Posts tagged ‘donnafugata’
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!
Sicily, the lovely, rugged island at the southern tip of Sicily, has a wine discipline that is not hampered by the strict regulations found in other Italian wine regions. Given that, you might expect a wide variety of wines to emerge from this land, but in truth the climate – it can be torridly hot during the summer – means that certain cool climate varieties such as Riesling and Pinot Noir are not suited for this area.
Thus only a few varieties here have emerged as critical and clearly the most important red variety is an idigenous one, Nero d’Avola. This variety has much in common with Syrah, as it is deeply colored (often bright purple) with only moderate tannins. The fruit aromas and flavors are primarily of marascino cherry, a opinion shared by many, including Attilio Scienza, one of Italy’s most renowned authorities on viticulture (I heard Scienza give his thoughts in a typically compelling speech in Sicily a few years ago). There are also notes of tobacco in some versions as well as spice notes, though some of this emerges from aging in small oak barrels. As for tannins, while most bottlings have only moderate levels, there are some premium offerings that have enough tannin to ensure aging for as long as 7-10 years.
Throughout the 1970s and early ’80s, Nero d’Avola was usually blended with other varieties throughout Sicily, including Nerello Mascalese and Pignatello. In 1984, history was made when the producer Duca di Salaparuta (best-known at that time for its well-made, moderately priced wines Corvo Bianco and Rosso) produced the first premium 100% Nero d’Avola; the wine was named Duca Enrico and was crafted by Carlo Casavecchia. He decided for Nero d’Avola as he believed this variety showed the most promise of the winery’s selections planted near the town of Gela, near Noto in the southeastern zone of the island; those other varieties included Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Casavecchia continues to make this wine and today, it is rightfully celebrated as one of the country’s most glorious reds.
For years, growers planted Nero d’Avola in several areas throughout Sicily; some of the best plantings were located near the western reaches of the island, near Menfi or Palermo. Today, though more and more producers are looking to the southeastern areas of Sicily for the finest plantings of this variety; indeed the grape is named for the town of Avola, not far from Noto.
There are several producers today who make excellent signature bottlings of Nero d’Avola; among the best is a bottling from Planeta called Santa Cecilia. During a recent visit to their estate near Noto, I was treated – along with a few dozen other journalists – to a vertical tasting of this wine. Winemaker Alessio Planeta told us how the early bottlings (such as 1997) were from Menfi, while the 1999 was a blend of grapes from both Menfi and Noto. The early bottlings, while quite good, were more rustic in nature as compared to the newer releases, which are blessed with abundant black fruit and lovely structure. Today, Santa Cecilia is always 100% Nero d’Avola from Noto and it has become one of Sicily’s finest wines (interestingly, the 1997 Santa Cecilia not only originated from Menfi, it also contained 15% Syrah in the blend).
Below is a list of several of the finest bottlings of Nero d’Avola:
- Duca di Salaparuta “Duca Enrico”
- Planeta “Santa Cecilia”
- Donnafugata “Mille e una Notte”
- Cusumano “Sagana”
- Morgante “Don Antonio”
- Tasca d’Almerita “Rosso del Conte”
- Baglio di Pianetto “Cembali”
Note that the Baglio di Pianetto bottling is produced from grapes grown at their estate a little south of Palermo, in the western part of Sicily. This particular wine is quite rich, but subdued with wonderful finesse. It is proof that not all great bottlings of Nero d’Avola come from the areas near Noto and Gela.
Finally, it is important to note that Nero d’Avola works well as a blending grape and just as it was blended with other varieties some 30 years ago, the same is true today, as some excellent wines that are primarily Nero d’Avola will often contain as much as 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah. However, the real character of Nero d’Avola emerges in wines that are almost always exclusively made from this variety alone; these are the bottlings that I believe are among the finest from Sicily.