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How Donnafugata’s Focus on Craftsmanship Brings the Best Out of Sicilian Terroir

Donnafugata has adapted its approach to winemaking in each of its territories to fully embody the beauty and diversity of the land

Donnafugata vineyards.
Photo by Fabio Gambina.
This advertising content was produced in collaboration with SevenFifty and our partner, Donnafugata.

Consumers often speak of Sicilian wine in broad strokes, as if the island is a vinous monolith. But within its approximately 9,900 square miles of land, Sicily boasts a stunning range of terroirs, its land shaped in diverse ways by geological forces over the millennia. From the flanks of Mount Etna to the breathtaking island of Pantelleria, from which, on a clear day, you can glimpse the coast of Africa, no winemaker better tells the story of Sicily than Donnafugata

It has been, afterall, a force in Sicilian grape growing and winemaking since it was founded in 1983 by fourth-generation winemaker Giacomo Rallo and his wife Gabriella. Its legacy, however, goes back even farther than that: The family has been a leading light in Sicilian wine for more than 170 years. 

Today, under the leadership and guidance of Giacomo’s children, José and Antonio Rallo, Donnafugata has its sights set firmly on the future, with a deep focus on sustainability as well as continuing to grow the reputation of Sicily. Through their conscientious, creative work in five distinct parts of the autonomous region, Donnafugata has brought this breathtaking, wine-soaked island off the southwestern coast of Italy to the forefront of international fine wine, and taught an increasingly broad range of professionals and consumers alike just how unique Sicilian wine can be.

The Intersection of Terroir and Craftsmanship

As well as the historic family winery in Marsala, Donnafugata has four distinct estates: Contessa Entellina, where Donnafugata was founded almost four decades ago; Pantelleria, a volcanic island between Sicily and Africa; Mount Etna in northeastern Sicily; and Acate in the territory of DOC Vittoria in the south. At each estate, the winemakers adapt to the peculiarities of the region––the difference in soil, exposure, and microclimatic conditions––in order to arrive at the best combination between terroir and vine.  

The Sul Vulcano Etna Rosso, for example, encapsulates what makes the wines grown on Mount Etna—the highest active volcano in all of Europe—so unique. Its constituent grape varieties, primarily Nerello Mascalese with a touch of Nerello Cappuccio, are harvested from the north side, where less rainfall than on other parts of Etna and dramatic diurnal shifts, afford the grapes a long growing season. Combine that with sandy soils whose origins are firmly rooted in the lava itself, and you have a singular wine that is a true expression of the terroir of Etna. The current 2019 release is a prime example, its red berries and balsamic lift framed by silky tannins that are approachable now, and yet promise plenty of evolution for another five or more years in the cellar.

The Rallo family. Photo by Fabio Gambina.
The Rallo family. Photo by Fabio Gambina.

At Contessa Entellina in western Sicily, the Rallos produce one of their most widely available and beloved bottlings, the Mille e Una Notte: A Thousand and One Nights, a reference to the tales of Scheherazade, which inspires the label’s iconic artwork year after year. It brings together the island’s most famous grape variety, Nero d’Avola, with beloved international varieties like Petit Verdot and Syrah, among others. Each plot was harvested at its optimal moment, and the final blend showcases generous berry fruit pulsed through with spice and eucalyptus, all of it promising another two decades of evolution.

A quick flight away is the picturesque island of Pantelleria, Sicily’s largest volcanic satellite island. Its grapevine growing technique has been handed down through generations since the Phoenicians arrived two millennia ago and has been granted UNESCO World Heritage status. It involves the cultivation of the alberello low bush vine in basins to protect it from the wind and a particular pruning system. Donnafugata, which has 68 hectares of vineyards across 14 districts, implements this labor-intensive method to produce Ben Ryé, one of the most renowned and respected expressions of Passito di Pantelleria available. It’s crafted from Zibibbo, also known as Muscat of Alexandria, originating from a vineyard Donnafugata discovered in 1999 of ungrafted phylloxera survivors, some over 100 years old. The grapes are harvested by hand and then dried in the Mediterranean sun. All of this work resulted in a 2020 bottling with intense aromas of apricot and candied orange peel, brought together with suggestions of wild herbs, its sweetness countered by a perfect hit of acidity.

 


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A Focus on the Future

For Donnafugata, the land is key to the success of each vintage, and as such their focus on sustainability and stewardship is of paramount importance. All of their grapes are grown without any chemical fertilizers or herbicides, and for more than three decades, Donnafugata’s commitment to the natural environment, which is manifested in its eco-sustainable approach to viticulture, has led to a reduced carbon footprint and an increased range of biodiversity in each of the areas of Sicily in which they work. They’re also a member of the Fondazione SOStain Sicilia, an organization that strives to preserve Sicily through responsible environmental practices, education, and research.

These efforts have led to not just a healthier environment, but also to better, more expressive and indicative wines. For Donnafugata, great wine and a healthy environment are inextricably linked to one another.

Dolce & Gabbana Tancredi
Limited-edition Tancredi produced in collaboration with Dolce & Gabbana. Photo courtesy of Donnafugata.

A Creative and Cultural Partnership 

Donnafugata’s work with Dolce & Gabbana brings together two of Sicily’s greatest cultural ambassadors. It’s a partnership that has lasted for years, and consumers clamor for their collaborative bottling of Tancredi year after year. Its label is instantly recognizable, and the current release is a highlight of recent vintages. Blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Nero d’Avola, Tannat, and more, the 2018 Tancredi combines notes of blue fruits and plums with an undertow of tobacco and licorice, which promises decades of maturity in the bottle.

Tancredi is emblematic of all that drives the entire team at Donnafugata. Its deep rootedness in the land, its respect for the environment that nurtures its vines, and the conversation it engages in between the island’s heritage and its future. It’s the passion and commitment that has raised them to the highest echelons of Sicilian wines for decades, and that promises to continue doing so for generations to come.

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