Dessert or Desert? On the Island of Pantelleria, it may be both.

During my fourth and final session with the Associazionze Italiana Sommelier organization, we tasted  a real heart-breaker of a wine- the Donnafugata Ben Rye Passito di Pantelleria.  If you think you don’t like sweet wines, think again.  This golden elixir could charm the sugar-loving tendencies out of the grumpiest of old men.  It’s a magic potion from a mysterious island- a seductive and aromatic sensory vacation, made from grapes grown on an island that is frozen in time- deserted and alone- but thankfully not forgotten.
Donnafugata’s steep, terraced vineyards.

Passito di Pantelleria is made from the Moscato d’Alessandria grape, locally known as “Zibbibo”.  These grapes have been cultivated here for thousands of years, on this tiny isalnd off the coast of Sicily.  Pantelleria is closer to Africa than it is to “mainland” Italy- and its foods and flavors are probably more closely linked to Africa and its moorish traditions as well.  It’s no surprise that in a place like this where we find cuisine laced with dried grapes and currants, the local culture would also chose to turn those raisins into wine.

Passito di Pantelleria is a rare and expensive treat.  The process of cultivating grapes on (literally) a “Desert Island” is painstaking and physically taxing labor.  In addition to the mrecilessly exposed, sun-saturated terroir, the growers must contend with the hot Sciorroco winds that blow ceaselessly off the coast of Tunisia.  In some parts of Pantelleria a modified version of the “vines-in-a-hole” we found on the Canary Islands are employed.  The earth is dug out around the vines to help protect the fruit from the elements.

Zibbibo vines on Pantelleria

You can imagine how little juice is obtained from dried grapes- the fact that this tradition has not been completely lost to the pressures of today’s economy and the fast pace of our present-tense world amazes me.

If you have the chance to taste a Passito from Pantelleria, don’t pass it up.  These are the types of wines that will really open your mind to the broader spectrum of Italy’s enological spectrum.

I watched a few of my classmates taste the Donnafugata Pantelleria for the first time- you’ll understand if you watch somebody’s face during their first sip.  It’s one of those wines you simply have to experience to understand.  The frank apricot aromas, delicately layered with dried currant, prickly pear, caramelized sugar and dried flowers.  The texture of the wine in your mouth- lazy, supple and yet still bright with acidity and fruit.  Even the brilliant sparkle of this orange-hued potion as your swirl the glass.  It’s mesmerizing.