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Donnafugata's Ben Rye, one of the most-known Passito di Pantelleria.

Getting a taste of the Delicious Dessert Wines of Pantelleria

It is far from a secret that discerning travelers around the world are overjoyed and at times overwhelmed by the sheer pleasure of enjoying Italian food and wine. Since Italian food culture is deeply rooted in locally-produced ingredients and traditional cooking, The Italian Tribune relishes the opportunity to share with our readers the recipes and cultural elements from each region of the country. This is especially true of locations that are ‘off the beaten path’ and when it comes to wines, it is especially satisfying when we can introduce our readers to unforgettable wines that they might otherwise overlook.

Italian wines deservedly have a reputation for being stylish and sophisticated to the palate and with so many gorgeous landscapes and innovative wineries in Italy, the promise of great wine adventures while traveling is intoxicating. Wine aficionados are spoiled when it comes to selections from Italy, with some of the oldest and finest wine regions nestled in an environment that is ideal for the varieties of grapes, whether the location is north in the Piedmont or in the southern reaches of Sicily.

For those wine lovers who are already skilled in distinguishing between a Barolo and an Amarone or a Gavi and Cortese, perhaps your next wine pilgrimage should be to head south to the island of Pantelleria. Known for its lavishly sweet wines, Pantelleria is located roughly 60 miles southwest of Sicily. Administratively, the island belongs to the Sicilian province of Trapani, but it is a world all its own, or as Italian Tribune Publisher Buddy Fortunato likes to refer to the island, “It is truly God’s country.”

With an area of 32 square miles, Pantelleria is the largest of Sicily’s volcanic islands. The last eruption occurred below sea level in 1891, but the phenomena related to volcanic activity can be observed at any time, most notably its hot springs. This has led in more recent times to several resorts and spas opening, allowing the island to become a destination for those in the know. As remote as its location appears to be, Pantelleria was on the cusp of becoming the next top trending destination for wine experts and lovers of la dolce vita as the 21st century unfolded. It was pushed directly into the limelight when in 2014, UNESCO Heritage status was awarded to the wines of Pantelleria. Thirty growers cultivate vite ad alberello (meaning head-trained bush vines); a technique developed by the Phoenicians who arrived on the island 2,500 years ago.

If your aim is to discover the wines of Pantelleria, you will undoubtedly want to visit this remarkable island. Pantelleria is commonly known as “The Black Pearl of the Mediterranean.” The wines from the island have a history like no others. In ancient mythology, Apollo was seduced by the goddess Tanit, who succeeded by serving Muscat wine from the island of Pantelleria. That wine is now called Moscato and is produced from the ancient Zibibbo grape which flourishes in the climate of Pantelleria. Another wine from the island and from the Zibibbo is the delightful Passito.

You will be indulging in something rather special when you taste the wines of the Pantelleria region. For many centuries, it was a closely guarded secret, savored only by locals. This was until an entrepreneur realized that the unique character of the wine would delight connoisseurs, who would pay handsomely for the vintages. Exporting of the wine to the mainland of Italy finally began in the 1880s and gained a foothold as a storied and special wine. Almost a century later, Passito and Moscato di Pantelleria wines were granted the esteemed DOC status.

For those who are uninitiated, Passito di Pantelleria will prove to be a unique discovery. As a dessert wine, it is one that is seductive from the very first sip. The ‘passito’ method involves the partial sun-drying the grapes on straw mats in order to concentrate the natural sugars prior to the fermentation process. A rich and indulgent wine is the end result that combines the aroma of honey with intense and abundant flavors of marmalade and toffee. Passito pairs perfectly with ripe, creamy cheeses, such as Asiago Pressato from the Po Valley near Treviso, combining flavors from the north and south of Italy.

A day visiting the vineyards is a superb way to soak up Pantelleria’s enchanting countryside and to sample the fine wines of the region. Numerous vineyards offer tours to see the wine in production and to enjoy a tasting session. Combining the practicality of a modern wine estate with traditional methods make Pantelleria a great discovery on anyone’s wine tour bucket list.

Some of the estates to consider visiting include Donnafugata, which is the home of the famous Ben Rye Passito wine. The vineyard in Pantelleria offers tours and tastings throughout the summer months. Not far away is the wine estate of Marco De Bartoli, which offers a pre-dinner wine tasting in the late afternoon that provides an opportunity to taste their numerous wines produced from the remarkable Zibibbo grape. Additionally, make sure to check out the vintages from Abraxas winery. This relative newcomer was founded in 1999; however, the individual responsible is none other than Calogero Mannino, the former Italian Minister of Agriculture. Like many, he fell in love with the island and then used his incomparable knowledge of agriculture in vinification to create wines to capture the enchantment of Pantelleria. The vineyard’s Passito has an outstanding sugar to acidity balance, with flavors reminiscent of raisins and dried figs, hints of citrus and outstanding finish.

Finally, if you want to feel as though you have been seduced like the Greek god Apollo, try Cantina Basile, which produces three types of wines of the finest quality, each produced following ancient winemaking traditions. From the mythology of centuries past to the technology of today, the Zibibbo grape has stood the test of time. Now it is your time to discover Pantelleria and its remarkable wines.