Marsala, a Sicilian Wine Gem
Marsala DOC is a fortified wine, either dry or sweet, born in Sicily, specifically in the town of Marsala, which lends its name to the wine. A symbol of Sicilian agricultural excellence since 1773, Marsala has gained popularity beyond Italian borders and was the first Sicilian wine to receive the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in 1969.
Marsala, A Tale of English Influence
The origins of Marsala are shrouded in mysteries and legends, often passed down through oral tradition. Despite the damage and incompleteness of Sicilian business archives following World War II, they offer some insights. They unequivocally highlight the English’s role in shaping the Marsala we relish today.
John Woodhouse, the First Marsala Merchant
The global appreciation of Marsala wine today can be traced back to an individual from across the English Channel. It has been 250 years since the pivotal year of 1773 when John Woodhouse, a merchant hailing from Liverpool, set foot in Marsala and discovered a treasure in a wine that had been masterfully crafted in Sicily since ancient times.
As the 18th century drew to a close, Sicily had already made a name for itself with its affordable spirits and robust wines. John Woodhouse, who was then importing soda ash, was compelled by inclement weather to dock in the port city of Marsala. In a local tavern, this English entrepreneur savored a highly popular local wine of the time, the Perpetuum. This precursor of Marsala was matured in large barrels. Each year, a certain amount was drawn off and replaced with younger wine. This process, repeated “ad perpetuum”, resulted in a sophisticated blend of different vintages, thereby creating a far more complex product. This aging process mirrored the “Solera” method used for certain champagnes and spirits, such as Jerez or Madeira, which were greatly admired by the English.
Marsala, A Fortified Wine Masterpiece
Woodhouse, aware of his fellow countrymen’s penchant for fortified wines, quickly recognized the potential of this wine, reminiscent of Jerez and Madeira, in his home market. The Napoleonic wars had complicated the importation of wines from Spain and Portugal, which were favored by the English. Consequently, Woodhouse decided to fill his ship with about sixty barrels (412 liters) of Perpetuum wine, the precursor of Marsala, adding two gallons of brandy, or 9.08 liters, to it.
The official narrative suggests that the addition of distillate was intended to enhance the wine’s preservation. This ensured the wine’s stability and prevented the journey from altering its organoleptic properties. However, robust Sicilian wines like the Perpetuum already had a high alcohol content, high enough to “sail to the ends of the earth,” as Stefano Zirilli, a Sicilian wine producer (1812 – 1884), put it. The meticulous precision with which the wine was fortified was therefore not a matter of chance. Thus, Marsala was born from the fusion of the pragmatic and entrepreneurial spirit of the English and the viticultural prowess of Sicily. Once mutated into a “wine used like Madeira,” Marsala found its way to the tables of Queen Victoria and her subjects.
An Era Ripe for Opportunity
In the wake of his initial triumphs in the United Kingdom, John Woodhouse laid the foundation for a Marsala production enterprise. As the 19th century dawned, the trade of Sicilian wine found fertile ground to prosper. Indeed, Napoleon’s imposition of a continental blockade in 1806 barred English vessels from docking in French harbors. Yet, Sicily, under the dominion of King Ferdinand IV of Bourbon, remained an open port. This circumstance tipped the scales in favor of Marsala, leaving Porto, Madeira, and Jerez languishing under the embargo. Post-1806, a legion of English entrepreneurs, including the likes of Benjamin Ingham and the Whitaker and Hopps families, followed in Woodhouse’s footsteps. They made Sicily their home and embarked on the journey of crafting the renowned Sicilian wine.
Sicily’s economic landscape, untouched by industrialization until then, was on the brink of a dramatic transformation. Initially, John Woodhouse was content with purchasing and fortifying Sicilian wines. However, the incoming tide of English merchants aspired to produce Marsala on a grander scale, vying for supremacy in both quantity and quality. The investments were colossal. On one hand, production soared with the planting of new vineyards. On the other, the logistics and transportation of grapes and wine underwent optimization. Consequently, the port of Marsala emerged as one of the Mediterranean’s most significant. Lastly, the Woodhouse and Ingham-Whitaker clans were pioneers in forging direct collaborations with local producers, a close-knit partnership that further enhanced the quality of the harvests.
The English Dominion over Marsala
In the year 1812, Benjamin Ingham claimed ownership of a “baglio”, a classic Sicilian agricultural facility, home to both the owners and their workforce. His objective was twofold: to compress production costs and to maximize profits. He also aspired to bring uniformity to the flavor of Marsala to the maximum extent feasible. The cultivation and winemaking methods used until then were characterized by a level of empiricism. As a result, Marsala was a wine with mutable traits. In response, in 1837, he released a “decalogue” titled “Brief instructions on harvest to improve wine quality”. As a result, Benjamin Ingham subsequently set the standard, marking the dawn of a primary specification, strict rules overseeing the cultivation, harvesting, vinification, and preservation of wine.
Benjamin Ingham ushered in the “solera” in the production of Marsala, a technique already prevalent in the making of Sherry and Porto. This method, similar to the one used for Perpetuum, involves a continuous cycle of replacing the wine in the ground-level barrels, known as “soleras”, with an equivalent amount of younger wine from the barrels immediately above, known as “criaderas”. This process effectively regulated the aging of the wine. As a result, Ingham was able to bring enhanced stability to the final product with more sophisticated blends. It was thus, thanks to the English, that Marsala, initially a mere imitation of Madeira, managed to carve out its own unique identity and character. By 1850, the term “marsala” had triumphed over all other names that bore any resemblance to Madeira.
The Florio Family and Marsala
In 1833, an Italian named Vincenzo Florio, the son of a wealthy Calabrian shipowner, established the eponymous wineries. laid the foundation for wineries that would bear his name. His considerable wealth, a result of ventures in the spice trade, tuna fishing, and a rapidly growing merchant fleet, provided him with a distinct advantage over his English rivals. This wealth enabled him to equip himself with a modern wine cellar and cutting-edge machinery, allowing him to master the vinification and refinement of wine. The merchant ships of this affluent entrepreneur successfully navigated their way into the American and British markets. At the same time, Florio also conquered Italy, a market then in full expansion that had long been overlooked by the British. The success was dazzling, and the Italian entrepreneur shattered the English domination over Marsala. By the mid-19th century, production increased. Thus, in 1853, the number of barrels produced rose to 6,900. The Florio house produced 23%, the Woodhouse cellars 19%, and finally, the Ingham Whitaker wineries 58%.
The earnings were channeled back into the growth and modernization of the vineyard. As a result, by 1880, the Florio estate had transformed into a state-of-the-art wine complex. The cellar boasted direct sea access and expansive warehouses for wine storage and maturation. A sizable still was employed for spirit distillation, and steam machines were utilized in barrel production. The taxes subsequently gathered by the Marsala municipality bore witness to the company’s robust growth. In fact, by 1883, Florio was the second-highest taxpayer, trailing just behind Ingham but significantly outpacing Woodhouse, whose wealth was gradually diminishing. By 1890, Florio’s production had surged to nearly 500,000 hectoliters.
From Market Turmoil to a Distinguished Appellation
From the year 1773 until the dawn of the 20th century, the triumvirate of the Woodhouses, Ingham, and Florio sculpted the narrative of Marsala, elevating it to global acclaim. However, the unification of Italy in 1861 and the turn of the century cast a shadow over the wine trade. In an Italy that was just beginning to find its unity, new taxes were imposed on alcohol sales. As early as 1893, the vineyards fell prey to the phylloxera epidemic, triggering a catastrophic plunge in wine production. Prices skyrocketed, and Marsala was transformed into a luxury commodity. Amidst this challenging historical backdrop, the market began to falter. Ultimately, political instability, escalating protectionist excise duties, and the advent of prohibition in the United States brought the Marsala trade to a standstill. In a twist of fate, the Piedmontese brand Cinzano acquired the Florio house in 1924. A few years later, in 1928, it followed suit with Woodhouse and Ingham-Whitaker, uniting the three illustrious wine houses under a single corporate umbrella.
In the year 1931, the inaugural laws safeguarding Marsala and demarcating its production territory were instituted. Nevertheless, the production was still largely dictated by industrial rationale. Producers sidelined traditional expertise and extensive maturation in favor of wines that were swiftly “ready” and flavored. Marsala was then predominantly employed in culinary endeavors, specifically in the concoction of desserts, rather than being relished as a beverage. It was not until the year 1963 that the Consortium of Marsala Wine was established. A few years later, in 1969, Marsala had the distinction of becoming the first Italian product to be safeguarded with a Protected Designation of Origin.
Marsala, a luscious wine with a Protected Designation of Origin, was born in the town that shares its name and is crafted in the province of Trapani.
The Marsala production zone nestles within the “Fascia del Sole”. This territory, cradled between the 32° and 41° parallels, is also home to other fortified wines. The production zone envelops the entire territory of the province of Trapani, excluding the communes of Pantelleria, Favignana, and Alcamo. The sun’s caress, the Scirocco wind, and the sea breeze conjure a coastal environment that profoundly influences the terroir. It’s a territory tailor-made for the production of high-alcohol wines, with a pronounced flavor and expansive, intense aromas.
The indigenous grape varieties, custodians of the “genetic” heritage of local viticulture since Phoenician times, are the only ones sanctioned by the specification. Thus, the white grape varieties Grillo, Cataratto, Inzolia, and Damaschino are harnessed to produce the Marsala Oro and Ambra wines. Conversely, the red grape varieties Pignatello, Nero d’Avola, and Nerello Mascalese are employed to produce Marsala Rubino (or Ruby).
The specification allows the cultivation of vines in a vertical system, or “espalier”, a method widely adopted in modern viticulture. However, the traditional “alberello” cultivation method is most advocated. This bush cultivation guarantees a greater aromatic richness and a higher sugar content. Indeed, it allows for the reduction of the vegetative part and thus promotes the fruiting of the vine by keeping the vines between 20 and 100 cm.
The production process of Marsala begins with the vinification of the Catarratto, Inzolia, and Grillo grapes. Red grape varieties Pignatello, Nero d’Avola, or Nerello Mascalese can be added by blending to obtain a Marsala Rubino. First, the grapes are crushed in the press to extract all the aromas. Then, a separation is made between the skin and the seeds of the must to ensure a low tannin content. Finally, the must is clarified by filtration and decantation. This is the settling stage.
There are two categories: Marsala Vergine and Marsala Conciato. Marsala Vergine is made only from white grapes to which brandy is added. On the other hand, in Marsala Conciato (Fine and Superiore), cooked grape must and mistelle, the “concia”, are also added. This is a mixture of grape must whose fermentation is incomplete. The addition of mistelle aims to give Marsala a different color nuance and enrich it in taste.
During fermentation, racking is carried out, which promotes the oxidation of the wine. The wine is then transferred to oak or cherry barrels to age.
The refinement of Marsala is a dynamic process, traditionally called Solera. The wine barrels are stacked in a pyramid. This arrangement facilitates the transfer of wine from one barrel to another. The barrels placed in contact with the ground contain the oldest wine. Once the refinement is finished, racking is carried out and then bottling. From then on, an amount of wine equal to that bottled is drawn from the barrels placed above and transferred to the barrels placed below. This allows the barrels to be refilled to two-thirds and the vintages to be mixed.
The Diverse Typologies of Marsala
Marsala can be distinguished by its unique characteristics, aging duration, alcohol content, color, and even sugar content.
Marsala Vergine, also known as “Solera”
Marsala Vergine, or “Soleras” as it’s also known, is crafted exclusively from white grape varieties. It’s defined as “virgin” because it’s not “conciato”, meaning it doesn’t have any additions of must or mistelle during the winemaking process. The only addition it may receive is a small percentage of alcohol or brandy. It undergoes an aging process of at least five years in oak barrels. Marsala Vergine is a dry wine with a minimum alcohol content of 18%. It boasts a golden color, known as “Oro”.
Marsala Vergine Stravecchio Riserva shares the same characteristics as Marsala Vergine, but with a longer aging period. Its alcohol content is at least 18%. Marsala Vergine Stravecchio Riserva is a dry wine. It has a golden color, “Oro”.
Marsala Fine is a young wine with a minimum aging duration of one year. It’s a “conciato” Marsala, meaning that grape must is added during vinification. Its alcohol content is at least 17%. It can be sweet, dry, or semi-dry. Depending on the grape varieties, it has a golden, amber, or ruby color. Thus, the white grape varieties Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, or Damaschino are used to produce the “ambra” and “oro” versions. Finally, for the production of Marsala ruby, red grape varieties such as Pignatello, Nerello Mascalese, and Nero d’Avola are used.
Marsala Superiore is a “conciato” Marsala. It has an aging duration of at least two years. This longer aging gives it a richer aromatic palette. Its alcohol content is at least 18%. Unlike Marsala Vergine, the Superiore type has a higher sugar content and, depending on the residual sugar, it can be secco, semisecco, or dolce. It can be enjoyed both as an aperitif and a digestif.
Marsala Superiore Riserva
Marsala Superiore Riserva undergoes an aging process of at least four years. This extended maturation period bestows upon the wine a complexity and depth of flavors that are unparalleled. Like its Marsala Superiore counterpart, it boasts a minimum alcohol content of 18%.
Marsala Superiore Dolce Vinci Cantine Vinci
Marsala Superiore Garibaldi Dolce is a wine of exceptional quality. It dons an amber hue. Its aroma is intense and refined, with fragrances of ripe fruits, dried fruits (figs, grapes), and sweet spices. On the palate, it is warm and velvety, with a recall of the aromas perceived on the nose and a good persistence. Its aging duration is at least two years in oak barrels. It is also fondly referred to as the Garibaldi Dolce, in honor of the renowned Italian General Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had particularly appreciated it during his visit to Marsala in 1862. It pairs beautifully with typical Sicilian pastries (almond biscuits or Frutta Martorana, for example), Modica chocolate, and all desserts, such as a delicious tiramisu.
Cantine Vinci is a Sicilian family producer. It originated from three families of winemakers who joined together in 1997 to revive this old brand that has strong local roots.
Tiramisù al Marsala
Marsala Tiramisù: A Twist on an Italian ClassicCourse: Pâtes, platsCuisine: ItalienDifficulty: Facile
Marsala Tiramisù is a delightful variant of the renowned Italian dessert. Traditionally, the recipe doesn’t call for alcohol, but it’s common to add a splash of Marsala to the coffee before soaking the savoiardi biscuits.
- Begin by brewing the coffee, preferably using a Moka pot. Prepare the equivalent of 6 cups. Pour the coffee into a container and let it cool.
- In a mixing bowl, whip the egg yolks with sugar until you achieve a frothy mixture.
- Incorporate the mascarpone into the cream of yolks and sugar. Mix gently with a spatula or mixer, starting at the lowest speed. Mix well until you obtain a smooth and creamy mixture.
- Prepare a serving plate or dish. Place a round cookie cutter and place a rhodoid sheet inside the size of the cookie cutter. Deposit a first layer of mascarpone cream.
- Pour the Marsala into the coffee. Dip the biscuits one by one into the coffee to lightly soak them. Arrange them in the dish until the entire bottom is covered. Add the mascarpone cream and spread it evenly to cover the biscuits. Repeat the operation until all the ingredients are used up, making sure to finish with a layer of mascarpone cream.
- Reserve the tiramisu in the refrigerator overnight.
- Finally, remove the tiramisu from the refrigerator and unmold it, taking care to remove the cookie cutter delicately and then the rhodoid sheet. Sprinkle with a generous layer of cocoa. Buon appetito!