On Pairing Wines With David Bowie
Why volcanic whites are a perfect match
For the past several years, I’ve been living under the gaze of David Bowie. He peers down at me from a 180 foot-tall mural a few blocks from my house. Coming or going, Bowie is always there, perched in my subconsciousness.
Recently, I found myself revisiting his music and wondering: What wine pairs with David Bowie?
Over a few weeks, listening to his albums, I considered the options. What struck me most was the extreme nature of Bowie’s creative cycles. He birthed a new alter ego with each shift in his musical style: Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, Thin White Duke. Then he killed off the persona to innovate anew. The constancy of change was one of the key through-lines of his career as he skipped across musical genres.
Thinking about which wines paired with his legacy, I realized it had to be volcanic wines. Truly, there’s no type of wine that better symbolizes the ashes-to-ashes cycle of life, death, and rebirth. To make these wines, grapevines literally rise up Lazarus-like in the wake of destruction.
Then there’s the intensity and power of these wines. There’s not much softness or fruitiness here — these are extreme wines. I think of them as the vinous equivalent of lightning bolts; they hit you with searing acidity and savory minerality that sounds jarring but is actually spectacular. They replace organic flavors — fruit, flowers, earth — with those from the inorganic world, such as salt, smoke, rocks, and mineral. They’re wine space oddities.
The more I tasted and listened, the more parallels I found. And the more excited I got. So much so that I reached out to a visual designer in Oakland, CA — Dan Smith of @MotionPhi — and asked him to collaborate on a series of AI-generated art that paired David Bowie with wine. This new way of making art felt like a fitting tribute to Bowie, a relentless innovator. I love the results and their trippy dissonance — so very Bowie. A few are shown here, and you can find more on my Instagram: @ericaduecy.
What to Know
The term “volcanic wine” means wine made from grapes that are planted in volcanic soils. When a volcano erupts, it’s a destructive force, spewing ash clouds and fiery lava. The ash and molten rock settle, and over time get broken down by rain and wind to become soil. Eventually, life comes back to the barren landscape as seeds and spores take hold. Or, in the case of wine, vines get planted.
Volcanic soils can range significantly. In places like Spain’s Canary Islands, vintners actually cut holes into the earth’s infertile lava crust to plant vines in an otherworldly landscape that would be right at home in The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In others, like Sicily’s Mt. Etna, the sandy ash and rocky lava soils have over time become fertile farmlands, producing abundant life on the mountain’s foothills.
A few key volcanic regions, and the wines to look for:
Sicily — Mt. Etna is currently erupting, one of the world’s most active volcanos. It is known for fresh reds made from Nerello Mascalese and minerally whites from Carricante and other indigenous grapes.
Greek Islands — Santorini is just one of the islands in the region formed by volcanoes. The island is best-known for its whites made from Assyrtiko.
Canary Islands — A volcanic archipelago off the coast of Spain, where a range of distinctive wines are made from mostly indigenous grapes, including reds from Listán Negro (a lighter red related to Pais) and concentrated whites made from Malvasia, Listán Blanco, and others.
Campania, Italy — Mount Vesuvius (think Pompeii) and Campi Flegrei are volcanos flanking Naples. Volcanic soils here make formidable Taurasi reds from Aglianico, and whites made from Fiano, Greco di Tufo, and Falanghina.
Azores, Portugal — A volcanic archipelago known mostly for fortified wines, though still whites are made from Verdelho, Arinto, Verdelho, and Pico Terrantez grapes, among others.
Volcanic wines are intense and powerful. They have the mouthwatering acidity, aromatic complexity, textural depth, and salty, sometimes smoky minerality. I crave these flavors and sensations in wines (more on salty wines here). Volcanic soils are a key factor in the development of these desirable characteristics. They’re mineral-rich and porous, with good drainage, propelling grapevines to push deep into the soil to seek nutrients. That effort is key to the development of their flavors and sensations.
Then there’s the practical aspect of growing vines on mountain-side slopes, often at elevation. Industrial winemaking hasn’t taken hold in many of these regions because of the expense and effort required to farm this land. For more on the challenges of farming volcanic vineyards, check out an article we published on The Drop this week by volcanic wines expert John Szabo MS. TL;DR — Most volcanic wines are made from smaller producers, often sustainably and from indigenous grapes.
In the same way volcanic soils bring new dimensions to wine, Bowie brought new dimensions to pop music. The resulting wines — and Bowie’s music — share a transformative energy, a ground-breaking, earth-shaking impact that, once you’ve experienced it, leaves you forever changed.
Three Volcanic White Wines to Try
For this newsletter, I zeroed in on my favorite volcanic white wines. But don’t miss out on volcanic reds, which share the same fresh acidity and minerality of the whites.
Top value. Founded in 1991, owner-winemaker Paris Sigalas is one of Santorini’s most acclaimed producers, making benchmark wines made from Assyrtiko grapes. Sigalas’ vineyards are practicing organic, with this wine made from a 50/50 blend of Assyrtiko and Monemvasia grapes from Santorini and neighboring Paros. This full-bodied wine has fierce intensity and drive — it’s all about concentrated lemony acidity, smoky minerality, and salty sea breezes, with a finish that goes on and on.
Album pairing: Alladin Sane. The laser-like acidity and minerality of this wine pairs with the album’s fearless, experimental rock vibe and its jagged dissonance. When I sip this wine, I think of the album cover, a lightning bolt zig-zagging across Bowie’s angular face.
Los Bermejos is owned and run by winemaker Ignacio Valdera, on a small island off the African coast. Conditions here are extreme. The island is covered in five meters of lava and ash from the Timanfaya volcano, which last erupted in the 1700s. Winemakers cut holes into the volcanic crust to plant vines, and the winds are so fierce that stone walls are built around each vine to protect them. This organic wine is made from the Diego grape, endemic to the island. Salty, stony minerality leads the way into this mouth-coating wine, with supporting aromas and flavors of lemon, beeswax, and toasted nuts.
Album Pairing: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. The vineyards at Los Bermejos look like they’re planted on Mars — here’s a photo. For most wines, one can pretty easily pick out a few fruit flavors. Not so here, where the palate is dominated by inorganic elements (stone, salt), with fleeting glimpses of other flavors. That matches well with Ziggy’s hard-to-pin-down otherworldly flair.
Benanti is a historic winery located on the slopes of Mt. Etna. The estate is practicing organic, making a range of highly acclaimed wines. The Etna Bianco is made from 100% Carricante, an indigenous grape from Sicily. It is medium-bodied with yellow apple and white peach aromas and flavors, racy acidity, and salty, stony minerality.
Album Pairing: Young Americans. Part way through the ‘70s, Bowie cast off glam rock in pursuit of funk and disco. Collaborating with John Lennon and the then-unknown Luther Vandross catapulted Bowie to American pop stardom with his first #1 single “Fame.” This album is still edgy, but one of Bowie’s most approachable efforts. It pairs well with this wine, which is one of the more approachable ways into the realm of volcanic wines.