In the sea between Sicily and Tunisia, at the southernmost point of Italy, lies the island of Pantelleria.
Geographically, it’s closer to north Africa (Tunisia is 60km to the west) than it is to the rest of Italy, so it’s perhaps no surprise to discover that it has extremely long, hot and dry summers. Rainfall is about 300mm a year, with just 0.2mm of it falling in July.
In such arid conditions, vine growing is only possible at all thanks to morning dew and decent winter rains. Most of the production is focused on sweet wines, but there is more to it than this, as you will see.
Pantelleria is not large – just 80 square kilometres – and the vast majority of its vineyards are planted to Zibibbo, also known locally as Moscato D’Alessandria. Similar to Moscato Bianco (Muscat Blanc a Petite Grains) it is highly aromatic and with a medium acidity, which makes it well suited to the production of sweet wines. Closely related to table grapes it’s quite ‘grapey’ – with flavours of elderflowers, stone fruits, and sweet spices.
Although it is found dotted around other Italian Regions it probably shows its best in the Colli Euganei in the Veneto where it is used for another sweet appassito wine called Fior D’Arancio.
Two styles of sweet wines are produced on the island – Moscato di Pantelleria and Passito di Pantelleria.
For both the styles grapes have to be laid outside either in serre (glasshouses) which have to be ventilated, or without any covers, with is the traditional way of making the wines. This drying process concentrates the flavours and increases sugar levels.
For Moscato Di Pantelleria, grapes are dried for one or two weeks. For Passito di Pantelleria it can be upwards of a month.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to vinification for Passito di Pantelleria. The traditional method involves pressing of the dried grapes only, with gives wines with more syrupy prune-like aromas.
But some producers use a similar technique to Tokaji, where a base wine is made using non-dried grapes harvest and this is then macerated with the dried grapes. Introduced by Donnafugata in the 1980s, this technique adds both aroma and body, and gives fresher wine with more primary aromas.
Both techniques give wines that are opulent and very sweet, which makes them ideal for pairing with high-sugar desserts that would overpower most sweet wines.
I also find that Pantelleria wines have some sparse tannins, as the grapes are almost raisin-like and need quite hard pressing to extract the juice. This gives an extra dimension to the wines, adding a little astringency to balance the sweetness.
The Arrival of Dry and Natural
When it comes to allowing experimentation, Sicily is one of the most creative regions in Italy, so it’s no surprise that Pantelleria is no longer all about sweet wines.
Spurred on, no doubt, by the fact that the market for the latter is declining, for ten years or so, growers have started to produce more dry wines.
A range of Sicilian grapes are used for these, but Zibibbo is the most common and also, in my opinion, the best. Grapes are harvested when just ripe, at the end of August.
The ‘natural’ movement is very active on the small island, with a growing number of amphora and ‘orange’ wines cropping up every year.
Zibibbo is really well suited to the latter, with a contrast between the sweet, exotic aromas on the nose and the very dry, lean palate.
The only downside is that they’re not cheap. Pantelleria is very small, so there are no economies of scale, and the climatic conditions mean that yields are naturally very low. Price-wise these are likely to appear in the upper middle section of the wine list.
On the plus side, this style works really well in pairing menus and by the glass. It’s different, surprising, and has a great story behind it.
Cellar suggestions: three to try for your list
Les Caves de Pyrene £45+
Marco De Bartoli’s history is entwined with the history of modern Sicilian wines. From two wine producing families in Marsala, he returned to the region when he called time on his rally-driving career in the early 1980s. He, focused on low yielding Grillo, and high quality Marsala unheard of at the time and became the president of Sicilian wines for a couple of years before being mysteriously removed from his position. Nobody knows exactly why, but we can assume that his ideas where quite different to the rest of Sicilian producers at the time.
What he couldn’t achieve for Marsala, He did in Pantelleria, where he bought his second estate in 1989. He pushed to produce the highest possible quality sweet wines. Changing the way Pantelleria was going.
This is a prime example of the Passito di Pantelleria. Aged in very old barriques it is made in a sweet style with complex, chocolate, peach and mint aromas. It is best served alongside a chocolate mousse or a fondant.
Les Caves de Pyrene £20-25+
Another offering from Marco De Bartoli. This time it’s a dry, skin-contact amphora-aged Zibibbo. The wines is grapey, with aromas of nectarines and pear. A more mellow style than some skin-contact wines, it also has an unusually low alcohol level, thanks to the very early harvesting.
This works well as an aperitif or with starters of crudo.
Gabrio Bini, Serragghia Bianco Zibibbo 2017
Tutto Wines £35-40
Serragghia is probably the most famous, natural style wine of Pantelleria. The vineyard is situated in close proximity to the sea enjoying almost constant sea breezes and temperatures are surprisingly moderate, even in the height of summer.
The eccentric, Gabrio Bini, moved from Milan to Pantelleria to be a winemaker, leaving behind his former architect career in the early 1990s. In 2000 he established his cellar, where no chemicals have ever entered. He does the least intervention possible in the vineyards.
A great example of the contrasting style between the aromatic intensity of Zibibbo and the drying influence of the amphoras that Gabrio buries in the depth of the cellar, this is a wine that has aromas of stone fruits and sage, with some saline notes.
The palate is bone dry with surprisingly strong tannins, which means that this can be served with monkfish or pork – just make sure that that the dish has plenty of flavour.
Find out more about the traditional agricultural practice of cultivating head-trained bush vines on the island of Pantelleria.