Marsala Wines - Once Famous, Now Awaiting Rediscovery

History of Marsala

Marsala, produced in the area around the city of the same name on the western coast of Sicily, ranks along with Port, Sherry and Madeira as one of the world’s greatest fortified wines. Unfortunately, most Marsala purchased today in the U.S. is not the best and often relegated to the kitchen to be used in the preparation of various dishes (think Chicken Marsala or Zabaglione, for example). The better types of Marsala, to be enjoyed as an aperitif, with various cheeses and fruits, with desserts or as a vino di meditazione (a meditation wine), are hard to find in the U.S.

Marsala has an engaging history. In the late 1770’s John Woodhouse, an English wine merchant, made a trip to Marsala and became enamored with the Marsala produced by dozens of small producers in the area. The wines were aged in old wooden casks that facilitated oxidation and concentration of the wine. The taste and alcohol levels of the aged wines were comparable to fortified wines from Spain and Portugal that were popular in England at the time. Seeing an opportunity, Woodhouse shipped a large quantity of barrels of Marsala to England to test the wine’s marketability. As was the custom of the time, the barrels of Marsala were fortified with additional alcohol to help them withstand the long sea voyage.

Once the British had a taste of Marsala they fell in love with it. In fact, it proved so popular that Woodhouse returned to Sicily and established his own company to produce and market Marsala. Other English and native Sicilian entrepreneurs soon followed with their own Marsala production and marketing operations, often as startups but more frequently by buying-out already established Marsala producers. Marsala became even more popular in the 19th century and great quantities were sold in the expanding British Commonwealth countries and elsewhere, including the United States.

But by the latter half of the 20th century, Marsala had fallen out of favor. Like any economic good, its early popularity encouraged increased production, and as is too frequently the case, increased production resulted in a lowering of standards and a lower quality quality. Vast amounts of low-quality, insipid Marsala were produced and it consequently fell out of favor.

Although Marsala was awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1969, the regulatory requirements were lax and did nothing to encourage quality over quantity. Even worse, some short-cuts were taken with the traditional production process such as adding sugar to sweeten the mix and/or adding artificial flavors such as coffee and chocolate to the wine to broaden its appeal to a less discerning market.

The net result was that Marsala lost its place as a quality fortified wine, sales plummeted and what Marsala was purchased was typically relegated to the kitchen cupboard for use as a cooking condiment. By the 1980’s, Marsala’s reputation had reached rock bottom.However, this low point also marked the beginning of a Marsala renaissance. Embarrassed by the sad state of affairs and desirous of returning Marsala to its place as a quality aperitif and dessert wine, a inspired cadre of winemakers focused on quality independently began various initiatives to produce a better Marsala. This included initiatives such as reducing vineyard yields, using better quality grapes and implementing stricter ageing requirements, all of which contributed to a higher quality Marsala. These initiatives got an assist in 1984 when the DOC’s production requirements were revised with an eye to tightening quality standards.

The net result of these developments is that Marsala produced over the last several decades has improved dramatically in quality. Unfortunately, this improved quality has not been translated into improved sales of Marsala in the U.S. or elsewhere. Think about it - when was the last time you or any of your friends purchased a quality Marsala for use as an aperitif, dessert wine or vino di meditazione? Market acceptance has lagged behind the advances in quality and this once-famous product is just waiting to be rediscovered.

Categories of Marsala

Marsala is a fortified wine which means grape spirit is added to selected late harvested, super-ripe grapes grown in the area around the city of Marsala. The traditional ageing regimen calls for use of a fractional blending process whereby the wines are aged in racks of barrels stacked vertically in rows. When wine is drawn out of the bottom (oldest) keg at the end of every ageing period, it is refreshed with wine from the cask immediately above it, and so on.In Spain this fractional blending process is known as solera and in Sicily as in perpetuum. This ageing regimen promotes oxidation and concentration of the wines. Wines produced by this blending process are not vintage-dated as they are a melding of numerous vintages.

glass of Marsal on bookAccording to DOC regulations, a number of different white and red grape varieties can be used for Marsala but the primary varieties are Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto, all of which are white varieties. Grillo is the most prized variety because it has the highest sugar content of any of these varieties.

There are five different types of Marsala depending on the duration of their ageing: fine (one year of cask age); superiore (minimum two years in cask); superiore riserva (minimum four years of cask age); vergine (aged a minimum of five years) and vergine stravecchio (aged a minimum of 10 years). Within in each age category, the wine can also be further categorized by color [oro (gold); ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby)] and by sugar content or sweetness [secco (dry); semisecco (semi-sweet) or dolce (sweet)].

An additional wrinkle is that there are a few almost-Marsala wines that have all the personality of a true DOC Marsala but for one reason or another do not meet Marsala DOC requirements. For example, De Bartoli’s non-vintage “Vecchio Samperi” doesn’t carry the Marsala name on its label since no grape spirit or additional alcohol has been utilized in its production. Rather it relies on a combination of super-ripe Grillo grapes and an extended ageing protocol in oak casks to meet the 18 percent alcohol requirement. It is Marsala in everything but name - and one of the best at that.

Alcoholic levels of Marsala generally range from 17 to 20 percent alcohol by volume. A dry Marsala wine is excellent as an aperitif and is best served slightly chilled, preferably in long-stemmed tulip-shaped glasses. Of course, the high-end superiore riserva, virgine or stravecchio vergine Marsala wines are best served after-dinner as a vino di meditazione.  Semi-sweet or sweet Marsala wines are perfect accompaniments to not-too-sweet desserts such as pastries, dried fruits or almond, pistachio and fig cookies. They should be served at room temperature with perhaps a touch of chill in short-stemmed brandy snifter glasses.

Since Marsala is a fortified wine it has a very long shelf life. While its flavors will gently deteriorate over time, we’re talking in terms of years, even decades, before you will notice any flavor differences. And because it is fortified, you do not need to store it in a refrigerator or take any special storage measures. Just store it in a cool, dark, convenient place like any other fortified spirit.

Availability of Marsala

Fine and superiore Marsala wines, both sweet and dry, are readily available in any well-stocked wine shop and generally retail from $10 to about $20. The most reliable producers for these categories of Marsala are Cantine Florio and Pellegrino.

But it is the upper-end superiore riserva and vergine versions that really exhibit the best characteristics of Marsala wines. They are also a giant step up in terms of price. Unfortunately, few of these wines are exported to the U.S. But a few do make it to the U.S. and while not always easy to find are well worth seeking out. Listed below are four of the best Marsala wines available in major U.S. markets. They are listed alphabetically by price.

Vito Curatolo, “Arini” Marsala Superiore Riserva (about $20)
Grillo, Cataratto and Inzolia grapes are aged in oak casks for at least 10 years. It is golden in color tending to amber. It is full-bodied but soft and elegant with dried fruit flavors. It is excellent as an aperitif when served chilled.

Marco De Bartoli, “Vigna La Miccia 5 Anni” Superior Oro (about $48 for 500 ml bottle)
This wine has great depth and complexity and is a real prize. It is an elegant drink on its own and as an aperitif but can also be enjoyed at dinner especially when tuna and other seafood, braised meats, spicy cold-cuts or eggplant dishes are on the menu.

Marco De Bartoli, “10 Anni Marsala” Superiore Riserva (about $62 for 500 ml bottle)
Light amber in color with complex, dried fruit flavors and a great finish.

Marco De Bartoli, “Vecchio Samperi Ventennale” (about $74 for 500 ml bottle)
While not formally a Marsala, this wine has all the charm and gravitas of a really fine Marsala. Made entirely of Grillo grapes it is aged in oak and chestnut vats for 20 years. It can be served slightly chilled as an aperitif or by itself at room temperature as well as at the dinner table with various white meat dishes.

Note – prices indicated are averages of national retail prices but prices may vary from store to store. Since availability is not guaranteed and stores may sell out of the selections it is best to call to check on price and availability before making the trip.

©Richard Marcis
July 6, 2014

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