Saturday, April 3, 2021

Marsala Wine



For centuries, Sicily’s most famous wine has been Marsala. You may be more familiar with chicken marsala than high quality Marsala wine, but there was a time when this wine produced on the west coast was the equal of Sherry and Madeira, and maybe even Port.

The history of Marsala wine begins with John Woodhouse. In 1770 the English merchant from Liverpool arrived in Sicily on business, looking for products such as almonds, honey, oil and tuna salami. One day, while he was sailing to Mazara for a load of soda ash, a storm forced his ship to find shelter in the port of Marsala. Here he found refreshment in a tavern and was impressed by the local wine; a wine of high alcohol content produced by the farmers of the area, which he found similar to the already famous Port and Madeira.

He changed his mind, loading his ship with Marsala wine instead. To prevent the wine from spoiling on the long journey, he fortified the wine with a little brandy. He transported it to Liverpool and sold it, making a huge profit in an English market already addicted to fortified wine from Spain and Portugal.

John Woodhouse established his winery at Marsala in 1796. Benjamin Ingham founded a competing firm in 1812, followed by two Sicilians, Vincenzo Florio in 1832 and Paolo Pellegrino in 1880. Woodhouse was a supplier to the British navy under Horatio Nelson, who selected Marsala as the wine ration for his sailors. The British Monarch added Marsala to its cellars, leading the popularity of the wine to skyrocket across Britain. These wineries produced vast quantities of Marsala wine for export to England, and later America and Australia.

The original DOC production rules were very relaxed, allowing excessively high yields. At the time, the Italian government was also incentivising farmers to increase yields, which led winemakers to replace the higher quality Grillo and Inzolia varieties with the more prolific but lower quality Catarratto. This both reduced the concentration and changed the taste of the resulting wine. Winemakers also starting adding cane sugar, coffee or chocolate to replace the sweetness lost, further disguising the wine and relegating Marsala to use in the kitchen. When asked about Marsala, most people think of chicken marsala.

The DOC rules were changed in 1984, reducing yields and prohibiting blending with sugar or other additives. Winemakers have turned back to producing high quality Marsala with Grillo and Inzolia. Thirty years later there are glimmers of recovery, but Marsala has a long way to go to once again sit alongside Sherry and Madeira.

Marsala is made in three colours: Oro (gold), Ambre (amber) and Rubino (ruby). Gold and Amber marsala are the traditionally high quality wines, with Ruby being of lower quality. Like Sherry and Madeira, Marsala is an oxidised, fortified wine. What makes Marsala unique is the use of only native varieties. Gold and Amber Marsala is made using Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanico and Damaschino. Ruby Marsala is made using Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Frappato and Pignatello (aka Perricone).

Following grape pressing, the wine is fermented to dryness, fortified with neutral grape spirit then aged in old oak barrels filled only two thirds full with wine, and the remainder air. The bung, or the plug which seals the top of the barrel, is also left only lightly inserted, meaning that air can gradually circulate as the wine ages.

Oxidation is fervorously avoided by winemakers in the production of normal table wine, but in the case of Marsala, it’s part of the appeal. Once a wine has oxidised, it’s stable, and can be transported long distances (think sea transportvto England) or left exposed to air for long periods of time without any further spoiling. The price you pay for this is the bitter taste that an oxidised wine takes on. If you’re familiar with dry sherry, you understand the bitter aftertaste of Marsala.

This dry, fortified wine is Oro Marsala or Gold Marsala.

This is where things get interesting: To produce Amber Marsala, winemakers add a cooked grape must called mosto cotto to Oro Marsala. Mosto cotto (literally cooked must) is made by taking the the residual grape skins and flesh from pressing and cooking it for 36 hours to concentrate the residual sugars and the phenolic and colour compounds in the skins. When this is added into dry Oro Marsala, the residual sugar balances the bitterness from oxidation and the wine takes on its amber colour. The result is a wonderfully complex and rich wine with some sweetness. Different producers add varying amounts of must, and so produce wines of varying sweetness. Sweetness designations indicate the amount of residual sugar in the finished product. These are secco (dry, at 0-40g/l), semisecco (semi-sweet, at 40–100g/l) and dolce (sweet, at more than 100g/l).

Marsala wine without mosto cotto is known as vergine (or virgin) Marsala. This shouldn’t be considered lower quality, just a different style. High quality Oro Marsala is aged for decades or is made using the solera system made famous in sherry production. This fractional blending system combines wines produced from different vintages, producing a non-vintage wine that tends to be very consistent year-to-year.

Marsala is classified into different quality levels, based on how long the wine matures in barrel. Fino (one year aging) and Superiore (two years) are frequently used for cooking and aren’t worth sipping. Superiore Riserva requires four years of ageing, but Amber Marsala is frequently released under this designation with significantly more age as this is the highest quality indication for Amber Marsala. Vergine Solera Oro Marsala requires an average age of five years, and Vergine Riserva requires 10+ years. These last two quality levels require vergine wine and so exclude amber marsala.

Marsala has a typical flavour profile of apricot, vanilla, tamarind, brown sugar and tobacco, honey and maple syrup. Older wines can take on additional flavours of dried fruits, morello cherry, walnut and licorice. If the wine is dry, then it will have a bitter flavour, which tends to be balanced by the residual sugar in Amber Marsala.

When you leave a normal table wine exposed to air, it oxidises and takes on a bitter taste. Fortified wines tend to last better, but still not forever. Marsala wine, on the other hand, can last for years, even decades. This is because it is purposely oxidised in the production process, so there’s no spoiling left to happen!

Marsala wine pairs very well with chocolate, as well as some other hard-to-match foods like asparagus and brussel sprouts.

Cantina Florio
Marsala, Italy

Old Vintages




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Old School Marsala

Uncle Tony's Veal Marsala RECIPE



Sicily represents Italy’s most exciting winemaking frontier. After a long period of stagnation and over-production, this gorgeous Mediterranean island is making waves. It has attracted investors like Andrea Franchetti – the owner of Tenuta di Trinoro in Tuscany – who seek growing conditions unlike anywhere else in Europe. Sicily is as rich and diverse culturally as it is viticultural – the sheer variety of terroirs and micro-climates suggests a continent, rather than an island. It offers unparalleled opportunities, although the full realization of Sicily’s potential is only just beginning.  Yet, in a sense, the island’s status as a leading producer of fine wine is old news. For centuries, Sicily has been making a distant cousin of Sherry. It is made in the town of Marsala in western Sicily, which gives its name to this unique wine style. Capable of aging for many, many decades, Marsala [pronunciation: maar·saa·luh] has been famous since the days of Admiral Nelson, the 18th-century British sailor who made Marsala an obligatory part of the Royal Navy’s cultural framework. An invitation to the officers’ mess could not be refused; neither could a glass of pungent fortified wine from Italy’s most enchanting island. Taste this wonderful wine on a Private Luxury Wine Tour of Sicily.

Marsala owes much to the entrepreneurial spirit of British merchants in the 1700s. In that century, Liverpool-born John Woodhouse was the UK’s most famous wine merchant. He was responsible for popularizing fortified wine icons like Sherry and Port in the UK, ensuring that the upper classes regarded a glass of Port as an essential hallmark of sophistication. In 1773, Woodhouse discovered a powerful wine style being made in the town of Marsala. He decided that this could become a lucrative money-spinner and so purchased several barrels. However, for the wine to survive the long journey to England, the wine was fortified with brandy. And so a legendary style was born.

Napoleonic Wars that kick-started the international demand for Marsala wine

However, until the British arrived, Marsala would have never contained spirit. The next generation of the Woodhouse family made a return visit to Sicily in 1787, determined to expand the market for this delicious wine style. Yet, it was the Napoleonic Wars that kick-started the international demand for Marsala wine. After Lord Nelson purchased a large quantity of Marsala, it inevitably became associated with naval tradition. This custom spread to wealthy households in the UK, and before too long, Port and Sherry had a serious rival.

Sadly, Marsala’s reputation hit rock bottom in the 20th century. Although Port and Sherry have both suffered from changing habits and evolving fashions, Marsala has struggled to regain its former cachet. The style was awarded its own DOC (appellation) in 1969, but unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Today, even aficionados of Port and Madeira regard Marsala as little more than a kitchen standby.

So what happened? As is so often the case, Marsala was no longer in vogue by the mid-20th century. Growers responded by cheapening their product; higher yields; less care in the winery; large amounts of chaptalization with cane sugar before bottling. As a result, Marsala’s new image was forged: heavily-sweetened plonk suitable only for cooking. A few quality-minded producers attempted to fight back and remained determined to make traditional Marsala for discerning palates. Nevertheless, their efforts were not generally recognized.

But there is hope. In the 20th century, Marsala seemed to be in the deepest of doldrums, but enthusiasts are slowly waking up to its charms. The top brands continue to release bottles of Marsala, which pay homage to this wonderful fortified wine style. Yet what ends up in your glass can vary enormously.

In fact, not all Marsala is made as a fortified wine, although most are. There is no catch-all definition of fortified wine, except that the alcoholic strength was increased by the addition of grape spirit at some stage in its creation. In Sicily, this usually happens after fermentation has occurred. Growers have up to ten grape varieties at their disposal, including the ubiquitous Catarratto, Grillo, Inzolia, Nerello Mascalese, and Damaschino. These are grapes that will probably never leave Sicily – save occasional experimentation – imbuing Marsala with a flavor profile that cannot be replicated. After fermentation and blending, the wine is fortified with spirit – and quite often sweetened – either with partially fermented grape juice or heated must. After that, the winemaker has numerous possibilities open to them. However, some owners prefer to fortify during the fermentation process. Others refuse to sweeten their wines before bottling.

Indeed, Marsala comes in all shapes and guises, ranging from relatively young wines to bottles released after more than 25 years. Some growers prefer to market young wines, known as fine (one year) or Superiore, which are matured for two years before release. Others specialize in making superior riserva styles (four years age) and vergine/soleras, which are matured for a minimum of five years in wood barrels. The top category is vergine or solera stravecchio. These beautiful examples will have been aged in barrel for at least a decade.

Classification System

Marsala is also subject to a curious classification system not seen in other fortified-producing regions. The color and sugar content will be graded as ‘oro,’ ‘Ambra’ and ‘Rubino’ respectively, which describes the wine’s hue, ranging from deep golden to pinkish red. Like German and Austrian wine culture, Marsala’s producers also grade their wines according to sugar content. The categories are; secco (dry), semisecco (semi-sweet), and dolce (sweet).

Contemporary versions of this noble fortified wine can be magnificent, or they can be a depressing reminder that lazy outfits still churn out overly-sweetened, boring wines. In that sense, Marsala is arguably the most polarized of all the great Italian wine styles. Leading firm Buffa has shown a remarkable commitment to promoting high-quality Marsala, as has Pellegrino and Bartoli. The latter prefers to work outside of the DOC framework for some of its top labels, including Vecchio Samperi and Vigna la Miccia. Vecchio Samperi is probably our favorite example of Marsala. It is a love letter to the styles of wine made before the practice of adding grape spirit became commonplace. A racy and complex unfortified wine, its heady aromas are exquisite and addictive. Aged in soleras for a long period of time, Samperi offers up notes of almonds, orange blossom, cinnamon, chocolate, and damson in the glass. Full-bodied and complex, it could occupy any space left by the best Port and Sherry wines. The sons of the former owner, Marco de Bartoli, also make a fantastic label called Ventennale, which is a blend of young and old vintages. Their DOC Marsalas are no less impressive. For a time, though, Bartoli almost stood alone.

Thankfully, a growing firmament of winemakers are now following suit. Marsala does not yet have a critical mass of high-quality labels; however, the situation is much improved compared to 15 years ago. If it is intelligently marketed and promoted, then Marsala’s astounding diversity of styles should find a welcome home in households again. At the very least, we implore you to experiment with different food pairings. Marsala is seldom outmatched at the dinner table.

Dry Marsala, served chilled, will really help your meal sing. Particularly if you’re serving both hard and soft cheeses – Parmesan and Stilton are our top personal choices. It’s the combination of rich texture and racy acidity, enabling Marsala to bring out the best in salty cheeses and foods like olives, nuts, and cured meats. But the possibilities are almost endless: Marsala is one of those wonderful wine styles which rarely clashes with gastronomy. Dry Marsala could match nearly any meat or fish, although we prefer the wine as an aperitif or post-dinner libation.

However, sweeter styles of Marsala will succeed where late-harvest Riesling wines and Sauternes can fail. A sweet bottle of Marsala can match any dessert, no matter how unctuous or decadent. Chocolate-based desserts are always a premier choice, simply because the pairing never fails. Sauternes tends to be overwhelmed by heavier sweet delicacies, but not so Marsala. We’ve seen gastronomes pair Tiramisu with sweet old Marsala and still come up for air. It is never outclassed.

The style also continues to thrive as an essential component of local gastronomy. Aficionados may regard this as sacrilege, but many of the world’s top chefs still consider Marsala an indispensable element in classical dishes. Who could resist poultry slowly cooked in Marsala wine, with shallots, garlic, mushrooms, and herbs providing the supporting act? After the sauce reaches a syrupy consistency, you add cream and all that’s left is a velvety, swarthy delight. The recipe also works well with pork tenderloin and fennel – braising a whole chicken in Marsala for hours provides a very sumptuous Sunday lunch. You’ll probably need two bottles: one for cooking, one for enjoying. Other recipes braise veal loins in Marsala, while we enjoy cooking fresh courgette and mushrooms in the wine before adding al dente penne pasta. Quick, simple, and to die for.

Marsala’s other famous contribution to Italian cooking is Zabaglione. It has perhaps fallen out of high fashion today, although we still see the dessert on restaurant menus across Italy. The beauty is its simplicity; Zabaglione brings together just three ingredients: egg yolks, caster sugar, and Marsala. All you need is a bowl, whisk, and some serving dishes. The end result is utterly delicious – both rich and refreshing. Zabaglione probably has Marsala to thank for that.

Marco De Bartoli


Marco Bartoli


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