Recently I taught a four day Italian wine Intensive course at the Rudd Center in St. Helena. Four days seems may seem like a long time to cover one country but the scale of Italy and Italian wine is overwhelming at any speed. The class tasted over 80 wines in the four days and there were lots of highlights—from brilliant Sicilian Nero d’Avola to Super Tuscan all-stars to great Barolo and Barbaresco–and everything in between. My favorite wine of the week? A sticky at the end of day one: Donnafugata’s completely delicious Passito di Pantelleria called Ben Ryé.
The name Ben Ryé is taken from the Arabic term “Son of the Wind.” No mystery as Pantelleria is a wind-swept volcanic island between Sicily and North Africa. Here Zbibbo vines (Muscat of Alexandria) up to a century old are trained low, sprawling bushes for protection against the constant and biting Mediterranean winds. Harvest for Ben Ryé begins in mid-August when the first grapes are dried in the sun for up to 30 days. In September less mature vineyards are harvested. Prior to fermentation the passito/dried grapes are hand de-stemmed and added to the must. During an extended maceration the dried fruit adds extraordinary flavor and complexity to the young wine. Post fermentation the wine is aged in stainless steel for four months and then an additional six months in bottle before commercial release.
Aside from all the techno-jargon the wine is simply stunning with bright, piercing flavors of dried flowers, honey, caramel and stonefruit marmalade. the palate is intense, focused and utterly hedonistic. The winery recommends enjoying Ben Ryé as a wine of meditation, to be enjoyed solo at the end of a memorable meal. I’m also convinced that if paired with foie gras or a salty blue cheese such as Stilton it would temporarily change your life. Gianduia chocolate and Ben Ryé would also be cosmic. Whatever the pairing or occasion, Ben Ryé is one of the world’s great dessert wines and wine values—and a MUST try.