The world-famous Italian desserts tiramisu and zabaglione, and the celebrated Italian-American dishes chicken and veal marsala, all owe their existence to Marsala, the great fortified wine of Sicily. And in many ways, it is the fame of those culinary specialties that has precipitated the relegation of the once-celebrated Marsala to the status of “cooking wine.” But despite its admittedly humble position vis-à-vis its venerated fortified-wine counterparts, namely Sherry, Port, and Madeira, and despite the fact that Sicily has emerged as one of the world’s greatest producers of wine, Marsala has still managed—for more than 200 years—to maintain its position as Sicily’s most iconic wine. And to this day, when people think “Sicilian wine,” they think “Marsala.”
The History of Marsala:
As with many of the great wines, there are many claims to Marsala’s fame. But the narrative that rings most plausible is the one which goes that in 1773 when Liverpool, England’s soda ash trader John Woodhouse was caught in a storm on his way to the famous Sicilian port of Mazara del Vallo, he was forced to seek safe haven in the port of Marsala, Sicily. While there, he indulged in the local, barrel-aged (typically more than 40 years) wine called Vino Perpetuo which he, immediately noticing the wine’s similarity to fortified Spanish Sherry and Portuguese Port, thought would likewise realize enhanced longevity and transportability if fortified with grape-derived spirit. And since Sherry and Port were at the time exceedingly popular in England, Woodhouse wagered that Marsala, too, would be enthusiastically received in England. And he was absolutely correct! So, 23 years later, in 1796, he returned to Sicily and began producing the wine as a commercial endeavor. Lord Nelson (1758-1805) declared, “Marsala is fit for any gentleman’s mess,” so much so that the cellars of Buchkingham Palace still restock the great wine. Marsala was also sought-after in the New World: Thomas Jefferson is recorded as having purchased Marsala in 1805.
In 1806, Benjamin Ingham (1784-1861) arrived in Sicily from Leeds, thereafter opening new markets for Marsala wine in Europe and the Americas. So, it was just a matter of time before the Italians themselves began capitalizing on their own invention. Enter: Vincenzo Florio. Born in Calabria but “adopted” by Palermo, in 1833 Florio bought a tract of land between those of Woodhouse and Ingham and began producing his own Marsala. Then, in the late 19th century, he purchased Woodhouse’s establishment, along with others, and consolidated the Marsala wine industry. Today, the Italian firms Florio and Pelligrino (1880) are the foremost producers of Marsala.
Marsala wines are classified according to color, sweetness, and duration of aging.
Most Marsalas are made from white grapes: Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino, among others. But there is also “Rubino” Marsala, which is ruby-red in color and made from red grape varieties such a Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d’Avola, and Nerello Mascalese.
-“Oro” is a golden wine;
-“Ambra” is amber-colored and derives its color from the “mosto cotto,” the cooked, reduced grape juice, called “must” in English, that is added to the wine as a sweetener;
-and the claret-colored “Rubino,” which is made from red grapes.
-“Secco,” which means “dry,” is used to classify Marsala wine with up to 40 grams of residual sugar per liter.
-“Semi-Secco” (medium-dry)Marsalas contain 41-100 grams of residual sugar per liter.
-“Dolce” or “Sweet”Marsalas have over 100 grams of residual sugar per liter.
Duration of Aging
-“Fino” describes Marsala aged at least one(1) year;
-“Superiore” is the classification for Marsala aged at least two(2) years;
-“Superiore Reserva” is used to describe Marsala aged at least four(4) years;
-“Solera” is a designation reserved for Marsala aged at least five(5 )years;
-“Solera Stravecchio” or “Solera Reserva” describes Marsala aged at least ten(10) years.
What the “solera system” of aging is for Spanish Sherry is what the “perpetuum system” is for Marsala. (See Sherry). And as with all the great fortified wines, brandy—distilled grape juice—is added, thereby increasing the alcohol content and endowing the wine with longevity and hardiness, both indispensable qualities during the long sea voyages to market in days of yore. The alcohol content of Marsala generally ranges from 17-20% by volume; and the wine remains potable for as many as six weeks after opening.
The most coveted Marsala is what is today called Marsala Virgine, a wine that, unlike the other Marsalas, can have no additives (e.g. cooked grape must or sifone, the latter being a concoction made by adding grape spirits to fermenting wine) other than grape-derived spirit.
Lightest in color and boasting the highest alcohol content, Marsala Virgine must be aged at least five years in oak or cherry barrels. It is typically made from the Grillo grape which has a naturally high sugar content that can produce wines with an alcohol content of around 17-18% prior to fortification. When aged an additional five years, it is labeled Virgine Riserva or Virgine Stravecchio. And when made solera-style, it is called Virgine Solera.
Traditionally, a dry Marsala is served as an apéritif between the first and second meat courses. But today, chilled dry (secco) Marsala is served with cheese, fruits, or pastries. Sweet Marsalas, however, are served only at room temperature and enjoyed as dessert wines.
In general, dry Marsalas are used as apéritifs, while the sweet varieties are enjoyed as dessert wines or digestivos (after-dinner drinks).
(Marsala is oftentimes mentioned in conjunction with Passito di Pantelleria, another famous Sicilian wine, which is made from grapes that have been dehydrated [thereby concentrating their natural sugar content] almost to raisins. And there are several other Sicilian wines—Marco De Bartoli’s non-vintage “Vecchio Samperi” which is aged in oak and chestnut vats for 20 years being a prime example—that look, smell, and taste like Marsala but are not labeled “Marsala” since they are not fortified, even if their alcohol-by-volume content rivals that of the fortified wines).
Most countries limit the usage of the term “Marsala” to wines made from grapes grown in the Province of Trapani, an area surrounding the city of Marsala in Sicily. And in 1969 the wine was granted DOC status(Denominazione di Origine Controllata), a quality-assurance system for Italian food products, especially wines, which ensures that production meets certain established standards set by an independent review board consisting of experts. Marsala also enjoys PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin), granted by the European Union, which officially limits the use of the term “Marsala” within the European Union to wine produced in the Marsala region of Sicily.
[A DOP/PDO (Denominazione di Origine Protetta/Protected Designation of Origin) c970s, holassification may be obtained only after a group of producers from an area or province or region, for example—typically organized as a consortium—comes together and agrees upon production and quality standards, then selects an independent certification entity to ensure compliance with those standards. The producers then forward their classification request to the designated Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which, after review and preliminary approval, forwards the request to the European Union for final review and status designation.],
In 1950, there were over 200 producers of Marsala, a significant percentage of them producing a low-grade wine, thereby contributing to the wine’s reputation as a wine more suitable for cookng than drinking. Since the mid-1980s, however, significant progress has been made towards elevating the quality of Marsala by ferreting-out producers of substandard wine. Today, less than 25 producers of Marsala remain, each producing high-quality Marsala.