The mythical island of Pantelleria remains virtually undiscovered despite lying just 100 kms and a short flight south of Sicilia. It’s tiny and a Vespa is all one needs for discovering its truly global variety of geological phenomena: hot springs, thermal caves, and salt flats are all here and free for the exploring. So, too, are Pantelleria’s ancient vineyards and the tradition of drying grapes dates back more than 3,000 years so it’s no surprise that Muscat, the world’s oldest cultivar, holds sway. Zibibbo, as it is known locally, is of the Alexandria branch of the Muscat family which, although of dowdy disposition, copes better with drought than the more prestigious Muscat Blancs à Petits Grains.
Viticulture on the island is a patchy affair and controlled largely by mainland concerns who view a Passito di Pantelleria as an essential component of a balanced Sicilian portfolio rather than a wine in its own right. The result is a horde of syrupy and often volatile examples where producers mistake sugar for quality. The history of the island’s wines, however, is not that of a Sicilian satellite and Pantelleria has never looked elsewhere for viticultural inspiration.
Salvatore and his wife, Dominica, live in an idyllic damuso on the island’s north-eastern corner and together farm two hectares of Zibibbo and a parcel of olive trees. The vines are planted with an average density of 2500 vines per ha in shallow troughs that protect them from the Scirocco. Vineyards near the sea can be harvested in late August whilst those higher up may not be picked until the end of September. Contrary to most producers - and this is the key - the yields are tiny (less than 40 hl/ha before drying) and the wine is only made in cool vintages where the grapes begin to dry on the vine with plenty of natural acidity. Only perfect bunches are selected for additional desiccation on straw mats. Salvatore may joke that on Pantelleria a couple of weeks are equivalent to several months in the Veneto but the reality is that he jealously guards the natural acidity - his Passito is never acidified so the grapes dry briefly and lose a maximum of an additional 10% of water. Fermentation is in steel and the final wine balances 14.5% ABV with 150 g/l residual sugar. It is aged for a minimum of 2 years in bottle before release. Our annual allocation is 120 half bottles. Concentrated but still brisk with candied apple, cinnamon and orange peel it’s drier than I’d imagined and finer, too, with a freshness on the finish that balances the sugar and the alcohol. This is a classic vino da meditazione and one that is ideal with chocolate, hard cheese, panna cotta or tiramisu.