2 Wines from Sicily you must try — Marsala and Passito di Pantelleria

Tipple Tales: From the plains of Marsala to the arid lands of Pantelleria, the diversity makes Sicily an island of paradoxes. Here’s your ultimate guide to the fortified wines Marsala and the unique Passito di Pantelleria.

The Sicilian coastal city of Marsala is famous for wine and salt production.
Image: Shutterstock/Andreas Zerndl.

You can reach Sicily by air, water, or by road. It’s an island connected with the mainland of Italy by train (on a ferry). For the longest time, the differences with the mainland made it much closer to Africa than to Europe. We found evidence of that in the southeast island of Pantelleria, where the locals excitedly claim that on a good day, they can see (Tunisia) Africa from their vineyards. 

The approach to Sicily (to the airport in Palermo) by plane offers a spectacular view from the top. A simmering volcano, stunning destinations, fertile valleys, and mineral-rich soil offering an abundance of fresh seasonal produce make Sicily an unmissable experience.

1. Marsala: The fortified wine

The port of Marsala once served as an entry point to Sicily and mainland Italy. In 1773, an English trader named John Woodhouse discovered the local sweet wines and decided to introduce these wines to England. But only after adding a good dose of brandy and shipping the barrels to England. That’s how the modern-day Marsala wine was born.

Marsala wine
Marsala wine is made using grapes that grow along the coast of western Sicily from vineyards overlooking the sea. Image: Rojita Tiwari.

The similarity in production with port and sherry wine (using the solera method) helped Marsala gain wider acceptance amongst traders across Europe and far west America. At the helm of this was one company that excelled not just at the making of Marsala but also marketing it to discerning wine lovers. It was Florio, founded in 1833 by Vincenzo Florio, who arrived by sea from Calabria, had freshly acquired an impressive shipping fleet, and decided to establish the winery near the harbour.

After centuries, it still carries the name Florio despite changing hands several times in the past. The iconic Florio cellars are the resting place of hundreds of barrels, vats, and kegs, each holding its own story. Some of them date back to the 1930s.

Marsala wine barrels
Some of the oldest Marsala barrels at the Florio cellar in Sicily. Image: Rojita Tiwari.

Florio has always produced its Marsala using grapes that grow along the coast of western Sicily from vineyards overlooking the sea. Marsala Florio falls within the DOC Marsala protected denomination, one of the oldest in Italy. The winery itself is built on tuff stone and equipped with a natural ventilation system boasting sustainable architecture.

Marsala wines demystified

Marsala wines are classified according to the type of wood tanning, the years of aging in the wood, the sugar content, and the colour.

The classification based on tanning is of three types: Marsala Vergine (made without adding cooked must and by adding wine brandy); Marsala Fine; Marsala Superiore. Marsala Fine; Marsala Superiore require the addition of alcohol, and the must is cooked in wine. All three are made from grapes suitable for making DOC Marsala.

Marsala vineyard
Grillo grapes in one of the vineyards in Marsala. Image: Rojita Tiwari.

Based on the years of aging, the types of Marsala are divided as follows: Marsala Fine (aging in wood for one year); Superiore (for two years); Superiore Riserva (for at least four years); Vergine (for at least five years); Vergine Reserve (for at least 10 years in woods).

Based on sugar content, the types of Marsala Fine and Superiore are divided into Dry Marsala (residual sugar below 40 g/l); Semi-dry Marsala (residual sugar higher than 40 g/l but lower than 100 g/l); Sweet Marsala (residual sugar above 100 g/l); Virgin Marsala (possible residual sugar of the wine).

In terms of colour, the wines are divided into Oro (intense golden colour), Ambra (intense amber colour), and Rubino (light or intense ruby red colour).

The three main grape varieties to make Marsala are Grillo, Inzolia, and Cataratto.

Marsala wines
Marsala wines has a range of vintages. While younger Marsala wines are largely used for cooking, the older ones are ideal for sipping before or after a meal.
Image: Rojita Tiwari.  

Donnafugata: The historical Sicilian winery

A visit to Sicily is incomplete without a stop at Donnafugata to admire the vibrant and colourful architecture, artful décor, and world-class cellar at this historical winery. Especially when it has won the ‘World’s Best Vineyards’ Award many times in a row.

The labels of Donnafugata designed by a local Sicilian artist are hard to miss. They represent the colour and spirit of the island. The 19th -century winery is designed in a typical ‘Baglio’ style large courtyard decorated with orange and olive trees. There’s a swanky new cellar below built in 2007, made from the island’s volcanic Tufo stones which provide the optimum temperature and humidity for aging wine, naturally.

Donnafugata winery
The Donnafugata winery in Sicily. Image: Rojita Tiwari.

The winery came to the ownership of the Rallos family in 1851 but it has been thriving since the last four decades with the fourth generation of the Rallos family spearheading the operations with a modern approach towards winemaking and selling. The siblings José (also a well-known Jazz singer) and Antonio Rallo (the winemaker) are at the helm of this modern winery rooted in a classic Sicilian culture.

When we met José during our visit to the winery, she spoke of how the introduction of e-commerce helped them ride through the difficult times during the recent pandemic. The walls of the visitor centre are adorned by a showcase of their recent collaboration with fashion house Dolce & Gabbana. With delightful gastronomic tasting options, visitors to Donnafugata are always in for a treat. The winery produces sparkling wines, white, red, sweet wines, and grappa.

2. Passito di Pantelleria wine: In the island of wind

Sea, sun, and soil, Passito de Pantelleria is a beautiful amalgamation of the three main compositions of the volcanic island Pantelleria. The world-famous sweet wine ‘Passito’ with a very limited production, presents the true wine philosophy. It is a distinct style of sweet white wine produced exclusively from Zibibo grapes (also known as Moscato d’Alessandria) grown in Pantelleria.

Sunset at Cantine Pellegrino, Pantelleria. Image: Rojita Tiwari.

While big producers such as Pellegrino and Donnafugata are contributing to the scale of the economy, boutique producers such as Cantina Basile are responsible for the narrative, of the way the wines are perceived by discerning wine lovers.

Zibibo — (the name is derived from the Arabic word Zabib) which means raisins — is one of the most aromatic grapes in the world of wines. We visited some of the blessed vineyards of Zibibo declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 called Gadir and Mueggen. The vines here are bush trained in ‘albarello’, or ‘little trees’. 

Passito di Pantelleria is made from Zibibo grapes, and the bunches are subjected to natural drying after the harvest. This helps the grapes to dehydrate and have a concentration of sugar. Then it is transferred to the winery.

Salvatore Morana, the legendary winemaker, Pantelleria. Image: Rojita Tiwari.

While the tradition of wine made from dried grapes dates to thousands of years, in recent times some other regions/styles such as Amarone, Recioto della Valpolicella in Italy, Vin de Paille from Jura and Hermitage in France, and Commandaria in Cyprus and Greece are also known for these styles of wines.

However, thanks to the richness of the volcanic soil, and vineyards sometimes located 400–500 meters above sea level, the sweet wine made in this windy island Pantelleria tops the chart of wine collectors.

A sweet wine that encapsulates an island

The production of Passito di Pantelleria is also unique because of its two harvests. The first round is in mid-August where bunches are picked and dried under the sun and wind for three-to-four weeks, de-stemmed by hand, and then the second harvest, in September to get must from fresh grapes, multiple times in gaps during fermentation balancing the sweetness and acidity.

Fermentation is stopped by cooling.  And, then aging in different styles of tanks and vessels. Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé is a perfect example of the aging capability of Passito di Pantelleria.

Island in a glass, Pantelleria. Image: Rojita Tiwari.

Nature is at such a great play here that despite an acute shortage of water, the humidity at night keeps the vines and the soil moist, creating the perfect set-up to produce some of the best wines in the world.

As rightly stated by the winemaker Fabrizio and owner of Cantina Basile, “I put the island into a bottle instead of giving my bottles to the island.” Ask the small community of winemakers what they want to convey to the world — the greatness of Zibibo or the style of wine, Passito? They unanimously agree the answer is Pantelleria.

The island of pantelleria
The island of Pantelleria is the perfect set-up to produce some of the best wines in the world. Image: Rojita Tiwari.

Salvatore Morana who lends his expertise to several vineyards apart from creating his world-class Passito Martingara and dry white wine GADí, believes that the generosity of Pantelleria, and his love for it can’t be quantified. And we couldn’t agree more.

(The writer visited Sicily on an invitation to judge at the International Sweet & Fortified wine competition organized by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in Marsala, Sicily).

Rojita tiwari
Rojita Tiwari

Rojita Tiwari is the Founder of Drinks & Destinations, a wine & spirits consulting firm in India. She is an award-winning drinks writer, educator, trainer & consultant, and a juror at several international wine, spirits & cocktail competitions. She is a Senior Specialist at International Drinks Specialist, the UK, and co-founder of Agents Of Cheer & Story In A Bottle, India’s foremost curated drinks events. Her Instagram handle is @rojitatiwari.

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