Marsala emerges redefined rewarding the adventurous
“This is a wine you can bite,” declares Cantine Florio’s oenologist, Tommaso Maggio, as he draws some 1939 Marsala directly from the cask. “It’s almost like jam.” Nearly 80 years old, this Marsala was born at the start of the World War II.
I take a sip. Indeed, it is thick and unctuous. Decades of aging in wooden barrels have resulted in a slow evaporation of water, concentrating the dry extract to give the wine its unequivocal chewiness. The heady combination of salty bouillon, walnut, tea, dates and tobacco gives intrigue and balance, making it taste less sweet than its 120 grams/litre of sugar. The finish lingers with spices and burnt caramel. Maggio estimates a bottle would sell for 600 Euros. This is not the Marsala you casually pour into a classic veal sauce.
I savour the precious drops as the tour of Florio’s massive cellar continues. Six million litres of Marsala age in barrels of all sizes. Though much of the early reserves were lost during World War II bombings, stocks go as far back as the 1939 I am drinking. Established by Vincenzo Florio in 1833, Florio is the largest producer of Marsala today. The company was sold in 1920 and remained under the ownership of Cinzano until 1988 when it was purchased by the Reina family of the Disaronno empire. Despite changing hands, the Florio brand has lived through Marsala’s highs and lows and the new regime is among those trying to restore dignity to this fortified wine.
Named after the port town in Sicily’s far western territory of Trapani, Marsala was conceived in 1773 by English trader John Woodhouse. He added grape spirit to the local wine to make it stable for long voyages, much like Sherry, Port and Madeira. In its early days, Marsala equalled the best of these.
Alas, quality started declining following World War II. At its nadir, the wines were made from high-yielding, poor-quality grapes and shortcuts were adopted to give colour and sweetness. To add insult to injury, Marsala houses started making “special” bottlings with flavourings like egg, chocolate and nuts, cinching Marsala’s reputation as a cooking wine. Mercifully, regulations were tightened in 1984 banning this practice. Nonetheless, the sins of the past still haunt Marsala today and its reputation has not completely recovered.
Further confusion around the region is surely fuelled by the huge variety of styles. Colour is just one of the ways in which Marsala is categorized. Traditionally, it was made exclusively with white grapes — the local Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto. Oro (golden) is crafted from any proportion of these, though Grillo is the most highly regarded. “It can reach [a] high level of ripeness while retaining acidity,” explains Maggio. Rubino (ruby) is based on red varieties like Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. Finally, Ambra is made from white varieties but gets its amber colour from the addition of mosto cotto. This cooked grape must, which is required for Ambra but prohibited in both Oro and Rubino, is also used as a sweetener but can also impart a detracting bitterness.
Typically thought to be a sweet wine exclusively, Marsala also ranges in sugar content. Secco, meaning “dry,” is somewhat of a misnomer as it indicates wines containing up to 40 g/l. However, the best do actually taste dry and are particularly delicious as an aperitivo with briny fare like olives, anchovies and salted nuts. Semisecco is between 40 and 100 g/l and can make a great companion for cheese. Finally, dolce is over 100 g/l — sweet enough to handle desserts.
Crucial to Marsala’s identity is aging: the longer the wine remains in wood the more marked its captivatingly nutty, oxidative character will be. It was originally aged in perpetuum: a portion of wine was withdrawn drawn from the cask and replaced with newer wine, making for a continuous blending of younger and older wine. This solera-like process is not required, though, and is typically only used for the most premium Marsala. Minimum aging duration is designated on the label with straightforward mainstream offerings typically falling into the Fine (one year) and Superiore (two years) categories. Superiore Riserva, Vergine and Vergine Stravecchio refer to a minimum of four, five and 10 years, respectively, but the finest examples are aged even longer. Furthermore, Vergine must be secco and cannot be made with mosto cotto.
Marsala production is dominated by big houses like Florio and Pellegrino. Both make a range of products — everything from entry-level Fine suitable for adding to your zabaglione to limited quantities of long-aged, vintage-dated Marsala. Boutique producers are rare and represented notably by Marco De Bartoli, who was the first to fight against Marsala’s demise. While De Bortoli passed away at the age of 66 in 2011, his three children carry on crafting exemplary Marsala. The lineup includes an unfortified wine called Vecchio Samperi that harks back to the pre-Woodhouse era, though it cannot be called Marsala as modern-day regulations require fortification.
Truly, it is at the top end where Marsala has a chance to make a comeback. For this very reason, the University of Palermo is examining how to reposition Marsala with a particular focus on the Vergine category. As Marsala emerges from the kitchen cupboard, its appeal will remain niche but adventurous drinkers will be rewarded with sun-kissed fruit, a salty tang and an aged nuttiness evoking Sicily’s long and fascinating past.
Florio Terre Arse 2002, Marsala DOC Vergine ($40/500 ml)
Meaning “scorched earth,” the Terre Arse is made exclusively from Grillo and aged 8 years. Truly dry and assertively firm, it offers salted caramel, almond brittle and a slightly smoky, iodine note. Give it a slight chill.
Marco De Bartoli 1987, Marsala DOC Superiore Riserva ($120/500 ml)
Aged for more than 20 years in a combination of oak and chestnut barrels, this extraordinary Semisecco totals a mere 6,000 bottles. Creamy and concentrated without being heavy, it is moreish and nutty with a long nougat finish.