On An Ancient Sicilian Island, Heroic Farming Produces A Singular Sweet Wine (Forbes)

Forbes is one of the best known American business magazines; today it has been published an interesting interview to Antonio Rallo to speak about Ben Ryé.

Sauternes, Tokay, Vin Santo. The great dessert wines of the world all offer inimitable charms. While I’ve had occasion to enjoy many in their place of creation, I’ve seldom tasted one that sung so firmly and sweetly of its homeland as Ben Ryé by Donnafugata.

From an island positioned between Sicily and North Africa, comes this white passito-style wine made from the aromatic grape Zibibbo. I’ve never visited Pantelleria; I’ve only read about the “heroic” viticulture practiced by island farmers to ensure enough grapes survive each harvest to make limited quantities of this expression. Indeed, it’s unusual for a wine, let alone a sweet one, to leave an indelible impression on me when tasting it so far from the source. More so to compel an entire missive dedicated to it.

I first smelled the floral, honeyed notes of Ben Ryé in front of a fireplace in the Catskills. To the crackle of pine logs, snug beneath a wool blanket, I poured a glass for me and my husband to sample after a long dinner. Golden-hued, aromatic, intense, and yet fresh – the key to creating balance in a wine with high residual sugar. Expressing the flavors of candied orange, apricot, and almonds, the nectar kept morphing in the glass. It was worthy of quiet meditation, coincidentally perfect for that moment since the cabin we’d rented lacked a television.

When I got back to the city, I contacted the producer to see if the winemaker might share the secrets behind the bottle of Ben Ryé 2015 Passito di Pantelleria DOC I had savored. Fortunately, Antonio Rallo was willing to speak about the family business and why that Sicilian wine was so damn good.

Antonio Rallo of Donnafugata

How did you get involved in the wine business?
I was born in Rome in 1967, but grew up in Marsala, Sicily where my family comes from. I actually started my experience in winemaking as a 3-years old accompanying my grandfather in the vineyards and cellars. Together with my sister José, I am the fifth generation of a family that has produced quality wines since 1851. My father Giacomo Rallo founded Donnafugata in 1983 together with my mother Gabriella. Growing up amongst vineyards and wineries in Sicily, I always believed in an innovative interpretation of the wine-growing potential offered by this land. Before immersing myself completely in winemaking, I lived in Germany, developing my skills by working for an importing company and broadening my knowledge of wines from around the world.

Why is Pantelleria Island so unique?
Pantelleria, situated between Sicily and Africa, traditionally is an island of farmers rather than of fishermen. It’s an island of volcanic origin with sandy soils, earning the moniker the “black pearl of the Mediterranean Sea” due to its natural beauty. Here, Donnafugata cultivates 168 acres across 14 different districts offering different soil, altitude, exposure, micro-climatic conditions and vine age. Some vines exceed 100 years of age and are ungrafted.

The grape variety for Ben Ryé is Zibibbo (Moscato di Alessandria). The harvest lasts about a month. In order to protect grapes from the island’s strong winds, the vines are trained as a low bush in hollows, such that they are almost creeping along the ground. This training method has been recently inscribed onto the UNESCO world heritage list as an “highly sustainable and creative” agricultural practice. Most vineyards/terrains are very steep, so to cultivate them, the farmers – over the course of centuries — have created terraces, delimited by volcanic stone walls. For its isolated geographical position, strong winds, low bush trained vine system, terraces, intensity of the labor, and the rare rainfall coupled with complete absence of natural ground water, Pantelleria can be considered an example of heroic viticulture. It is viticulture truly integrated with the island’s landscape

Hand destemming of dried grapes is very labor intensive

And what makes Ben Ryé so unique?
We started making the wine in 1989. There are certain factors that contribute to its quality and singularity. Notably, the island’s volcanic soils and the extraordinary aromatic potential of the grape variety Zibibbo. Add this to the context of the heroic viticulture I described above. As far as the steps in the production, the following are most important to the creation of flavor, texture and and that freshness for balance you mentioned:

  • Selection of clusters in the beginning of harvest from different vineyards to assure a perfect balance between acidity, and phenolic and sugar ripeness;
  • Natural drying process by sun and wind. Before the clusters are put on racks outside for drying they are carefully controlled to sort out damaged or unripen berries; and
  • Manual destemming of dried grapes (which are not completely dried, so as to retain fresh flavors), and the gradual addition of destemmed dried grapes to must in fermentation (obtained from fresh grapes) at controlled temperature.

The entire article is here: On An Ancient Sicilian Island, Heroic Farming Produces A Singular Sweet Wine


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