We all know about the influence of soil in grape growing. Limestone, clay, sand, slate, stones… Each particular type of soil provides the grape with a different structure. We know the soil is alive. But what happens when the soil we are stepping into is not our regular kind of soil, but one where we can find volcanic ashes and minerals expelled by an active volcano? What’s the effect of a soil under which lies a river of lava and it is warm and at the same time it is one of the highest vineyards in Europe? What’s the effect of all these characteristics in a wine?

For answering these questions we will go to Sicily, to the slopes of the Mount Etna, where Santa Maria La Nave winery is located.

Santa Maria La Nave (@LaNaveEtnaWines) is an authentic family boutique winery on Mount Etna, owned by Sonia Spadaro and her husband. Their winemaking focus is to be environmentally friendly while they passionate respect the local terroir and traditions. They have two small vineyards: one on the Northwest side of the volcano at 1.100 meters above sea level (one of the highest vineyards in Europe) and another one on the Southeast side of Mount Etna.

They only produce two cru-style wines using local varietals. From the vineyard at 1.100 meters, they produce since 2004 in small batches the Millesulmare (Sicilia Bianco DOC), a fine white wine, from a local and ancient grape variety called Grecanico Dorato, (also known as “Coda Di Volpe”). This vineyard is the result of a massal selection that lasted 15 years from ancient and abandoned vines. This is a wine that transmits emotions and the peculiarities of a unique territory in world wine scene. This varietal is very ancient in Sicily and studies have shown that it is related to the Garganega in Veneto and the Malvasia de Manresa in Catalonia (Spain). The number of bottles produced of this wine is around 3.200.

They also produce Calmarossa, a full bodied and elegant Etna DOC from Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes from the Southeast side of the volcano. The Nerello Cappuccio, also known as Nerello Mantellato, owes its name to the shape of its foliage, like a blanket to protect the grapes. The number of bottles produced of this wine is less than 2.000.

These numbers of bottles refer to the 2014 vintage. In 2015 Millesulmare will have fewer bottles as they have used part of the grapes for elaborating a truly special sparkling wine. For 2016, they aim to produce around 3.500 bottles of each label.

Few years ago, the wine was only produced for the family and few friends but one day, after receiving many compliments from different sommeliers, they decided to start distributing it. In just a few months their wines were included in the wine list of very prestigious restaurants in Italy and they have also been appreciated by sommeliers and bloggers. Millesulmare has been selected for the in-flight menu of Pope Francis during his trip to South America on July 2015.

Recently they incorporated to their estate an old vineyard located on a crater and the vines are planted on ancient black volcanic ashes, pretty stunning vineyard to be seen. It is also to be noted that they follow the old local tradition in Etna of keeping the old fruit trees planted along the vineyards.

The main distinction about Santa Maria La Nave’s vineyards is its incredible biodiversity. They have all kind of fruits and trees and the vineyard on the Southeast side has a huge number of ancient native grape varieties. There are certain grapes that they have not managed to identify yet. There are also prohibitive farming conditions: one vineyard is located at extreme altitude and the other is incredibly steep.

Starting in 2016, Sonia wants to produce a limited number of bottles from the oldest and pre-phylloxera heart of this new vineyard they recently acquired, but unluckily for us, she is not planning to put these bottles on the market anytime soon. Seems that we will need to wait to taste this volcanic jewel.

Buongiorno Sonia, and thank you for your collaboration. How’s life in a winery so close to an active volcano?

Buongiorno Aitor, and thanks a lot for hosting me, and well done with your blog, which I follow with a lot of interest.

Making wine on an active volcano is fascinating! Mount Etna in particular is a very special volcano, it is the highest active volcano in Europe and it is close to the sea, in fact it is from the sea itself that Etna has risen over 600 thousands years ago.

Etna has a huge influence on many aspects of viticulture, first of all there is incredible soil diversity, and there are approximately 220 craters at different altitudes on Etna, created in different periods of its life, which implies different minerals and different ages of the soils. If you take for instance the two craters Monte Ilice and Monte Rosso, they are less than three kilometers away from each other, but Monte Rosso has a red soil with a very high content of iron, while Monte Ilice (on the side where we have our vineyard) has an incredibly black soil made of volcanic ashes and sands. Such a small distance, but the same identical vine planted in such different soils will produce very different wines. Also the altitude and the side of the volcano have a massive impact on viticulture: one thing it is to produce at 200 meters above sea level on the South East side, one completely different thing it is to produce at 1100 meters on the North West side: it is like producing in two different continents!

We have also to consider other three elements which make this place heaven for winemakers: the incredible tradition in viticulture (we have a huge history on many fronts, for instance the way we prune and train our vines: the “alberello etneo”), the fact that we are by the sea, which influences our grapes, and also the incredible varieties of local grapes: we have more than forty local grapes on Etna.

If you consider all these elements, you will immediately understand why Mount Etna is a place of unique variety of terroirs; it is a place of immense diversity, a blessed place where to practice viticulture.

Aren’t you afraid that an eruption might destroy your vineyards?

When you are born and raised by an active volcano, you tend to get used to the volcano activities. Also we consider Mount Etna a good volcano, that it is why maybe we consider it a female entity: we call it “A Muntagna”. But if you study the historical eruptions and the level of destruction that Etna has created over the centuries, it is very likely that over a long period of time (hopefully very long); Etna will keep destroying what man has created on “her” slopes, including the vineyards. But then the first flowers will start growing on the cold lava, then the trees and than the cycle will begin again. Few weeks ago, I saw Contrada Nave from the plane while landing in Catania, I am not sure how this area has been spared by the eruptions for few thousands years, lava passed by very close so many times! Also Monte Ilice is less than 1000 years old, which in the life of a volcano like Etna it is like few weeks of a human life: nothing! For the time being, I just enjoy the positives of the volcano: the incredible biodiversity and fertility, and the ashes that arrive on a regular basis on my vineyards, which I call free organic fertilizer!

Where does your passion for wine come from?

I love my job, you are right it is a real passion and I would not change it for any other job. Like all the most beautiful things in life, this passion came unexpectedly. I did not drink wine till the first date with my husband, that night we had a beautiful dinner in Taormina, in a lovely restaurant, and my husband (of course he was not my husband then), ordered a white wine from western Sicily and I drunk it…and I loved it. Few years afterwards I was a qualified sommelier, a wine producer and a happily-married woman. The power of wine….or the power of love!

How are your two wines?

They are completely different but yet so similar! They are both structured and rich of minerality, but at the same time both elegant wines. I think they are both two true expressions of Mount Etna. But I am not the right person to answer this question, I consider myself the mother of these two wines, and as mothers do, I might amplify values and issues of my sons…

Your two wines are from two different DOC: Millesulmare is Sicilia Bianco DOC and the Calmarossa is Etna DOC.

Millesumare is a Grecanico Dorato “in purezza” it comes from a jewel of a vineyard at 1100 meters above sea level on the North West side of Mount Etna, one of the highest vineyards in Europe. It is a mountain wine, yet it is fully enriched by the incredible mineral structure that the volcano brings to the glass… The vineyard has been planted after a very long massal selection, lasted fifteen years, on very old abandoned ungrafted vines of Grecanico Dorato. It is not clear how ancient farmer selected these clones and brought them at such extreme altitude on Mount Etna. I find fascinating thinking that my small production of Millesulmare, which is now drunk in many countries in the world, is the result of the very extreme choice of an ancient creative and a bit crazy farmer. Millesulmare is a very flexible wine for pairing, pasta with fish, oysters, calamari tempura to name a few pairings, but Millesulmare and Sushi is a match made in heaven…

Calmarossa Etna Rosso DOC is a Nerello Mascalese 85% and 15% Nerello Cappuccio, it is a vibrant wine, which is my view has elegance and charm, but has also the generosity and the vitality of my enchanting Volcano! Sommeliers usually pair Etna Rosso with mature cheeses and with red meat. Initially I was also influenced by the pairing commandments that you study at sommelier school, but thanks to the creative sommeliers Alessandro Zingarello and Paolo Arensi and of the chef Denis Pedron of Langosteria 10, a very prestigious fish restaurant in Milano, I have appreciated Calmarossa with raw fish and also oysters (my favorite pairing now).

What makes your wines different from other Sicilia wines?

There are some many great wines in Sicily, also so different wines that a comparison would be impossible. If you see my vineyards you understand what the peculiarities of my wines are: both vineyards are unique places, gardens of bio-diversity, where we tried to leave intact and improving where possible the eco-system, to protect the old vines and trees. In our vineyard in Monte Ilice we are doing a lot of work only to clean and then lift the ancient vines, for certain vines this work will take several years (to avoid to break them).

Also my vineyards are small oasis for the wild animals and insects, if a rabbit or some bees eat few grapes just before harvest, I am sad because I have even less wine, but at the same time I am happy because I understand that all the system is working. And this has a huge impact on the wine you find in the glass. If you protect the environment around the vines, you abolish wrong viticulture techniques (monoculture, pesticides and the heavy chemical products, which kill the ecosystem and the soil), the vines live in a much healthier environment, and they follow the natural cycles, and their grapes are not the results of what you impose on them but on how a living soil has fed the vines during the year, of the weather, the rains, the winds and in our case of the eruptions.

Also, if you talk about uniqueness and differences with other wines, the fact that we have embraced extreme viticulture in such beautiful but challenging vineyards, makes the wines unique. There are not so many crazy people around, willing to face the challenges that we face every day in our vineyards. But we do it with true love for these territories and with incredible enthusiasm…

You are exporting your production to different countries, yet you produce around 5.000 bottles per year. I’m sure you will have requests for more than that.

Yes, it is such a small production that requests are abundantly more than the number of bottles I produce. I know that what I am about to say might sound completely foolish and uncommercial, but my objective is not to sell wine, but to sell it to the people who can understand and appreciate what I do. So for instance in Italy, for the time being, I am working without a distributor, I sell my bottles directly and personally. I try to explain what I do to the restaurants, the wine merchants or the wine lovers who ask for the wines. Abroad I ship a lot of wine directly to private customers, but I am slowly trying to build a small network of importers, who share my values and are open to devote their efforts to a small boutique winery on Mount Etna.

The wine world is a beautiful world, is full of people who are passionate and curious, when I started presenting my wines to the market I had no idea how many wonderful people I would have met…

Do you have expansion plans for the future?

I have dreams, but not really expansion plans. My dreams are many, the first and most ambitious is to bring the Monte Ilice vineyard back to its ancient splendor. It will take years, as I mentioned before, we need to lift most of the old vines and set free and clean the ones which have been abandoned. I am also trying to restore the ancient winery, which in Sicilian is called Palmento. It is intact, but it has been abandoned twenty years ago or more, I would like to store there all the old winery tools that I have and make it sort of small museum of Etna viticulture. I am also, as you mentioned, working at the Metodo Classico (1300 bottles) and at the Cru of Crus from the oldest vines. I am also trying to list and describe in my website all the indigenous grape varieties I have in the vineyard, takes a lot of time, but it is very important it is a treasury that needs to be protected. So many things to do, but this is such an incredible and enchanting journey.

Which kind of wine you like to drink?

I am very curious; I try to discover new wines. I like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, but also Passito di Pantelleria, Assyrtiko and Pedro Ximenez. I believe that if a wine is made with passion, love and joy, brings this joy in the glass and to the people who drink it. I might sound a dreamer, but this is what I try to do every day!

Grazie mille, Sonia!!

Photos © by Santa Maria La Nave