FLIRTING WITH DISASTER
THE STORIES BEHIND TWO GREAT ITALIAN VOLCANOES
When you tell someone that their wine was grown in volcanic soil, it instantly becomes an adventure. For most of us, this is the closest we will ever get to a volcano. For many of us, that is just fine. Volcanoes bring with them an unsettling feeling, a simultaneous jolt of fear and intrigue that makes you want to run forward and backward. It is what makes volcanoes such a fascinating conversation. The same factors that initiate fear (danger, the unknown) also generate curiosity.
Even when drinking the wines made from grapes grown in volcanic soil, this mystery continues. There can often be aromas and flavors reminiscent of stone, salt and ash in volcanic wines. There is much debate in the wine-expert world about how these flavors actually get into the wine and whether or not “stone” and “mineral” is an accurate flavor descriptor. It is not scientifically possible for grapes to absorb minerals that then translate into flavors in the grapes. Stone and volcanic rock: technically these do not have volatile components and are untasteable. Yet, there is a flavor element to volcanic wines that is undeniably distinct.
So from the safety of our homes, we will traverse two of the most famous volcanoes of Italy (and the world!) Mt. Etna and Mt. Vesuvius, and taste wine that has been made from their ashes. Through this tasting, we will also attempt to understand the lure of the volcano and what makes us love to flirt with disaster. Both Mt. Etna and Mt. Vesuvius are currently active volcanoes with long destructive histories. Yet, millions of people have chosen to settle at their bases. Do they know a secret to life or a secret to death? This will be answered in two parts, both deliciously dangerous.
Have you ever met a volcano before? Mt. Etna is a special volcano to meet not only because she is Sicilian, not only because she is the largest volcano in Europe (west of the Caucases), but especially because she is currently active, as of August 2023. She is a strato volcano, meaning that she has built herself from layers of her own hardened lava and tephra. In 2021, she erupted so much that she grew 100ft. A distinctive feature of Etna is that she is covered in about 200 adventive cones along her flanks. She has five craters on her summit which produce spectacular explosions but mostly do not threaten the ten municipalities that surround her base. However, let us not underestimate the effect of observing volcanic eruptions somewhat regularly throughout your life.
Mt. Etna first erupted 500,000 years ago underwater and humans first arrived on Sicily during the Late Pleistocene around 16,000 years ago, giving Mt. Etna many millennia to emerge from beneath the ocean and hone her fiery skills. Hundreds of years and many nomads and civilizations later in 750 BCE, the ancient Greeks arrive and named her Aithō, meaning “I burn”. This word also holds a resemblance to the Greek’s predecessors on the island, the Phoenecian word attuna meaning “chimney”. The ancient Greeks also gave Mt. Etna an origin story. A serpentine giant born from Gaia and Tartarus (a literal “hell hole” where the recently deceased were tormented and judged on their way to Hades) named Typhon was banished beneath Aithō by Zeus when he tried to overthrow the king of all gods.
However, in Sicilian, this mountain was called Muncibeddu and in Italian Mongibello both meaning “beautiful mountain”. Some linguists see a connection between these words and the Latin word mulciber meaning “to placate fire”. This line of naming leads us back to the Roman god Vulcan, thought to have his blacksmithing lair beneath Mt. Etna. Vulcan is also clearly at the base of the Italian word vulcano (and the English word volcano for that matter). Some linguists have also considered the name Mongibello as a combination of the Italian word for mountain, mongi, and the Arabic word for mountain, jabal, as an illustration of the cultural flow on the island of Sicily.
What do all of these names tell us about the people who looked upon Mt. Etna and decided to build their lives at her feet? How can we understand their decision to flirt with Mt. Etna, one of the most regularly active volcanoes on the planet? A clue might be in the history of her name. The Sicilians and Italians had a drastically different approach to naming this volcano than the Greeks. Their choice of name for Mt. Etna shows people who see beauty in the darkness and a reverence for fear. Perhaps we can postulate that the existence of Mt. Etna as a shared character in the lives of those who live around her, has created a respect for anger and fury and those who speak their mind. The erupting volcano is also the beautiful mountain. The Greeks feared the beast beneath the mountain, while the Romans saw Vulcan the blacksmith working. No doubt history has shown that Mt. Etna is something to be afraid of. She has destroyed many lives, erased entire cities, and even won a war (Carthage v. Syracuse, 396 BCE). Nevertheless, Sicilians seem to demonstrate a veneration for the closeness in which we all walk with death in how they named Mount Etna. They do not fear the disaster, they respect it. They see Mt. Etna is doing her job, and they will do theirs. When you see disaster as beautiful, are you even flirting?
ALTA MORA ETNA ROSSO 2019
ITALY, Sicily, Etna
GRAPE: Nerello Mascalese
4,000 feet up the slopes of Mount Etna, Sicilians are happily growing Nerello Mascalese grapes to make some of the most sought after volcanic wine. The growing region of Mount Etna has really seen a surge in popularity over the last 10-20 years as people have compared Nerello Mascalese to the celebrated wines of Piedmont made from Nebbiolo, and even the exalted wines made from Pinot Noir in Burgundy.
It is this high altitude that contributes to making such distinctive wines. With cooler temperatures the higher up the slopes, the grapes are able to ripen longer while maintaining that essential balance of sugar to acidity. Due to excessive heat, much of Sicilian's red wine is often higher alcohol, more full bodied, with an almost over-ripe heaviness.
The Alta Mora Etna Rosso is entirely hand-harvested from a few different vineyard sites owned by the Cusumano brothers around Mount Etna. The wine goes through malolactic fermentation which softens the acidic bite of the finished wine. Finally, the wine takes a brief rest in an oak barrel before bottling.
Because of its balance of acidity, but relatively light body, Nerello Mascalese can be an excellent partner to fish (think mackerel or sardines). But why stop there? You could drink this wine with so many types of food: a tuna and tomato sandwich; some barbecued short ribs; an herbed pizza roll packed with marjoram/sage/oregano; or how about some roasted wild mushrooms and butternut squash?
Decant for 30 minutes if you wish to climb to higher heights.
LACRYMA CHRISTI DEL VESUVIO 2020
Italy, Campania, Vesuvio
GRAPE: Coda Di Volpe Bianca
The Coda di Volpe Bianca grape is an ancient grape thought to be used in the contents of the famous & historic Roman wine Falernum. While this has not been proven, the grape is proven to be truly ancient.
With a relatively mid-range acid content, these grapes are left on the vine to ripen till late October and develop high sugar levels. The wine is fermented dry and has a soft richness on the palate.
The vines for this wine sit on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Through its historic eruptions, the soil is filled with mineral rich volcanic ash that is also very well draining. Along with a steady breeze from the Tyrrhenian Sea, the growing climate in this part of Campania is quite perfect.
While so much of this area of the world is filled with myth and legend...legend has it that God cried when he found a corner of Heaven stolen by Lucifer. And, where the divine tears fell sprang the vines of Lacryma Christi. The monks popularized this wine in the Middle Ages and gave the grape its name.
The Mastroberardino Family is very well known throughout the entire wine world, not only for making excellent wine. They have also been the leaders in producing wines made from ancient varietals that are specific to the Campania region. There is always commercial pressure to plant grape varieties that are more well known (I'm sure you can think of a few) and that could demonstrate to a wide audience that quality wines can be made in various parts of the world. The Mastroberardino family not only resisted the demands of wine consumer trends, they have become leaders in the movement to uncover and preserve the ancient sites destroyed by the historic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius.
When a volcano empties its magma quickly and ferociously, it creates a caldera. This is a cauldron-like hollow bowl on the mountain and a distinct feature of somma-strato volcanoes like Mt. Vesuvius. Standing on the Gulf of Naples in Campania, Italy, Mt. Vesuvius used to be a much taller volcano than what we see today. About 19,000 years ago, Mt. Vesuvius began erupting at such a forceful volume and fast pace that he literally blew his top off and was left with a caldera. Since then, eruptions have started the strato process we heard about with Mt. Etna where lava and tephra begin to rebuild a cone itself within the caldera. So now, while he is not as tall as he once was, he bears the scars of a mountain that’s been through battle, like the scars on Al Capone’s face.
And this is what Mt. Vesuvius is most famous for. His eruption in 79 CE is legendary for erasing the major Roman hub of Pompeii as well as a few other cities and settlements. During this eruption (as described by Pliny the Younger in the only existing eyewitness description!) Mt. Vesuvius shot a column of tephra and gasses as high as 21 miles into the sky, raining down molten rock, pumice, and ash for 2 days. His rage spewed 1.5 million tons per second and released 100,000 times the thermal energy of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Over 1,500 people were killed and preserved in the magma that covered them. So far, 1,044 casts of human bodies have been found, most of them in buildings that were also still intact. Mt. Vesuvius has erupted many times since this epic event in 79 CE. While definitely devastating (in 472 CE, Vesuvius spewed ash that rained down all the way over in Constantinople, and his eruption in 1906 caused the 1908 Olympics to relocate to London in order for Naples to rebuild), none quite compared to his most famous ancient eruption. So much so, that the name “Vesuvius Eruption” is applied to any volcano that displays a similar level of fury.
An active volcano for the last 400,000 years, Vesuvius’s early names came from its earliest writers: Greeks, Oscans, Latins, Italics, Etruscians, all assigning names of fear like Violence, Burn, Shine, and Unquenchable. Then, during the late Roman Republic/ Early Roman Empire, the name Vesuvius arrived. This is a corrupted version of Hercules’s Roman name Vesouvios, meaning Son of Ves or Vesta, the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family. If Mt. Vesuvius is the son of the hearth, then the Campania is the family that gathers around him. Today, three million people live at the base of the most dangerous volcano in the world. If an eruption were to occur, six hundred thousand of them would be in immediate danger. Modern technology allows for a 14- 20 day head start on an evacuation, yet like Mt. Etna, the people who live around Mt. Vesuvius walk closely with death. Their lives may be spared, but everything they built will be gone.
Knowing that they are living in one of the most dangerous parts of the world must have created a sense of pride and fear in the people of Campania the same way that ash and soil have mixed together to create a nutritious life-giving property in the land. Or the way prosperity and hardship have mixed together for those who have inhabited the area for the last 2,800 years. In the face of danger, people have chosen to settle here, because the same thing that makes it a potential catastrophe, also makes it possible to live a full and rich life. The nutrient rich soil provided by Mt. Vesuvius’s millenia of eruptions allows for a very fulfilling career in agriculture and viticulture. When the giant is sleeping, it is a land of great and beautiful abundance. Therefore, is it worth the risk in order to have a good life while you’re living it? Three million people have answered yes.
Our aim is to give a glimpse into the many roles wine has played throughout history. All subjects mentioned deserve more attention and research and we encourage you to keep exploring. We are only here to pop the cork.
Many Thanks, Caravan Wine Shop