I had agreed to travel to Sicily in October 2022, my first time to the famed island. Though I’ve been lucky enough to explore the Italian mainland extensively (from a tourist perspective, at least), I’d always felt a void left by my lack of Sicilian adventure, in the very land of my nonna’s ancestors. Anticipation was high.

Unfortunately, for several reasons not important enough to list here, I had to back out of the trip. I was bummed. Fortuitously however, the very next day after making that decision, I received an email from Sicilian winery Donnafugata, inquiring if I’d be interested in some samples of their latest releases. It was kismet! Though the in-person reclamation of my roots would have to wait, in the meantime, I’d fill the aforementioned void — temporarily, at least — with a vigorous in-glass exploration.

It is with this anecdote in mind that I frame the following: I think I have found the wine that perfectly encapsulates Sicily’s Mediterranean ethos in a single glass: Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria.

The idea of an indulgently sweet dessert wine, of course, seems most apropos around the winter holidays, with family and friends gathered inside, away from the looming chill, celebrating another year of life through rich and hearty food and wine. And Ben Ryé does fit the bill in that respect; Richard Hemming MW once wrote, for example, that it would be “an ideal accompaniment to Christmas pudding” or “simply by itself beside an open fire.”

That said, what comes across so strongly here is the essence of the Mediterranean climate: citrus and stone fruits, warm ocean breezes, fleeting wafts of herbs and spices. In particular, the prominent fruit — ample bursts of apricot, peach, and candied orange peel — is powerful enough to transport me, even on the coldest, darkest winter night, to the sunny days and swaying palms of the glorious Mediterranean coast.

Sporting a whopping 194 g/l of residual sugar, this wine certainly features abundant honey and caramel flavors, though brisk acidity and complex savory notes — such as saline, almonds and just a hint of warm spice — temper the sweetness, preventing the wine from ever becoming cloying. Though I am loathe to ever quote a winery tasting note as fact, Donnafugata’s statement that Ben Ryé features “an extraordinary balance between freshness and sweetness” is, indeed, right on the money.

Google maps view of Pantelleria

Though technically Sicilian, this wine is actually made on Pantelleria, an island off Sicily’s southwest coast. The tiny volcanic dot appears, on a map, to be closer to African soil than Italian, and contains Italy’s southernmost point. (Perhaps this makes it even more Mediterranean than plain old Sicilian wine?)

The name “Ben Ryé” translates to “son of the wind,” referencing the constant gusts that transverse the island. As such, Pantellerian vintners must employ a unique form of head-training (Albarello Pantesco), which keeps the vines close to the ground. This traditional method has even been distinguished by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, for being a “creative and sustainable” practice.

Further differentiating this wine is the vinification process: appassimento — the grape drying method most associated with Amarone — is also used here, which is certainly common for Italian dessert wines. Then, however, these dried grapes are added to fresh must, in several batches, over the course of a month. Presumably, this deliberate process is what allows this delicious wine to be impossibly sweet, fresh and complex, all at the same time.

At around $50 retail for 375ml, this isn’t exactly cheap stuff… but, considering its transformative powers, it just might be a bargain.

Donnafugata Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria DOC 2019: 375ml bottle; 100% Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria); 14.2% ABV.

This article is part of the #ItalianFWT January 2023 exploration of Sicily. Other articles include:

All images courtesy Donnafugata, unless otherwise noted.