A Trip to Paradise? Italian Island of Pantelleria

Where celebs like Giorgio Armani relax and enjoy Pantelleria's passito wine.

ByABC News
September 15, 2009, 11:23 AM

PANTELLERIA, Italy, Sept. 16, 2009 — -- I fell in love with the Italian island of Pantelleria before I even saw it, just from the taste of the famous passito wine it produces.

Sipping it made me dream of Sicilian summers and everything about them: sun, sea, salt, wind. And all that deliciously ripe fruit: oranges, peaches, figs and apricots, but most of all those tempting Sicilian deserts filled with almonds, pistachios, candied fruit, raisins, honey and fresh ricotta. Sweetness, lots of it, in abundance everywhere!

The island of Pantelleria is right in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. It's 58 miles from the Sicilian coast but only 45 miles from Tunisia, making it closer to Africa than Italy.

It's the largest of the Sicilian islands, unusually green with its low-lying vineyards, squat olive trees and wild scrub hugging the fertile dark-grey, volcanic soil as they seek protection from the wind.

If you are looking for an untamed island to explore and yearn for rugged, simple island life, this is your paradise getaway! And wealthy Italians know it.

For years, celebrities like Giorgio Armani have hidden out here the better part of the baking summer, lolling in their damusi -- the typical local houses -- or on their boats, occasionally dipping into the clean blue water that laps at the island's rocky shores.

Knowing that I am passionate about their passito wine, the wine-making Rallo family from Sicily invited me to discover Pantelleria during their annual wine harvest.

The family owns the Sicilian Donnafugata winery, which led the march of excellent bottled Sicilian wines into wine stores around the world. Its high-tech cellar and bottling plant are in the town of Marsala, on the northeastern coast of Sicily, while most of their perfectly kept vineyards lie inland at the Contessa Entellina estate.

When the family decided in 1992 to branch out and start producing their prize-winning passito wine, they purchased a mere 17 acres of vineyards on Pantelleria from 22 different owners. More intricate negotiations followed for yet more tiny land lots -- sometimes hashed out with heirs who had emigrated to far-flung parts of the world.

The Rallo family now owns a total of 160 acres scattered around 11 different areas of the island; the largest total acreage of vineyards farmed by one family on Pantelleria.

Passito wine is made from the large and splendidly juicy zibibbo (Moscato d'Alessandria) grape, which was originally introduced onto the island by the Arabs centuries ago and is the only variety of grape cultivated on the island's steep terrain. There is no water for irrigation on the island, but zibibbo grapes manage to survive the wind and harsh sun, nonetheless, until they ripen to perfection.

Along with capers, which are ubiquitous not only in the landscape, but also in the shops and in local dishes, Pantelleria is famous for passito wine.