08/07/2013 11:34 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2013

Character and Value: Italian Volcanic Wines

2006 eruption on Sicily's Mount Etna

Italy is located just above the convergence between the Eurasian Plate and the northward moving African Plate, which helps explain why it possesses the only active volcanoes in mainland Europe. Italy is also the world's second largest wine producer, boasting the largest number of indigenous wine grape varieties of any single country.

Is there a connection between Italy's volcanic activity, or volcanic soils, and wine production?

Probably not, at least no direct connection. Recent scientific studies have shown that the presence of various minerals in soil has no direct impact on wine flavors and aromas, except perhaps by reacting with yeast substances that produce flavor sensations. And Finland, the Philippines and Indonesia all have active volcanoes too, but none of these countries are considered sources of fine wine.

I had the opportunity last week to taste wines from five producers whose vineyards are all located in volcanic regions of Italy. I was impressed by the quality, characterfulness and relative value of most of those wines. Rather than their primary connection being their volcanic soils, however, I suspect what caused these wines to be so intriguing and of such high quality is that they are all represented by the same California importer. That importer--Oakland based Oliver McCrum--was founded in 1994 and has focused exclusively on Italian producers since 2007. Oliver and his team look for wines with "clarity and focus," made from indigenous Italian grape varieties using traditional winemaking techniques and no obvious oak influence.

McCrum's portfolio includes about three dozen Italian producers. The five whose tour of California last week included a stop at San Francisco's Arlequin Wine Merchant were Biondi, Grifalco, Girolamo Russo, La Sibilla and Villa Dora.

The only two of these producers I was familiar with going in were La Sibilla--the source of well priced, minerally white wines from the Falanghina grape I've enjoyed for several years now--and Biondi, whose unusual, characterful reds had triggered my interest on a few occasions over the past couple years. So it was a great treat to try three wines from each of these five producers, and to talk briefly with the winemaker or winery representative on hand from each of these producers.

Ciro Biondi
Ciro Biondi

Most impressive of all to me were the wines from Biondi. The Biondi family vineyards are located on the southeastern slopes of Mount Etna in the commune of Trecastagni. They are reported to have been in the Biondi family since the early 1600s, and were the basis of some award winning wines Ciro Biondi's ancestors made beginning in the 1880s. The family had ceased to make wines and neglected the vineyards after World War II. Ciro, an architect, decided to revive the family vineyards in 1999 with the help of renowned enologist and Italian indigenous varietal specialist Salvo Foti.

The Biondi reds are based largely on the Nerello Mascalese grape, with about 20% Nerello Cappuccio. The Outis, from high altitude, own-rooted, very old vines, is densely textured and flavorful, while the single vineyard Cisterna Fuori, from 80 to 130-year-old vines, is somehow both delicate and power packed. The latter is fabulously aromatic and very complex, with flavors reminiscent both of an older Barolo and a maturing red Burgundy.

The Biondi wines were also the priciest of the tasting, with the '08 Outis averaging $35, and the amazing Cisterna Fuori bottling priced at about $60.

Cecelia Piccin of Grifalco
Cecelia Piccin of Grifalco

The greatest values in red wines at the tasting were from the Aglianico grape produced by the Piccin family under their label Grifalco. The family moved to the area near the Monte Vulture region of Basilicata from their original winemaking home in Tuscany. They produce three different bottlings from the flavorful Aglianico del Vulture grape. The first, from younger vines, is a juicy, fresh tasting stunner, filled with dried berry and candied violet flavors, called Gricos. It sells for only $15. They also make a very flavorful Grifalco bottling, and from a single vineyard that is about 40 years old, a wine called Damaschito. I rated the latter 94 points and at $30 it is still a pretty amazing value.

Also in the value range, with plenty of complexity and minerality, were the La Sibilla Falanghina (white, $17) and Piedirosso (red $18), from own rooted vines in the volcanic Campei Flegrei region that the di Meo family has worked for five generations.

Pricier, but worthy of attention, are the wines from Girolamo Russo. Giuseppe Russo, a trained pianist, has been organically farming his family's old vines on the northern slopes of Mount Etna since 2005. He makes three bottlings, the entry level A Rina ($25), and the single vineyard, old vine San Lorenzo and Feudo (both $48). The latter are very ageworthy, complex versions of mountain grown Nerello Mascarello, with a small amount of Nerello Cappuccio.

Giuseppe Russo
Giuseppe Russo

The final member of the McCrum volcanic quintet was Villa Dora. They age all of their wines, made in the Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio region of Campania, for years until they feel they are ready. Theirs was the white wine I found most impressive at the tasting, from a blend of organically grown Coda di Volpe and Falanghina that sees no oak or malolactic fermentation. It is aged four years before release and retails for about $21. Their ageworthy reds are made largely from Piedirosso with about 20% Aglianico.

If you're looking for fresh, natural tasting wines with complexity, unusual flavors and minerality, these "volcanic wines" imported by Oliver McCrum are all worthy of attention.

For my tasting notes on all 15 wines, see the complete report on my blog here.

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