Passito di Pantelleria is an Italian DOC for Moscato wines made from dried grapes grown in Italy's most southerly territory, the island of Pantelleria. Situated just 45 miles (70km) from the north-east coast of Tunisia, in northern Africa, this volcanic island lies at a latitude of 36 degrees north and is home to some of Europe's most southerly vineyards; only those in Crete and Cyprus lie closer to the equator.
Pantelleria is a satellite island of Sicily (as is Lipari, on the northern side of the Sicilian 'mainland') and for many centuries has contributed to the island's enviable reputation for sweet wine production. The wines are even referred to in ancient mythology; the goddess Tanit is said to have seduced Apollo, on the advice of Venus, by serving him Muscat wine from the island. The wine was barely heard of outside the island's close-knit community for nearly 2000 years after the myth's original circulation, and was not exported even to Italy until the 1880s. It finally gained a formal place in the modern Italian wine system when both Moscato di Pantelleria and its Passito di Pantelleria variant were granted DOC status in August 1971. It was the third Sicilian wine style to gain a DOC title, after Etna (August 1968) and Marsala (April 1969).
These ancient wines are made from the Muscat of Alexandria grape, a Muscat almost as widely planted as its better-known cousin (Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains) but generally considered inferior, not just because of its susceptibility to disease but also due to its pungent muskiness. Muscat of Alexandria is thought to have originated around the Nile Delta, near the Egyptian city of Alexandria. In Sicily it is called Zibibbo, which means 'raisin' in Arabic, adding weight to this suggested provenance. Another synonym is Muscat Romain, which it earned due to its distribution around the Mediterranean by the Romans.
Wines made from dried grapes (for which passito is the Italian term) have existed for thousands of years, immortalized by the writers of the ancient world. It is most likely that the tradition came about as a solution to wine-conservation challenges: the higher sugar and alcohol content of the resulting wines made the chances of spoilage much lower. The practice is still in force in the modern wine world, most notably in Italy (e.g. Amarone and Recioto della Valpolicella) and France (Vin de Paille from Jura and Hermitage) but also in Cyprus (the famous Commandaria from the island's foothills) and Greece. The key difference today is that the wines are made in this way for entirely hedonistic reasons rather than practical ones.