Sicilian adventures 2012; Donnafugata & Pantelleria

A few weeks ago I got my first Sicilian experience, no films, wines or books included. Together with the winehub Luiz Alberto and Adegga man, aka flower boy, Andre Ribeirinho the trip started in Palermo. Andre written about the trip here.

he winehub Luiz Alberto and Adegga man, aka flower boy, Andre Ribeirinho

To start off from the beginning, we were all going to Sicily to be part of the Etna Educational Tour 2012 organized by Consorzio Tutela Vini Etna D.O.C., in collaboration with Fermenti Digitali and with the valuable support of Camera di Commercio di Catania. Now beeing the true winelovers we decided that we need more of the Sicilian experience so via Anna Ruini of Donnafugata, that we met previously at EWBC we set out to experience the wine producer Donnafugata.

This is the first post, in English, on our trip in Sicily. It started in Palermo, went through the island of Pantelleria, back to Sicily, and the to the winery in Marsala and the vineyards Contessa Etellina, not far from the village of Corleone. In addition to stunning scenery and vineyards, you can not get away from the reality that we’re moving around in Godfather-territory. When we saw this road sign with the name Corleone a violin started to play a melody in my head… and come to think about it, I did not see a single horse … hmm ….

Back to wine and Donnafugata, who is one of the largest wine producers in Sicily. Sometimes big almost get to be synonymous with bad or evil, but Donnafugata is proof that big is not necessarily bad, or evil. We had two fantastic days with the winery and got an insight into its business, philosophy and wines. Many may recognize the Donnafugata labels, many of which displays a beautiful woman, that gives a quick recognition to the brand. The wines in general can be described as well-made, stylish and accessible, at the same time they have charm and personality and are clearly part of Sicily and its terrior.

The winery is run by the Rallo family who was once a great Marsala producer. In the 1980s, however they started to make “regular” wines. Giacomo and Gabriella Rallo sold the marsala-production and started Donnafugata. But you can still buy Rallo-Marsala, though not made by the Rallo family. According to the company-legend, Giacomo went to the U.S. in the early 80’s to see how his marsala wines were marketed and realized that most people used it to make sauce or as an ingredient in desserts. This led him to decide to turn to traditional wine making. Today the company is run together with their children José and Antonio, who we had the pleasure of spending time with for a couple of days.

The Donnafugata name roughly means the fleeing woman and is a reference to Queen Maria Carolina (1752-1814), who was married to Ferdinand IV (1751-1825) – king of Naples and later king of both Sicilies. In the early 1800’s they had to flee from Naples to Sicily where they were protected by a local prince. The whole story can be read in the book Il Gattopardo by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. A story that also served as the inspiration for some of their wine labels. Om these are a woman with flowing hair that reoccurs on several labels.

As I mentioned Donnafugata makes several wines, one of their most famous is a sweet wine, a passito, Ben Ryé, made on the island of Pantelleria with the zibibbo grape a.k.a. moscato d’Alessandria.

Sweet wines is not really my forte, I often find them a bit one dimensional and a bit to sweet. When I find those with more dimensions, a combination of sweetness and acidity that has both youthfulness and ripeness – then I’m in heaven. Ben Ryé is truly a great wine, that got me to to see a glimpse of heaven. This is a wine that forth will be part of my wine cellar.


Pantelleria is a fantastic little island, with a dramatic landscape, a little south of Sicily near the African coast. On the island lives only a little over 7500 people and is at its highest point it is 836 meters above sea level. The island is volcanic and there are virtually no fresh water sources, the grapes must live on the water that rains down during the winter months. All this of course is part of the terroir, as well as the intense heat they are exposed to during the summer.

The vineyards are different from many others I’ve seen, the grapes are grown on low shrubs rather than tall vines, making harvest even tougher. Due to the bushes you need to pick all grapes by hand. Add to that the extreme heat with temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, and in many of the vineyards shade is scares. There is lots and lots of sweat that goes into picking the grapes.

The Donnafugata vineyards are scattered around the island. The roads to them are narrow and winding, and the vineyards are constructed terraces, built with stone and lava. Over the years they have bought new plots that has been carefully restored, in most cases it has been possible to use the old vines. Many of the vines are between 60-100 years old and some even older, by giving them a little love and care, and rebuilding the terraces again, so that the water can be kept in the soil, they slowly expand but still keeps the high quality. By this they also take responsibility to the cultural history of the area and keeping the old traditions alive.

The pickers need to have a high level of expertise as all the grapes are split during the harvesting, the grapes that have dried enough on the vines goes into one basket and the grapes that needs further drying goes into another. Everything is solid craftsmanship, from the picking of the grapes to the production of wine. There are not enough people on Pantelleria who have this knowledge so they have to get staff from Sicily to help with the harvest.

From the grapes at Pantelleria Donnafugata makes passito wine. Passito is used both as a name for a type of wine and the name of a wine-making method. After the grapes are picked the grapes are dried for some time on special mats or in drying houses. Donnafugata are nowdays using these greenhouse-like buildings, before, they did let the grapes lie under the open sky to dry, but a few years ago a storm destroyed 85% of the harvest. The drying process allows the grapes to be more concentrated, this gives more flavours, but as some liquid evaporates before fermentation it also makes less wine than that of fresh grapes. After drying the grapes they are taken to the winery on Pantelleria, where they are pressed, fermented, stored and bottled.

Antonio Rallo

I would like to thank Antonio Rallo from Donnafugata for making this possible and for dedicating a whole day with us in the vineyards and at the winery, a big thanks also goes to Anna Ruini who made it all possible.

In a later post I’ll tell a bit of Marsala, Contessa Etellina and the other wines we tried.

Magnus Reuterdahl


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