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By the Glass

What makes that wine taste so good? It could be volcanoes.

Ellen Bhang for The Boston Globe/Ellen Bhang

If it’s not immediately apparent what a German riesling, a Greek island white, a Chilean red, and a Sicilian pour from the slopes of Mount Etna have in common, a Toronto-based wine pro is happy to connect the dots in his award-winning new book.

In January, master sommelier John Szabo won the André Simon award, in the category of drinks, for his book “Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit and Power.” The handsome volume faced stiff competition at the annual event, held in London, named for the French-born wine merchant, author, and tastemaker André Louis Simon. It’s easy to see what captivated the judges. The book offers a scholarly yet highly readable work based on a compelling organizing principle: wines hailing from places shaped by volcanic activity.


Szabo, the first Canadian to earn the coveted distinction of master sommelier in 2004, has been thinking about this category for a while. Five years ago, quoted in Wine & Spirits magazine, he talked about a head-turning first encounter with the distinctive wines of Santorini. That led him to explore pours from around the world crafted from volcanic landscapes.

In his book, he notes that there are hundreds of different soil types fitting the “volcanic” descriptor. He’s talking about soil, and the geology beneath, created by tectonics and volcanism of the ancient past (think millions of years ago) as well as the active present. While it’s easy to think of Sicily’s Mount Etna — a still-active stratovolcano — as fitting the category, it’s less intuitive to regard Germany’s Nahe — formed by volcanic flows from about 300 million years ago — in this manner. Region by region, the author takes the reader on a world tour, explaining how these specific soils contribute to quality wine.

Naturally, a wine’s terroir — the totality of its growing environment — is about more than the dirt and bedrock beneath a vineyard. Szabo is quick to describe it as a complex system. Factors making up terroir include climate, topography, microbial input, and the human hand. He also acknowledges that the science connecting components of terroir with wine flavor is still in its infancy. That being said, he contends that volcanic wines around the world share several sensory characteristics. These include a mouthwatering quality, a salty-savory profile often described as minerality, and a “firm but transparent” density that he deems unmistakable. He invites enthusiasts to experience these qualities by dipping into his list of recommended producers at the end of each chapter.


Because many of the bottles he mentions represent single-vineyard and other higher-tier wines, a budget-conscious enthusiast might wonder whether his set of flavor characteristics show up in these winemakers’ more modestly priced pours. Examples do not disappoint. Each opens a door to further contemplation about how volcanic activity, both past and present, has come to shape what’s in the glass.

Gai’a “Wild Ferment” Santorini Assyrtiko 2015 Earthy and pungent on the nose, this distinctive white from the Greek island of Santorini is fermented with indigenous yeast found on the grapes. In the mouth, salty-savory and mineral notes dominate, with ripe fruit beneath. Around $30. At Needham Center Fine Wines, Needham, 781-400-1769; Ball Square Fine Wines, Somerville, 617-623-9500.

Donnhoff Kreuznacher Krotenpfuhl Riesling Kabinett 2015 Hailing from Germany’s Nahe, this bottle’s delicate sweetness calls to mind stone fruit and juicy lemon-lime flavors. Yet firm, mouthwatering acidity and mineral qualities gather just below the surface. Around $29. At Gordon’s Fine Wines, Watertown, 617-926-1119; Marty’s Fine Wines, Newton, 617-332-1230.


Frank Cornelissen “Contadino” Thirteenth Edition From Sicily’s Mount Etna, this pale-hued pour, primarily nerello mascalese, is crafted by the inimitable natural winegrower Frank Cornelissen. High-toned wet clay aromas combine with red berries, leading to a palate tinged with salt and earth. Around $29. At Dave’s Fresh Pasta, Somerville, 617-623-0867; The Wine Bottega, North End, 617-227-6607.

Cacique Maravilla “Pipeño” Pais 2015 This 1-liter of southern Chilean red, crafted in the Bio Bio Valley from the pais varietal, offers violet, red berry fruit, and a whiff of freshly turned soil. Ripe yet salty, with attractive pucker. Around $18. At Albert’s Market, East Cambridge, 617-491-0288; The Wine Bottega.

Ellen Bhang can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.