical age.

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The extraordinary tasting program concluded with two legendary family wineries from France.

Exciting things are happening at Paul Jaboulet Aîné where the new owners, the Frey family of Bordeaux’s Château La Lagune, are restoring this historic house to its former iconic status. Under the watchful eyes of oenologist Caroline Frey, innovation rules: organic conversion, biodiversity, low yields, concrete eggs, etc. Export Director Arnaud Trouvé’s presentation was ‘All About the North’ – the northern Rhône that is. Two powerful Marsanne-Roussane Hermitage blends led the way to a La Chapelle masterclass. At only 60 hectares, the south-facing Hermitage appellation on the east bank of the Rhône is tiny but with an enormous reputation. Jaboulet’s ‘La Chapelle’ bottlings are among the most collectible. Made exclusively from vines aged 60-100 years old, and with ridiculously low yields, the wine is typically blended from a mosaic of different parcels and soils, and is considered at its peak after 20 years. Arnaud treated us to a memorable vertical tasting of vintages 2013, 2005, 2003, 1998, and 1985. Overall impression: slow to mature, more savoury than sweet.

Château Angélus – for the past eight generations, Château Angélus has been the work and passion of the de Boüard de Laforest family. Co-proprietor Jean-Bernard Granié delivered a compelling study of the Saint-Émilion appellation, highlighted by a vertical tasting comprising the 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2006 vintages. In addition, Jean-Bernard shed light on some of the viticultural changes that have allowed Bordeaux vintners to make more consistently good wines in every year, virtually eliminating “bad wine” altogether, namely: more severe selection (pre-1970s “everything was picked and often chaptalized”), green harvesting, shoot thinning, and lower yields. Therefore, the noticeable shift in Bordeaux style and quality may not be entirely due to Robert Parker and Michel Rolland after all!?

In addition to the seven seminar tastings, the weekend packed in several wine-paired meals featuring many other exciting and top-level wines. Lunches and dinners were expertly prepared by the Post Hotel’s executive chef, Hans Sauter, and his culinary brigade.  Of special note, the concluding Gala Dinner featuring these seven flagship wines:

Taittinger Brut Préstige Champagne Rosé

Weingut Brűndlmayer 2012 Grűner Veltliner Langenloiser Käferberg Reserve, Kamptal

Leeuwin Estate 2012 Art Series Chardonnay, Margaret River

Domaine Louis Latour 2010 Corton Grand Cru

Château Corton Grancey Castello Banfi 2007 Summus, Tuscany

Paul Jaboulet Aîné 2006 Hermitage La Chapelle, Rhône Valley (from magnum)

2010 Château Bellevue Grand Cru Classé, St. Émilion

Even though some of the tastings took place right after breakfast, all of us were keen to partake, which reminded me of a favourite response when asked about the best time to drink wine: “You have the difficult choice between breakfast and dinner.” For this audience, with this caliber of wines, the answer was clearly anytime.

Final tally: 3 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 3 dinners, more than 120 wines poured from 900+ bottles into more than 12,000 hand-polished glasses, and $115,000 raised for Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta.  Net proceeds from the Wine Summit have raised more than $935,000 since the inception of this annual extravaganza of wine appreciation and education. Those donations would not be possible without the generosity of the many vintners who have shared their wines and their time over the years.

All the lucky attendees salute George and André Schwarz, not only for their exceptional hospitality, but their spirit of generosity!

Volcanic Wines in British Columbia and Abroad

This is part two in an introduction to volcanic wines by guest writer John Szabo, MS. Read part one here

Where to Find Volcanic Wines

There are many volcanic wine regions around the world, some obvious, others less so. Mount Etna on Sicily’s northeastern corner, for example, is regularly in the news as Europe’s most active volcano, and the occasionally perilous home to vines for the last 3000 years. Today, about a hundred winemakers are actively producing Etna Rosso and Bianco, among Italy’s hottest wines these days.

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Mount Etna, Italy
Photo by John Szabo, MS

Much of Campania on Italy’s mainland is likewise obviously volcanic, looming under the shadow of the world’s most famous, and dangerous, volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, as well as the nearby Campi Flegrei, or “Fields of Fire”, on the other side of Naples. Many of southern Italy’s finest reds and whites grow here in soils heavily laced with volcanic ash from countless eruptions. Seek out aglianico-based reds from the Taurasi appellation, and star whites Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, among Italy’s most ageworthy.

The aerial view of Santorini leaves little doubt of this Greek island’s volcanic underpinnings, blown into a sliver over successive cataclysmic eruptions. Santorini’s white wines from the ancient assyrtiko grape are considered Greece’s most distinctive, the very definition of salt, grit and power, eked out of parched volcanic pumice under the hot Aegean sun.

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Kál Basin, Hungary
 Photo by John Szabo, MS

Hungary may not leap to mind for either wine or volcanoes, yet this small central European country has plenty of both. But while the volcanoes are long extinct, the wine industry has been heating up since the end of communism in the early 1990s. Tokaj, Badacsony and Somló are the names to look for, strikingly mineral dry white wines from various indigenous grapes, and lusciously sweet when named tokaji aszú.

Other wine regions are less uniformly volcanic, such as Soave near Verona in northern Italy. Here, garganega produces fragrant and finessed whites from vineyards on limestone, and more deeply coloured, dense and powerful wines from basalt soils – proof positive that soil matters.

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Lanzarote, Canary Islands
Photo by John Szabo, MS

Similarly, the mid-Atlantic isles of Macaronesia (Madeira, Canary Islands and the Azores), slices of Alsace and Germany, and swaths of Chile, northern California, Oregon and Washington, to name just a few of many more, each have their volcanic wine treasures to offer the world.

And In British Columbia, too…

British Columbia lies along the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire, a 40,000km stretch of hyperactive seismic and volcanic activity that runs around the Pacific basin from Patagonia to New Zealand. BC is home to hundreds of volcanoes, mostly extinct or dormant (49 have erupted in the last 10,000 years, making them technically dormant, not extinct), in addition to numerous hot springs, additional indicators of volcanic activity.

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Similkameen Valley, British Columbia
Photo Credit: Wines of British Columbia, WineBC.com

Soils derived from their various lavas sprinkle wine country, too, most notably in West Kelowna on the slopes of the 60 million year-old stratovolcano Mount Boucherie. The volcano’s namesake winery, as well as Volcanic Hills Winery have vineyards here. The Similkameen Valley, too, has volcanic underpinnings – the craggy Cascade Mountains that loom above the valley are peppered with volcanoes. For a spectacular example of columnar basalt, visit the Keremeos Columns Provincial Park just north of the town of Keremeos, where these striking skyscrapers of basalt can be seen. Or, simply taste one of the crunchy, salty Similkameen wines for a more visceral volcanic experience.

I’d say it’s time to add the word “volcanic” to your wine vocabulary.

Master Sommelier John Szabo is the Author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, published in October 2016. When not drinking the essence of lava, he writes for WineAlign.com, or can be spotted somewhere around the world researching his next book project.

What’s a Volcanic Wine?

We’re thrilled to welcome our first guest writer to Pressing Matters, John Szabo, MS. His excellent book, Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, recently won the André Simon Book Award in the drinks category. This is part one of his two-part introduction to volcanic wines. 

What’s a Volcanic Wine?

You’ve heard of organic wine, and maybe even of biodynamic wine or ‘natural’ wine. But volcanic wine? With the wine industry evermore preoccupied with uniqueness, there’s a new, but very ancient fascination: wines grown on or near volcanoes, or more properly, on soils derived from parent volcanic material.

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Mount Pico, Azores. 
Photo by John Szabo, MS

Although volcanic soils account for only about 1% of the world’s land surface, grapes occupy a disproportionate share. That’s because these soils in general, despite wide variation even within the category, have many useful properties that make them especially suited for high quality wine.

So What’s The Secret to Quality?

For one, young volcanic “soils” formed on recent lavas are often more rock than soil – they haven’t had time to weather into water-retentive clays – and thus hold little moisture. It’s well established that less water favours higher grape quality. Volcanic ash and sand likewise drain readily, and by the nature of where they form, volcanic soils are often on hillsides where water runs off.

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The diversity of volcanic rocks on Santorini. 
Photo by John Szabo, MS

Secondly, despite their reputation, the best volcanic soils for wine growing are infertile. Although lavas contain generous amounts of nutrients (and a wider range of minerals than most other rock types), they’re not readily available. That’s because these elements must first be weathered into available form, and then be dissolved in water to be taken up by roots. But water, as we’ve just learned, is not often available, and minimally weathered soils/rocks release precious few nutrients.

Thus vines get a broad diet, but in small quantities (low fertility but without particular deficiencies), which triggers them to focus on ripening fruit rather than growing shoots and leaves. Semi-parched, semi-starved vines produce less fruit, smaller bunches, thicker grape skins (where most aromas and flavours are stored), and result in more concentrated, structured, age worthy and complex wines.

The Common Elements

Styles vary given the range of grape varieties and climates, and the precise makeup of soils, not to mention variable winemaking approaches. But there are some recurring features: a mouth-watering quality, more savoury than fruity flavours, and a density that can only come from genuine extract. Volcanic wines can be gritty, salty, powerful, maybe even unpleasant to some, but distinctive.

Volcanic Wines and Minerality

“Mineral” is also a term frequently applied to volcanic wines (though by no means exclusively), a term that raises some eyebrows. Geologists will tell you than minerals have no taste or flavour (with the notable exception of sulphur compounds), and that whatever sensation being described as mineral is really caused by odorous organic compounds. This is undoubtedly true. But aside from the metaphoric use of the term (which I’m comfortable with), I’d like to propose a tighter definition, more scientifically verifiable.

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Pico vineyards in the Lajido de Criança Velha UNESCO zone. 
Photo by John Szabo, MS

In my world, minerality is a texture, gently astringent, and more importantly, a taste sensation, not an aroma or flavor. More specifically it’s a salty taste sensation. I speculate, but the palpable salty taste of certain wines leads me to the hypothesis that there are measureable quantities of various mineral salts in wine. Sometimes it’s just garden-variety sodium chloride from seaside vineyards (well established scientifically). But salty wines from inland vineyards lead to the tempting possibility of other types of salts present in wines, i.e. potassium, calcium, and magnesium salts, and other possibilities.

Furthermore, certain acids have a salty taste (they’re called acid salts), in addition to the tingling sensation they cause, and wines contain several types of acids. While salt compounds usually precipitate out of solution during winemaking (like potassium bitartrate or cream of tartar), some wines are just too salty to not contain some residual. But to be clear, I don’t know of anyone who has measured this, or even if it’s chemically possible.

Related to minerality and other sensations in wine not linked exclusively to climate, grape variety and winemaking technique, a few other areas of investigation I’d like to propose include the electrical conductivity of wine (salty water is a good conductor of electricity, so perhaps “mineral” wines may be super conductors). And even further out there, magnetic resonance (volcanic rocks have higher values compared to many other types of rock). If all this seems to complex to contemplate, just keep using the term mineral in a metaphoric sense and nobody can argue with you.

Master Sommelier John Szabo is the Author of Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power, published in October 2016. When not drinking the essence of lava, he writes for WineAlign.com, or can be spotted somewhere around the world researching his next book project.

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