Sunday, 14 October 2007
The Wine that launched.....
.....a thousand ships? I mentioned recently the bottles of Ben Ryé which had generously been provided by some Brancoli dinner guests, a couple of weeks ago, and the fact that it was both delicious and historically interesting, since it came from Donnafugata, the ancestral Lampedusa family estate in Sicily where The Leopard had in part been set. A little further digging, and the historical underpinning for the wine becomes ever more intriguing......
The grapes for Ben Ryé - which in arabic means 'Son of the Wind' - come from vineyards on the small island of Pantelleria, which is halfway between Sicily and Libya. Pantelleria had historically been part of the Lampedusa estate, but had come adrift as the family fortunes unravelled, and it was only in the 1990's that it once again became part of the Donnafugata fattoria, when the Pantelleria vineyards were bought by the Rallo family, the new owners of Donnafugata. Until that time, the sweet wine produced on Pantelleria was a Passito, politely described by the experts as rather 'figgy' (i.e filthy) and it is only after the various changes by the Rallos to the production method that we have the wonderful Ben Ryé product of today - an extraordinary wine, with a deep caramel flavour and a complex body.
Pantelleria is a desolate little rock - both windblown and arid, with no water source other than rainwater. The vineyards are comprised of ancient vines, many on pre-phyloxera root stock, growing in the greek style - i.e either on the ground or on low trellis in depressions where there is a little shelter from the wind. That you can grow vines at all in such conditions is a tribute to the persistence and ingenuity of the islanders. The grape from which Ben Ryé is made, Zibibbio, is also ancient and can be traced back to Egypt, before the fog of history closes in.....
The production method on Pantelleria is exactly the same as that found in the islands of the Cyclades where the growing conditions are similar, it is far too windy in summer to do otherwise. The grapes are also allowed to dry after harvesting and the resulting wine which is similar in taste to a slightly odd Dubonnet is also thick and ......um.......figgy.
Not far from the Cyclades, the island of Limnos,opposite the site of ancient Troy, is the only place in Greece where the Zibibbio grape predominates. The original inhabitants of Western Sicily, where Donnafugata is located, were the Elymians, who founded Erice and Segesta, are credited with bringing wine-making to Sicily, and - according to the ancient Greeks - were descended from those Trojans who had fled the smoking ruins of Troy.....
Elymians? Limnos? Zibibbio? Figgy wine? Could it be that the direct ancestor of Ben Ryé was the wine of the Trojans? Fanciful, of course........but no less engaging for all that.
It isn't often you get given a bottle of wine with three thousand years of history behind it......!
Is courtesy of the Brancolis-in-London
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When you first mentioned this wine, I made a mental note to look some out, but have been too idle to do so. Suddenly, this task has moved right up to the top of the list - what a wonderful series of stories!
The Leopard was the favourite book of my grandmother's old age (she served in the Red Cross in Italy in WW1), and she read and re-read it frequently in Italian as she claimed it was not worth reading novels unless in their original language (she made an exception for Anna Karenina). We have a Portuguese friend whose family vineyard claims to have the only pre-phylloxera grapes in Europe, but now I know better (do you know the pre-phyloxera wines of Chile?). And then, of course, all the classical thoughts and speculations that are irresistible after a glass or two of something delicious.
What good taste your grandmother had!
I note from the Ben Ryé label that the producers say of it that it is "...Straordinario da solo, come vino da meditazione.....". A 'wine for meditation'; in English, I suppose we would strip that of all its rich associations and describe it merely as a 'sipping' wine.....!
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