Pantelleria is a tiny volcanic island in the Straits of Sicily just 60 km east of the Tunisian coast. Although Pantelleria belongs to Italy it has been influenced by many cultures in the past and in fact it was first settled by Iberians and Romans but was conquered in the 8th century the island was conquered by Arabs and ever since the Arab culture has remained omnipresent. The Arabs influenced many things on Pantelleria – including winemaking. They brought new grape varieties to the island with the most famous one being Muscat of Alexandria, which is better known as Zibibbo on Pantelleria. Zibibbo is the Arab word for raisin.
Muscat of Alexandria has a natural high sugar level and is ideal for the production of dessert wines and it can be argued that some of the best ones are made on Pantelleria. The wineries on Pantelleria have a long tradition of making passito out of these grapes. They do so by sun-driying them on straw mats before the vilification process. The longer the grapes remain the on straw mats the sweeter the more weight they lose and the sweeter the resulting wine will be. This process results in a usually rather low yield per hectare. To save time most wineries on Pantelleria adopted a new technique where the grapes get air-dried.
It is uncertain where the name Muscat/Moscato is coming from. One theory suggests that the grape variety is named after the city of Muscat, the capital of Oman. Another theory suggests that the word derives from the Italian word mosca, which means fly. It is said that flies were attracted by the sweet grapes of the Muscat family and so the locals named them Moscato (English: Muscat).
The global demand for sweet wines has significantly declined the past century (a real pity in my opinion because sweet wines can be superb) and this has forced so wineries to dramatically lower their production of sweet wines. On Pantelleria this has led to the production of dry Muscat of Alexandria wines. Today’s wine review is, however, about Pantelleria’s most famous passito: Ben Ryé.
2008 Donnafugata – Ben Ryé – Passito di Pantelleria DOC
Ben Ryé is produced with 100% air-dried Zibibbo and the wine aged for a around five months in stainless steel tanks. The majority of (Italian) sweet wines age usually at least in parts in oak but because Zibibbo is so aromatic and intense the use of oak is not needed. The first vintage of Ben Ryé was 1989.
I always prefer drinking rich sweet wines like Ben Ryé in glasses with a large bowl and enjoy serving them a little refrigerated (9-10°C) and watched them evolve in the glass. The bottle was a small 0.375l bottle.
In the glass Ben Ryé had an amber-golden color. The label indicated ABV was 14.5%
The nose was harmonic and incredibly intense. It opened with aromas of figs, dried stone fruit (especially apricot) and raisins. Caramel and lemon zest joined the other aromas after some additional time.
On the palate, Ben Ryé of exceptional balance – not too sweet thanks to the moderate acidity. Slightly mineralic, almost creamy and very elegant with notes of white peaches and apricots. Full-bodied and complex. Ben Ryé had a amazingly long and creamy finish.
Son Of The Wind
Ben Ryé is a superb mediation wine and I like this vintage even better than the more recent ones. It also perfectly pairs with a number of desserts but I like it best without food / only little food. The wine as a long aging potential. Even if you are not a a huge fan of sweet wines I strongly advice you try Ben Ryé at least once but be warned: Ben Ryé is addictive!
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You might be wondering about the title, which leads us back to the introduction of this post. Over a thousand years ago the Arabs conquered Pantelleria. When they arrived on the island they renamed it “daughter of the winds” after the strong winds that arise on the coast of North Africa. Donnafugata adopted this Arab name by naming this sweet wine Ben Ryé. Ben Ryé is Arab for son of the wind.