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Discovering Sicily: A Family Affair at Donnafugata and Gorghi Tondi

July 9, 2013 7:50 am - Posted by Tracy in Drink

Sicily – a part of Italy and yet it stands apart both literally and figuratively. As an island situated off the coast of Italy’s toe (Calabria), the region is physically separate, requiring a flight or ferry to get to or from there. Beyond geography, Sicily remains steadfast to its traditions and culture. My new friend, Federico Mammoli, of Firriato winery’s export department and originally from Rome, told me that when he first arrived on the island, he only understood about thirty percent of what people said to him, despite the fact that, of course, they all speak the same language.

As far as wine is concerned, agriculture is a big component of the economy and grapes have been cultivated here for centuries. Nearly everywhere one looks, there are vines and Sicily is responsible for an immense amount of Italian wines. Like much of southern Italy, the key word here was quantity, with quality a mere afterthought for many producers.

But that, to a large extent, is ancient history. Sure, Sicily still produces cheap and cheerful wines, most regions these days do, but while my formal exploration of Sicilian wine was admittedly confined to a handful of wineries, I was extremely impressed with what I found. There was complexity, depth and structure that I didn’t expect, revealing the significant quality and continued potential of Sicilian wines. And, throughout each winery visit, I was enamored not only by the wines, but also by the people and their passion and warmth.

The Rallo family, which owns Donnafugata, has been at the forefront of the renaissance in Sicilian wine for a long time. As early as 1851, the family first produced the Italian fortified wine, Marsala, where their winery is located. But, as the reputation of Marsala waned (as did much of its quality), Giacomo and Gabriella Rallo looked for other ways to better show off the potential of the Sicilian island. Taking a new approach, they chose to plant international grape varieties on the family’s estate in Contessa Entellina and launched the Donnafugata wine brand, borrowing the name from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), which takes place on Sicily.

During my visit, I had the pleasure of dining with both of Giacomo and Gabriella’s children — Josè and Antonio. One night, Antonio shared some of the family history with me, noting that one of the initial challenges was to teach the vineyard workers how to grow vines for the production of quality wine when they had been conditioned to grow solely for quantity. To solve this problem, the workers were given an opportunity to taste the wines side by side so that they would see what the impact of quality vineyard practices would have on the finished wine.

Once Donnafugata’s reputation with international varieties was established, the family turned its attention to local grapes. Today, the company grows 49 different varieties and is working on a project with the University of Milan to identify the best clones among the indigenous Sicilian varieties such as Cataratto. And, on the island of Pantelleria, where Donnafugata maintains 12 vineyards, totaling close to 70 hectares (170 acres), they are experimenting with various clones of Zibibbo. Today, Donnafugata is widely respected both at home and abroad and has helped to solidify Sicily’s standing as a producer of high quality wines.

Another family making its mark on Sicilian wine is the Sala family, whose winery, Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, is headed by sisters Annamaria and Clara. The two young women are relatively new to the wine industry, but can draw on the knowledge and experience of their father and grandfather, both of whom devoted their careers to wine. They sisters split the business duties among them and have brought in a winemaker to assist with production.

While many wineries boast stunning views, Gorghi Tondi has a particularly lovely one given its location within a natural preserve. Situated approximately 30 minutes south of Marsala in the Mazara del Vallo area, the 130 hectares of land were purchased by Annamaria and Clara Sala’s great-grandfather and were originally part of Prince Saporito’s hunting reserve. Thankfully, the land (along with its two karstic lakes, Lake Preola and Gorghi Tondi) was recognized in 1998 as a WWF Natural Reserve. Home to such vegetation as olive trees, dwarf palms and wild orchids, the reserve is equally attractive to herons, swamp hawks, mallards and other species, adding to the uniqueness of the place.

The winery itself was built in 2000 in the center of this agricultural area, with the first vintage produced in 2005. Now, nearly a decade later, Gorghi Tondi has a diverse portfolio, drawing inspiration from the Arabic culture (Rajah), general location (Meridiano 12) and proximity to the reserve (Coste a Preola as well as Sorante, which means a bird about to take flight) in naming its wines.

The range and quality of the wines was impressive, especially with the top wines, which they refer to as their Cru-level wines. However, it was their embrace of the Grillo grape variety in all its glory and many guises that really caught my attention. This cousin to Sauvignon Blanc makes its first Gorghi Tondi appearance in their Palmarès Spumante Brut; a second in the winery’s entry-level wine (not tasted); a third in the Coste a Preola Bianco, its premium label; and then again in Kheirè, among its Cru-level wines. A final appearance is the Grillo d’Oro, a botrytis-affected dessert wine. All whites (not just those produced with Grillo), with the exception of the Grillo d’Oro, are produced solely in stainless steel.

While it hasn’t happened overnight, the concerted effort and continued emphasis on quality has had a significant impact. In 1994, only 20% of all wine produced in Sicily was bottled in the region – the rest left in bulk. Today, nearly two decades later, 70% of wine produced within the region is bottled as Sicilian wine. As Antonio Rallo was quick to point out that such progress is the result of many small families working together. Recognizing their shared interests and common goals, a formal group was created in 1998 with an eye toward changing the image of Sicilian wine. And, although they still have a way to go, it is clear that they are succeeding, one family at a time.

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