5.30.2011

The "wine continent" of Sicily. Interview with Mr Baldo Palermo, Marketing Director at Donnafugata

Sicily is a "wine continent". (in Italian a "continente vitivinicolo"). That's what Baldo Palermo, Marketing Director at Donnafugata, one of the most representative Sicilian wineries,  first told me when I interviewed him at the recent Vinitaly fair in Verona (Italy). I've always been fascinated by Donnafugata labels, their beautiful sunny colors, the drawings, the image of "the woman in flight" with windblown hair. The effigy refers to the history of Queen Maria Carolina, wife of Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, who in the early 1800s – fleeing Naples on the arrival of Napoleons troops – sought refuge in the part of Sicily where the winery’s vineyards now stand. Donnafugata is a great example of entrepreneurial  initiative, started by the  Rallo family in 1983 in the family’s historic cellars in Marsala and at its Contessa Entellina vineyards in the heart of western Sicily.  In 1989 Donnafugata arrived on Pantelleria, a volcanic island lying between Sicily and Africa,  where the family  planted  the grape Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) to produce natural sweet wines, one of which is their masterpiece multi-award winning Passito di Pantelleria Ben Ryè. Today Giacomo Rallo and wife Gabriella, daughter José and son Antonio manage about 328 hectares of vineyards in production, of which 260 are in Contessa Entellina and 68 on Pantelleria. It's not just the labels that have conquered me, I am a big fan of Donnafugata wines as well, especially those coming from the traditional Sicilian indigenous grapes, like Ansonica, Catarratto, Grecanico, Nero d’Avola and my beloved Zibibbo. 
Excellent quality, the ability to best interpret the territory potential, care for details, and a big communication talent are the key ingredients of Donnafugata success. I visited the cellar in Marsala last year (see some pictures at the end of the post), where  the  products obtained at Contessa Entellina and Pantelleria converge for refinement and bottling. I could experience the wonderful hospitality of the Rallo family and his staff (above all Mr Baldo Palermo) and I will never forget the typical Sicilian lunch I had with patron Giacomo Rallo and his nephew at the I Bucanieri restaurant, on Marsala seashore front. I was very happy to visit Donnafugata's stand at the last Vinitaly, where I came to say hello to Mr Rallo and Mr Palermo, who was so kind to answer my questions that I copy here below. A glass of Ben Ryè was my final reward after the long crazy Saturday at Vinitaly...
Mr Baldo Palermo, Marketing Director at Donnafugata 
What is Sicily's competitive edge among Italy's main wine regions?
Sicily is a wine continent, from the mountains, like Etna, to the volcanic islands like Eolie or Pantelleria, from the inland hills to the coast, a rich kaleidoscope of different territories, grape varieties and wine expressions. Sicily's weather conditions are very favorable, so that both the indigenous grapes and  the international varieties find here the best habitat to give wines of excellent quality with a very good value for money. 
There is much talk of wine communication in these days and there's a feeling that Italian people don't have enough culture of quality wines, considering also the drop in domestic consumption. Sicilian wineries  are demonstrating to invest a lot in communication, especially in new media, since, according to a survey conducted by the Italian online wine mag "Winenews" in 2009, lots of them have the best websites, in terms of information and interactivity. Donnafugata was indeed in the top five of the list, with other three Sicilian wineries...
In this Vinitaly, actually, we are presenting our new website. We have put ourselves in consumers' shoes, who not necessary are experts or have studied to become sommelier or are familiar with our wines. We want to bring the world of wine closer to consumers in a way that is not stiff and too much technical, in order to help wine lovers to understand this wide world, that sometimes can be confusing. We think that the best way to spread the culture of wine is to send messages in a fun and attractive way.
I've recently read  an article written by the Italian journalist Angelo Peretti, who said that wine, becoming a "status symbol", such an "élite" thing,  has gradually turned from the table, which was its first home, with the consequence that average consumers nowadays "are afraid to enter a wine shop because they don't know what wine to pick, also considering some unaffordable prices". Are you doing something in your website to restore the important role of wine in the kitchen? 
Exactly, in our new website there's a section dedicated to food and wine pairing, where consumers can download some of the most traditional Sicilian and Mediterranean recipes, and from here we suggest the best wines to pair, or they can start from the wines and discover which are the recipes that  best express the wine  taste. In this way we want to promote the wine consumption at home as well as at the restaurant.
What are Donnafugata hottest labels?
Just to mention three, we can start from Lighea, an aromatic white of Mediterranean taste, a dry version of  the indigenous grape Zibibbo, a fresh red wine coming from young vineyards of Nero d'Avola, vinified only in steel, called Sherazade, and finally, a "passito" (dried sweet wine)  from the island of Pantelleria, a glass of Ben Ryè, a classic wine of Italian oenology, that puts all in agreement, experts, wine connoisseurs and simple consumers, who cannot be indifferent to the the aromatic richness of a  glass of "raisins from Pantelleria". 
Last question, if I travel to Sicily (hopefully soon..), what traditional Sicilian dish do you suggest me to try, and which wine to pair with? 
Marsala, where our historic cellar is located,  is home of couscous, a dish full of flavors and history (it is native of North Africa), that in our area is typically prepared with fish soup by our Sicilian women, who still have the patience to cook it for long hours like in the old times. I suggest to match it with a white wine of medium structure, like our Vigna di Gabri, obtained mainly from the indigenous grape Ansonica, plus other varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon.  

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If you, like me, don't have the patience of the true Sicilian ladies, you can try preparing an easier and fast version of fish couscous, that I recently posted on Just a Good Little Thing. Now you know which wine to match! In the meantime enjoy the pictures of my last trip to Marsala and Donnafugata winery here below.
Donnafugata winery, Marsala (Sicily)
Donnafugata winery, Marsala (Sicily)
Donnafugata winery, Marsala (Sicily)
Donnafugata winery, Marsala (Sicily)
Donnafugata winery, Marsala (Sicily)
Donnafugata winery, Marsala (Sicily)
Marsala, Sicily
Marsala, Sicily
Marsala, Sicily
Marsala "saline" (salt deposits), Sicily
Marsala "saline" (salt deposits), Sicily
Favignana island, Sicily
Favignana island, Sicily
Favignana island, Sicily


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