Are you familiar with a wine called “Marsala?” What comes to mind when you think of that wine? Is it Chicken Marsala? You’re not alone and that’s a major challenge for this Sicilian wine region. In fact, go do a Google search on Marsala. What results do you get? I’m going to guess that you find more links to recipes than to wine. And this is unfortunate because while these may be some good recipes, Marsala, as a wine for drinking, is misunderstood by many wine consumers who only know of disgusting, cheap Marsala sold specifically for cooking.
I visited the region last year with a group of wine bloggers. Our trip was organized and sponsored by Regione Siciliana – Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli in collaboration with Fermenti Digitali / Proposta. What I found is a region with a long history and some delicious, interesting wines. But I also found some wines that weren’t that great, a complicated/confusing categorization system for their wines and a wine region with a horrible branding problem.
History and Evolution of Marsala
To understand the challenges faced by wine producers in Marsala, it helps to understand some of the history of the region and how things have evolved since then.
The history of Marsala wine is often attributed to John Woodhouse, an English merchant who arrived in Marsala in 1773 and was impressed with wines in the region. He found similarities in this wine with other wines such as Port, Sherry and Madeira and ventured into exporting Marsala wine, but not until he made a distinct change to the wine, fortification. Fortification is a process of adding a neutral distilled alcohol to wine in order to raise the alcohol level. The higher alcohol level acts as a preservative, giving the wine stability to survive long shipping voyages.
Prior to the fortification introduced by Woodhouse, Marsala was fermented to high alcohol levels naturally. Aging in large wooden casks and the use of a solera process called “in perpetuum” add a natural oxidative characteristic to the wine. The “in perpetuum” process is one where casks are never fully emptied. Wine is pulled from old casks and then those casks are topped off with wine from more recent vintages. The result is a wine that is blended across many vintages, perpetually — meaning that some wine from the oldest vintages always remain as a part of the blend. Through this process the wine established a preservative quality of its own without adding additional alcohol.
Fortification changed the process for making Marsala, although some producers continued to produce wines in the traditional approach without fortification. But in 1969 the Marsala DOC regulations established guidelines that Marsala must be fortified with grape spirits in order to be given the Marsala designation.
At one time, Marsala was a highly-esteemed wine, sought out by wine connoisseurs. But the quality and reputation of Marsala has had its ups and downs over the years due to a number of factors including economic challenges, war, competition from other wine regions and the care and quality of winemaking. The Florio family was the giant in Marsala for much of its glory days, but was not immune to the challenges faced by region and while the brand still exists (and is still sizable) it’s a shadow of what it was in its heyday.
In Marsala today, I found that some producers still have an affinity for what they call “pre-English” style Marsala, which is made without fortification. But ironically it isn’t allowed to be called Marsala. It’s made in the traditional method, it’s just not called “Marsala.” Some of this is just produced for winemaker’s private collections, but some is available commercially. Most notably, Marco De Bartoli produces this wine and labels it as Vecchio Samperi. This is where the true roots of Marsala lie and in my opinion this is what consumers should be excited about today.
Types of Marsala
The 1969 DOC regulations, along with updates to those regulations in 1984, established the confusing matrix of Marsala categorizations that exists today. The categorizations revolve around three different aspects to the wine: color, sweetness and aging.
- Oro: Golden in color and made from Grillo, Inzolia and/or Catarratto (the best, they say, is made with 100% Grillo)
- Ambra: Amber in color and made from the same types of grapes as Oro plus the addition of mosto cotto (a sweet syrup created by cooking down the grape must)
- Rubio: Red in color and made from red grapes like Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d’Avola and/or Nerello Mascalese.
In my opinion, Oro is the most interesting and enjoyable of the three, although there’s more to finding a good Marsala than color alone.
Ambra Marsala is made using mosto cotto, which is kind of like a balsamic glaze. Grape must is cooked down to a thick syrup and added into the wine. The cooked flavor of the mosto cotto simulates the characteristics of aging the wine in casks for several years, although some might argue it’s not a very good simulation. It also adds some sweetness to the wine, although each of the three colors comes in three different levels of sweetness.
- Secco: Dry, with a maximum of 40 grams of residual sugar per liter
- Semisecco: Semi-dry, with 41-100 grams of residual sugar per liter
- Sweet: Sweet, with over 100 grams of residual sugar per liter.
The final variable is aging. As I mentioned, the process to create Marsala (fortified or not) creates a natural preservative quality. This wine is made to age. And the longer it spends aging in casks, the better it tends to be.
- Fine: Minimal aging (less than a year)
- Superiore: Aged at least two years
- Superiore Riserva: Aged at least four years
- Vergine: Aged at least five years
- Vergine Stravecchio: Aged at least ten years.
Of the Marsala that I tasted (and I tasted quite a few) the Vergine and Vergine Stravecchio were the most impressive. I know that probably seems obvious, but the Marsala that most people know from cooking with it is of the Fine category. Therefore the misunderstanding folks have of Marsala is based on the lowest quality stuff and there’s a big difference between that and Vergine.
But that’s not to say that Superiore should be overlooked. I tasted a number of Marsalas in the Superiore category that were quite good. And they’re also a good value for the bargain hunter.
All that technical background doesn’t really tell you how the wine tastes, which is really why you should care about Marsala. There’s a range of flavors, so I can’t give you one description that covers all Marsala. And really, I don’t know that my words can do the wine justice to fully describe the flavors to you.
Marsala can be spicy, exotic, earthy, smoky and aromatic. Some aromas and flavors I’ve found in Marsala include caramel, coriander, nutmeg, cooked apple, orange peel and cooked peaches. Think of Marsala as an aperitif. The secco (dry) Vergine at times can taste more like a fine distilled liquor than wine. I’ve even used Marsala in some mixed drinks in place of other spirits and I think it has a place in mixology.
Finding Marsala Wine
After returning from Marsala, I found myself wishing I had brought more than a couple bottles back with me. In part because I have a hard time finding any decent ones for sale in the US. They can be found with a little searching, but it’s not something every wine shop will carry.
One of the most frustrating experiences while shopping for Marsala in the US is seeing more “California Marsala” on shelves than real Marsala. If it comes from California, it’s not Marsala.
If you’re shopping for Marsala you will also find that while there are three aspects to Marsala classification, much is only labeled with the sweetness and aging designations. You can figure out the color just by looking at the wine.
Here are some of the producers I recommend seeking out:
- Marco De Bartoli: Try the Vecchio Samperi and some of their Marsala too. This is the brand you’re most likely to find in the US, but even this one isn’t easy to find.
- Martinez: I haven’t seen this anywhere in the US yet, but their Èxito Vergine Riserva is amazing. If you find it, snag it!
- Curatolo Arini: This family has been making Marsala for five generations. If you prefer something sweeter, you may like their Marsala Superiore Dolce.
- Baglio Baiata Alagna: This is a large producer of Marsala and while I didn’t find their Marsala as elegant as some others, it was still quite good and priced for value. If you can find it, try their Marsala Vergine.
If you’re a fan of fortified wines or just an adventurous wine lover, I’d suggest seeking these wines out. Ask for them at your local wine shop. While they might not stock them, they may be able to get them for you. Or do some searching online. Either way, I’ll think that you’ll find that good Marsala is made for more than cooking (by a long shot) and is definitely worth adding to your personal wine list.
Disclosure: I visited Marsala as a part of a sponsored blogger tour of the Western Sicily, organized by Regione Siciliana – Istituto Regionale Vini e Oli in collaboration with Fermenti Digitali / Proposta. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsors.