Without a doubt, there’s something special about volcanic wines. The fruit that grows on vines plunged into the remains of lava and ash has distinctly different qualities to it than fruit grown in other soils. My friend, Master Sommelier John Szabo assigns three key characteristics to volcanic wines in his seminal book Volcanic Wine: salt, grit, and power.
I definitely find those three characteristics in volcanic wines, along with the tendency towards higher acidity, deeper expressions of minerality, and, when you come right down to it, more than their fair share of deliciousness.
So, suffice it to say, I get excited about any opportunity to taste volcanic wines. When the association in charge of promoting the wines of Campania asked me if I wanted to come for a visit this past Autumn, I jumped at the chance.
Everyone’s Favorite Disaster Zone
Forty thousand years ago, the area surrounding what is today Naples, Italy was a mightily inhospitable place. A series of massive volcanic explosions tore the landscape apart, even as lava and pyroclastic flows created entirely new topographies, sometimes overnight.
The resulting caldera, 15 kilometers wide by 12 kilometers long, ejected enough material to cover most of what is today the province of Campania. And some hypothesize that the explosion itself (or really, the subsequent volcanic winter) hastened the demise of the Neanderthal.
Twenty-five thousand years later, two more eruptions covered the region in two additional layers of volcanic material, followed by nearly 70 smaller eruptions that have created the many small craters that characterize the region’s topography today.
It’s tempting to say that things have quieted down over the millennia in the area known as the Phlegraean Fields (Campi Flegrei, or “burning fields” to locals), but the thriving city of Pompeii (destroyed in the year 79 CE) might still be around if things had truly become more placid.
Indeed, the last major volcanic eruptions in the area were in 1158, as the giant magma chamber that sits 2 miles below the surface roiled up to create the Solfatara Crater (a popular tourist attraction up until a child and his parents died there in 2017), and then most recently in 1538, when an eruption created (in the span of only 10 days) an entirely new volcanic mountain in the area, dubbed appropriately, Monte Nuovo.
The presence of the city of Naples within the midst of this extremely active volcanic field represents the equanimity that the region’s peoples have seemingly always possessed when it comes to living their lives on top of a ticking time bomb. Despite the devastation at Pompeii, the Phlegraean Fields have been settled, farmed, and enjoyed (think thermal baths) by locals since Roman times.
Legends suggest winegrowing might have begun in the Campi Flegrei as far back as 730 BCE when the area was a Greek colony. At the time, the Greek methods of winegrowing kept the plants on or near the ground, but the Romans were able to improve quality by lifting the vines up on vertical wooden stakes and planting the grapes in orderly rows.
Legend has it that these poles resembled “falangae” or a group of spear-carrying warriors we might know by our modern version of the word, phalanx. The phalanxes of the Roman legions, in addition to being spear carriers, were also vine carriers, often taking cuttings with them to plant on their long military journeys of occupation and conquest.
Variety on the Volcano
The region’s primary native white grape, Falanghina, derives its name from this ancient formation of stakes and has been indelibly linked to the region for as long as records have been kept. Flanghina is widely regarded to be, along with Aglianico, the oldest native grape variety of Campania.
Falanghina is in the midst of a resurgence of popularity in Campania generally, after falling out of favor in the 70s and 80s. The renewed interest in native grape varieties and the grape’s deep history in the region has driven replantings and new plantings, as well as renewed interest in what many people see as its hallowed ground, the vineyards of the Campi Flegrei.
Indeed, research has shown that there are in fact two (and some believe several more) distinct clones of Falanghina, one of which is known as Falanghina Flegrea after its homeland. The other, Falanghina Beneventana is derided by growers in the Campi Flegrei as both inauthentic for their region as well as genetically inferior when it comes to wine production.
Thick-skinned and resistant to many common grapevine diseases, Falanghina also retains acidity extremely well, making it quite forgiving when it comes to making palatable wine at various different ripeness levels.
Falanghina has a more finicky red partner named Piedirosso, a slightly rustic red that can nonetheless make wonderfully refined and expressive medium-bodied red wines if treated well. Piedirosso is one of Italy’s oldest known grape varieties and takes its name (“red foot”) from the bright red stalks of its clusters that are said to resemble the similarly colored claws of pigeons.
Its long history has led scientists and experts such as Ian D’Agata (author of the authoritative Native Wine Grapes of Italy) to speculate that there are probably many different biotypes or clones of Piedirosso around this part of Italy. It is the second most planted red grape in Campania after Aglianico and varies greatly in terms of its characteristics in different sites.
Both grapes do fairly well in the hot Mediterranean sun, which is modulated by the influence of the nearby ocean. Depending on the site, growers will sometimes use a spray of water mixed with kaolin clay as a sort of susncreen for the ripening clusters, the remains of which you can see in the Piedirosso photograph above.
As with many wine regions that overlap major population centers, winegrowing happens in the nooks and crannies, tucked in between residential neighborhoods, car dealerships, and low-density commercial buildings.
Indeed, this region can boast the second highest concentration of grapevines in any major world city, second only to Vienna, Austria. Partly, this is a holdover from Medieval times, when the noble families of Naples found it fashionable to have vineyard holdings close by, in addition to whatever lands they might own in the countryside.
Several of the craters in the area, including the most prominent, Astroni, have been designated nature reserves, providing some relief from the pressures of urban sprawl for growers whose vines are next to, or even inside the craters themselves.
These craters and the rest of the jumbled topography of the Campi Flegrei offer a dizzying variety of exposures, altitudes, open plateaus, and sheltered nooks and crannies for vines.
The Campi Flegrei DOC was established in 1994, and currently contains a mere 250 acres or so of vineyards.
Brand New Soils
The soils of the Campi Flegrei are a common jumble of primary, pyroclastic volcanic material, ranging from ash and sand to broken-up pumice, along with a denser, compressed tephra rock that has enough strength and integrity to feature as a building material in many older structures in Naples.
Like most young volcanic soils (some merely a few thousand years old), these have relatively low organic content and high amounts of minerals such as potassium, magnesium, iron, and sulfur, though these minerals are generally not available to plants because they are in their primary mineral forms, not yet broken down by weather and water.
The pH of volcanic soils can vary considerably, depending on the nature of the material that has been deposited, with some being quite acidic, and others being quite alkaline. These conditions can make for particularly varied and challenging conditions for growers as changes in soil pH can affect both susceptibilities to disease as well as the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients.
While it can be difficult to generalize about volcanic soils given their variability, they often possess the ability to hold moisture far below the surface, giving plants access to water even during dry, hot summers.
One of the other significant benefits of primary volcanic soils is their unfriendliness towards the phylloxera louse, allowing many producers to plant vines on their own roots instead of grafting them to American rootstock. While the exact benefits of such an approach are difficult to precisely quantify, growers believe the vines to be better adapted to the local conditions, and to produce wines that are a purer expression of the grape variety and place.
Tiny, Dedicated Producers
The tricky, variegated sites for growing grapes thwart any attempt to develop larger vineyard holdings, not to mention making the overall proposition of winemaking in this area of dubious financial value. The amount of work required to produce what little wine the area makes has meant there are only a handful of small producers in the region.
One of the most dedicated and successful of Campi Flegrei’s small producers today is Cantine Astroni, currently run by the 4th generation of the Varchetta family, Gerardo Vernazzaro, and his wife Emanuela Russo.
Vernazzaro takes a low-input approach to his winemaking, operating for all intents and purposes as an organic producer, without bothering with the certification. He uses no commercial herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides in his vineyards, choosing to stick with a short list of natural products that he ticks off on his fingers quickly: “Kaolin, Xyolite, Algae, Bacillus, Sulfur, Copper, Propolis.” In the cellar, he foot treads his grapes and lets them ferment with native yeasts, often accelerated by a pied-de-cuve that he makes in the vineyard.
“Living here you have to think about two things: water and fire,” says Vernazzaro. “These two elements are reflected in our wines. We have the sea and we have the volcano.”
“This is not like Etna,” he continues. “Where you can look up and see the volcano in the distance. We live in fear daily. We live on the volcano. We also enjoy the sea breeze, which deeply influences viticulture. You can taste the salt.”
Unique Wines, Unique Flavors
The saline quality that Vernazzaro speaks about is one of the most compelling characteristics for me in the wines of the Campi Flegrei. Saltiness appears in both red and white wines for me, but especially the Falanghina, which combines flavors of apples and sea air and flowers with a crushed stone or wet chalkboard minerality that is hard to forget.
Interestingly, like a number of other sea-influenced, volcanically grown white wines such as Santorini Assyrtiko or Carricante from Etna, Falanghina puts on weight and saltiness as it ages. The wine darkens in color, and the flavors shift to dried citrus and yellow herbs, as a richness and concentration emerge that can be quite breathtaking.
While it seems hard to make a truly bad wine with Falanghina, Piedirosso seems much tougher to get right from a winemaking perspective. Without careful work in the vineyard, the wine can express rather rough tannins and green vegetal notes that some might call rustic, and others might simply call unpalatable.
For me, the most successful Piedirossos are on the lighter side of extraction, made by winemakers who don’t seem concerned with making a wine of power and have instead opted for finesse. At its finest, Piedirosso offers a wonderful floral and berry perfume mixed with a deeply stony quality that leaves you no doubt that it is a volcanic wine.
A careful student of geology might wander the streets of Naples or Pozzuoli with unease. The paranoid might do so with an even greater degree of anxiety. Occasional whiffs of brimstone on the breeze and an infrequent tremor underfoot leave no doubt that the volcanoes of the Campi Flegrei are still very active.
While scientists suggest that an eruption is unlikely, the fact remains that were one to occur, it would be an utter disaster and likely one of the most deadly in history.
The locals have had centuries to get used to this reality, which may contribute to a certain “devil may care” attitude one finds among the Neopolitans. As long as we have vineyards instead of infernos, we might as well drink up.
I tasted all the following wines as part of a really excellent program known as Campania Stories, which brings in journalists and members of the trade for a few days of immersion into the wines of Campania.
2021 Cantine Farro “Terra Casata” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Pale straw in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers and golden apples, and sea air with a hint of honey. In the mouth, a faint struck flint note is wrapped in golden apple and slightly spicy candied lemon peel, and buddha’s hand citron. There’s some warmth in the finish. Excellent acidity, nice saline notes. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2021 Cantine Federiciane Monteleone Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Palest straw in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith, white flowers, and Asian pears. In the mouth, lemon pith, golden apples, and yellow herbs mix with wet pavement and seawater. Nice saline notes with citrus pith linger in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $18.
2021 Salvatore Martusciello “Settevulcani” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, lemon pith, and a touch of winter melon. In the mouth, the wine is crisp and bright with winter melon and lemon pith mixing with grapefruit and a wet pavement minerality that is quite bracing when combined with the razor-sharp acidity. On the leaner, savory side, with a distinct saline note in the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $40.
2021 Cantine Dell’Averno Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Pale yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden apples and yellow herbs. In the mouth, faintly bitter yellow herbs and golden apples mix with wet pavement and a touch of bee pollen. Notes of pollen and chamomile linger in the finish. Excellent acidity. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??
2021 Cantine Astroni “Colle Imperatrice” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of apples and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, green apple, Asian pear, lime, and wet chalkboard flavors have a faint salinity and a hint of chalky texture. Excellent acidity. Sandy volcanic soils. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2021 La Sibillia Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and golden apples. In the mouth, yellow herbs, wet chalkboard, and candied lemon peel taste of pink Himalayan salt and a hint of spice. Fantastic minerality, salinity, and acidity. Delicious. Score: around 9. Cost: $17. click to buy.
2020 Cantine Astroni “Tenuta Jossa” Bianco, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
A bright yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of struck flint, yellow herbs, and a touch of golden apple. In the mouth, deeply stony flavors of bee pollen, yellow apples, lemon pith, and wet pavement have a wonderful bright acidity. Notes of grapefruit and chamomile linger in the finish. Ferments with natural yeasts and ages for 6 months in clay amphorae, then ages in bottle for a year. 12.5% alcohol. 2500 bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $40.
2019 Cantine Carputo “Collina Viticella” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peel and a touch of wet leaves. In the mouth, salty notes of orange peel, citrus pith, and cooked apples have a sneaky acidity and length. The wine gets saltier the longer the finish goes on. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??
2019 Vigne di Parthenope Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, honey, and dried citrus peel. In the mouth, salty notes of orange peel, wet chalkboard, and yellow flowers are crystalline and bright and wonderfully deep with minerality. Fantastic acidity and length. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $22.
2018 Cantine Astroni “Vigna Astroni” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
A bright yellow gold in color, this wine smells of honey, wax, and lemon curd. In the mouth, wonderful lemon curd flavors mix with honey and candied citrus peel. There’s a faint smoky paraffin note to the wine along with a deep wet pavement minerality. Great acidity and fantastic salinity. Only free-run juice ages for 6 months on the lees in steel tanks, and then for 2 years in the bottle before release. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $27. click to buy.
2018 Contrada Salandra Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of chestnut honey. In the mouth, wet chalkboard, citrus pith, and dried honey flavors are wonderfully salty with fantastic acidity and a nice herbal note that lingers with the salinity in the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $22. click to buy.
2015 Cantine Del Mare Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
An intense medium yellow-gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of honeyed chamomile and bee pollen, and candied citrus. In the mouth, quite salty notes of candle wax, chamomile and pollen, yellow flowers, and a touch of vegemite have a beautiful stony minerality. Savory and saline and delicious. Score: around 9. Cost: $28.
2015 Cantine Astroni “Vigna Astroni” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light to medium yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of candied citrus rind, yellow melon, and a touch of papaya. In the mouth, fantastically bright acidity keeps lemon rind, chamomile, and a touch of papaya flavors lean and juicy. Salinity builds through the finish. Still tastes quite young. Score: around 9. Cost: $27. click to buy.
2015 Cantine Astroni “Colle Imperatrice” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light greenish yellow in the glass, this wine smells of yellow herbs and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, bright bee pollen and yellow herbs are welded to a liquid stone minerality that has a wonderful salty savoriness. Clean, crisp, salty, and fantastic. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2012 Agnanum Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of gunpowder, sea air, and citrus pith. In the mouth, savory notes of citrus pith, dried yellow herbs, and pink Himalayan salt are bright and very tasty. Notes of bee pollen and a hint of sulfur linger in the finish. Excellent acidity and length. Score: around 9. Cost: $19. click to buy.
2012 Cantine dell’Averno “Vigna del Canneto” Falanghina, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
An amazing medium yellow with hints of chartreuse in the glass, this wine smells of wet stones, candied citrus peel, bee pollen, and yellow herbs. In the mouth, yellow flowers and herbs mix with dried citrus and a wonderful saline stony quality that lingers with dried buddha’s hand citrus in the finish. This wine spent 6 months in old barrique before bottling with weekly battonage. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??.
2021 Le Cantine dell’Averno Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried flowers and red berries and wet pavement, with just a hint of bruised fruit. In the mouth, juicy forest berry flavors mix with sour cherry as wispy, powdery tannins hang ghostlike in the corners of the mouth. Excellent acidity, and wonderful stony minerality that leaves a faintly saline note in the finish. Delicious. 12.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??
2021 Cantine Carputo “Per e Palummo” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark fruit with a hint of balsamic. In the mouth, dark cherry and huckleberry flavors have a wonderful dried floral, aromatic sweetness, with thick fleecy tannins that coat the mouth with the sensation of powdered rock. There’s a tangy acidophilus note that lingers in the finish. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $??
2021 Astroni “Colle Rotondella” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried flowers and berries. In the mouth, boysenberry and sour cherry fruit flavors are wrapped in a gauzy haze of tannins, as fantastic acidity keeps the fruit juicy, and a crushed stone texture and sensation pervades the palate. Very tasty. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $20. click to buy.
2021 Martusciello Salvatore “Settevulcani” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, with garnet highlights, this wine smells of berries, dried flowers, and a hint of soy sauce. In the mouth, hints of brown sugar, boysenberry, and sour cherry flavors are wrapped in fleecy tannins and are bright with juicy acidity. Deeply stony, with the texture of pulverized rock. This wine tastes a bit developed for being only the 2021 vintage. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $25.
2021 Agnanum “Per’ e’ Palummo” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of wet chalkboard, dried flowers, and huckleberries. In the mouth, faintly smoky flavors of huckleberry, dried flowers, and dried herbs are shot through with pulverized rock, as chalk-dust tannins coat the mouth. Excellent acidity keeps things juicy and bright, as a hint of licorice and sour cherry linger in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2020 Farro Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of dried herbs, flowers, and unripe blackberries. In the mouth, powdery tannins waft around flavors of unripe blackberries, sour cherry, and dried flowers all shot through with pulverized stone. Excellent acidity and length. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $18. click to buy.
2017 Cantine Astroni “Tenuta Camaldoli” Piedirosso, Campi Flegrei, Campania, Italy
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry and huckleberry and dried flowers with a hint of sulfur. In the mouth, slightly saline flavors of sour cherry, huckleberry, and dried flowers are wrapped in cotton-ball tannins that bring with them the sensation of pulverized rock. Nicely stony and tasty, though headed away from fruit and towards herbs at this point. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $30.