On Sicilian Time, Part 1: Donnafugata

Between the d’Avola and the deep blue sea

“The Woodmans don’t vacation—we travel!” So said my father early on in our visit to Castellammare del Golfo on the northwest coast of Sicily. It may have been intended comically, but his off-the-cuff response fully embodies the way my nuclear family digs in and drinks in the far-flung places we visit.

We have long since established a pattern of visiting places where grapes grow. And they do so with a vengeance on the sun-drenched isle of Sicily, a mosaic of Italian, Roman, Greek, Moorish and Spanish cultures. All of these influences are present in the names, label art and wines of Donnafugata (“fleeing woman”), founded in 1983 by Giacomo Rallo, a fourth-generation Sicilian winemaker in the port city of Marsala.

In the spotless, paneled tasting room we began with the 2010 Lighea, a crisp, lightly effervescent white from the native zibibbo grape (a.k.a. Moscato d’Alessandria) grown on the windswept volcanic island of Pantelleria, which imparts a fruity aroma and a honeyed orange blossom flavor. From here we moved to the 2008 Chiarandà, a blend of chardonnay (50 percent unoaked, 50 in barrique) and ansonica grapes, which offers great acidity and elegant minerality.

Donnafugata incorporates 14 grape varieties into its wines, but the red grape to have here is nero d’Avola. I would liken her to the tomboy in those romantic teen movies, who comes down the stairs dressed for prom to a roomful of gaping mouths—she is something naturally feisty that has been soothed, revealing a supple beauty.

Sedàra is a widely imported blend of 70 percent nero d’Avola, the balance a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah. The 2009 Sedàra woos as an easy-drinking, versatile all-rounder with a spicy nose and dark cherry notes. As you peruse the aisles of your favorite boutique wine shop, look for this one—or for any similar blend—to serve as your introduction to nero d’Avola. Or try the house red at any Cosmopolitan casino bar, as that is a 100 percent nero d’Avola.

On the other end of the spectrum, the 2006 Mille e Uno Notte is the house’s flagship red, a blend of 90 percent nero d’Avola with 10 percent of the best turnout of the year, in this case cabernet sauvignon from Donnafugata’s Contessa Entellina estate. The wine is matured for about 14 months in mostly new French oak before spending 18 months in the bottle. It’s truly a prize, opulent and elegant.

But it was the ruby-red 2007 Tancredi that most impressed me: licorice, cocoa and tobacco from 70 percent nero d’Avola with a hint of eucalyptus from the cabernet sauvignon balance. On their incredibly comprehensive website (Donnafugata.it) co-owners José and Antonio Rallo recommend enjoying this “wine of great personality” with a good book. Perhaps I should pick up something by Sicilian author Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa? The lands of Donnafugata’s estates figure greatly into Il Gattopardo (The Leopard).

Tancredi makes its Las Vegas debut this month in resorts, restaurants and specialty wine bars, recommended in the $60-$80 range. This wine—along with a barrel-aged grappa made from the pomace of Donnafugata’s naturally sweet Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria DOC—earned a coveted spot in the little wine traveler I nestled safely in my luggage like a pearl in an oyster. It will age and drink nicely over the next decade, but I plan to open it far sooner than that. Ask me nicely—“Per favore, posso?”—and I just might save you a sip.

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Since this dish isn’t always on the menu, diners often discover it when they see restaurateur Gaetano Palmeri enjoying the salad at the bar during his break. As long as he has the ingredients in the kitchen, he’ll gladly whip one up for you, too. The zesty, chunky delight consists of avocado, roasted bell peppers, Roma tomatoes, Kalamata olives, sweet red onion and fresh buffalo mozzarella mixed with baby greens and extra virgin olive oil. $13, 10271 S. Eastern Ave., Suite 111, 361-1661.