The Power and Lure of the Volcano, Donnafugata and Their Etna Wines

My first introduction to Donnafugata wines, was tasting their Ben Ryé (Son of the wind in Arabic) Passito di Pantellaria, at Gambero Rosso’s Tre Bicchieri years ago, when it was held in the iconic Union Station in Chicago. The huge, cathedral-like space, created a sense of awe when you walked in to this huge room filled with a sea of tables, wine bottles and people. Towards the end of the event and being in a “wine-happy” state already, I spied the table of Ben Ryé and smiling people around it. I tasted the golden, nectar that flowed out of the small bottle and I instantly felt like I had hit the wine jackpot. The wine tasted like liquid gold and what I imagined the gods on Mount Olympus would sip. I have since learned that the grape is the Zibbibo (Moscato d’Alexandria) and the grapes are grown on the island of Pantelleria, set in the path of the hot African wind, which partially dries the grapes on the vines. Ever since that moment, I have been in love with Ben Ryé, from having it as my birthday after-dinner drink on a trip to Piedmont, to selling it when I worked at Eataly in Chicago and now at Binnys in Lincoln Park.

Khamma Winery, Zibbibo grape Pantelleria

Working at Eataly Chicago, Ben Ryé was my “go to” passito (dried grapes dessert wine), While there I had the chance to taste some of Donnafugata’s other iconic wines including the dark, decadent Mille e una Notte wine made from Nero D’Avola, Petit Verdot and Syrah and produced within the Contessa Entellina DOC in western Sicily. This is a big wine full of black fruit, coffee, vanilla, chocolate, herbs and bold but smooth tannins. At Eataly, when someone asked for a suggestion of a gift, this was my choice when they wanted a big, decadent, super delicious wine.

When I received an invitation to taste Donnafugata’s Etna wines, now several months ago, geez, time flies, I instantly responded yes!


José Rallo, Gambina vineyard
Antonio Rallo Gambina vineyard

The Rallo family started as makers of marsala wine, produced from the grapes of grillo, inzolia and cataratto in 1861. Giacomo Rallo, 4th generation, founded Donnafugata in 1983, with his wife Gabriella for small, prestigious productions. Today, their children José and Antonio lead the company. They now have 4 estates across the island of Sicily. In western Sicily, the Contessa Entellina is situated on 285 hectares. On Pantelleria, producing the passito that was that “aha” moment for me, the Khamma winery has 68 hectares of zibibbo grapes cultivated with low bush vines (alberella pantesco). In eastern Sicily, on the northern slope of Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe, the winery resides in Randazzo with 21 hectares of vineyards, in the VIttoria DOC, Acate has 36 hectares of vineyards and the historical family cellars reside in Marsala.

Besides the fact that Donnafugata makes absolutely delicious wines, their bottles have iconic labels designed by the artist Stefano Vitale. Gabriella had the idea to reference the story of The Leopard, the book that chronicled the changes in Sicilian life during the period of political upheaval during the risorgimento when Italy went from kingdoms to a country. The novel focuses on the runaway Queen (Donnafugata – woman in flight) who found refuge where the company’s vineyards are today and inspired their logo. Many of their wines reference the novel, Tancredi, Mille e Una Notte, and others.

Volcanic Wines

This post has taken me many months to complete because the subject of Etna and volcanic wines in general is fascinating and can take you down a volcanic rabbit hole very quickly. Etna wines are a growing area of attention by wine afficionados because there is so much material to uncover and the complexity of the soils create so many nuances and differentiation in the wines. Sipping the Donnafugata Etna wines, got me very Etna wine curious, which then led me to seek out sources. For anyone interested in volcanic wines across the world and how volcanic soils affect wines and the differentiation in volcanic soils I suggest John Szabo, MS’ book, Volcanic Wines – Salt, Grit and Power. In his introductory chapter, he recounts that volcanic wines share “a mouthwatering quality from high acid….mineral salts involving elements in wine like potassium, magnesium and calcium, a savory character and a density”. There is a uniqueness to volcanic wines that you can sense when you taste them. Etna has been an ever growing blip on my wine radar screen which is why I jumped at the opportunity to taste these gorgeous Donnafugata wines. One other source I found for information on the area, was the book that I will forever continue to use as a trusted source for information on Etna, The New Wines of Mount Etna – An Insider’s Guide to the History and Rebirth of a Wine Region by Benjamin North Spencer. This is an incredibly thorough book on the history, culture and wines of Etna. He offers an online Etna Wine School, which is on my list, once I finally complete the Diploma of WSET. I can’t recommend this book enough, for anyone, a wine nerd or someone just wanting to visit the Etna region. Being a lover of mountains myself, it is on my bucketlist to climb Etna but reading about how far the history goes back and the ancient winemaking ruins on the mountain, the soils, the producers, was really interesting. Reading about the markets and the food and the wine, had me wanting to teleport myself there. The final resource which is always my number one Italian wine resource, is Ian D’Agata’s book, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs. In his section on Nerello Mascalese and specifically the Montelaguardia Cru, where the grapes for Donnafugata’s Fragore are sourced (see below), he cites” that the northern slopes of Mount Etna harbor its greatest crus and their wines have met with sky rocketing success”.

The Vineyards

Harvest Montelaguardia

Etna, the volcano, is 10,912 ft and covers an area of 488 square miles. Mt Etna was the first Sicilian DOC named in 1968. The zone covers the northern, eastern and southern slopes of the volcano. Unlike the rest of Sicily, it has a continental climate due to altitude and cold temperatures with rain and snow in winter, mild in Spring and diurnal swings during the summer months. The soils are porous, sandy, volcanic with a huge blend of soils across the epochs from eruptions, marked with sciare (solidified ash, rocks and debris from laval flows). The traditional training systems are the albarello. The main indigenous grapes are the white carricante grape, fruity, citrus, flowers, high acidity and aromatic herbs. Nerello Mascalese, low intensity color, red fruit, balsamic, spicy, underbrush, high tannins and Nerello Capuccio, more intense in color with softer tannins. Donnafugata has vineyards in 6 different districts (contradas, crus) within 2 municipalities. In Randazzo (north-west), they have vines in Campo Ré, Statella, Montelaguardia and Calderara Sottana and then within Castiglione di Sicilia(north-central), Verzella and Marchesa, at altitudes ranging from 2000 to 2400 ft. The winery is located in the district of Statella in Randazzo.

The contrade which North Spencer calls neighborhoods, number 133 within the boundaries of the Etna DOC. He writes legally they are defined by altitude, aspect, geology and administrative borders. Smaller historic plot names can also appear on the label. So within the commune of Randazzo, there are 23 contrade including Montelaguardia which Ian D’Agata noted was a contrada noted for producing powerful and perfumed wines. The whole subject of contrade on Etna is where people make comparisons to Burgundy and its very specifically delineated vineyards in terms of quality. Whereas with Burgundy, there is much documentation over the centuries, with Etna, North Spencer’s book from my searches is one of the first to really zero in on the region. There is so much yet to learn. So for further information on this huge subject I defer to both North Spencer’s book on Etna and D’Agata’s book on Terroirs. The other comparison with Burgundy is that Nerello Mascalese reflects terroir like Pinot Noir. However, being low in color and high in tannin, Nerello Mascalese could be compared to Nebbiolo rather than Pinot Noir. Really, the best way to decide is to taste them for yourself and more wines are becoming available on retail shelves. I was fortunate to taste Donnafugata’s gorgeous Etna wines, Fragore, Etna Rosso DOC Contrada Montelaguardia, Sul Vulcano Etna Bianco DOC and Sul Vulcano Etna Rosso DOC.

The Wines

Sourced from the Contrada Montelaguardia on the northern slope, near Randazzo. Ian D’Agata in his book, Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs, characterizes Montelaguardia, as producing the most powerful and perfumed wines. The label on the bottle symbolizes the feminine energy of the mountain and the soul of this wine. Fermented in stainless steel for 10-12 days, aged in french oak (2nd and 3rd passage) barriques and 14 months of aging,, 18 months in bottle. Red raspberries, black cherries, cedar, earth, tobacco, licoric, smooth tannins and smoky minerality. A delicious wine that certainly will age. A wine that will pair with meats but is deft enough to work with more complex fish dishes as well. This is a beauty.

Sul Vulcano 2018, Etna Bianco. Produced with the white grape, carricante. Vinified in stainless steel, aged partly in tanks and partly in French oak (2nd and 3rd passage) barriques. Aged for 10 months and then at least 10 months in the bottle. The label by Stefano Vitale references the powerful and feminine deity “a montagna”, as Etna is called by the locals. This wine was full of citrus fruits, herbs, Mediterranean macchia with that underlying “etna-ness”, a smoky, stony minerality.

Sul Volcano 2017, Etan Rosso DOC. Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappucio. Vinified in stainless steel, with maceration on the skins 8-10 days. Aged partly in tanks, partly in French oak for 12 months and at least 10 months in the bottle. Full of wild, red berries, spices, fine grained tannins and a smoky minerality.

This is one of these posts that could go on and on but that is Etna and all that it brings to the wine table. This was another wine lucky day for me and tasting a very specific place. Cheers!

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