The city of Marsala is the home and namesake of one of Sicily’s most ancient and popular wines. The town’s unique location on the western coast and its dry environment is part of the reason behind the deep flavour of Marsala. The coastal city’s sea breeze and pleasant weather throughout the year assures the health of the vineyards and gives this wine its unique taste. A sip of Marsala is a taste of Sicily.
A little way off the coast from the city are the Aegadian Islands of Favignana, Levanzo Marettino, Formica, Maraone and Motzia an ancient Phoenician stronghold filled with nature reserves, museums and archaeological sites. It was the Phoenician’s who brought with them the grapes and wine making techniques from the Middle East which gave birth to viticulture in Italy.
Side by side with the history the environment of the surrounding area which contributes to the character of the local wines. The nearby salt flats at Trapani with their farms and characteristic windmills were the focus of a prolific salt industry during ancient times. Today the old farms are a part of a natural reserve which protects a unique landscape that plays host to annual migrating birds from Africa including heron and flamingo.
It is within this idealistic setting in 1796 that British businessman John Woodhouse established the first commercial winery in the area. The tradesman from Liverpool exported Marsala to England after tasting it and realising its unique flavour would easily be appreciated by an English market who were already hungrily consuming fortified wines like Port and Sherry.
In 1812 a competing firm was founded at Marsala by Benjamin Ingham, followed by a third company run by Calabrian, Vincenzo Florio in 1832. Eventually, the Florio family bought and merged the Woodhouse and Ingham holdings with their own production. Today the Florio cellars have become a part of the Saronno group and continue to manufacture Marsala together with other Sicilian varieties of wine such as Corvo and Duca di Salapurata.
The Florio family were one of the most wealthy families of 19th century Italy, their empire included businesses in the areas of banking, pharmaceuticals, art collection and car racing. Their luxurious parties from the beginning of last century became symbolic of excessive wealth and decadence.
The family was originally from the southern Italian region of Calabria and moved to Sicily after the earthquake of 1783, taking advantage of the stability under the reign of the Borbon king Ferdinand in the kingdom of the two Sicilies. Brothers Paolo and Ignazio opened a pharmacy in Palermo which sold spices and various remedies for common illnesses including malaria. After the success of their first business, the family branched out into winemaking at Marsala as well as exporting, sulfur mining, tuna fishing and canning.
For a century and a half, the Florio dynasty contributed to the wealth and development of Sicily. They were a symbol of the ‘bel Epoque’ of Sicilian history when the island first enjoyed the benefits of entrepreneurial wealth, refined taste and lifestyle. Today a visit to the Florio wineries gives you a taste of more than 180 years of Sicilian history which has produced the most distinguished fortified wines in all of Italy.
In the 1950’s Marsala found itself relegated to being considered a simple cooking wine as cheaper and less well made overseas varieties flooded the Italian market. In 1986 the Italian government introduced the D.O classification (denomination of origin) laws which protected the traditional producers and regulated the industry and Marsala slowly became a popular dessert and aperitif wine.
Marsala owes its unique flavour to Western Sicily’s warm, dry and windy climate. The three basic types oro (golden), ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby) are a result of a complex series of grape variety blending and a particular way of ageing the wine which lasts from one to six years.
In the process of making Marsala, Grillo, Catarratto and Damischino white grapes are mixed together to create golden and amber dry and semi-sweet types. Mosto cotto or grape must syrup is added to dry Marsala to give the amber variety a golden colour. Mosto cotto, vino cotto or saba is a thick syrup made by cooking the grape juice in the first step of winemaking. The grape seeds, skins and stems of the entire fruit are used to create a unique ingredient which is also used to add flavour to savoury dishes and desserts.
A mixture of Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d’avola and Nerello Mescalese red grape varieties are mixed to create the sweeter types. Sweet Marsala has a fruity profile while drier Marsala leaves subtle tobacco and liquorice notes, created by the oak barrels it is stored and mixed in an ageing technique known as the solera process.
Solera is a blending system which transfers the wine into different oak barrels over many years, blending various vintages together while perpetually adding flavour. It is used for ageing things like wine, beer, balsamic vinegar, brandy, sherry, madeira, lillet, port, mavrodafni, muscat, rum and whisky. The process is originally from the Iberian peninsula, hence the Spanish and Portuguese origins of its name.
Marsala is surprisingly versatile and can be used in many cocktail recipes or simply as an aperitif. Mostly used in traditional Italian dishes such as veal scaloppini and to make beautifully caramelised sauces to accompany many white meats and wild game dishes. It is also used in desserts like tiramisù, zabaglione or sabayon, a custard dessert often described as a French version of zabaglione.
Dry Marsala pairs well with blue cheese such as gorgonzola, roquefort, stilton or hard robust cheeses like pecorino and grana padano. It also enhances the aromas of medium mature cheeses like piacentinu Ennese and Fontana of Caciotta. It is excellent with smoked fish or tuna, toasted almonds, pistachios and couscous. It goes well with a range of Sicilian cuisine and ingredients which are usually difficult to pair with: such as asparagus, brussel sprouts, mushrooms, artichokes and chocolate.
Over the last few years smaller producers have added a new dimension to Marsala production by returning to the traditional methods of Marsala making. Marco De Bartoli started building his winery more than 40 years ago with the dream of reviving the original soul of this fortified wine. Today his children Giuseppina, Renato and Sebastiano continue his life’s work.
The De Bartoli siblings are continuing their father’s artisain approach to viticulture which includes the use of the traditional Grillo variety of grapes, in small low yield harvests, rigorously collected by hand with a focus on biological techniques, natural indigenous yeasts for fermentation, no artificial additives and a longer aging period as required by ancient wine making techniques.
The De Bartoli’s attention to small fundamental elements is used to obtain high quality and natural wines, which in turn reflect the beauty of Marsala and the landscape of Western Sicily.