Pantelleria: The Black Pearl of the Mediterranean
Charcoal-colored lava and black glassy obsidian give this tiny volcanic island its nickname, The Black Pearl. Pantelleria is nestled in the middle of the Mediterranean, sixty miles southwest of Sicily and thirty miles east of Tunisia. The fortunate few who have heard of this best-kept secret may know it through the island’s sweet, luscious Passito wines made from sun-dried Muscat grapes. Or perhaps they’ve watched Luca Guadagnino’s film, A Bigger Splash, which helped put the island on the map. This Mediterranean noir flick flaunts the island in all of its glory: sun-soaked lakes set in ancient volcanic craters; lush green grapevine-terraced cliffs dotted with bohemian villas called “dammusi”; narrow, winding roads hugging the gorgeous coastline at sunset; and leafy pergolas over tables set with freshly-made ricotta and thick salt-crusted fish.
Pantelleria isn’t your typical island: there are no powdery stretches of white sand and trendy beach clubs. Instead, you’ll find jagged cliffs, harsh winds, scorching sun, and thermal springs. That’s not to say there aren’t posh parts of the island—Ristorante Altamarea, Sesiventi Lounge, and Hotel Sikelia all fit that bill. And there are wondrous places to visit, like Lago Specchio di Venere (Mirror of Venus), an iridescent, saltwater lake situated in a volcanic crater, replete with natural hot springs and mud baths. And you can’t miss Arco dell’Elefante, a famous landmark known for its sweeping natural rock arch emulating an elephant’s trunk. The highest point of Pantelleria is Montagna Grande, with lush pines and spectacular views, reachable by car, bike, or even foot. And for more insights into the island’s complex geology and history, it’s worth visiting the Museo Vulcanologico.
Many cultures have inhabited Pantelleria: Iberians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, Turks and most recently the Italians, who seized the island in 1943 during WWII.
But perhaps the most notable occupier has been the Arabs, who conquered the island in 700 AD. In fact, Pantelleria is derived from “Bent El-Rhia”, the Arabic phrase for “Daughter of the Wind.” Even the widely planted Zibibbo, or Moscato di Alessandria grape, originates from the Arabic word “zabīb”, meaning raisin. This is appropriate given that the variety was originally cultivated to produce raisins rather than wine. The combination of volcanic soil, hot temperatures, and strong Scirocco winds is ideal for growing and drying grapes.
The island’s most renowned wine, Passito di Pantelleria, is made by drying grapes for two to four weeks on mats under the sun. Typically these are the same mats used for the olive harvest. Additional methods include open-air racks, called stenditoio, and drying tunnels or tents known as serre. The wine is traditionally a blend of fully sun-dried Zibibbo grapes and fresh ones. The grapes closest to the trunk are chosen for drying, leaving the grapes furthest from the trunk to be freshly harvested, their abundant acidity playing a supporting role in the blend down the line.
Wine of the Wind
Perhaps the most celebrated of the Passitos is Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé, which translates to “Son of the Wind.” The name is yet again a testament to the strong winds that frequent the island. Along with the hot sun, they help to dry the grapes, disintegrating the water and concentrating the sugars, leading to a fresh, intense candied liquid boasting notes of dried apricots, figs, caramelized orange peel, peaches, and honey. The grapes are grown on higher-altitude vineyards, up to 400 meters above sea level, giving the wine a less oxidative expression and lending it some freshness. Inside the vineyards lay alberello pantesco, head-trained bush vines, a vine planting tradition of Pantelleria, and now a protected practice under UNESCO. Harvest is done by hand, given the steep-terraced slopes, planted on volcanic, sandy soils. Aging occurs in stainless steel for eight months and an additional year in the bottle. Donnafugata’s Passito pairs beautifully with cured meats and cheeses and decadent desserts like olive oil cake or jam and ricotta tarts. Or, as the winery suggests, it can serve as a meditation wine and be enjoyed on its own. Legend has it Passito di Pantelleria was served by the goddess Tanit, on the advice of Venus, to seduce Apollo. One taste of Ben Ryé, and you can see why.
Heart and ‘Sole’
Another notable producer in the area is Marco DeBartoli, a professional racecar driver turned winemaker. He left the racetracks and ventured into the vineyards, determined to revive Marsala’s once-beloved reputation. It’s safe to say he did that and so much more.
After successfully making wine in Marsala, he set out to Pantelleria in 1984 to grow grapes, initially producing only Passito. A decade later, his three children, Renato, Sebastiano, and Giuseppina, joined him, and the family began to experiment making dry wines like Grillo and Zibibbo on the island. Sole e Vento is a tribute to DeBartoli’s roots in both places—sole, or sun, representing Marsala, and vento, or wind referring to the island’s blustery landscape. This wine is a blend of half Grillo, half Zibibbo. The 20-year-old Grillo single-Guyot vines are grown in Marsala’s flat, limestone-rich sandy loam soil.
In contrast, the Zibibbo hails from 30-year-old alberello pantesco-trained vines grown on Pantelleria’s volcanic soil 350 meters above sea level. The organically grown grapes are harvested by hand and then macerated with their skins for a full day before co-fermenting in stainless steel vats with indigenous yeasts. The wine spends an additional seven months in stainless steel before bottling. Racy acidity and driving minerality are met with a bouquet of aromatic acacia, juicy apricot and overripe honeydew flavors. This is the type of bottle that will have you craving a big bowl of pasta, like the local pesto di Pantelleria, made with raw tomatoes, fresh garlic, herbs, toasted breadcrumbs, and a drizzle of island-grown olive oil. While Marco passed away in 2011, his beautiful spirit still lives on to this day, as showcased in his vibrant wines.
Like DeBartoli, Gabrio Bini, another reputable producer, wasn’t always a winemaker to start. After spending a few holidays in Pantelleria, Gabrio decided to leave his career as an architect in Milan and buy property on the island to live with his wife Geneviève and son Giotto. The land came with a hectare of grapevines, yet capers were his first production. The salty treats were sold to some of the best restaurants around the world. Over a decade later, a lot of research, and a trip to Spain to hunt down the perfect amphorae, Gabrio began his first grape harvest. His Serragghia vineyard is situated on terraced volcanic hillsides planted at a high altitude, allowing for cool sea breezes to moderate the temperature. Low intervention seems to be a common theme on the island: Gabrio’s vineyards are left chemically untreated and cared for not only by hand, but also by horse. After a manual harvest, grapes slowly ferment in his Spanish terracotta amphorae of various sizes, ranging from 250 liters to 7,000 liters—the latter of which for the reds. His half-red, half-white hibiscus-hued rosé Serraghhia Fanino, is roughly an equal balance of Catarratto and Pignatello grapes, which spends seven months on the skins in amphorae. It’s beautifully perfumed with an aroma that transports you to a flower shop, submerged in a bouquet of roses. You’ll find notes of macerated strawberries, pomegranate, dried apricot, and fresh peaches that intertwine with mouthwatering acidity and well-integrated tannins. It will cost you a pretty penny, but needless to say, it’s mind-blowing. Mint and ricotta-filled ravioli, a popular island treat, is a tasty complement.
Home is Where the Harvest Is
Battista Belvisi, the former winemaker at Gabrio Bini’s estate for 11 years, broke off in 2015 to start his winery, Abbazia San Giorgio. Belvisi grew up making Passito on the island with his father and grandfather before leaving to attend college in Palermo to study agriculture. Many people who have the opportunity to leave the island don’t return, but Belvisi’s Dad persuaded him to come back and put his education to good use in his homeland. Belvisi now produces Zibibbo and experiments with other native Sicilian varieties like Catarratto and Nerello Mascalese. Although he doesn’t hold organic or biodynamic certifications by choice, believing their standards aren’t strict enough, he abides by these practices in his vineyards.
His most popular Zibibbo wine, called Orange, is a skin-contact wine as the name attests. His Zibibbo grapes grow on 60-year-old alberello pantesco-trained vines, planted on terraced volcanic landscapes, and are harvested around the beginning of September. Indigenous yeasts prompt fermentation, which occurs in stainless steel tanks. The skins are left on the grapes during the entire process, about 15 days. The wine spends an additional six months in stainless steel prior to being bottled sans fining and filtration. This long maceration process is nothing new, according to Belvisi. “Wine used to be made for the farmer’s household, and the winemaking techniques were very simple. They’d press the wine and wait for it to ferment. For fermentation to take place, you need to keep the skins in contact with the must.” He believes this is the best method to produce dry Zibibbo with optimal color and aromas. Orange delivers notes of ripe, juicy peaches, apricots, and pineapple, with secondary layers of honeysuckle, jasmine, and salty orange blossoms. There’s a bright acidity that lingers on the palate.
Belvisi’s rosé, Cloé, is made from 95 percent Nerello Mascalese and five percent Zibibbo. The former a grape typically found along Mount Etna’s slopes in Northern Sicily, a region he would frequent often. Belvisi discovered that the territory had many similarities to Pantelleria like volcanic soil and dry, stone walls protecting the vineyards. So he decided to experiment with a small plot of his land. The result could be considered a “glou glou” version of Etna Rosato that tastes like summer in a bottle––a sunny mix of crushed strawberries, blood oranges, watermelon, and sea salt. It pairs well with dishes both savory and sweet, including Baci di Pantelleria, a velvety ricotta cream layered between two crispy fried shells of dough.
Bottling that Island Feeling
Another amphorae-loving and promising young producer is Anforaje. Winemaker Jacopo Bianchi, a native Milanese, was seduced by the island seven years ago. His winemaking is a pure, honest expression of Pantelleria’s volcanic terroir. Jacopo sums it up this way: “I’m just a guy who makes his wine, aiming to trap the feeling the island gives to me, so that I can bring it with me in a bottle when I can’t stay.” He takes careful measures both in and out of the winery to accomplish that feat. Jacopo uses organic methods in the vineyards and selectively harvests the grapes by hand. Stalks are removed, and grapes are placed in separate amphora based on their soils of origin. After two to three weeks of spontaneous fermentation, the amphorae are sealed for about six months. That’s when the magic happens.
Jacopo was kind enough to provide an insider’s perspective on the island:
What brought you to Pantelleria?
Love for sure. The first time l stepped foot on the island was because of a girl. But it was Pantelleria that seduced me, and I never left.
What is your favorite part about the island?
The different way in which time is perceived.
How does your brand’s logo represent Pantelleria and the wine you make here?
The logo can be interpreted in a few ways: two amphoras surrounding the black pearl; the island encircled by two fish; or, as you probably can see, an eye, symbolizing that the wine is alive.
Can you talk about the food of Pantelleria?
Anything that grows on the island has an incredible taste due to the particularly rich soil. If the ingredients are respected, even “cucina povera” or “poor” dishes like the Insalata Pantesca (typical potato salad of the island) can ignite your taste buds.
What would you pair your Zibibbo with?
How would you describe Pantelleria using one word?
Any tips for people visiting the island?
Get lost, don’t plan too much, be wild, and respect the island and its inhabitants.