It was cold and rainy on the August day when I visited Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, as the remnants of a tropical storm lashed the eastern side of the Big Island. I caught a glimpse of the Kilauea crater and the steam plume rising from the Halema’uma’u vent before a thick fog and lashing rains descended and obliterated any hope I had of stunning vistas or photographs to take home.
So I decided to visit a winery.
A mile or so off the main road that leads to the park, Volcano Winery is tucked into a blue-collar rural suburb. (A suburb of a volcano, to be sure.) “America’s Southernmost Winery,” the sign at the gate boasts, and another placard at the end of the driveway points to “Wine-O Parking.” My kind of people.
The winery, opened in 1993, gets quite a bit of tourist traffic, judging from the tee-shirts, hoodies, and other wine-related tchotchkes on sale. And there are several wines to taste, unfortunately presented in little plastic thimbles that make it impossible to smell the wine. (Could that be intentional, I wondered? Larger glasses with the winery logo were for sale.)
They do grow grapes here – a few rows of Symphony vines stood outside the store, the slowly ripening grapes heavily netted against predators such as birds and curious tourists. The winery planted some vinifera varieties, including pinot noir and syrah, a few years ago, but they haven’t yet borne a crop. More on that later.
“You’ve probably heard this before, but these are better than I expected,” I said to the two women who poured me samples and told me about the wines. (Distressingly, I find six weeks later that I did not record their names.) That’s a common reaction, they said, though most people say the wines “are not as bad” as expected.
The wines included two “estate” wines made from Symphony grown on the Big Island. The 2008 dry Symphony is quite pleasant and flowery, but not oily and over-the-top like Symphony can be. The 2008 Mele, picked later, is slightly off-dry but not at all cloying. It would make an excellent aperitif or partner for cheese. Both cost $16.
From there the wines got really interesting. Volcano imports grape concentrate from California to make its Volcano Red ($17), a non-vintage labeled blend of several grapes spiced with jaboticaba berries grown on the island. I struggle to describe the wine, as it doesn’t fit a ready frame of reference, but it’s quite tasty, with the berries adding a woodsy, spicy note. I’d serve it slightly chilled as a fun warm-weather red.
The Volcano Blush ($16.50) blends Sauvignon Blanc, Palomino and Colombard (again, from California) with the jaboticaba berry. It’s exotic, peppery and a tad sweet, like a power fruit drink with a kick.
Hawaiian Guava Wine ($16.50) is just what its name suggests – those same three white grapes with yellow guavas grown on the island. The winery uses the entire guava – skin, fruit and seeds – pureed and fermented on its own before blending with the wine. It is oddly delicious, starting sweet but finishing dry and nutty. (All that from a thimbleful! Well, okay, maybe two or three thimblefuls.) I brought a bottle home to pair with our annual Chinese Thanksgiving feast. (Don’t ask.)
Macadamia Nut Honey Wine ($17) is similar to meade, but not syrupy. It tastes like a macadamia praline that hasn’t hardened yet.
The winery’s Web site now lists an Infusion Tea wine, but that wasn’t available when I visited. Too bad, I’ll bet it’s pretty good.
Here’s my 4-1-1: If you are visiting Hawai’i and its Big Island, plan some time to detour from the national park to Volcano Winery. It’s worth the visit, and not far out of your way.
Hawai’i, you might imagine, presents unique winemaking challenges. The winery originally planted 14 acres of Symphony vines, but only seven acres are still bearing. And that pinot noir? They had hopes of gathering a harvest this year, but in March, just as the vines were flowering, the trade winds from the East stopped, and the steam from the Halema’uma’u Vent on Kilauea, normally blown off to sea, settled instead over the mountain and Volcano Winery’s vineyards. The heat burned the flowers off the vines.
Now that’s terroir.
This is the second annual Regional Wine Week, with bloggers and writers reporting on local wines – you can find their reports and blog posts at DrinkLocalWine.com, and on Tweeter at #dlw09.