Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Journey to Donnafugata; a wine and winery nurtured in paradise

The wines of Marsala and Pantelleria present the best of Sicily

Story and photo gallery by Dwight Casimere

Marsala, Sicily in Italy---There are few places as steeped in history, legend and archeological treasure as Sicily. Marsala, with its signature, distinctive wine and sweeping panorama of history is a particular treasure and, for the past 160 years, Tenuta Di Donnafugata has been an integral part. The family, the wines and the land are as intertwined as the grape vines, olive trees and wildflowers that abound in its rugged, hillside vineyards.

On a recent visit, Donnafugata's active participants, the brother and sister team of Antonio Rallo, techinical director and Jose Rallo, CEO, hosted an extravagant tour of the winery's properties in Marsala and an exquisite tasting and menu sampling of their wines and local culinary delights. It was a day and  evening in paradise.

Donnafugarta's vineyards in Marsala stretch from the highest volcanic hills to the shores of the shining Mediterranean Sea. Along  the way, wild flowers, olive trees and fresh herbs delight both the eye and the senses. There is a firm sense of history and place here. It is a landscape that is revered in history and which was captured by modern day filmmakers such as the legendary Italian director Roberto Rosellini and The Italian-American Director Francis Ford Coppola. Sweeping vistas seem ripe for photographic images and this blogger took full advantage of its sweeping vistas and intimate grottos.
 Donnafugata CEO Jose Rallo and the sweeping panorama of her vineyards, high above Marsala

 The rocky, gravely limestone and clay soil that stresses the vines, creating rich, intense and flavorful wines

 The ancient ruins, old farmhouses and volcanic mountains that dominate the landscape of Marsala, Sicily
 Fragrant wild fennel, rosemary and other herbs, along with beautiful wildflowers, dot the landscape and vineyards adding both visual,  aromatic and flavor texture to the wines of Donnafugata
Jose Rallo, a superb jazz vocalist, finds inspiration in the beautiful hillside vineyards

 Dwight The Wine Doctor amongst the flora and fauna of Marsala

Grapes,  wild herbs and olive trees are intermingled across the panoramic expanse. This is one of the most abundant sources of wine grapes in all of Italy and ground zero for the production of some of the region's most expressive wines.

Sicilian Photo Gallery by Dwight Casimere

The vineyards in the hills above Marsala, Sicily

"The vineyards you're seeing today are special, Jose Rallo said during a tour of the family vineyards. "We have an experimental vineyard where we are planting many of the idigenous varieties of grapes that had been abandoned. We are cultivating these rare, old varieties in order to develop clones and to find the right soil and the right climate in order to improve our native grapes in general."

The wines of Donnafugata
Besides being Technical Director of Donnafugata, where he heads a team of enologists and agronomists (soil experts), Antonio Rallo is also President of Assovini Sicilia, the Association of Sicilian Wine Producers, which sponsored Sicilia en Primeur2013, the 10th edition of the showcase in which over 70 journalists from across the gobe were invited to experience the exponential depth and development of the image of Sicilian wines. Convened at the prestigious Grand Hotel Piazza Borsa in historic central Palermo, it was an opportunity to explore, in depth, the qualities of the latest vintages of Sicilian wines as well as those already in 2013 release. In addition to the tastings, Sicilian en Primeur featured behind-the-scenes tours of Sicily's most prestigious wineries and wine growing regions.

Downtown Palermo, Sicily with its historic Baroque Buildings and towering volcanic mountains
Inside the private estate and gardens of Donnafugata, tastefully designed by Jose Rallo's mother, Gabriella

The beautiful Gabriella Rallo
Gabriella's scrupulously tended Roses
There's always room for dessert, the traditional "Virgin's Breasts!'
Antonio and Jose Rallo at the exquisite buffet dinner of traditional Sicilian delights

Exquisite wines with a sense of history, time and place

The wines of Donnafugata are complete expressions of the diversity of Sicilian wines and grape varietals, which are unique to the region. With the exception of the luscious, honey-toned Ben Rye Marsala wine, which sells for $41.99 the half bottle, the majority of Donnafugata's 90+ rated wines sell for under $20, with most at a comfortable $14.99 in many U. S. wine shops and supermarkets. The wines are proof positive that one doesn't have to spend an arm and a leg for exceptional value in wine.
At a lovely buffet dinner, which featured many Sicilian specialties and traditional favorites, there was an opportunity to appreciate the full range of flavor experiences offered by wines made from the indigenous grapes of Sicily.

Wines tasted included a vertical tasting of Donnafugata's signature wines from the Contessa Entellina estate and vineyards, including Chiaranda 2006 and 2009 and a special tasting of Chiaranda del Merlo 1999 and 2001, a rare opportunity indeed! Also, a vertical tasting of Mille e una Notte 2000, 2003, and 2007 followed by, of course, a fabulous meal, an hilarious dessert, the traditional "Virgin's Breasts" (which brought howls and a string of bawdy jokes, which cannot be repeated in this space!) and the marvelous jewel in the Donnafugata crown, Ben Rye, the finest example of Marsala wine on the planet!

Olive trees and fresh herbs and flowers intertmingle with grape vines in a traditional Sicilian vineyard

 Recent wine releases from Donnafugata from the Tenuta di Contessa Entellina

 Inside Gabriella's Garden at the Marsala estate of Donnafugata

 More luxurious interiors of the Marsala Estate of Donnafugata

 From the vineyard to the glass!

The evening began with a premiere tasting of Donnafugata Brut ($38), an ideal apperitif   from the Tenuta di Contessa Entellina. A blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it is a surprisingly elegant and well-balanced sparkling wine with nice acidity and bright, fruit flavors that literally dance on the palate. White peaches, apricots and a hint of crystallized honey and wildflowers, with a touch of wild fennel in the backnote, make for a pleasurable introduction to any summertime meal.

The grand finale of the trip to Donnafugata was the Pantelleria Tasting at Contessa Entellina April 25, 2013. It featured the incomparable Kabir 2011-Moscato di Pantelleria DOP, a 100% Zibibbo (aka Muscat of Alexandria), an indigenous and historic grape variety. It is  characterized by grapes warmed by a long, hot summer. The harvest began late, on September 15th with climatic conditions that allowed for the obtaining of healthy, luscious grapes, with great aromatic intensity. The wine is characterized by flavors of intense, fresh fruit and heady aromas of wild flowers, and notes of honeyed citrus and ginger. Ben Rye is the flagship wine of Donnafugata and Marsala. Ben Rye 2004-Passito di Pantelleria DOC-Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria is comprised of grapes that are dried on racks (passito) for 3-4 weeks, then fermented at controlled, cool temperatures before aging. With an alcohol level of 14.18% and residual sugar of 191g/l, this is a well-structured wine with tons of flavor on the palate. The season began late, with cooler than average temperatures, leading to a slow and even ripening of the grapes, thus enhancing the sugar-acid balance as well as aromatic maturation. The rich, volcanic soil, so typical of the Pantelleria region, gives a richness and balance to the wine, which tastes sweet on first impression, but deepens in passionate flavor and complexity with each sip. Tastings of Ben Rye
2010 and 2006 only intensified the experience!                                        


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