As one of my more recent posts mentioned, I recently became the recipient of the Donnafugata Award for Excellence in Enotourism, which allowed me the opportunity to attend the 2013 Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Rioja, Spain. I met so many great wine writers, bloggers, and other various wine folks, and learned a significant amount of interesting material within the span of a jam-packed 2 day conference, one in particular that examined the lesser-known topic (for some) of vineyards and volcanoes.
One of my favorite seminars was given by Benjamin Spencer from The Etna Wine School, which he focused primarily on the influence of geology in wine, specifically focusing on active volcanic influences on grape growing and wines produced from grapes grown under these unique conditions.Very briefly, vineyards on Mt. Etna, an active volcano in Sicily that happened to erupt while we were all attending the DWCC, benefit from many of the unique qualities and characteristics that the volcano provides. First, there are the allophanes. Allophanes are according to Spencer, the â€śsecret weaponâ€ť of Mt. Etna. Allophanes are basically amorphous clay minerals that are a result of weathered volcanic ash. The compounds found in allophanes are very reactive and possess elements important for plant fertility, including nitrogen for green growth, potassium for vine metabolism, and phosphorous for root growth. These nutrients are slowly leaked into the soil from the volcanic ash and rock, so the vines have a steady source of nutrition which help tremendously with the growth and health of the vines.
Another beneficial characteristic of having a vineyard located close to an active volcano is the air quality in which the plants receive. Active volcanoes, including Mt. Etna, are continually pumping out CO2 and sulfur (more so on specific slopes), which eventually make their way to the vineyards. The CO2 exposure helps to significantly increase the water efficiency of the grapevines, thereby improving water use of the plants and allowing them to grow better under low water conditions, while the sulfur could help with natural bacterial or other diseases of the grapevines.
After Benjaminâ€™s talk, I thought about how fascinating a microclimate it must be near an active volcano, but at the same time I wondered about all of the massive, devastating eruptions of volcanoes in the ancient past, and how that may have altered the course of agriculture, viticulture, or winemaking in a particular area. I suppose one must be careful of where exactly they are placing their vineyards in respect to the specific topography of the volcano, but as weâ€™ve seen many times throughout history, sometimes volcanic eruptions are so massive that youâ€™re screwed no matter where you are relative to the peak.
Thinking a little more about the topic, I wondered how researchers could even study something that may have been buried millennia ago by a massive volcanic eruption. After a brief literature search, I stumbled upon one paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science in 2012, which examined the agriculturallandscape of Campania (Southern Italy) prior to the massive AD 472 eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. Using â€śarchaeoenvironmental dataâ€ť from two sites known to be culturally active in the 4th and 5th centuries, the researchers were able to dissect what was buried under the Vesuvius rubble, to help confirm what had been carried down in text throughout the millennia.
In terms of viticulture and winemaking, the researchers found several vats that were likely used in winemaking or wine storage, due to the fact that samples collected from these vessels were found to contain traces of tartaric, succinic, malic, acetic, and benzoic acids, all of which are known to be found in modern wine. The vessels found at these archaeological sites in Campania, Italy were assumed to have been used to first press the grapes, then transferred to a separate vessel to go through the fermentation process, based upon the samples collected from each vessel and written documentation of winemaking practices around this time.
Another finding that I thought was interesting in this study is how they determined that not only winemaking but vineyard cultivation occurred near the studied sites in Campania. Basically, the researchers found chemical evidence of Vitis vinifera grapevines in 20% of the firewood located at one of the sites, indicating that grapevines were, in fact, grown and used in the area for not only winemaking, but also for heating by using the dried vines in the winter. Carbon dating of all of the aforementioned sampled placed the historical sites as being active in the 4th century AD, prior to being destroyed and buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 472 AD.
I should note that this study examined much more than viticulture and winemaking evidence at these pre-eruption sites, however, for the focus of this blog, I only presented that side of their research. It is an interesting paper to read for some of the other cultural evidence that was found, but also sheds someinteresting light on viticultural and winemaking practices of active volcanic regions of the past.
I certainly hope Mt. Etna does not doom the vineyards and wineries in the region following a massive eruption, and that research continues to discover the best ways to take advantage of the many benefits an active volcano provides to viticulture and agriculture in general, while maintaining some sort of perimeter of safety from any potential imminent danger that Mother Nature may one day dish out, just like old Vesuvius.
Thank you to Benjamin Spencer of Etna Wine School for the fascinating presentation on volcanic vineyard geology at the Digital Wine Communications Conference. I hope to learn a lot more about this topic in the future, and hope to present more detailed analysis for my readers in the future!
I hope you enjoyed this mini-geological history lesson! Please feel free to leave any comments you may have about this topic! Cheers!
Allevato, E., Buonincontri, M., Vairo, M., Pecci, A., Cau, M.A., Yoneda, M., De Simone, G.F., Aoyagi, M., Angelelli, C., Matsuyama, S., Takeuchi, K., and Di Pasquale, G. 2012. Persistance of the cultural landscape in Campania (Southern Italy) before the AD 472 Vesuvius eruption: archaeoenvironmental data. Journal of Archaeological Science 39: 399-406.