Why Master Sommelier John Szabo is obsessed with volcanic wines

With intense flavours and almost a savoury quality, volcanic wines are unlike anything you’ve ever tried. Canada’s first Master Sommelier, John Szabo, tells us why we should be paying more attention to these compelling wines in his latest book Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power.

When did you first hear about volcanic wines?

I seized on the idea for the book about a half dozen years ago. I was writing an article about some new favourite wines and places to watch. I had recently been to Santorini and loved the extraordinary assyrtikos from the island, and also the stellar reds and whites from Mt. Etna in Sicily. I thought also about Hungary, where I travel often, and reflected on the rise of great dry furmint from Tokaj as well as the legendary sweet versions, among a few other wines from lesser-travelled regions. It suddenly dawned on me that the one thing that all of these fascinating wines had in common was their origins on volcanic soils. And that was it; my new favourites were “volcanic wines”. The idea grew from there. I hadn’t heard of “volcanic wines” before.

A volcanic wine from Napa Valley's Ovid Vineyards

Tell us more about the meaning of the title behind the book: Salt, Grit and Power.

What began as a working title for the book ended up sticking. It’s my short summation of the general character of volcanic wines, within the much broader context of obviously different wines born in diverse climates, from hundreds of different varieties, and on significant variations of soils classified as volcanic. I have found in general that volcanic wines are often palpably salty and saliva-inducing, more savoury than fruity. They’re not always easy to love at first sip, being intensely-flavoured, powerful wines, and even gritty in the textural sense – call it a type of minerality. In short, they’re salty, gritty, and powerful.

Which was the most memorable volcanic wine region you visited?

Honestly, each region was fascinating for different reasons. But among highlights I’d point out the extraordinary vineyard landscape of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, covered in a metres-deep layer of black ash, with straggly bush vines growing in what look like carved-out bunkers on a golf course. Or, there’s the mesmerizingly geometric, squared-off basalt stone walls called “currais” (literally “corrals”) that surround the vineyards on Pico and Terceira Islands in the Azores. There’s also the amazing vineyard “forests” of two and three-hundred year old aglianico vines in Taurasi, Campania (Italy), where vines reach over two meters high and stretch up to six or seven metres horizontally, like giant Gaudi-esque candelabras. These are scenes from another era, like frozen time.

I find it extraordinary that winegrowers would toil away on the sides of an active volcano

What are the biggest challenges that winemakers in volcanic wine regions face?

I find it extraordinary that winegrowers would toil away on the sides of an active volcano like Etna or the Campi Flegrei in Italy, or various parts of Southern Chile or the Azores, where a life’s work could be (and has occasionally been) obliterated in a scorching flash. Winegrowers have enough to worry about under normal circumstances. That is too much! Another challenge, which is quickly turning into an advantage, is that for many reasons, volcanic regions have preserved a wealth of ancient, indigenous varieties, mostly unknown in the mainstream wine world. It’s tough to sell totally unknown grapes, even if that’s precisely what so many sommeliers are looking for today.

How long did it take to put the book together?

From concept to publishing was about six years, but over half of that was trying to find a publisher willing to put out a book on what seems to be such a niche subject! Though in reality, the book covers a far greater swath of the wine world than the more commonplace approach of most books that focus on a single region or country or grape variety – mine’s really not niche at all. But the hard research and writing, editing and mapmaking took about two and a half years in all.

Volcanic wines to try

Want to get into volcanic wines? Here are three affordable bottles that John Szabo recommends

Ponte Pellegrino Greco di Tufo 2015, Campania, Italy; $13.95, LCBO
"A genuine sense of salinity and saliva inducing acids on the palate. Beneath that lies sufficient fleshy yellow fruit flavours to keep your non wine-drinking friends from running away screaming."

Santo Santorini, Assyrtiko, Greece; $15, LCBO
"A typically subtle assyrtiko, more stony than fruity, with crackling acids."

Azienda Agricola Tornatore Etna Rosso 2014, Sicily, Italy; $22.95, Nicolas Pearce Wines  
"A beautifully detailed, delicate and fragrant, pinot noir-esque expression of Etna’s sandy-ash lava soils, all wild strawberries, crafted with finesse yet structure in mind."

Why do you think Torontonians should be paying more attention to volcanic wines?

As I mention in the book, “volcanic wines represent a worthy collection of highly distinctive, individual expressions – stubborn holdouts in a world of merging flavours.” Torontonians are notoriously cosmopolitan and will appreciate the diversity these wines offer. Oh, and they’re also bloody delicious and food friendly.

Are there a few restaurants in Toronto you’d recommend with a great selection of volcanic wines available?

There are many, but I’d recommend: DaiLo, Archive Wine Bar, Midfield Wine Bar

Your bio reads that volcanoes are your current fatal attraction – what do you think might be next?

Well, since you asked… I am working up another book proposal. Suffice to say that with this new project I hope, by shining a spotlight, to help protect worthy regions and grapes in danger of disappearing due to a combination of the difficulty of farming and the lack of consumer awareness (and thus low prices). It’s my way of championing diversity and preserving vital world viticultural patrimony.

Click here to buy Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power.