Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Heroic Winemaking" in Windswept Pantelleria, Sicily, Home to Ancient Passito Wine

The wine known as "the liquid of the gods" is steeped in history, myth and the land

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

Pantelleria, Sicily--The flight into Pantelleria's mountaintop airport was urged on by the powerful winds that give this tiny island just north of Tunisia on the North African coast, its name. Upon check-in at the gate at Rome airport, the boarding agent breathlessly announced that the day's single flight to this island paradise would be departing as scheduled, a tentative proposition owing to frequent cancellations caused by the island's windy conditions.


The view was breathtaking as the plane, which doubles as a mail plane for the local postal service, made its forceful landing on the airport's single landing strip. The most striking visual element; the lack of sandy beaches on the coastline ringed with aqua-marine waters that sparkle as if sprinkled with diamonds. The coastline's outcroppings of black rock and boulders look more like the surface of the moon than the topography of a tropical island.

Pantellaria is steeped in myth and ancient history. The Greeks settled here, as did the Spanish, the Romans, the Turks and the Byzantines. The Greeks set many of their myths in the swind-swept setting of Pantelleria. It is here that Odysseus faced some of his greatest obstacles and where, according to legend, the goddess Tanit won Apollo's love by offering him a glass of Passito, the local wine. In later years, the legendary lover, Giacomo Casanova lured his romantic prey into his Venetian lair by offering them a glass of the intensely sweet potion.

In spite of the many footprints that have trod these rocky slopes, it is that of the Arabs, that has made the most lasting  imprint. Their influence can be seen everywhere, from the names of local towns, Mueggen, Gadir, Bukkuram and Khamma, home to Donnafugata winery the subject of the day's visit to the local cuisine, underscored with its use of couscous and aromatic and savory spices. The journey over narrow winding roads led to the town of Khamma, home to Donnafugata winery,  to observe the Zibbibo grape harvest and the drying process known as "Passito," from which the name of the local wine is derived. The Arab influence is  seen everywhere, but most strikingly in a subsequent architectural tour of the island's many stone buildings, known as "dommus"  built by Arab and Byzantine architects and artisans.

Unlike Sarah Palin's bogus claims of being able to "see Alaska from my kitchen window (sic)." you really can see Tunisia and the coast of North Africa from Pantelleria. The continent is only 37 miles away and is entirely visible on a clear day.

It follows that the wine industry in Pantelleria is firmly rooted in the cultural history of North Africa. The Zibbibo grape, from which it's famous Passito wine is made, was the favored grape of Egypt and was said to have been brought here by the ancient Phoenicians. The grape is uniquely suited to thrive in the island's volcanic soil and high winds; shielding itself by growing close to the ground, nearly burrowing itself into the sandy clay soil. This ancient grape, also known as Muscat of Alexandria (Muscat d'Alexandrie) is one of the oldest genetically unmodified vines still in existence.

The grapes are all hand harvesed. It's back-breaking work, with workers carefully examining each bunch and discarding the spoiled fruit and meticulously removing the stems  by hand. Winds whipping across the vineyards, stirring up mouthfuls of dust, (of which I swallowed more than my fair share) make the work that much more arduous.

Donnafugata winery has been making Passito since its inception. It's award-winning wine is called Ben Rye (pronounced ben ree-ay). The name means "born of the wind."

The wine is produced using a centuries-old process, involving drying the grapes on mats in a long shed in the open air and under the hot sun to create a wine that is concentrated with intense flavors and aromas and a high level of sugar. Even though Donnafugata is a thoroughly modern facility in every way, the method in which it makes its Ben Rye is derived from its pre-industrial past.

Standing amidst 120 year old vines, winemaker and technical director Antonio Rallo describes the labor-intensive process. "We're trying to create a flavor and aroma that is completely different from that of fresh grapes. We're not trying to preserve aromas of the fresh grape, but to find new aromas from the dried grape. We get this completely new flavor and aroma from the sun and the wind that is unique to this place."

Walking through the football-field lengths of drying sheds, one can see the grapes at various stages of the passito process, from fresh, plump, fleshy grapes, to dried fruit that almost look like raisins. But, instead of having a tart, mouth-puckering flavor, these dried grapes are ultra-sweet.

Later that evening, after swallowing a mouthful of dust and developing several charley horses on the back of my calves from the day's strenuous trek through the vineyards, it was time to celebrate back at the winery "Big House" in Khamma. Passito wine flowed like water as tray up tray of the island's prized "Gambero Rosso," the Ruby-red shrimp that feed on the island's coral reefs, were served. A sideboard of local cheeses and platters of olives and the popular dish, caponata, featuring the island's native capers begged further inspection. Meanwhile,  mounds of sugary sweet pastries, with their mouth crunchy layers of flaky, delicate layered pastry and marzipan covered cakes, jokingly called "the virgin's breast," were quaffed down with the heavenly golden Passito wine. This was truly a Feast for the Gods in a place they call "The Land of Liquid Prayers."
The windswept coastline and azure Mediterranean Sea of Pantelleria
Drying sheds for Passito grapes dot the landscape
The golden hue of Passito wines
Donnofugata Owner and CEO Jose Rallo and Dwight Casimere with a rack of Passito grapes

The ancient method of Passito leaves grapes drying in the open air under the intense sun
Donnafugata Hospitality Director Mimma Zingale and Dwight The Wine Doctor at the celebration
Native couscous is prepared in the traditional manner by hand
Zibbibo grapes grow in abundance everywhere on Pantelleria
Just another one of the field hands!
Zibbibo grapes are carefully sorted before the crush to ensure that only the best and ripest are used
Each grape bunch is carefully inspected and pruned by hand in the field
Donnafugata Owner and CEO Jose Rallo proudly presides over the Zibbibo harvest

Zibbibo grapes ready to be taken to the winery for the crush
A traditional Caponata
Donnafugata Technical Director and Winemaker Antonio Rallo is also President of the DOC Sicilia Consortium
Hand pruning and de-stemming in the field is back-breaking work
Zibbibo grapes drying "in passito" in the drying sheds at Donnafugata
Sunset over the Pantelleria harbor outside Castello Barbacane
The crushing facility and conveyor belt at Donnafugata's Pantelleria facility
The award-winning Ben Rye of Donnafugata


Capers grow wild across the island. Here, they are cultivated by farmers on terraced slopes
An ancient Bizantine stone house known as Pantelleria Dammuso
Below: Sunset over the island of Pantelleria


From August 31 to September 4, the Island of Pantelleria hosted the first edition of the festival Passitaly 2014, dedicated to the naturally sweet wines of the Mediterranean. Organized tastings, tours of wineries, a talk show, a musical and cultural tours highlighted this five day discovery of the wonders of the island.  Pantelleria's Regional Minister of Agriculture, Rural Development an Mediterranean Fisheries,  Ezichia Paolo Reale pointed to the island's importance as a "symbol of the civilization of the vine throughout the Mediterranean area and the nomination of the Zibbibo training system-Pantelleria alberello-in order that is protected and included on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of
Humanity List."  The Mayor of Pantelleria, Salvatore Gabriele described the island and its agricultural and viticultural heritage as "one of the finest and most delicate territories in the Mediterranean." With regards to the impetus behind Passitaly 2014, Gabriele said, "We want to affirm the value of an heoic viticulture based on the work of the Pantellerian farmer and their ability to manage the environment and nature in harmony and balance."

Friday, September 12, 2014

Meet The Dal Bianco family and learn of their passion for Prosecco at Masottina winery

Masottina is one of the finest wineries in the Prosecco zone

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere


Conegliano, Italy-Masottina winery is a commanding presence located atop one of the hills  surrounding this ancient city, known as the "Pearl of the Veneto." Founded in 1946, the winery is an expression of the Dal Bianco family's passion for wine and their love for the land and its history.  Their wines and their winery reflect both the deep traditions of the region and their commitment to the best agronomic practices. Visually and philosophically, Masottina is a profound representation of how a reverence for history can be successfully combined with a progressive view toward the future, all while producing great wine.


Owners Adriano and Franca Dal Bianco, along with their sons Federico and Filippo are the unified team executing the ambitious Prosecco program of Masottina. The winery, which began as a negotiant, drastically changed directions to become one of the largest and most respected Prosecco producers in the area. Located in the Piave area, in Gorgo al Monticano, north of Treviso, the family has established a new, state-of-the-art underground winery facility, which uses cutting-edge techonologies for vinification.

 All the while, the family utilizes best practices to ensure that the winery has a low environmental impact. The new winery was built in such a way that the structure conforms to the landscape. Energy is supplied from renewable sources.

The winery, and its operations, not only enhance the surroundings, but produce wines of incomparable quality. Just 30 miles north of Venice, the lush green hills leading up to the winery are covered with rows of grapevines caressing the steep slopes. The scenic route, known as La Strada di Prosecco, is commonly called the Prosecco Road. This is the home of the yellowish green Glera grape which flourishes here and becomes the straw-colored sparkling wine Prosecco; Italy's answer to champagne. The region is famous for wine and art. In fact, the famous painter Titian lived here. Looking out over the lavish expanse, one can experience the source of his inspiration.

Federico Dal Bianco stands waiting on a windswept hillside on the Masottina estate near the village of Ogliano.  Steps away on either side of him are on the right, rows of grapes that will soon be turned into   wine. On the right, the sloping roof of the subterranean winery where this year's harvest will be processed. Just in front is an ancient monastery that will be transformed into a conference and cultural center in the near future.

Harvesting is now underway. It is the most exciting time of the year in the Prosecco zone. Every member of the Dal Bianco family dispatches themselves to strategic locations in and around the winery to ensure a successful harvest. Enologist Fillipo Dal Bianco and his father, Adriano, are hands-on with workers in the vineyards. Marketing Director Federico Dal Bianco, is their impassioned spokesperson, describing the progress of the harvest to a group of visiting international wine journalists.

"I want to show you something really important," he said breathlessly, as we were entering a row of newly harvested vines. "This is the new, coming out of the old," he said, while stooping to reveal an old root stock protruding from the ground and pointing to the new vine that was joined to it. "What you see here is the new vine that has been grafted onto an old root stock.  We get the richness of the soil combined with the bright, complex flavors of the fruit from the new vines. In this way we get the best of the old and the new together!"

After loading the truck with a new batch of hand-picked grapes in the field, its off to the new winery. Grapes are carefully placed in the conveyor, where they are then sorted by hand to remove leaves, twigs, overripe and spoiled fruit by hand before going to a de-stemmer . The grapes then go for a joy ride down a chute into a special crushing machine. If you are to believe Federico, the resulting action is more of a caress than a crushing. "This is a very special crushing machine," he emphasizes. "We have to be very gentle with the delicate glera grape. This machine is specially made to crush only the most perfectly ripe grapes, leaving the unripened ones almost untouched. With glera, the ripe grapes and the unripe grapes all hang from the same vine. So we need for the machine to sort them out and have the ability to treat each dfferently. With this new technology, it all works out."

Stainless steel tanks stand like sentinels near the crushers, awaiting  receipt of the grapes for fermentation under a constant cold temperature.

Everything about the new winemaking facility speaks to a passion for the grapes and a love for the land. "We must respect the grapes, first and foremost. We must also have respect for the land that produces them. " The first thing you see when you approach the facility are the solar paneled roofs.  This is where the freshly picked grapes are brought in.

The winery was designed by Toni Follina, a famous Venetian architect who is best known for the Italian Space Agency's Rome headquarters. "We designed this Ipogeo Project with an idea to have as little impact as possible on the local ecology," Federico pointed out.


Layers of landfill on top of the underground facility reduce carbon monoxide emissiones. The ground cover also helps to insulate the facility, maintaining temperature and humidity levels that keep the use of air conditioning at a minimum. Inside, thermo-refrigeration systems are powered with energy derived from vineyard waste. The result is a a virtual "closed system" that recycles waste into energy, thus dispensing with harmful emissions.

Later that night, over an elaborate dinner, the Dal Bianco's relaxed from the labors of the day with a wine-pairing dinner that showcased the local produce, meats and fishes of the region with a broad selection of their Proseccos and still wines. At the conclusion of the meal, a special treat from their private cellar that harkened back to the earliest days of the winery.

The visit with Dal Bianco's at their Masottina winery was a rare look at the beating heart and impassioned soul of the people behind art of winemaking and the magic of Prosecco
 The harvest is in full swing at Masotinna winery near Conegliano

 The Glera grape from which Prosecco is made
 Federica Dal Bianco points to a new vine grafted onto old root stock
 Adriano Dal Bianco oversees the workers placing newly picked grapes on conveyor belts

 The hillside winery of Masottina
 The Dal Bianco family relaxes after a hard day at harvest on a meal airing their Proseccos and still wines with local seafood

Fresh, raw Gambero (shrimp or prawns)
Baked fresh Turbot, a local specialty
Rizzardo wine is a perfect match with seafood
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Adriano Dal Bianco relaxes at dinner after a hard day in the vineyard


Masottina makes some spectacular reds from both international and native grapes
 The vistas along the Prosecco Road
 Good times at a local Inn along the Prosecco Road
Below: lush views from the Prosecco Road



Thursday, September 11, 2014

Masottina Al Palazzi Merlot Riserva 2009-$19, Italy's Answer to a Fine Bordeaux


Wine of the Week-Masottina Al Palazzi Merlot Riserva 2009-$19
Story and photos by Dwight Casimere
Conegliano, Veneto, Italy--This is a thrilling, food-friendly red wine from the Conegliano region of the Veneto, which is best known for Prosecco sparkling wine.  Piave is the DOC region of designation, according to Italian wine laws.
This wine proves that the region can also produce some elegant Bordeaux style wines. Its complexity from a unique blend of soil, climate and latitude. Produced in Masottina's  high mountain vineyards, in the shadow of the Italian Alps, the grapes are grown in alluvial soils composed primarily of clay with an overlay of lime. This results in a unique flavor "spine" for the resulting wines. The Dal Bianco family is one of the largest and most respected vineyard operators in the region, who quickly gained respect for their  portfolio of sparkling wines and their reasonably priced wines made from both international and native varieties. Of late, the reserve wines created under the watchful eye of father Adriano Bianco and his sons Filippo, the winemaker and Federico, the Marketing Manager, have rated international praise from all corners of the wine media. Decanter magazine has rated the wine one of its top picks in a panel tasting and Snooth.com has named it one of its value picks. Don't let the nominal price of $19 fool you. This wine has the complexity and depth to stand up to anything more than double its price. It is a classic Merlot in every way with many layers of flavors from ripened black cherries to cassis, black pepper and hints of spice from oak aging. Grapes are handpicked at optimum sugar levels at harvest, they then undergo maceration in cold temperatures, followed by post-fermentive maceration. Depth of flavor and color come from a refining period in large Slavonian oak tanks, followed by aging in small French barriques for a period of two to three years, followed by a three month period of aging in the bottle. Soft, smooth tanins round out the flavor in the mouth.The Dal Biancos have been producing this superb winee since 1997 and it has become one of the flagships of its portfolio, particularly with the growing popularity of Italian Merlots. The grapes have become among the most planted in the Veneto region. The rustic nature of the vines, many grafted from ancient root stock, adds to the rustic nature of the vine and the complex character of the wine. This wine can be enjoyed with a variety of fresh pasta dishes, particularly those with fresh, crushed vine tomatoes and fresh oregano, topped with handmade mozarella cheese. Game meats, such as pheasant, guinea fowl, duck, or venison, even a char-grilled rare flank or skirt steak with a side of grilled fennel or onions and mushrooms would also make for an excellent flavor combination, particularly as we head into fall. I learned a new word at dinner with the Dal Bianco family, it's "squisito," Italian for something that is extremely delicious. It is also the equivalent of the English word "exquisite." I think that's even a more apt translation with regards to this wine.
Marketing Manager Federico Dal Bianco in the mountain vineyards of Masottina
The harvest is in full swing at Masottina
Al Palazzo Merlot
Above: The mountainside vineyards of Masottina above Conegliano
Below: The Alps loom in the background over Masottina's vineyards

 Contrasting the oldest and newest structures at the winery
 Hand-picked grapes are loaded into the state-of-the-art crusher in Masottina's new underground processing facility
 A 16th century monastery on the property is being reconfigured into a conference center and tasting room
Federico Dal Bianco decanters the 2002 Riserva
The incredible grilled Kobe-styled beef paired with Masottina Al Palazzi Merlot

 More views of Masottina's mountian vineyards above Conegliano

Dwight The Wine Doctor with Federico Dal Bianco, Marketing Manager, Masottina