Capturing the essence of a particular terroir in a wine bottle is no small feat. And yet, the Rallo family and their talented team do it every time. Each bottle of Donnafugata wine holds the magic of Sicily, and every pour and sip transports me to this enchanting island. I have fond memories of my first trip to Sicily several years ago and cherish the time spent with the Rallo family as they graciously hosted us for several days.
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by the Ionian Sea to the east and the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west. It is located about two miles off the coast of Italy and is approximately 87 miles away from the north African shores of Tunisia. There is much to explore here, from the beautiful beaches to ancient ruins and breathtaking landscapes. Sicily is rich in culture and history, with human activity dating back to around 12,000 BC. It is considered a melting pot of North African, Middle Eastern, Greek, Roman, and Spaniards. Sicily’s delectable cuisine reflects this multiculturalism and can be enjoyed in all its varied forms throughout the island.
In addition to Sicily being the fourth largest wine producer in Italy, one can also find olive trees, wheat, citrons, capers, figs, lemons, oranges, and pistachios growing here. Most of the island is dedicated to agriculture, with approximately 112,700 hectares ( 27,8488 acres) devoted to grapevines. Its diversity of land and soil, the winds, and proximity to the ocean all play a large part in the growth of grapes and character of the wine. Volcanic eruptions over the years and the surrounding seas have contributed to mineral-rich and fertile soil. It is interesting to note that the same grape can have many different expressions, depending on where it is grown on the island.
With a family history of making wine dating back to 1851, Giacomo Rallo (fourth generation) and his wife Gabriella created Donnafugata in 1983. Sadly, Giacomo passed away in May 2016. He is considered a pioneer of a new generation of modern winemaking in Sicily, seeking a quality-based approach to viniculture and promoting the island’s cultural heritage. His wife Gabriella is a pioneer in her own right. She is a trailblazer of quality viticulture in Sicily and the inspiration and author behind most Donnafugata labels. The wine labels are quite whimsical and pay homage to various works of art and literature.
The name Donnafugata means “woman in flight” and refers to a piece of literature called “Il Gattopardo” (The Leopard) by Tomasi di Lampedusa. The story is about a queen who found refuge in the area of Sicily where the company’s vineyards are located today. This image and corporate logo capture the very essence of Gabriella.
In 1990, their children and fifth generation, Josè and Antonio, joined Donnafugata. Josè is CEO of the company and head of management control & communication. She is also an accomplished singer who created Donnafugata Music & Wine, a project of musical tastings. Antonio, also CEO, is a dedicated agronomist, winemaker, and head of the Consorzio di Tutela della DOC Sicilia (“Consortium for the Protection of Sicilia DOC”). In addition to producing outstanding wines, the Rallo family has dedicated themselves to eco-sustainable management, biodiversity, and paying particular attention to their carbon footprint.
I recently asked Josè to elaborate on Donnafugata’s carbon footprint and global warming.
Josè: “Although in Sicily we have not yet seen particular impacts in terms of global warming and emerging climatic trends, we are taking the issue seriously by adopting different countermeasures in both vineyard and cellar. We have thus managed to improve our ecological footprint through the adoption of some precise choices such as:
➤No use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers in our vineyards.
➤Reduction of the use of agro-pharmaceuticals to a minimum thanks to integrated pest management techniques (monitoring of climatic parameters and the control of insects (moths) present in the vineyard, through the use of traps with pheromones.
➤Use of green manuring, organic fertilization, emergency irrigation, and thinning, thus rationalizing the use of natural resources such as soil, water, air, and power.
➤Energy production from renewable sources (photovoltaic systems).
➤Calculating carbon and water footprint to reduce our ecological impact: Donnafugata calculates the Carbon Footprint of Contessa Entellina and Pantelleria wines along the entire production cycle: from the vineyard to bottling. In 2017 CO2 emissions were reduced by 10% thanks to a number of choices:
➤The adoption of lighter glass bottles with screw caps to reduce emissions from glass production and bottle transport.
➤The use of Select BIO caps with zero CO2 emissions, made with materials derived from sugar cane and 100% recyclable.
Josè went on to say, “Donnafugata has been pursuing for more than 30 years a philosophy of perpetual improvement and evolution, the reason why we continuously invest in environmental research and measures, always considering current and future trends and necessities on behalf of our consumers.”
Donnafugata has four diverse estates located throughout Sicily. All of the wines produced from these estates are made from high-quality grapes.
I have tasted and enjoyed at least 20 of Donnafugata’s portfolio of wines over the past few years. These expressive wines are distinct and reflect the territories from which they are made. When faced with the task of choosing a few wines for this article, I couldn’t decide. I love them all! So, I asked Antonio to select one wine from each estate to review.
Contessa Entellina is located in the heart of western Sicily, where Donnafugata originated. The estate is comprised of 285 hectares of vineyards and a nine-hectare olive grove. The climate here is Mediterranean, with dry and windy summers and concentrated rainfall in the fall and winter months. The vineyards are divided into eight contrade (districts) and one cru, Vigna di Gabri, each with its unique soil (mostly clayey-loam), altitude, exposure, and microclimatic characteristics. There are 19 grape varieties grown here that include indigenous as well as international varieties proven to be conducive to the Mediterranean climate. Each variety is matched to a contrade with the purpose of extracting the qualities of a particular terroir to achieve a beautiful wine of elegance and complexity.
Antonio’s Selection: Mille e una Notte DOC
This is the estate’s iconic wine that Giacomo and Gabriella wanted to create to represent a great Sicilian red. With winemaker Giacomo Tachis’s talent and contribution, the first vintage made its debut in 1995. Nero D’Avola (the most celebrated indigenous red grape variety in Sicily) is the dominant grape in this exquisite and seductive wine. It is aged 13-14 months in new French oak barriques and then in the bottle for at least 24 months.
Antonio: “Intense ruby red-colored, our icon red Nero d’Avola Mille e una Notte is characterized by an ample bouquet, with fruity notes (blackberry and black mulberry) and balsamic (licorice) and scents of cocoa and vanilla. The palate is soft and embracing, surprising with an extraordinary silky tannin. A remarkable long persistence on the finish. A complex wine for special occasions!”
The volcanic island of Pantelleria is situated between Sicily and Africa and about 35 miles away from Tunisia. Josè said, “This is the most challenging estate we have. It is a windy and dry climate with very steep vineyards.” Donnafugata has a winery and 68 hectares of vineyards here that are spread out over districts. The districts differ in soil, altitude, exposure, and age of plants. Some of the vines are more than 100 years old. Zibibbo (Moscato d’Alessandria) is the very aromatic grape variety grown here. The name Zibibbo comes from the Arabic “Zibibb,” which means dried grape. The vines are cultivated by hand, planted in a basin, and trained to grow low and horizontally on terraces bordered by dry-built lava stone walls.
Josè said, “Pantelleria’s climate has led to the cultivation of vines in “basins” and a pruning system that makes the plant develop in a horizontal, almost crawling pattern on the ground so that it can resist the wind. The vineyard is cultivated with very low bush vines called “alberello pantesco.” This particular training system has been included among the Unesco – Intangible Cultural Heritages as “highly sustainable and creative agricultural practice. These vines are trained on small terraces, bordered by dry lava stone walls, that are also Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage and help prevent soil erosion, protecting the landscape and biodiversity. A context that requires a very high level of manpower, about three times the average needed for a quality-oriented vineyard, not to mention the maintenance of about 40 km of dry stone walls.”
The winery is located in the Khamma district of the island in a natural amphitheater of 13 hectares of terraces. In addition to grapes, Biancolilla olives, capers, and figs are grown. Lava stone can be seen throughout the island, and there are many miles of stone walls on the winery property. Rain barrels collect water and are then kept in water tanks and used to irrigate.
Antonio’s Selection: Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria DOC
This naturally sweet and heavenly wine is made with 100% Zibibbo grapes. Aging takes place in stainless steel for eight months and at least 12 months in the bottle before release.
Antonio: “This is a naturally sweet wine that offers an extraordinarily rich bouquet with outstanding aromas obtained from fresh and dried Zibibbo grapes: apricots and candied orange peel. The palate is very fresh and intense, balancing perfectly the sweetness followed by a long and satisfying persistence. The perfect meditation wine for moments of leisure!”
Donnafugata has approximately 21 hectares of vineyard production on Mount Etna, all in the DOC zone, located in eastern Sicily. The vineyards are on the north side of the volcano and divided into six districts, with the highest altitude of 750 meters above sea level in Randazzo. While this area benefits from the Mediterranean climate, the proximity of the active Mount Etna volcano plays a vital role in the surrounding soils. The soil is rich with volcanic nutrients thanks to volcanic ash and rock, which provide nutrients to the grapevines and ultimately help create more concentrated flavor and complexity in the wines. It is a dramatic wine-growing landscape marked with terraces and dry-stone walls in lava stone, with many of the vineyards over 70-years-old. The climate on the volcano’s northern side is characterized by strong temperature fluctuations, with mild and breezy summers, all of which contribute to aromatic and healthy grapes. Etna produces accumulations of lava with each volcanic eruption. This lava is called “sciare,” which eventually gives rise to sandy and very cultivable soils on the volcano’s slopes. Each lava flow taking place throughout history will determine and imprint a specific and unique micro-territory, adding character to a given wine. Fragore Contrada Montelaguardia has its roots in very ancient lava flows.
Antonio’s Selection: FragoreEtna Rosso DOC Contrada Montelaguardia
This wine is 100% Nerello Mascalese, a grape most commonly grown on the volcanic slopes of Mount Etna. It is aged in French oak (second and third passage barriques) for 14 months and then at least ten months in the bottle before release.
Antonio: “Fragore comes from the northern slope of Mount Etna. It is ruby red colored and offers an ample and deep bouquet with notes of wild berries (blackberries and red currants) followed by spicy hints (sweet tobacco and nutmeg) that blend with balsamic and mineral nuances (flint). On the palate, it offers an extraordinary complexity and elegance characterized by marked minerality and important tannins; the finish is remarkably persistent. A Sicilian red of distinctive finesse!”
The Vittoria DOC area is located in southeast Sicily, where Donnafugata has 36 hectares of vineyards in production, and it is divided into three districts. Nero d’Avola and Frappato are grown in the territory of Acate, and the wines produced here fall under the denomination of Cerasuolo di Vittoria DOCG (the first and only DOCG in Sicily) and Frappato DOC. The vineyards enjoy a Mediterranean climate with cooling sea breezes during the summer and a large diurnal temperature range that helps to promote greater acidity in the grapes. The soils are medium-textured, sandy, and mingled with calcareous tuff. Wines produced here tend to be soft red wines with a “floral soul.”
Antonio’s Selection: Frappato Bell’Assai DOC
The name Bell’Assai means “very pretty” in Sicilian. This wine is made with 100% Frappato which is one of the most ancient Sicilian grape varieties. It is believed that its origins began in the Ragusa province around 300 years ago. This wine ages for four months in the tank and three months in the bottle.
Antonio: “Brilliant ruby red with violet reflections, the red Frappato Bell’Assai has intense floral notes of violet and rose on the nose, as well as fruity hints of raspberry and strawberry. It is fresh and fragrant and with a soft tannin that enhances its pleasantness. The red you do not expect, ideal for aperitif and perfect in summer when slightly chilled!”
Historic Family Cellars
These historic cellars were built in 1851 and located on the western side of Sicily, in Marsala, where aging and bottling occur. The typical baglio layout has been preserved, complete with a large inner courtyard. Wine is aged in steel, cement, or wood, depending on the type of production. In addition, an underground barrique cellar was built in 2007 and carved into the tufo rock (calcarenite). It allows for a reduction in energy use needed to maintain the desired temperature and humidity parameters.
I asked Josè if we can look forward to the sixth generation joining Donnafugata.
Josè: “My son Ferdinando is already fully immersed in the winery. He is strongly interested in the agronomical part of the production. He is currently shifting from one Donnafugata estate to another, working in both vineyard and cellar, trying to pick up as much as possible from the site-specific knowledge of our technical staff. He is very passionate about it so far. My daughter Gabriella is working in northern Italy employed as a trade marketing assistant and focusing on new experiences. I think it is important to first make experiences in other companies and away from home, as this may help to understand what one really wants and eventually enrich the family business by introducing new visions and ideas.”
Donnafugata produces high-quality and elegant wines that express not only the uniqueness of the soil and climate of Sicily, but the wines also reflect the Rallo family and the passion and dedication that goes into each bottle. To quote Donnafugata, “Every bottle of Donnafugata is a tale filled with emotion, a sensory fabric perceived in the mouth that remains in the heart and mind.”
Until next time…
Feature photo of Josè and Antonio is courtesy of Donnafugata