Calma Rossa dopo la Tempesta ovvero avventure enoiche a Mille metri Sul Mare

All of Sicily is a dimension of the imagination

(L. Sciascia)

“The coffee is ready! Move your head from that pillow or we are going to be late!” Quick breakfast and me and my friends are on the car. Lovely fresh summer morning. We are heading to Mount Etna leaving the South-eastern tip of Sicily, where we were staying not too far from to the beautiful town of Modica – which for sure deserves a dedicated visit, especially at night when it reveals in all of its splendour in the appearance of a living nativity. We cut through a countryside landscape marked by dry-stone walls dividing dry-yellow fields. Lonesome carob trees give an erratic touch of green and an even smell of honeyed chocolate wrapped in tobacco leaves. It’s Ispica, Rosolini then the ghost of a never-completed tollbooth demarks the beginning of a highway that running parallel to the Sicilian East coast brings us to Catania. The heat does not take too long to arrive, following by matter of minutes the sunrise. We have to wait the highway’s exit towards “Paesi Etnei” to regain a bit of cool breeze. Indeed, the more the car climbs upward the volcano’s hairpin bends the more we are surrounded by clouds threatening us with a sure promise of rain. A threat for us, a treat for the winegrowers here on Mount Etna. It has been a very dry summer this year and they are praying for a drizzly blessing. However, for that day the clouds kept just teasing us and the dream/nightmare of a summer downpour never came true.

Our cars climbing up the road towards Monte Ilice; the entrance of the vineyard with its own palmento; Sonia with her husband and Don Alfio with his wife: I let the reader guess who is who.

We meet Sonia in the main square of Viagrande. We have come here to visit her boutique winery SantaMariaLaNave. Being August, also her husband Riccardo was there. He is not directly involved in the winery business, but he was in Sicily to spend his vacations with Sonia and we were lucky to have him as a mentor since he is a refined connoisseur of good wine and food. Indeed we started our trip with a culinary pit stop to get some pistachio granita at L’Antica Dolceria dell’Etna. You may think it sounds very much Sicilian to have a relaxing pit stop even before starting, but after all of us were on holiday and how could we say no to the voluptuous texture and alluring taste of this speciality made with the dried fruits coming from the nearby Bronte?

Inside the Palmento in Monte Ilice. The old  lava-stone lagars for feet treading the grapes, the gigantic screw press, old metal filters.

SantaMariaLaNave is a petite reality on Mount Etna which is exploring and embracing the practice of extreme viticulture. They produce exclusively cru wines dealing only with native grapes farmed on prohibitive terroirs. They own two vineyards, one in the south-east area of the volcano and the other in the northwest area. The one in the south-east area is located in Contrada Carpene lying on the side of an extinct crater which is called Mount Ilice. This is the first vineyard we visited that morning and it’s where we met also Don Alfio who is the gentelman that has owned and farmed this land for the previous half of a century. The palmento, older than Don Alfio, is still there and Sonia is investing in refurbishing it into a sort of little museum, since the Italian law does not allow anymore its practical use for winemaking. Shall the reader be curious to learn more about the modern winemaking reality arising from the Palmento’s tradition, I address her/him to the excellent book “Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey” byRobert Camuto.
Outside, the slope of the vineyard is striking, with altitudes rapidly roaming from 720 to 810 mt. The soil is characterised by pure black volcanic sands and ashes (about 1000 years old). It’s nealy impossible for us to climb up without having our boots sunk in the soft soil. It’s like walking in dry quicksand. I can’t seriously imagine what sort of strenous efforts and stubborn attitude are required to work this piece of land. One may also wonder how erosion has not washed this hill down in a day or two. Instead it’s exactly the opposite. Everything remains stable since centuries. Pre-phylloxera specimens of NerelloMascalese and Nerello Cappuccio and other local varieties (Carricante, Catarrato, Minella, Moscatella dell’Etna, Insolia) testify the wealth of Etna’s viticulture as its in his original splendor. “We are doing our best to help this phoenix shining back from the ashes again”, says Sonia caressing a baby bunch of Nerello grapes. Veraison is barely started here. Vines on Mount Etna have such a longer cycle than the ones on Sicily lowlands. No doubts this is a main cause behind the finesse and vibrancy of Etna’s wines.
Turning my head back I’m amazed by the landscape that extends down till the bay of Catania, but the astonishment is even greater when looking around the vineyard. Many believe –so erroneously- only vines and maybe some olive tree may survive this arid soil. Nothing could be further from the truth. This looks more like a garden than a vineyard. This is a masterpiece of biodiversity. First of all, many different varieties are growing next to each other in what today we would call a field blend (a trendy word we see a lot in the marketing of new Portuguese and California wine). Secondly, all sorts of mediterranean herbs, apples, few varieties of plums, pears, quinces, persimmons, peaches, walnuts, hazelnuts, all are intermixed to the rigorously bush-trained (alberello) vines. “Every time Etna erupts ashes, it’s a mighty fertilizer for our fields! And it comes for free!”, Sonia adds with a smile. Moreover, the diversified moltitude of insects is reassuring of the health status of this remote eco-system. Actually, just as we reach the top of the hill and start to rig a table up out of some large lavic stones, a little mantis jumps on the paper table-towel, probably attracted - not less than us- by the amazing local cheeses, breads, artichokes and tomatoes which Sonia is offering as a reward for the reckless ascent. 

Biodiversity in the Monte Ilice vineyard. Field Blend of grapes, different varieties of plums, Etna’s renowned apples, quinces.

Lunch on Monte Ilice vineyard. A little mantis pays us a visit, maybe attracted by the delicious local food or just in search of a glass of Tempesta.

In the meantime, Riccardo managed to prove himself able to compete with the best Champagne cellar masters performing an impeccably executed degorgement a la vole of a sparkling wine still resting on its own lees. This was “Tempesta” a Metodo Classico SantaMariaLaNave has been dreaming to produce since 2004 but has started to produce since 2015 harvest with the consultancy of few winemakers from Franciacorta. It is a savoury and refreshing brut whose character perfectly matched the goodies on the table (see later on for tasting notes).

Riccardo performing a degorgement a la vole of their ‘Tempesta’ sparkling wine. Note in the central picture the explosion of CO2 scattering the yeasts away.

“What a place! It is like an Eden!” my friends exclaimed while I was driving the car to reach our second destination. “Yes, an Eden for those who visit it, but a hell for those who farm it!”, I thought silently. I didn’t want to spoil their genuine enthusiasm and, after all, the gratification gained in getting fruits of such rare quality is worth the effort. Not just that. Being in charge of safeguarding an immaculate place, of continuing long-established traditions, of preserving a genetic pool that otherwise would be lost, it must be what really ignites and fuels the fire of passion necessary for the job. Going through this path just for seeking a return on investment would be foolish and any financial advisor will tell you to bet your money somewhere else.  I’m still unravelling the yarn skein of my thoughts when Sonia’s car, leading the way in front of us, turn left. We follow her to be welcomed by a massive cloud of soil dust raised by her 4x4 Fiat Panda. “I’m sorry”, Sonia smiles, “here the soil is like talcum powder!”. We have arrived in the second vineyard located on Mount Etna’s North-West face, in Contrada La Nave. Here slopes are much more gentler than Monte Ilice ones. The vineyard is indeed terraced and the alberello bushes leave place to perfectly trellised vines. It looks like a modern vineyards, an extremely healthy modern vineyard. What make this place ‘extreme’ is the altitude -1100 meters, one of the highest vineyards in Europe. We are practically in a Winkler’s Region I Climate. Please consider that Sicily spans all of the five Winkler’s climatic regions, as highlighted in this essay by Sally Easton MW. I’m mentioning Winkler’s method just to give you a rough idea of Sicily’s climatic diversity. Note, however, I do not believe Winkler’s scale represents an accurate instrument for viticultural management (it is worthwhile a read of “Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing”by Prof. M. A. Matthews ).

“It 'a vineyard that grows in a very wild area of ancient lavas and antique woods, and is the result of a 15-year massale research on ancient clones of Pie Franco (ungrafted) Grecanico Dorato, that the old vine growers of Etna have selected as a suitable cultivar for these extreme altitudes”, Sonia explains. She adds: “The vineyard was planted in 2004, respecting the territory and the other local plants. We have also rescued 500 vines of Albanello to preserve a DNA which otherwise would have been lost in this part of Sicily. We do everything with passion and an incredible love and true respect for the territory and its biodiveristy. We do not use pesticides and we operate under organic conditions. The micro-climatic conditions here allow us naturally to do so.”  It’s here that we tasted their red wine ‘CalmaRossa’ (whose grapes come from the South-Est vineyard) and their white ‘MilleSulMare’ (whose grapes come exclusively from this North-West high-altitude vineyard). I have reported below detailed tasting notes. I want just to highlight here that their freshness and tension combined with their subtle complexity was capable of aweing all of us. It was all about purity, structure and elegance without any ostentation of any sort. Noblesse oblige.

The vineyard in Contrada La Nave at an altitude of 1100mt above sea level. A detail of the labels of ‘CalmaRossa’ Etna Rosso DOC and “MilleSulMare” Grecanico Dorato in purezza.

While we walk through the vineyard, it’s natural for me asking Sonia why all this.

Me: Sonia, Why making wine on Mount Etna? Why even becoming viticulturists in such an extreme Terroir? What has brought a young woman like you to embrace such a tough challenge? 
Sonia: I'm young, but I think I have understood something important: life offers us signals, we must have an open mind, soul and heart to catch them and follow them. When my husband (then we were not yet married) took me for the first time to see the vineyard of Contrada La Nave, which he always spoke with passion and enthusiasm, I sensed his excitement already miles before arriving. As soon as we reached the place, it was love at first sight, a pristine place, full of ancient history, the vines that grow in the midst of millenarian lave soils. I was struck by the intense green color of the plants, they were looking so happy. Nature in that vineyard is at peace with itself. That place has filled me with joy then as it does every time I go there. It is an isolated place, difficult to cultivate but beautiful. If it had been an easier place to get to and less complex to grow, maybe it would have been already ruined. Thanks heaven it's so extreme! Giving up to cultivate the vines, it would have mean losing forever something that many people before us have developed with lot of efforts and passion and with extraordinary results. The Monte Ilice vineyard has a perfectly coherent logic, the preservation of a single vineyard in a beautiful location, but very difficult to manage. There are documents from about a century ago complaining about the abandonment of vineyards in that area just because too difficult to grow, despite the high quality of the wines produced. To safeguard the DNA, and a part of the history of Etna viticulture gives me the energy to keep going, despite the difficulties that often arise. It is a complex challenge, but it is fascinating and I would not change my job for anything else. Life has offered me a signal and I enthusiastically received it. It all started that afternoon, and that love has since then kept growing day after day. 
Me: Would have not been easier just to buy grapes from someone else and to focus your efforts on winemaking?
Sonia: Sure, it would be a thousand times easier, but there are no shortcuts to excellence! The winemaking process, as I understand it, is a very delicate phase, where you have to turn the grapes into wine without altering the specific peculiarities of the grapes, land and vintage. A phase that deserves the utmost experience and I'm lucky to work with the winemaker Enzo Cali in the cellar. Enzo clearly embodies the spirit of  non invasive winemaking. However, buying grapes from others would change the whole spirit of what we're doing. If you produce grapes for your wines, you know you're in search of excellence and set the excellence in the vineyard: very low productions, timeconsuming manual operations, attentive and accurate harvest at the moment of perfect ripeness. If you produce for others and sell the grapes by their weight, then you will certainly be tempted to maximize production per plant, reduce manual processes to reduce costs (i.e. herbicides), "doping" the plants with chemical fertilizers, and minimize risks with systemic products. These factors lead the result of the excellence equation to a negative value. Moreover, if you own the vineyards, you can have a positive impact on the area, testifying your values (such as the safeguard of the pre-existing environment and genetic pool) with everyday actions. Not to mention the fact that it would be practically impossible to find grapes from vineyards as extreme as ours. I could go on with other arguments, but I think I have answered your question: yes it would be much easier from an operational and economical point of view, but we would talk about a project which is inconsistent with the values that animate mine.
Me: What's the philosophy behind your project and why the consumer should be motivated to try a glass (or a bottle) of SantaMariaLaNave wines? 
Sonia: I do not want to move away from the subject of wine, which I love, but I have to make a small digression. You see, I think that every time we spend money, we express a preference; it is as if we vote the values behind the product that we buy. If I purchase a product, even a beautiful one, which is realised by exploiting people and/or environmental resources in an unethical and reckless way, I'm voting and approving that way of working. I'm becoming an active accomplice to this vicious circle. On the contrary, those who consume products that bring real values and qualities become active players in a virtuous circle, and contribute to the development of those values. A winelover should try my wines, first of all, to enjoy them and then try to read through them to understand what has happened on Mount Etna -and specifically in my vineyards- during that year and what impact this has had on the grapes of NerelloMascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Grecanico Dorato. Of course, they should also drink my wines, if they support my choice of extreme viticulture, the contribution to the preservation of a territory, a genetic heritage and ancient local traditions. The moment the consumer will appreciate my wine by drinking it or by giving a bottle to friends, she or he will become an active participant in my project, contributing to its success.

That afternoon we are joined by Vincenzo Avellina, the gentleman in charge of the vineyard management for SantaMariaLaNave. He has a long-established experience on Mount Etna and has helped and consulted many other producers on this area. Imagine a sort of David Abreu from Napa Valley, without the glamour of Napa Valley. Vincenzo works first-hand in both vineyards, helped by his wife and some of his sons. It’s not a purist of alberello training like Salvo Foti, not for this less stubborn. “Can you see the soil? It’s like talcum!”, Vincenzo laugh. “Yes we have noticed!”, we laugh back. He adds: “When I plough the land I need to use a mask, so much is the dust!”. He explains us how the soils composition allows him to work with ungrafted vines and to propagate the vineyard by layering (i.e. by bending a cane from a neighbouring vine into the ground and covering it with soil until it sprouts its own roots and can then be cut from the parent plant and grow independently). He stresses the importance of leaving the existing trees uncut to not perturbate the pre-established ecosystem. He points to the trees: “You see, we never collect all the fruits from our trees. We always leave around a 20% for the birds. Nature is so generous with us, an we need to give something back to preserve this magic alliance. I am not inventing anything new in my managing system. I simply do the job as my dad was used to. He taught me that respect, for People and for Nature, is the most important thing. The rest is just a consequence”. What could we add? Only Sonia adds: “We are so lucky to have Vincenzo with us!”. And two birds from the tree follow up with an exuberant chirp which all of us interpreted as “We are so lucky too to have Vincenzo with us!” 


I’m staring at the Alcantara Valley in front of me, with Maletto on the side producing the most delicious strawberries on this planet, Bronte gifted with the most exceptional pistachios, Maniace giving us the most perfumed peaches. It is a place of magic. Sicily’s light itself contributes to this dreaming perception. I can’t help thinking about Leonardo Sciascia’s words: ‘All of Sicily is a dimension of the imagination’. As well as I can’t help to be happy because of the people which here are still able to speak of respect, preservation, rescue in an historical moment in which (unfortunately too subtly) respect, preservation, rescue are so lowly valued. We put more attention and care on our iPhone, than to read the needs of our neighbours. We are too much worried of preserving our interests to be able to share things with others. We are too busy to consume our resources here and now to be able to share them with future generations. We have forgotten how much rewarding was to repair and reuse. We have become too accustomed to throw whatever is not working away.
In this era in which we ineptly dedicate more time and efforts to catch Pokemons than for catching our dreams, I can’t thank enough those who are so brave to go upstream, here in Sicily as well as in all the other “islands” of this crazy world.   

Therefore I would like to finish stealing the same sentence
Robert Camuto used to start his book Palmento:

To the hope that Sicily remains an island

Tasting Notes                                        

-       Tempesta 2015
     Still a baby, not yet finished. It is maturing on the lees and it was indeed opened a la vole' . Very promising, floral and fresh, with enticing accents of wild fennel. I'm not sure whether it will be bottled as Pas Dose' or not. The mineral note survives and enriches the sparkling element on the palate. It ends leaving a sapid final. I can imagine this will be give fun to chefs and sommeliers to create interesting food-wine pairings. 

  Calmarossa 2014
Vibrant ruby red. On the nose it's very clean, with wild red berries and mulberries, violets, an haematic and earthy note, spices and timid ephemeral vanilla pods and lactic hints. 
On the palate is dry, with med+ acidity, textured tannins offering a great backbone hidden in a glyceric glove. Med+body and a long sapid finish. Burgundian in elegance and charme but with a Mediterranean vitality in it.

This beauty has the tension, focus and precision required for further development and to deliver pleasure for 10+ years. 
pied de cuvee of indigenous yeasts developed and patented by Benanti Winery is used for the primary fermentation of the 
85% Nerello Mascalese (which then spends 9 months 1/2 in barriques* and 1/2 in stainless steel tanks) and the remaining 15% Nerello Cappuccio (which is kept 100% in stainless steel tanks for 9 months). Malolactic conversion is fully completed during elevage. Assembled, is subsequently matured in bottle for further 6 months before release.

-      Millesulmare 2014 and 2015
The Grecanico Dorato grapes that goes into this cuvee are hand-harvested towards the end of October, de-stemmed and soft-pressed. After a cold settling (10°C for 36 hours), the clean must is inoculated with a pied de cuvee of indigenous yeasts developed and patented by Benanti Winery. The alcoholic fermentation is carried out at low temperature and the wine is then aged sur lie with weekly batonnage. The wine spends 6 more months in bottle before release on the market. No oak is used during fermentation and elevage. Production is limited to few thousands bottles.
Compared to the svelte and elegant 2013, which I tasted exactly one year ago, the 2014 shows broader shoulders. Light golden in the glass, offers rich notes of broom petals, apples, golden-kiwi and a marked flinty/mineral verve complemented by a creamier biscuity accent. On the palate is dry, med+ acidity counterbalance by a velvety palate, medium alcohol, medium body, a refreshing and tantalising minerality which thrills your palate forever. Excellent stuff!

The 2015 has similar pedigree, however it results more austere and authoritative with a fascinating note of grapefruits that is so inviting in such a summer day! In the mouth explodes with an electric sensation that turns on all your senses. So pure, yet so tasty. I love it! 

(*) Barriques: a mix of 40months-seasoned oaks from Troncais, Allier and Fointainebleau. Some of them are made by steam bending. All very lightly toasted and with very tight grain. 


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