Let’s talk about the big island at the toe of Italy’s boot. You know – Sicily! And lets talk about one of its prominent producers that is showing us all the stuff when it comes to this mighty island – Donnafugata.
Sicily lies in the heart of the Mediterranean and is the largest island in this massive sea. Despite being an island, it offers remarkable diversity. It is a crossroad of cultures as it has been ruled by the Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Vikings, Normans, and on and on. All that history has left no shortage of ancient ruins (next to Greece, Sicily has the most Greek ruins), artifacts, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and more. Geographically speaking, it’s known for its mountains, the most famous of which is the still-active, recurrently-erupting Mt. Etna. Then there are those glorious, sun-soaked beaches. With 930 miles of coastline, you’d be hard pressed not to find a spot to dip your toe in the gorgeous blue Mediterranean.
When it comes to wine growing, Sicily has a tremendous diversity of indigenous grape varieties, microclimates, and terroirs – each with its own unique characteristics and biodiversity. But wine hasn’t always been a glamour story for Sicily. While wine has been made there for millennia, producers in the past often opted for quantity over quality and Sicily became known as a place of bulk wines. In the last couple of decades and increasingly so, that image has changed. Producers are no longer content with making bulk wines, and instead are focused on making quality wines on a smaller scale which are representative of their terroir. All told, there are over 450 producers making wine in Sicily. Even better is the wide-ranging emphasis on sustainability. Ask a wine geek what region’s wines excites them today, and you’ll definitely hear Sicily more than once. (More)
To be sure, native, indigenous varieties reign supreme in Sicily. If you’ve ever cooked with Marsala wine, know that this is where it comes from. But let me just say that Marsala can be, and is, way more than a cheap cooking wine.
Probably the island’s best known grape, Nero d’Avola can be anywhere from full-bodied with bold red fruit to more nuanced with earthy and spicy notes. Sicily’s multiple microclimates translate to wines with varying characteristics even though produced from the same grape. Overall, the wines are known for ripe red fruit, marked acidity, and fine tannins and pair nicely with a wide variety of foods including roasted meats and veggies. Many see it as an alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon but the smooth, fine tannins are also reminiscent of Merlot. I once thought they were all fresh and fruity, but have definitely had some more complex, robust versions.
Frappato is a red grape native to eastern Sicily that produces more simple, easy drinking wines with fresh red fruit flavors and light tannins. Perfect as a refreshing summer red, I’ve had a few that are like having an aromatic bowl full of cherries. Frappato is also sometimes blended with Nero d’Avola (which must make up 50-70%) to produce Cerasuolo di Vittoria, which is Sicily’s lone DOCG.
Nerello Mascalese & Nerello Cappuccio
Though small in terms of Sicily as a whole, Nerello Mascalese is undoubtedly the star of the Mt. Etna region and is the dominant varietal in Etna Rosso. Emerging as one of the most exciting regions of Sicily, the Etna region sits on yep, Mount Etna which is an active, sometimes erupting volcano. And yet, people grow grapes and make wine there – at 3,500 feet! So it’s like having a volcano in your glass. That altitude along with the area’s nutrient-rich volcanic soils (excellent for grape growing) have found producers scrambling to acquire land for vineyards. Etna Rosso wines must have a minimum of 80% Nerello Mascalese and a maximum of 20% Nerello Cappuccio. And let me just say, I’m absolutely smitten with these wines.
Moving into the white varieties grown on the island, Catarratto leads the way. Producing both light and full-bodied wines with apple, stone fruit, and citrus characteristics, it is one of the grapes used in Marsala. It also is a lower acid white wine, which in that respect reminds me somewhat of Viognier.
Emerging as an exciting white wine option on the island, Grillo offers up both light-bodied, crisp, fresh wines as well as more fuller-bodied, complex wines when its sees some lees (that’s skin to you) contact. On the whole, the wines exhibit citrus, apple, spice, and floral aromas. It can be an excellent alternative to Chardonnay. Lighter versions pair well with shrimp, scallops, and sushi while fuller versions sing with heartier fish such as swordfish and seafood pasta. It is also one of the grapes used in Marsala wines.
The other main varietal in Marsala (though there are a couple others), Inzolia is also being produced as a dry varietal wine or as a component in dry white blends. While known as a lower acid wine, it can be made in a crisp style and often exhibits floral, herbaceous, nutty and citrus characteristics. So basically, if you aren’t an acid head, many of these whites are perfect!
Made as both a single variety wine and as a component in blends of local and/or international varieties, Grenaico has recently been found to have quite similar DNA to Italy’s Garganega which produces Soave in Italy’s Veneto region. The grape produces wines that are high acid, tangy, with citrus notes and is often compared to Sauvignon Blanc.
Donnafugata Wines Showcase the Diversity of Sicily
I still remember the first time I had the opportunity to taste Donnafugata’s wines. I’d heard so much about the wines over the yeas, so when they participated in a local event for wine trade, I seriously made a beeline to their table to try the entire lineup of wines they were presenting. And I was not disappointed!
A Little Donnafugata Background
Founded in 1983 by Giacomo Rallo, Donnafugata is part of a family legacy that has been involved in wine production through five generations and over 170 years. They are at the heart of the success story that is Sicily and I personally love what they stand for – wine, art, and femininity. The name ‘Donnafugata’ originates from the Sicilian novel, Il Gattopardo and refers to character Queen Maria Carolina, who fled Naples and found refuge where the company’s vineyards are located today. Her story also inspired the brand’s logo which is the face of a woman with her hair blowing in the wind. So ok, I will rarely choose a wine based on its label, but y’all, I’m such a fan of the Donnafugata labels!
Interestingly enough, there are parallels to Queen Maria’s story and that of Gabriella Anca Rallo, wife of Giacomo. Gabriella fled her job as a teacher to take care of the Contessa Entellina vineyards full time. And her mark on the wine industry is quite remarkable. She was one of the founding members of the National Association of Women in Wine, which is an organization that trains and seeks to enhance the role of women in the wine industry. She was also one of the first women in Sicily in Italy to take a prominent role in winemaking. And in 2018, she was awarded the honor of Commendatore of the Italian Republic.
In addition to their focus on art and femininity, Donnafugata has a strong commitment to environmentally conscious and sustainable wines and because of that, crafts small batch wines from unique territories and vineyards. The winery was one of the first wineries in Italy to produce all of its electricity from solar energy, taking advantage the extensive Sicilian sunshine. They strengthened their ESG sustainability commitment by joining the SOStain Sicily Foundation and employ a laundry list of practices that seek to protect soil biodiversity as well minimize the use of energy and other natural resources. Additionally, in 2015 the island of Pantelleria, where they grown the grapes for their famous Ben Rye wine, was given UNESCO certification recognizing its unique vine training method as well as its protection and enhancement of the island’s biodiversity.
The Donnafugata Wines
Given their deep roots on the island, they are able to truly showcase the history and nature of Sicily’s diversity through their vineyards which span from east to west in a multitude of different terroirs. Y’all these are fun, tasty, and thought-provoking wines.
If you’re in the mood for white wine, the Donnafugata Anthìlia ($17-22 from Vivino and Wine.com) is a tasty, versatile wine. Its one of their best known white wines and exudes fresh fruit and floral notes having only seen stainless steel. Lucido (synonym for Catarratto) is the the predominant variety and is complemented by other local and international varieties. And if it’s important to you, this wine is always received well by the wine critics.
The SurSur Grillo ($20-23 from Total Wine & Wine.com) is another great white option from Donnafugata. As mentioned above, Grillo can be made in a variety of styles. This one is on the fresh and fruity side with lots of tropical and stone fruits. Easy drinking, it goes dow quite easy. I always enjoy this one.
For the reds, the Floramundi Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG ($29 on Vivino) is the island’s classic blend of Nero d’Avola and Frappato and with its lack of wood, is a smooth and fruity wine with classic pepper notes. For me, I love it with pizza.
Tancredi ($40-45 from Total Wine and Vivino) with its Cabernet Sauvignon, Nero d’Avola, and other small amounts of local and international red varietals, provides rich blue and black fruit, mocha, leather, and earthy characteristics along with smooth, robust tannins. You’ll love this one with a hearty steak.
Of course, you can’t have wines from Sicily and not have wine from Etna. The Sul Vulcano Etna Rosso ($29-36 from Vivino and wine.com) is one of my faves, particularly at its price point. Not to mention, I loves me some Etna Rosso. Mature and dried red-fruit with grippy tannins and a mineral edge, its a thought-provoking as it is tasty.
If you’re going big (you know what they say) the Mille e Una Notte ($90 at Total Wine) deserves its place as Donnafugata’s flagship wine. The name means ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ which is a reference to the tales that inspires the label’s artwork. Crafted of Nero d’Avola, Petit Verdot and Syrah, among others, this is a big wine and a great one to cozy up. Robust and concentrated and offering lots of complexity, its fun to watch it evolve as it opens up. Bold dark berry fruits, earthiness, graphite, spice, and built to age.
And if you’re in the mood for dessert, I highly recommend the Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria ($48 from wine.com). If you’re not in the know, passito wines are sweet wines made from dried, raisined grapes. When the grapes dry out, the sugars in the grapes become concentrated and the flavors intensified. The Ben Ryé wine is named after the Arabic expression for “Son of the Wind” and pays tribute to the breezes that constantly blow around the Zibibbo grapes on the volcanic island of Pantelleria. Rich, unctuous with dried apricot, orange marmalade and a touch of herbs.
I hope I’ve convinced you to level up and try some Donnafugata wines – or any wine from Sicily for that matter. I mean, just think how cool you’ll look when you show up with one of these unique, tasty wines to your next social event. Hmm, I may need to update my 2023 wine trends to include Sicily. Cheers until next time!