Baglio Donna Franca: A time machine of wine, food & culture

Staying at Baglio Donna Franca was like traveling back in time to a “Pre-British” Marsala in Sicily. Lovingly restored by Giacomo Ansaldi and his wife, Paola Galfano, it is far more than an authentic and elegant place to stay. It has a beautiful story of wine, food and culture to tell.

The story begins with the baglio itself. The cover photo (above) looks out from the upper terrace to the Donna Franca vineyards, then, to the John Woodhouse baglio, now in ruins, and beyond that, to the sea and the Egadi Islands. Paola took me up to see the view.
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In 1773, Woodhouse was thrown off course by a storm, landed in Marsala, tasted the local wine “il perpetuum”, developed a quicker to market version of the wine by fortifying it with alcohol, and made his fortune selling his “marsala” to the British (see Marco De Bartoli post).

Meanwhile, in the early 1800s, two brothers of the Florio family from Calabria arrived in Palermo as blacksmiths, By mid-century, the Florios had an international commercial empire including the production of marsala wine and tuna (see Egadi Island post). Byy the late 1800s Donna Franca Florio, wife of Ignazio, was an icon of culture and beauty. Baglio Donna Franca was owned by the Florio family and named for Donna Franca herself, who famously wore a strand of pearls given to her by her husband (by legend, one pearl for every woman he had betrayed her with). This is Giovanni Boldini’s portrait of her.
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The Baglio Donna Franca was the center of the Florio marsala wine production. Constructed around a fifteenth century tower that was converted into the main residential area, the baglio has a center courtyard and a cantina.
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Unfortunately, the Florio family got caught in a combined downdraft of a speculative move into finance and an economic crisis in Sicily and had to sell everything they owned to avoid bankruptcy just before the turn of the century.

When Giacomo and Paola bought the Baglio Donna Franca a hundred years later, it was dilapidated. They set out to restore not just the baglio , but the vineyards. An enologo trained to do scientific research, Giacomo found local clones, grafted new vines, and planted native grapes in the traditional way with the varieties mixed in the vineyards. His goal was to make pre-British wine as he explains in this video in his cellar at Donna Franca…noting that wine has been made in Marsala since the Phoenicians brought it 3,000 years ago.

As he emphasizes in the video, he does tasting “verticals” for his guests to give an overall sense of his wine, not just the characteristics of one vintage year. The evening that I was at Donna Franca, Paola and Giacomo joined me for dinner in the restaurant, and we tasted the wines over dinner.
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I started with a first course of pasta with almonds and vegetables.
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Then, the chef presented fresh fish before cooking it.
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Our tasting began with three vintages (2006, 2007, 2010) of Donna Franca Abbadessa Sicilia IGT (60% Grillo, 40% Zibbibo). Grillo lends structure and citrusy freshness while Zibbibo (also known as Muscat di Alexandria, an ancient variety brought from Egypt) has light, slightly aromatic characteristics. Giacomo leaves the wine to age a year in steel vats on the lees then, a year to age after bottling.

Overall, the wine is dry, but also delicate and complex with aromas of this place: macchia mediteranneo, herbs and spices, light saltiness of the sea. As the wine ages (up to 10-12 years), the color and taste becomes richer, but the wine maintains its freshness (13,5% alcohol). It pairs especially well with fish and shellfish.
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We tasted the same vintages of Donna Franca Cipponeri Sicilia IGT (60% Perricone, 40% Nero D’Avola).
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Perricone (also called Pignatello, a lesser known native variety) lends acidity, red fruit and herbal aromas as well as tannins, while Nero D’Avola gives a deep red color, smoother tannins and slight spiciness. Giacomo ages the wine 18 months in barriques and a year in the bottle. The wine is structured, intense and complex, an excellent pairing for meat, game or aged cheese. It can age for 15-20 years or more.

The biggest surprise of my visit was finding out that Giacomo, like Marco de Bartoli, has dedicated a large part of his cellar (20 large barrels) to the ancient wine of Marsala: “il perpetuum”.
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With real emotion, he described how an old man had found him and asked him to care for this treasure, a collection dating back more than 50 years. When Giacomo asked the man how much he had to pay for it, the man said, “There is no price. The wine is priceless. I only ask that you care for it.” With the deepest sense of responsibility, Giacomo took the wine as “custodian” because he needs to wait another 25-30 years before he can actually bottle wine. “By then,” he pointed out, “I’ll be getting old myself. But the wine will go on.”

Currently, the Ansaldi’s only sell their wine direct at the Baglio Donna Franca or for EU shipments via internet. For reservations or orders, refer to the website.

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