The Volcanic Wines of Vesuvio

From Pompeii to a place at the table
By Melanie Young
Melanie Young
Melanie Young
August 23, 2019 Updated: August 26, 2019

Mount Vesuvius, in Italy’s Campania region near the Bay of Naples, is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in history. On Aug. 24, A.D. 79, a massive eruption destroyed the nearby Roman cities Herculaneum and Pompeii; at the time, both were centers of wealth and commerce.

Columns of ash shot up six miles and covered the region with volcanic material, killing thousands of residents. The remains of Pompeii lay covered in ash and debris for centuries until discovered by a group of explorers in 1748.

Today, 1,940 years after the eruption, both cities and the surrounding region, known as Vesuvius National Park, are on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, recognized for their well-preserved remains, which give you a sense of what life was like there centuries ago.

On a visit to Pompeii, our guide took us on a walk through the crumbled ruins, pointing out remains of taverns and storefronts, the amphitheater, the courthouse, villas of the wealthy, and even the local brothel. Also in sight were a few plaster casts of what were once ash-covered bodies, twisted in agony. 

In Winemaking, Volcanic Matter Matters

Interestingly, the volcanic matter in the Vesuvius region, accumulated from numerous eruptions over time, including the one that destroyed Pompeii, is beneficial to the surrounding soil to grow grapes for wine.

The dark, black-ish soil contains over 230 minerals, notably potassium and phosphorus, which contribute to the resulting wines’ deep minerality and freshness, according to the Vesuvio Wine Consorzio, which oversees quality control. The nutrients have also protected the vines against destructive diseases and parasites, such as the root-infesting phylloxera, and as a result, many of the grapevines are very old and ungrafted—original to the region. 

In 1983, the Vesuvius region was granted DOC status. 

The volcanic soil contains over 230 minerals, which contribute to the resulting wines’ deep minerality and freshness. (Courtesy of Bosco de Medici)

While most of Campania’s soils could be considered “volcanic,” according to Master Sommelier John Szabo, author of “Volcanic Wines: Salt, Grit, and Power,” “Vesuvius and the Campi Flegrei, on either side of Naples, are the only active volcanic zones in the region.” 

“Vesuvius is unique in that it has some the youngest volcanic soils on the Italian mainland—the last eruption was in 1944, and even the massive eruption of 79 AD that buried Pompeii is fresh in geological terms,” Szabo said. “Being young—in viticulture speak—the soils are quite infertile, which is beneficial to the grapes in the dry climate around the Bay of Naples.” 

In viticulture, infertile soil actually grows more flavorful grapes: it provides better drainage, and forces the vines to work harder to send nutrients and sugars to the grapes, which then develop concentrated flavors and aromas without being oversaturated with water.

The explosive Vesuvius eruptions are classified as Plinian, Szabo said, meaning that they eject surging airborne showers of volcanic sand, ash, and lapilli (Latin for little stones), rather than fluid lava. This volcanic matter, called tephra, is roughly pea- to walnut-sized. That flinty-stony character—aka minerality—comes through in the wines.

A final factor is location. Mount Vesuvius has two separate summits, Somma and Vesuvio, with different characteristics; vineyards are planted on all sides, up to several hundred feet. 

The slopes of Somma face north; the weather is damper, and the sandy soils are powdery and fine with many pre-phylloxera vines. These wines tend to be lighter and more delicate in style.

To the south of the Vesuvio summit, conditions are sunny and drier, and the soil has more sediment, notably pumice and lapilli. These wines tend to be more aromatic and intense.

Tears of Christ

Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio DOC is a subcategory of wines produced within the Vesuvio DOC appellation. 

The name, which translates from Italian to “tears of Christ,” has a different backstory depending on who you talk to. Some say Jesus Christ cried tears of relief after Lucifer was expelled from Heaven. Others say he cried tears of sadness because Lucifer stole a slice of Heaven when he was exiled and dropped it on dangerous Vesuvius. Yet another tale says he cried tears of joy upon seeing the beauty of the Bay of Naples for the first time. 

But all versions of the story end with vineyards sprouting in the areas where Christ’s tears landed.

To be designated “Lacryma Christi,” white wines must be comprised mainly of the Coda di Volpe grape, though up to 20 percent can be Greco Bianco or Falanghina. Reds must be predominantly Piedirosso, but can be up to 20 percent Aglianico or 30 percent Olivella (also referred to as Sciascinoso). Lacryma Christi rosé and sparkling wines are also made from these grapes.

Another distinguishing characteristic of Lacryma Christi wines is a slightly higher alcohol content, compared to other Vesuvio DOC wines. 

All should be consumed young and fresh and lightly chilled, around 55 degrees F.

Vesuvio vintners who make Lacryma Christi will share their wines with pride if you visit—which you can, by appointment. Producers try to include Bosco de Medici, Sorrentino Vini, Cantine del Vesuvio, and Cantine Olivella. Notable Campania producers Mastroberardino and Feudi San Gregorio, both based in the town of Avellino, also produce Lacryma Christi labels.

Lacryma Christi
Lacryma Christi (L). (Shutterstock)

Pairing Tips

Gianfranco Sorrentino, owner of Il Gattopardo restaurant in New York City and a native of Naples, shared his recommendations for pairing Lacryma Christi with food.

Whites: “Lacryma Christi Bianco has a beautiful yellow color, fresh fruit aromas, and a long finish. Because of its minerality, we recommend pairing it with our oven-roasted spigola [Mediterranean sea bass] and baccala mantecato [creamed salt cod], as well as other white meat entrées and antipasti.”

Reds: “Lacryma Christi Rosso produces a ruby-red wine that is well-rounded and balanced, with notes of red fruits [berries] and spices. It pairs with all ragu and meat sauces; we recommend it with paccheri with Genovese sauce or our Neapolitan meatloaf.”

Melanie Young writes about wine, food, travel, and health. Young also co-hosts the weekly national radio show “The Connected Table LIVE!” and hosts “Fearless Fabulous You!” both on Twitter@connectedtable 

Melanie Young
Melanie Young