The geology you can taste in every mouthful.
Wednesday 10 November 2021
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Sicily is an incredibly diverse place to grow grapes. With vineyards planted on sea-level plains right up to the 1000m heights of the slopes of Mount Etna, and climate variations to match, the Sicilian harvest lasts from August right through to November some years. In the summer as the grapes ripen, it’s sunny, warm and dry; it can really heat up when the Scirocco wind blows in from North Africa bringing Saharan dust and, sometimes, drought. Mild winters are tempered by breezes from the Mediterranean sea, reducing damp in the vineyards and the destructive mildew it causes. These super-agreeable conditions have drawn people to plant grapes and make wine here for around 4000 years. Sicily really loves wine. Always has.
It’s not just the weather that makes Sicily so special, though. What many winemakers and wine-enjoyers love most about Sicilian wines is the soil. That stuff under your feet, the earthy ground, the material those sun-baked vines send roots deep down into for sustenance, anchoring themselves into the landscape. In Sicily, these soils are what give local wines another level of intrigue, excitement and intensity. From deep down in the earth, minerals are extracted by hungry vines, bringing hidden flavours and textures to the surface and into our grateful mouths.
Any wine region will boast about the rocks it has, eroded and strewn about by glaciers and tectonic movements, left by receding seas and moved and excavated by changing habitations for millions of years. Some wine lovers just love to drink wine. That’s cool. Some wine lovers become obsessed with wine region geology and topography. If that’s you, you’re in good company here.
Let’s look at Mount Etna first. How could you not? She’s gorgeous.
Known as Mongibello in Sicilian, Etna is the second tallest active volcano in Europe. She’s huge, in fact — 85 miles around the bottom, 3,357m tall, and growing with each eruption. In 2021 alone, Etna had grown 30m in height by June.
Etna’s constant eruptions have endangered lives and swallowed villages, caused tsunamis felt across the Mediterranean and destroyed puny little human follies like a 19th century volcano observatory and a cable car. What she’s brought as destruction, however, has created a totally unique strata of lava flows and rock, layering incredible volcanic soils that Sicily’s vines thrive in.
The volcanic soil in the areas surrounding Mount Etna are made from pumice, basalt pebbles and black ash — rock and carbon deposits blown out from the very centre of the earth. Pumice, which was formerly lava flowing glassy and dangerous down the slopes of the volcano, retains humidity and moisture in the ground. Essential for healthy vines in a hot region. There’s plenty of basalt too, which is thought to block certain minerals from being absorbed in high levels by grapevines, helping them to retain deliciously high acidity. All you need to know, really, however, is that the many diverse minerals that make up volcanic soil are drawn up into vines and reach the grapes, adding live, interesting complexity to the wine they create.
What’s especially fun about the volcanic soils of
Eastern Sicily is that it is young, and always changing.
Every time Etna erupts, however destructively, the make-up of the soil surrounding her is shaken up, scorched and ultimately replenished.
Rock and Sand
In the North regions of Sicily, near Cefalu and Palermo, sandy, rocky soils are mixed with windblown silt to provide a well-draining material grapevines eke a life from. This sounds counterintuitive — how can any plant survive in such poor quality soil? But vines love the challenge, and (when no fertilisers are involved) send their curious roots deeper into the ground to seek out minerals and moisture.
Sand retains heat and drains well, and in Sicily this often translates to softer wines with a lot of aromatics.
Think about it this way: if a grape has less water to thrive on, the flavours and aromas become more concentrated. Owing to this particular region’s unique weather, the grapes grown here and other factors, this concentration usually shows up in the aromatics, rather than by intensifying sugar content.
The West of the island has some of Sicily’s most highly-regarded and highest quality vines, and is widely planted by larger producers too. Here you’ll find sandy loam soils (essentially, topsoil made from sand, clay and other rock deposits), as well as limestone areas with calcareous clay, and even sandstone. This huge variety of soil types — and hopefully you’re getting just as excited about soil types now you know how vital they are to make great wine — gives Sicilian winemakers in the Trapani, Agrigento and more Westerly areas of Palermo regions a broad canvas to work with.
While loam is usually too fertile to grow excellent grapes, clay is incredibly useful to winemakers in warmer parts of the world, because it retains the coolness of night. In Sicily, the clay is “calcerous”, meaning that it’s made up of limestone deposits made from the fossilised remains of ancient sea creatures; crustaceans living in a deeper Mediterranean Sea well before the Ice Age, that covered much more of Europe than it does now. Add to this full seams of chalky, mineral-rich limestone in a vineyard and you’ve got yourself a party, and if it’s in the right hands, a truly delicious wine full of energy, mineral intensity and structure.
Nearer the coast, this is often also combined with ideas of the salt from the sea air becoming entangled in the growing fruit. These romantic ideas of grapes intermingling with their direct environments are how many winemakers and wine lovers choose to interpret what they taste in their glass. While there is no solid scientific evidence for where the “minerality” of a wine comes from, it’s difficult to see how such environmental connections could be incidental. It’s an incredibly complex subject taking in all manner of scientific data and winemaking experience. Soil is argued about at length. For many winemakers, however, there can be no question that what’s in the soil affects the final flavour and emotion of their wine. After all, what is terroir if not the flavour and aroma of a specific place?
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