Sicily as a wine region has really come into its own over the past decade, thanks to the hard work of many innovative producers. Easily one of the finest in terms of quality as well as creativity is Donnafugata, operated by several members of the Rallo family, some of the nicest people in the wine industry I’ve met anywhere in the world.
The winery was established in 1983 at the family’s cellar in Marsala and today, there is also a winery in the Contessa Entellina DOC zone in Western Sicily. Giacomo Rallo and his wife Gabriella started the firm and today, his daughter José and son Antonio are also involved. The winery’s name, which means “fleeing woman” refers to Queen Maria Carolina, wife of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, who was fleeing Naples when the troops of Napoleon arrived. She settled in Sicily and in her honor, her likeness adorns the label of many of the Donnafugata wines.
Donnafugata has a wide range of products, from elegant, dry whites to full-bodied reds to some tantalizing dessert wines. The Anthilia, a blend of Cataratto and Ansonica (also known as Insolia) has been a long time favorite of mine; its pear and citrus aromas and beautiful freshness make this a lovely wine for many first courses. The Chiranda, primarily Chardonnay blended with Ansonica, is an intriguing wine as the Ansonica is a nice contrast to the richness of the Chardonnay. The oak is moderate and the winery wisely chooses to wait an extra year to release this wine (2008 is the current vintage).
There are several excellent reds, especially the Tancredi, a blend of 70% Nero d’Avola and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromas are of blackcurrant and black cherry with an appealing hint of nutmeg; medium-full on the palate, the tannins are quite elegant. The new 2007 release has excellent ripeness and balance and should be at is best in another 3-5 years.
The real showcase red for Donnafugata however is the famed Mille e una Notte, meaning “1001 nights.” The wine is primarily Nero d’Avola (about 90%) with a small percentage of other local red varieties. Produced from low yielding vines in the Contessa Entellina zone, the wine sports instantly gratifying aromas of licorice, damson plum and marmalade. Medium-full on the palate, there is excellent fruit persistence, balanced acidity, nicely integrated oak and always a distinct spiciness. I recently tasted the 2006 bottling, which should age quite well for an additional 12-15 years, although I wouldn’t be suprised to see it drinking well for another few years beyond that. Having tasted several vintages of this wine at various stages, I can say the Mille e Una Notte is clearly one of the top five bottlings of Nero d’Avola in Sicily, not only for its precise varietal purity, but also for its ideal structure, which allows for long term aging.
Arguably the most famous wine produced by Donnafugata is the remarkable sweet wine known as Ben Ryé (pronounced ree-yay). Produced entirely from Zibibbo grapes (Moscato d’Alessandria), the vineyards are located on the tiny island of Pantelleria, south of Sicily. As this island is close to Africa (less than 70 miles), the conditions are quite hot, necessitating the vines being planted in the albarello method; these “small trees” reach only a few meters off the ground, as they need protection from the scorching sun.
After the grapes are harvested, they are laid out on open air mats and are naturally dried by the sun and wind for 20-30 days (Zibibbo, incidentally, comes from an Arabic word meaning “dried grape” or “raisin”). These dried grapes are added to fresh must during fermentation and afterwards, the finished wine ages for 4 to 6 months in stainless steel tanks.
While there are several passito style wines made throughout Italy, the Passito di Pantelleria is truly one of a kind. The Ben Ryé is very rich and lush with impressive weight on the palate. The aromas though, are what draw you in – a combination of apricot, candied orange, golden raisins and honey – after one smell of this wine, you can’t put it down. The wine is medium-sweet with very good acidity, so it is not cloying or sticky sweet and has a long, satisfying finish. I tried the 2008 bottling which is another outstanding release from Donnafugata. If you’re ever fortunate enough to try older bottlngs, which are a bit less sweet with more dried fruit notes, do take that opportunity. I’ve tasted 15 year old versions of Ben Ryé that were in superb condition! This is what is known in Italy as a vino di meditazione, a wine to be savored on its own, but pairing this with a blue cheese is many people’s (including myself) version of heaven!
There are several other distinctive blends made by Donnafugata, some of which are available only in Italy (the American importer is Folio Wine Estates). The Rallo family not only maintains a high standard of quality across a wide range of products, from simple whites to stunning dessert wines, but they also deserve credit for maintaining reasonable prices for their offerings. The Rallo family is a true Sicilian treasure – here’s to their dedication and friendliness!