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Donnafugata's Sicilian wine stars enjoyed under the stars

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New friends, wonderful wines and fabulous food were on the agenda for dinner with two of my husband’s cycling buddies. With the promise that he would refrain from talking about cycling for the entire evening, we ventured to Steve and Heidi’s upstate home on a summer Friday.

The pre-arranged plan was that we would bring the wine and they would prepare the food. We proffered up the Donnafugata Lighea and Mille e una Notte, which were eagerly accepted by our hosts. They then set about selecting the perfect menu from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. The result was an amazing meal that began with raspberry mojitos and bruschetta and ended with limoncello homemade by one of their friends. In between, the Lighea was a wonderful accompaniment to scallops and the Mille e una Notte was simply divine with the Bolognese sauce, which Steve had simmered on the stove for hours. We tasted a third Donnafugata wine on a separate occasion.

Owned by the Rallo family, Donnafugata has been at the forefront of the renaissance in Sicilian wine for a long time. As early as 1851, the family first produced the Italian fortified wine, Marsala, where their winery is located. But, as the reputation of Marsala waned (as did much of its quality), Giacomo and Gabriella Rallo looked for other ways to better show off the potential of the Sicilian island. Chosing to plant international grape varieties on the family’s estate in Contessa Entellina, the Rallos launched the Donnafugata wine brand, taking the name from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s book, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), which is set on Sicily. After Donnafugata had established its reputation with international varieties, the family turned its attention to local grapes and currently grows 49 different varieties.

Among my perennial favorites is the Lighea, which is produced from the Zibibbo (aka Muscat) grape grown on the island of Pantelleria, off the coast of Sicily. Borrowing again from Lampedusa, this wine is named for the siren, Lighea, in his novel of the same name, who is featured prominently on the stunning label. Always a fresh and fruit centric wine, the Lighea 2013 (Zibibbo Terre Siciliane IGT; SRP $20.00) offers up citrus, melon, peach and floral notes on both the nose and dry palate. Refreshing and light, it is the perfect wine for a summer’s evening, but obviously can be enjoyed year round.

Continuing the literary theme, Tancredi is a central character in Il Gattopardo. The Tancredi 2009 (Sicilia IGP; SRP $44.00) is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Nero d’Avola, which has been aged for 14 months in new and old French oak and then aged in bottle for another two years before release. An intense nose of violets, plums, blackberries and vanilla is repeated on the full-bodied palate, with firm tannins and long length.

Enjoyed under the stars on a warm summer’s night befitting the wine’s label, which depicts “the sky from ‘Arabian Nights’, full of stars and full of promise,” the Mille e una Notte 2008 (Contessa Entellina DOP; SRP $85.00) shows how beautifully Nero d’Avola can shine when it is the starring player. Having spent ~16 months in oak and 30 months in bottle, this wine is showing some development with dried flowers, bramble fruit and a faint note of oak on the nose. Luscious fruit, particularly tart cherries, coupled with cocoa, oak and dried leaves, linger on the medium to full-bodied palate, throughout the wine’s long finish.

Admittedly, biking did come up a few times during our dinner, which was inevitable given the trio’s true devotion to the sport (100 mile rides are regular occurrences with this group), but for the most part, we spoke of shared interests – food, travel and wine. The perfect start of a lovely friendship; agenda completed.

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