Recently I enjoyed an amazing tour of wine regions and producers in Sicily. I had never been before and was very excited to see this wonderful island. It is a beautiful place that really provides a feast for the senses, the landscape is stunning, the food a revelation and the wines were generally very impressive indeed. Along with visits to the great estates of Benanti, Planeta and Tasca d’Almerita, seeing the Donnafugata estate was a real highlight.
Like all good winery visits – and indeed wines – it started in the vineyards. Standing in Donnafugata’s Contessa Entellina estate near Sambuca di Sicilia I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the place. I had never been to Sicily before and every time we de-bussed I was thrilled by the variety and vitality of the landscape. The wild flowers in particular – fields of scarlet poppies intermingled with vibrant yellow, purple, pink and blue flowers were everywhere – made my heart sing.
So, here I was at Donnafugata, a winery I only knew about vaguely and even then mainly because of their lovely labels. I was greeted by the lively and animated José Rallo – I found it really hard to take good photographs of Sicilian winemakers as they never seem to keep their hands still. José is the daughter of Giacomo and Gabriella Rallo whose family have produced Marsala for over 150 years and who created the Donnafugata estate to produce premium still wines in 1983.
The wonderful name by the way means ‘fugitive woman’ or ‘woman in flight’ and refers to Maria Carolina, sister of Maria-Antoinette and Queen of Naples and Sicily. In 1799 she fled the invading Republican French troops – under General Napoleon Bonaparte – and found refuge in the country estates of a noble. These same estates are now home to the Rallo’s vineyards and in Di Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard, he christened them Donnafugata and the name was adopted by the Rallos as an evocative name for their new winery.
Donnafugata appears to be one of those wineries – as all the best ones are – that never stands still, but continually evolves. Originally Marsala producers, they then became trailblazers of fine Sicilian wines made from international grape varieties, before becoming champions of indigenous Sicilian grapes and creating an experimental project, with other growers, to pinpoint the perfect site for each grape variety to thrive in Sicily.
The cool interior of the winery gave our little group shelter from the searing heat of the sun and we were treated to an informative presentation about the estate and a terrific, comprehensive, but relaxed tasting of their wines. The quality was high, sometimes very high, but certain wines stood out from the crowd:
2002 Donnafugata Vigna di Gabri
This single vineyard wine – Vigna di Gabri in Contessa Entellina – is a blend of Ansonica, the Marsala grape, with some Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Catarratto.
85% of the wine was fermented in stainless steel vats, while 15% was fermented in second use French oak barrels.
The 2002 was wonderfully deep and rich with pithy citrus, wild flowers and pine nut notes, while the dry palate offered dry honey, herbs, a waxy texture, citric acidity and touch of saltiness on the long sapid finish.
I liked this together with the fresher, more creamy, less waxy 2011 as well.
This wine and vineyard is named in honour of José’s mother Gabriella Rallo who created it and whose signature graces every bottle. Apparently Gabriellas believe that Ansonica is capable of producing quality table wines as well as Marsala and so she created this vineyard and set out to prove her point with this wine. José seems very proud of her mother, especially that she ‘was the first woman in Sicily to put on boots and supervise her workers in the field’. It is clear that Gabriella has green fingers for things other than vines too, as the gardens she created around the winery and family house are stunningly beautiful and peaceful.
N.V. Donnafugata Brut Metodo Classico
This Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blend was my favourite Sicilian sparkling wine of the whole trip and interestingly the grapes are purposely grown on high north-east facing slopes which protect the grapes from the sun and so preserve the grape’s acids. It was nicely balanced with good fruit and acidity as well as complexity from 28 months ageing on the lees.
For me though the wine highlight of this visit was the sweet Zibibbo wines of Pantelleria. I have long been fascinated by this volcanic island that – though politically a part of Sicily – is nearer to Tunisia than Italy.The main grape here of course is Moscato or Muscat of Alexandria, but they traditionally call it Zibibbo in these parts as it came here via North Africa and apparently zibibb means dried grapes in Arabic.
Donnafugata make 2 very different styles here:
Donnafugata Kabir D.O.C. Moscato di Pantelleria is an aromatic and attractive Moscato with a light, fresh character – there is even a little touch of frizzante to it – and I enjoyed the 2011 vintage of this wine as well as its lovely label.
Altogether more serious, more complex and hedonistic – but no less pleasurable – is the amazingly concentrated Donnafugata Ben Ryé D.O.C. Passito di Pantelleria.
This extraordinary wine is made from grapes that are harvested in August and dried in the sun for 3-4 weeks. Then in September they pick another load of fresh, but very ripe grapes and start a normal fermentation. At this point they de-stem the dried grapes by hand and add them in batches to the fermenting fresh Moscato so that they impart their deeper flavours, higher sugars and great complexity. The fermentation finally stops around the end of November and the wine is then aged in bottle.
I was instantly seduced by the complexity and stunning figgy and salty caramel richness of the 2004, while the orangey panforte-like 2006 was very nearly as complex – give it time. The 2010 was altogether fresher and more straightforward, but still delicious and I am sure will age to be just as memorable as its older siblings.
Sadly I have yet to visit Pantelleria, but it seems to be a place of heroic viticulture like Santorini, Cinque Terre, Ribera Sacra and Ischia. It must be back breaking work tending these low lying 100 year old bush vines, harvesting them by hand, drying them in the sun, harvesting another lot and then fermenting them for the best part of 3 months, but it all seems to be worth it.
After a wonderful lunch José sang for us, serenading my friend Keith Grainger with ‘An Older Man is Like an Elegant Wine’ – the day after his birthday too, so I cannot decide if that was apt or just rubbing it in. José is a fine singer who has recorded 2 CDs pairing wines with a mixture of Jazz standards, Brazilian and Sicilian songs and she gave us each a copy of her second CD as a gift.
Happily José had paired my favourite track on the album – her version of Rita Lee’s Agora Só Falta Você with my favourite dry Donnafugata wine, the Vigna di Gabri – I like them both in isolation and will have to try them together sometime to see if fusion works for me.
The whole visit was a great experience and a privilege to get an insight into this beautiful estate and to witness at first hand the passion and love they have for their land and what they do.
Donnafugata wines are available in the UK through Liberty Wines.
Donnafugata wines are available in the US through Folio Fine Wine Partners.
Donnafugata wines are available in Australia through Arquilla.