Geology Meets Wine Geek – John Szabo’s Volcanic Wines

24 Aug

When I was a grade school student, one of the most chilling assignments was the book review. Chilling in that you knew the teacher had read it – so you couldn’t Coles Notes (Cliffs Notes for my US friends) it. And, because in some cases you had to read your work in front of the class. A real knee knocking experience. I swore off book reviews since. Well, I’m throwing away that pledge to give you a little gift.

I’m travelling to Sicily next month to do a bit of a wine wander. So, to better understand the place, among other reads, I asked for John Szabo’s Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit, and Power for Christmas. And Santa obliged.

First I need to tell you a little about growing up in my house. It explains why this book might hold some extra allure for me.

My father was a soft rock geologist and worked plotting and trying to understand the earth so that his employer could find and extract oil. He clearly was committed to his discipline. I know this because….

Yup, that’s a wadi!

When we would take a trip to visit grandparents, travel to the cottage, or take a short jaunt to a neighbouring community, my father would pull over on the side of the road and point out features in the landscape. As a type of higher level instruction, he would have us tromp through the field to an area and would ask us what we saw. It didn’t take long before we were identifying wadi (“There’s a wadi, Dad,” from the back seat), hummocks, and homoclinal ridges among other formations. At the cottage, he and I walked on the Canadian Shield and I learned about its age, its origin and the nature of the igneous rock that made up it’s beauty.

So, when I read a review of John Szabo’s work, I had to have it.

Although I am not through the book in it’s entirety, I can tell you how thrilled I am to be learning a bit more about the connection of the history of the earth’s crust to viticulture and great wine.

Mount Etna

Now, if you’ve had a bunch of wine and paid even a little attention, you know that wines that come from certain areas – areas known for harsh, almost un-arable conditions where vines struggle – are staggeringly powerful and distinct. My personal experience includes sipping an Assyrtiko while gazing out over the barren, windy, hot and rocky landscape of Santorini. “How does any wine come from here, let alone something this special?” Nothing quite like it. Or, enjoying a Taurasi near Pompeii almost in the shadow of Vesuvius. There isn’t really anything that compares.

Szabo says of volcanic wines, “The best examples, like all great wines, seem to have another, or at least different, dimension, a common sort of density that can only come from genuine extract in the wine, not alcohol or glycerol, or just tannins and acid, It’s a sort of weightless gravity, intense, heavy as a feather, firm but transparent, like an impenetrable invisible force shield of flavour that comes out of nowhere but doesn’t impose itself……………..It can be gritty, salty, hard, maybe even unpleasant to some, but unmistakeable.”

And, although I thought I knew why they were special, I was kidding myself. It is a lot more complex and technical. But, given my childhood lessons on igneous rock, I should have known that.

Assyrtiko vines of Santorini

Szabo’s book examines wine regions as disparate as Napa/Sonoma, Macaronesia, Pitigliano, Campania, Soave, Sicily and, yes, Santorini, among others. He tells us how the earth’s crust is currently composed, the geological history of that land, the continuing impacts of volcanic activity. Most importantly for wine geeks, he tells us what the wines take from all that, what grapes flourish, who makes the most of it, the people, and the glory of it all. I know. Glory is a pretty absolute and unequivocal word. I meant it as such.

I won’t go into detail or give away the plot (although I think I already have). Suffice it to say, that the book is a master class in the intersection of volcanic geology and wine. It’s a big honking book. It could serve as a coffee table book. It has utterly spectacular photography – vineyard porn. But, don’t leave it sitting. Pick it up and get up to speed on regions of the wine world that will captivate with their story and their wine. Then get thee to the mother ship and get some of these wines to experience what the fuss is all about!

I know all about that last part. This book has already cost me a bit of cash propping up my meagre cellar with more Mastroberardino Taurasi Radici and some Etna Rosso. I’m looking to dig a little ‘weightless gravity’. If you know what I mean.



FYI – Volcanic Wines is available through Amazon. John Szabo’s coordinates are:      @johnszabo

2 Responses to “Geology Meets Wine Geek – John Szabo’s Volcanic Wines”

  1. theswirlingdervish August 25, 2017 at 6:11 pm #

    Isn’t this the greatest wine book you’ve read in a while? I’m still making my way through it, but am enjoying every page. Wines from Mt. Etna have grabbed my attention and I look forward to reading about your trip (you lucky dog!) Recently tasted wines from the Azores, which also come from volcanic soil – super-interesting, I must say. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michelle Williams August 28, 2017 at 3:15 pm #

    I am drawn to volcanic wines. I attended a class at Vinisud by a master of volcanic wines. It was very education. I, too, will be in Sicily in September. Perhaps our paths will cross. That would be great. Now I must find this book.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: