Getting a taste for Pantelleria’s famous dessert wines …

21 May, 2010

Pantelleria is a small, remote and windswept black volcanic island; part of Sicily, but closer to Africa – only about 70km from the African coast. It often gets publicity as a favourite hideaway for celebrities – many, including Giorgio Armani , Gerard Depardieu and the well-known Italian conductor Riccardo Muti , have houses there. But the island is perhaps most famous for its world-class dessert wines, Passito di Pantelleria and Moscato di Pantelleria , golden or light amber in colour and, depending on your palate and powers of description, tasting of apricots, nectarines, white and yellow peaches or tangerines, and perfumed with orange blossom, honey and dried fruit. 

 The versions I have been getting a taste for are commercially produced and relatively inexpensive. They probably wouldn’t satisfy the connoisseur, but for me, they’ve been the perfect introduction – and I’ve been finding them absolutely delicious!

Both Passito di Pantelleria and Moscato di Pantelleria are DOC classified(Denominazione di Origine Controllata), which means that they must be made on the island of Pantelleria, according to a specific traditional method. Both wines are made from a particular type of Muscat grape, the Moscato d’Alessandria. It is the method of production that creates the difference between them. 

Passito is made from mature grapes which, traditionally, were put out onto mats of dried herbs to dry in the hot sun and wind, but are now more likely to be dried indoors in drying tunnels or chambers. When the grapes have been dried sufficiently, they are mixed with fresh grape juice, put into stainless steel vats and left to ferment. There are endless variations depending on the percentage of dried grapes used, the timing of their introduction, and the duration of the drying and fermentation processes.

Moscato, on the other hand, is essentially made from fresh grapes. As a result, it will be lighter in flavour and colour. Some makers may, however, add a very small percentage of dried grapes, in which case the wine will be slightly darker in colour and richer in taste.

Both Passito and Moscato can be fortified by the addition of alcohol at the fermentation stage. These fortified versions are labelled ‘Liquoroso’ . The wines I have been trying are the ‘liquoroso’ versions produced by Pellegrino, a large winemaker from Marsala, on the west coast of Sicily. Having studied some of the famous French fortified dessert wines, such as ‘Baume di Venise’, in the late 1980s, Pellegrino acquired the necessary know-how and technology and set out to create fortified versions of Pantelleria’s Passito and Moscato wines. It has been hugely successful. It established a winery on Pantelleria in 1992, and is now the largest producer on the island.

Passito is generally a more complex wine than Moscato, and more highly prized. And, in general, the natural wine version of each wine will be more highly prized than the liquoroso version . Another large commercial winery from Marsala, Donnafugata, is making a natural passito that, from all accounts, is something special, although I haven’t yet had a chance to try it. There are also a number of small makers on Pantelleria, apparently making some beautiful passito wines. I haven’t yet had a chance to try those either.

For the moment, I have fallen under the spell of the Pellegrino Moscato; just looking at it in the bottle – a clear, pale golden liquid reflecting the light – is giving me pleasure. The wine itself is fresh, light and delicate; sweet, but not too sweet; fruity, but not cloying. Served chilled, perhaps with a piece of Green & Black’s Maya Gold chocolate, if I could get it here, or a slice of fresh peach, it would be the perfect end to a meal. Not that a meal would really be necessary – I think this wine would contribute enormously to any conversation.

Now that I’ve made a start on Pantelleria’s dessert wines, I’m keen to explore them further and sample some of the finest. And for that, I think the obvious next step will be a trip to the island itself!

10 Responses to “Getting a taste for Pantelleria’s famous dessert wines …”

  1. CateM Says:

    I have had the pleasure of drinking the Pellegrino Moscato and I agree it is quite a treat! I am rather intrigued by the island and would love to visit it also. I have read that the Phoenicians called it ‘The Black Pearl of the Mediterranean’. The island’s delicious wine, remote location and rugged volcanic landscape together with the fact that it is said to have inspired Giorgio Armani’s prive perfume collection make it sound very appealing indeed!

    • kateludlow Says:

      The island really does sound intriguing – must be if it inspires Giorgio! Some practical research is definitely called for I think. Many thanks for the comment.

  2. Antonio Says:

    As always your research is impeccable Kate. Your description of the wines is mouthwatering – you should be a saleslady for Pellegrino! Pantelleria sounds fascinating and well worth a visit.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you! I think my research is just getting started – I’ve been loving the Pellegrino wines, but am now keen to try some of the other Passitos, particularly the Donnafugata.

  3. Sally F Says:

    I want to come and help you in this research – but I have what will be virtually a new house to move back into soon and sort out a bit first! I need two lives …

  4. Louise F Says:

    Can’t wait to sample some after this enticing description

  5. Laurie Says:

    I live in texas and just returned from Italy… Where can I purchase this?

    • kateludlow Says:

      Pellegrino dessert wines are certainly exported to America. If you let me know which city in Texas you are in I can check who is your nearest supplier and let you know

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