Tasting Donnafugata Wines: An Excursion Off the Coast of Sicily

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Situated in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sicily, Pantelleria Island is a popular vacation spot for Italians and home to Donnafugata Winery. Come along to taste Donnafugata Wines and experience Pantelleria.

A few dozen of us gathered on the tarmac to load onto a propeller plane that looked like it was from the 1950s. I was hesitant, but it was the way to get to Pantelleria, an island off the coast of Sicily known as the black pearl of the Mediterranean. The island of Pantelleria is part of Sicily, the largest and most populous island in the Mediterranean Sea and one of the 20 regions of Italy. Sitting southwest of Sicily and only 50 miles from Tunisia, Pantelleria is a holiday destination for many Italians, home to Donnafugata Winery, and was my destination for 24 hours.

The plane to the island of Pantelleria. Photo by Alison Levine

Despite my initial hesitation, the one-hour flight from Catania was smooth as we flew over the Mediterranean Sea. Upon landing, I was met by Emanuele Corsale of Donnafugata Winery who would be my guide. We hopped into a boxy Fiat Panda, the only make of car found on the island. Pantelleria is home to the greatest number of Fiat Pandas per square mile, as these cars are small, tough, economical, and easy to fix. This made sense as I learned more about this isolated island, home to the famous Passito di Pantelleria, a sweet white wine.

Pantelleria. Photo by Alison Levine

About Pantelleria

Pantelleria, Sicily’s largest volcanic satellite island, is 8.7 miles long and five miles wide. It is located on a volcanic cone more than 6,500 feet above sea level. As Emanuele drove around the island, it seemed like we were on one long winding road, and the road did not seem wide enough for more than one car. But two Pandas could pass each other, and once I realized this, I was able to focus on the scenery.

The countryside in Pantelleria. Photo by Alison Levine

Pantelleria is a dramatic island of rugged volcanic rocks surrounded by water. 80% of the island is a national park and includes the lake Specchio di Venere (Venus’s Mirror). It is in the shape of a heart, located in a natural reserve set in the crater of an extinct volcano. It said that the goddess Venus would look at herself in the lake waters before meeting Bacchus. The view of the lake is stunning, and the color of the waters turns different shades of green depending on the time of the day.

Specchio di Venere (Venus’s Mirror). Photo by Alison Levine

An island surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea would seem to have the all the natural resources it needs. But being surrounded by water is deceiving. Pantelleria is a dry island with little water available. And strong, hot Scirocco winds blow across the island. But necessity is the mother of invention, and the island of Pantelleria has developed creative and inventive methods to deal with the lack of water, heat, and wind.

One way the people of Pantelleria have dealt with the heat and wind is with their houses, which are called dammusi. Dating back to the 10th century, dammusi are made from lava stone and have a domed roof. The thick lava walls provide insulation against the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. And the domed roofs are used to collect rainwater in cisterns. In addition, next to each dammuso is a circular wall made of lava stone called a jardinu. Within these walls, fruit trees are cultivated, keeping them protected from the intense winds.

Pantelleria dammusi. Photo by Alison Levine

When it comes to growing vegetation, trees do not grow up; instead, the arms of olive trees and caperberry trees are held down by stones so that they grow outward on the ground. And the same can be said for the Zibibbo vines.

Caper trees growing on the ground. Photo by Alison Levine

Zibibbo Vines

Pantelleria comes from the Arabic phrase “Bent El-Rhia,” which means “Daughter of the Wind.” The only grape planted in Pantelleria is Zibibbo, which is the same as Muscat of Alexandria. Zibibbo is an ancient grape that originated in North Africa. The name Zibibbo comes from the Arabic word zabib, which means “dry grapes.”

Zibbibo grape (aka Muscat of Alexandria)

Zibibbo thrives in hot climates and is at home in Pantelleria. However, in addition to the heat, Pantelleria is dry, with strong winds that would blow over a trellised vine. So, thousands of years ago, the people of Pantelleria invented the alberello pantesco vine training system, which is today a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Alberello pantesco is the only agricultural practice recognized by UNESCO.

Zibbibo Vines. Photo by Alison Levine

With albarello pantesco, the low bush vine from Pantelleria, a shallow hole is dug into the volcanic soils, and the vine is planted in this hole. By burying the vine in the ground, humidity is created, and moisture is collected. The vines are on the ground, which protects them from the wind. Each vine has 8-10 grape clusters. Across the island, these small bush vines are planted in centuries-old vineyards. Due to the volcanic soils, Pantelleria has never suffered from phylloxera.

Albarello Pantesco low bush vines. Photo by Alison Levine

Zibibbo is mostly used to produce passito dessert wines, with the most famous expression being Passito di Pantelleria, but it can also be used for still white wines. It is also enjoyed as a table grape and a raisin grape. The most famous Passito di Pantelleria produced is Ben Ryé (“son of the wind”) from Donnafugata.

About Donnafugata

Donnafugata was founded in 1983 by Giacomo Rallo and his wife Gabriella, a pioneer of viticulture in Sicily. The name Donnafugata originates from the name of the Sicilian novel Il Gattopardo and translates to “a fugitive woman” or “a woman who fled.” The name best represents Gabriella, a teacher who “fled” her job to start a wine business and become one of the first women in Sicily to run a wine business.

Donnafugata’s headquarters are in Marsala, where the family, whose origins date back to 1851, produced Marsala. The first Donnafugata wines were produced in 1983 in Contessa Entellina in western Sicily. Donnafugata has 1,154 acres of vineyards across Sicily in Contessa Entellina, Pantelleria, Vittoria, and Etna. Giacomo and Gabriella’s sons, Antonio and José, are the fifth generation running the company.

After starting in Contessa Entellina, Giacomo desired to make wines from volcanic soils. He fell in love with Pantelleria, a volcanic island, and in 1989, they purchased land. Today, they have 168 acres of Zibibbo planted around the island.

In the vineyard at Donnafugata. Photo by Alison Levine

Donnafugata has vineyards of Zibibbo across Pantelleria, but the winery is in the Khamma district. It is in a natural amphitheater, and the vineyards are grown on small terraces bordered by dry lava stone walls. A visit to Donnafugata Pantelleria offers various experiences, including touring the property and tasting the wines. In addition to the Zibibbo, it is possible to taste Donnafugata wines from across their other estates in Sicily, including the Contessa Entellina Estate in western Sicily, the Vittoria Estate in the south of Sicily, and The Etna Estate in the east of Sicily.

Separating the dry Zibbibo grapes from the stems. Photo by Alison Levine

Donnafugata has practiced sustainability for over 30 years and is a member of SOStain (the Foundation for Sicilian Sustainable Viticulture). It does not use herbicides or chemical fertilizers. Donnafugata has reduced CO2 emissions using lighter glass bottles and recyclable Select BIO caps made from sugar cane. It produces clean energy and believes in biodiversity and the study of indigenous varieties.

In Pantelleria, Donnafugata has 33 Zibibbo biotypes, and they have recovered and cultivated century-old olive trees. These olive trees and more can be seen while walking on the Cammino di Khamma (Khamma trail) in the Giardino Pantesco (Pantelleria Garden). In addition to century-old olive trees, there is Mediterranean scrub and capers, which all exemplify the perfect harmony between nature and agriculture.

Cammino di Khamma (Khamma trail). Photo by Alison Levine

Enjoying Donnafugata’s Zibibbo Wines

At Donnafugata, Zibibbo is used to produce both dry and sweet styles. I tried the Lighea, Kabir, and Ben Ryé.

Donnafugata Lighea

Donnafugata Lighea is a dry style of Zibibbo. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel and aged for two months before bottling. The resulting wine is bright, straw-yellow, and aromatic, with floral, citrus, and exotic fruit notes. It is fresh on the palate, with lots of acidity and a mineral finish.

Donnafugata Wines from Pantelleria. Photo by Alison Levine

I enjoyed this wine with fresh capers in olive oil from Pantelleria. The salty and oily flavors tempered the aromatics of the wine, and the acidity cut through. This is a wine to enjoy with fried and oily fish.

Enjoying Donnafugata Zibbibo with capers. Photo by Alison Levine

Donnafugata Ben Ryé

Donnafugata’s celebrated passito di Pantelleria is Ben Ryé, which translates to “son of the wind” and is a testament to the strong winds on the island. The grapes are picked by hand. With the vines on the ground, this is very labor intensive. The first grapes are brought to the winery and dried for 20 days. They are rotated every five to seven days. As they dry, they lose 70% of their water content.

Grapes drying at Donnafugata Winery. Photo by Alison Levine

The next round of grapes is picked and pressed into stainless steel, and the destemmed dried berries are added to the fresh must. This process happens in six to seven rounds, and the total vinification process (fermentation and maceration) takes 40 days. The final ratio of dried grapes to fresh grapes is 70% dry grapes and 30% fresh juice. The final wine is aged five months in stainless steel and at least eight months in bottles.

Ben Ryé is a deep gold and orange color that resembles the sunset. It is very aromatic with notes of ripe peach, apricot jam, candied orange, honey, almond, and sweet herbs. There are honey and spicy ginger notes on the palate, and fresh acidity cleans the palate. Legend says that the goddess Tanit served it to Apollo to seduce him, which is why Passito di Pantelleria is called the “nectar of the gods.” And I do not disagree. Ben Ryé is fresh, aromatic, and utterly delicious.

Tasting Donnafugata Wines

Journey to the black pearl of the Mediterranean to discover the beautiful scenery and unspoiled nature, and more importantly, taste the delicious Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria and other Donnafugata wines. We invite you to explore Wander With Wonder for more when visiting Italy. We also have more of our favorite wine-tasting experiences.