Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

For a sweet, fresh and vibrant wine, keep an eye out for Donnafugata Passito Ben Rye

Commentary

They say that Italy stretches from the Alps to Africa, and the island of Pantelleria lies closer to that continent than Sicily, though it is administrated by the latter.

I couldn’t see Tunisia from its west coast, when I visited Pantelleria in the spring of 2019, but I could see the influence of the Arabs who ruled the island from AD 700 to 1123. That influence is most obviously manifested in Pantelleria’s architecture; the white washed houses, called dammusi, are adorned with at least one dome on every roof, which serves to collect dew and rain and funnel the precious fresh water into a cistern.

The Islamic architecture serves to remind visitors that they are closer to the Sahara than the green rolling hills of Tuscany. A more subtle reminder of Pantelleria’s Arab past is manifested in the grapes that grow on its windswept soils, called locally Zibibbo, from the Arabic for ‘raisin’, and more generally known as Muscat of Alexandria.

My local green grocer sometimes stocks Muscat grapes and they always grab my attention. The berries on the clusters are big, like green ping-pong balls. The Arabs prized them for their sweetness, and spread them westwards across their Mediterranean conquests. They, and their winemaking successors on Pantelleria, also prized them for their ability to withstand hot and dry climates and retain acidity when fresh, or even when dried into raisins, or ‘sultanas.’ Muscat grapes, and the wines made from them, are a dominant export item from the island, along with capers and olive oil.

Pantelleria is a small Volcanic island of about 80 kilometres squared that lies on a continental rift between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates. It’s essentially a volcano with a large caldron in the middle. It became an island after two big eruptions; one that happened about 100,000 years ago and another about 40,000 years ago.

In geological terms, this makes Pantelleria very young. Antonio Rallo, who guided me and a delegation of international wine journalists around the island in May of 2019, attributes an energy he feels when on the island to its geological youth. Rallo, and his sister Josè are the public faces of their family’s Sicilian winery, Donnafugata. I went to Pantelleria as a guest of the Assovini Sicilia consortium of wine producers, and Rallo was a natural choice as tour guide. The Rallo family of Marsala has roots in the Sicilian wine industry that go back to the 19th century, and were the first winery to ‘import’ wines from Pantelleria to the main island and beyond.

On Pantelleria, the Rallo family grow Zibibbo grapes at their Donnafugata Khamma estate and winery. They make wine from them, and from grapes from other parcels of land they own, or fruit they buy from other growers. The Zibibbo grapes I saw at Khamma, like all the other ones I saw on the island, grow untrained as tree-like shrubs. They are low to the ground. In fact, all the plants in Pantelleria, including the shrubs that grow olives, are low to the ground, unless they are enclosed by high walls. This is because there is almost always a strong wind blowing on the island and the height of any plant is limited to the extent it can find shelter from the wind.

Pantelleria is hilly, and the Donnafugata vineyards are terraced by over 40 kilometres of dark grey dry volcanic stone walls. Antonio Rallo explained that the maintenance of the dry walls, which are prone to erode, is a bane on the existence of the vineyard, as the number of Panteschi who know how to build them diminishes. Emigration from the island to Sicily or peninsular Italy is steady, Rallo also explained. As young people decide to leave their family farms, Donnafugata has increased its holdings on the island to ensure a steady supply of Zibibbo grapes for their wines.

At Khamma, Donnafugata makes a naturally sweet white wine, Kabir, but their most famous wine, and the most famous wine of Pantelleria is the Passito Ben Ryé. (Ben Ryé means ‘son of the wind’ in Arabic.) To make the passito, Zibibbo grapes are dried in sunlight, concentrating their sugars before being pressed to make a dessert wine. The dried grapes are manually de-stemmed and added to wine being made from fresh Zibibbo grapes. The ratio of fresh to dried grapes used depends on the characteristics of the vintage, and the balance of sugar and acidity in both forms of the grape that year.

The Donnafugata  Passito Ben Rye is typically both very sweet and fresh and vibrant. Typical fruit notes range from orange and citrus through peaches and apricot. In a masterclass on sweet wines I attended on another trip to Sicily, the Ben Rye was easily voted the favourite of the wine trade attendees by a show of hands.

A limited allotment of Ben Ryé is sent to Canada every year, where it is distributed around the country by the Montréal wine and spirits importer, Univins. I’ll be keeping my eye out for when it comes back, and until then in my mind I’ll be going to Pantelleria.

Zachary Paikin: Afghanistan and the death of the liberal world order

Commentary

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan marks the definitive end of a three-decade-long historical parenthesis, bringing major implications for how Canadians should conceive of their country’s role in the world.

As our political parties campaign across the country, it’s a perfect time to ask some hard questions about Canada’s foreign policy ambitions.

The post-Cold War era has been marked by a Western effort to construct a liberal world order. In truth, this project had already failed several years ago.

The Great Recession, of which the U.S. was the epicentre, allowed a rising China to become more confident in challenging Western leadership of the global economy. Disputes with Russia over the unsanctioned overthrow of the Gaddafi regime and regime change in Ukraine also demonstrated the limits of Western interventionism. Yet two major events in 2021 undeniably prove that this historical period has ended: the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

A liberal order must be underwritten by a hegemonic liberal state. Crucially, it is not just this country’s economic or military power that must be prevalent, but also its ideals. There remain doubts about whether the Chinese economic model can be replicated by other states, as well as serious concerns about the state of human rights in that country. Beijing is also unwilling and unable to assume the international leadership role that Washington has held for the past several decades. But this is beside the point.

The highly visible attack on the institutions of American democracy raised inevitable questions about whether the Western model is worth emulating — whether it retains a monopoly on how to solve people’s problems around the world.

Yet one must distinguish an international order from a world order. The former, of variable geographic scope, describes a set of agreed-upon rules and norms to guide conduct between states. The latter is much deeper in its substance and broader in its reach: it goes beyond mere rules into the realm of shared values and its aims are invariably global. A liberal international order may merely seek to establish rules-based institutions for interstate relations, while moving global values in a generally more progressive direction. But a liberal world order actively attempts to remake the world in the West’s image.

It has gradually become clear that American idealism alone cannot serve as the basis for a stable world order. The end of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan marks the definitive defeat of a naval power’s attempt to alter the foundations of global politics as far away as landlocked Central Eurasia. As such, under both Presidents Trump and Biden, Washington’s overarching strategic priority has shifted from spreading liberal values to defending America’s position as the world’s pre-eminent power against an increasingly assertive Russia and China.

With a world order rooted in common values no longer in sight, U.S. allies have ceased to be equal partners in the global fight for liberalism, instead becoming assets in the struggle over who gets to set the rules of international conduct.

In a liberal world order, Canada’s inoffensive, values-centric foreign policy could complement America’s aspirations. However, in the post-liberal international landscape, Ottawa finds itself a naïve price-taker in a world of hard-nosed strategic competition.

Over the past three decades, Canada has tied itself deeply to the American liberal world order project. Ottawa has signed up for every NATO military operation, clinging to an outdated view of multilateralism centred on the Euro-Atlantic region rather than actively preparing for a world where the geopolitical centre of gravity lies further east.

American news, American politicians and American culture wars have become Canadians’ primary intellectual reference points. This has left Canada handicapped and unprepared to think for itself in the face of profound geopolitical and ideational global shifts.

Unlike during the Cold War when Canada was a leading middle power within one of two bounded geopolitical blocs, today it faces the prospect of becoming a marginal state in an integrated — yet pluralistic — international order of global scope.

The dawn of the post-post-Cold War era calls for a Canadian foreign policy that privileges restraint over hubris, pragmatism over ideology, and strategic thinking over the endless invocation of platitudes primarily directed at a domestic audience: Canada’s second consecutive failed bid for a UN Security Council seat should put to rest the notion that the world cares at all about “who we are.”