Sweet wines play a major role in Sicily’s storied past
When it comes to wine, Sicily is Italy’s It Girl. For the last decade, the reds of Mount Etna have been all the rage. More recently, Grillo has erupted in popularity as exuberantly as one of the region’s many volcanoes, establishing itself as Sicily’s flagship white next to red counterpart Nero d’Avola. Yet Sicily’s success doesn’t just lie with its dry wines. Sweet wines are the original flag bearers. So, despite being a steadfast salt hound, I made the trek to Sicily to hunt for sugary tonics.
“No wine has a story like sweet wines,” declares Master of Wine Demetri Walters, “and they have been with us for thousands of years.” He is leading a masterclass in the must-visit city of Palermo. The Greeks were crafting sweet elixirs in Sicily as far back as the 8th and 7th Century BC. Their technique of choice was to partially dry the grapes before crushing them, concentrating the sugars for stronger, more resilient wines.
This process, known as appassimento, is still common today, not just in Sicily but throughout Italy. Also, it is used for both sweet and dry wines (think Amarone). In Sicily, the dry climate and relentless sun support drying grapes outside on straw mats. The resulting sweet wines are thus characterized by an extra sun-kissed, baked quality and have an intense dried-fruit deliciousness to them. Passito wines, as they are called, differ from late-harvest wines in that the grapes are usually picked much earlier. Doing so helps preserve refreshing acidity, crucial to balancing these luscious treats. They are equally distinct from botrytis-affected wines like Sauternes and Tokay, which are marked by noble rot.
Pantelleria is Sicily’s poster child for passito. Often referred to as the black pearl, this volcanic island sits on the 26th parallel, closer to Tunisia than to Sicily. Besides being extremely arid, the island is battered by wind. The name Pantelleria comes from the Arabic Bent el Riah, or “daughter of the wind.” And in the hours leading up to my scheduled flight to the island, she was throwing a howling tantrum. I was told that 70 knots per hour is normal, but surely that is hurricane force … I didn’t quite believe I would actually make it to Pantelleria until I was buckled up in my airplane seat staring down at the dark mass rising out of the Mediterranean.
Safely on the ground, I immediately appreciated the squat architecture and low-lying vegetation. Bush vines are planted in shallow depressions called conca. Not only does this give some protection from the wind, but it also allows dew to collect overnight, providing the vine with precious moisture. Dry stone walls offer further shelter while also serving to curb erosion and delimit growers’ small parcels. Besides vines, olives and capers mingle with pink peppercorns, figs, wild fennel, lemons, oranges and carob in this sneaky Garden of Eden. Many of these flavours are echoed in the wines.
Amazingly, one single grape variety dominates the island — Zibibbo, aka Moscato di Alessandria. Often (unfairly) considered inferior to its parent Moscato Bianco (Muscat Blanc à Petit Grain), Zibibbo comes into its own on Pantelleria. And most of the grapes — approximately 75 percent — are destined to make sweet wine in one form or another. A little bit is late harvested and called Moscato di Pantelleria, but a lot more is fortified to produce Moscato or Passito Liquoroso. The most impressive wine, however is the “natural” Passito. After drying in the sun for a couple of weeks, the grapes are added either to fermenting must or to fully fermented wine for a massive boost of sugar. Rich enough to stand up to the sweetest of puddings, Passito di Pantelleria sports intense aromas of sultanas, figs and marmalade. Though not particularly high in acidity, the best wnes have a tactile grip and slight bitterness that lends surprising balance.
Despite hundreds of grape growers here, few actually make wine. Among the island’s nine consortium wineries, the largest is Donnafugata, which set up shop here in 1989. Their passito, Ben Ryé, is the flagship of their Pantelleria production. Owner Antonio Rallo describes that it takes a whopping four kilograms of grapes to produce one litre of wine, more than double what is required for most regular wine. Add that to the 50 percent loss in crop due to wind damage and it is evident that they aren’t out to make an easy buck. “At the start, we gave it away for free just to get people to know it,” claims Rallo. Alas, I was not of legal drinking age back then. Today Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé is one of Italy’s most well known and beloved dessert wines and has put Pantelleria on the modern wine map.
By no means exclusive to Pantelleria, sweet wines pop up in every pocket of Sicily. To the region’s northeast, the blustery Aeolian archipelago gets its moniker from Aeolus, the god of wind. Born from two active volcanoes, this group of eight islands is also referred to as the Lipari Islands after the largest in the chain. As on Pantelleria, sweet wine harks back to antiquity and wines are still largely made with sun-dried grapes today, though a small portion of late-harvest wine is also produced.
Called Malvasia delle Lipari, these rare treasures were given a new lease on life when Milan artist/designer Carlo Hauner started making wine here in the 1960s. Without him, this wine might have fallen completely into oblivion. Even nowadays, less than a dozen producers exist and vineyards total a mere 90 hectares.
While the setting might sound similar to Pantelleria, here the wines are made from the rare Malvasia di Lipari grape. Comparing it to Zibibbo, winemaker Pietro Colosi of Cantine Colosi says, “Malvasia di Lipari does not produce as much sugar, is higher in acidity and has more delicate flavours.” The resulting wines are elegant and fresh despite their sweetness. Along with exquisite apricot flavours, I find that appealing notes of herbal tea add complexity and intrigue. While the passito would be lovely with fruit-based desserts, Colosi suggests pairing the late-harvest wines, which are less sweet and concentrated, with fresh or aged cheese.
At the aforementioned masterclass, Walters introduced a whole of host of sweet treats made from a variety of techniques and grapes. Beyond passito and late harvests, some producers are playing with botrytis-affected grapes while others are experimenting with non-indigenous varieties, such as Sémillon and Gewürztraminer. In all cases, these experiments typically represent a small slice of the winery’s total production. “The difficulty of sweet wines is that they are seasonal in appeal,” laments Walters. “They are consumed at the end of the meal when entertaining, mostly in winter and above all at Christmas.” That is a pretty slim window of opportunity.
So why do producers persist? “We need to respect nature, the native varieties and our traditions, because this is what makes us different from Tuscany or Veneto,” responds Marco Bernabei, consulting oenologist at Baglio di Pianetto, whose 2000-bottle production of Ra’is Essenza is made from Moscato Bianco grapes that have been dried on the vine. “It is a longer, more difficult road, but in the long run it is much more satisfying.”
Put that way, I, for one, feel compelled to drink more of these decadent delights. And after a few days under the spell of Sicily, they quickly become hard to resist. The trick now is hunting them down at home.
Tasting Sweet Wines from Sicily
Coste Ghirlanda Alcova 2012, Passito di Pantelleria DOC ($40)
Ex-basketball pro Giulia Pazienza Gelmetti established this 11-hectare estate after immediately falling in love with the island in 2001. An explosion of fig, sultana and raisin cake, this wine is full-bodied and unctuous with a touch molasses and lots of orange marmalade to finish.
Donnafugata Ben Ryé 2015, Passito di Pantelleria DOC ($40)
A gorgeous expression of honey, candied orange peel and subtle caramel nuances. The intense sweetness is brilliantly countered by an appetizing saline edge. While I love drinking this wine fresh and young, tasting a couple of older vintages demonstrated its ability to age. Caramel and fig notes were dialled up in the 2008 while the 2005 offered an exotic mix of coffee, bouillon and dried herb.
Donnafugata Kabir 2017, Moscato di Pantelleria DOC ($30)
Neither dried nor late harvested, the grapes for Kabir come from a specific site that naturally yields super-ripe Zibibbo. It is lower in alcohol (11%) and half the residual sugar of Ben Ryé. While not as complex, it does possess lovely peach and orange sorbet notes along with a snap of pink peppercorn. Perfect for lighter desserts.
Cantine Colosi Na’jm Malvasia delle Lipari 2014, DOC Passito ($35)
Made from grapes that are dried in the sun during the day and brought inside at dusk to protect them from overnight dew, this passito is understated yet captivating. Iced mint tea and dried apricot make way for mineral and balsamic notes to emerge on the palate.
Baglio di Pianetto Ra’is Essenza Moscato 2012, IGP Terre Siciliane ($30)
This wine hails from the area of Noto in Sicily’s southeast where lofty temperatures encourage Moscato Bianco grapes to raisin directly on the vine. A mouthful of orange and peach flowers, almonds, vanilla and honey, it makes me crave crème brûlée.
Gorghi Tondi Grillodoro 2015, IGP Terre Siciliane ($45)
A one-of-a-kind wine. Unlike Sicily’s passito wines, which are typically made with fully aromatic grapes, Grillodoro is crafted from the semi-aromatic Grillo variety. Furthermore, the grapes are late harvested and a small portion has been affected by noble rot. The result is a rich and textured wine with apricot jam and subtle marzipan.
Feudo Arancio Hekate Passito 2014, IGP Terre Siciliane ($40)
Another charming and sweet curiosity, Hekate blends native cohorts Zibibbo, Grillo and Inzolia with non-indigenous Sémillon, each harvested at different times and air-dried on trellis wires. All lemon verbena tea on a backbone of vibrant acidity.