Marsala: history, varieties and production of a great Sicilian wine

    Marsala wine is one of the symbols of excellence of the Sicilian food and wine heritage. A product with a very ancient history, dating back to 1773, it has contributed to making the city of Marsala and Sicily known all over the world. It was also the first Sicilian wine to obtain the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) in 1969.

    What is Marsala wine?

    Marsala is one of the great Italian wines, and more precisely, it is a fortified wine. This type of wine is obtained by adding to a base wine a mistelle, that is, a must that has stopped fermenting, with the addition of alcohol, wine brandy or concentrated must to increase the alcohol content. Contrary to what many people think, it is not a liqueur. Marsala can only be produced in the province of Trapani, excluding the territory of Alcamo, the Egadi Islands and Pantelleria. For the production of “Gold” and “Amber” Marsala, the wines used must be made from Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia and Damaschino grapes. In the case of “ruby” Marsala, the permitted grape varieties are Pignatello, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese.

    John Woodhouse and the discovery of Perpetuum

    La nave Elizabeth che approdò a Marsala

    If we can appreciate Marsala wine today, we owe it to a man born on the other side of the English Channel. John Woodhouse, known as Old John, was an English entrepreneur who imported sodium carbonate from Sicily. This material was widely used in the new factories of Great Britain, from the production of glass and soap to the chemical and metallurgical industries. In 1770, a storm forced the ship he was on, the Elizabeth, to run aground in the town of Marsala. At a tavern in the town’s harbor, Woodhouse tasted a then-popular local wine called Perpetuum. The entrepreneur immediately sensed the potential this wine could have in his country, so he had some loaded onto his ship, adding a little aquavit to keep it from spoiling in transit. Appreciation was immediate, and by 1773 Woodhouse had 50 imperial pipes (about 280 hectoliters) of Perpetuum wine with added aquavit shipped to Liverpool.

    The secret of the wine’s success

    The secret of the immediate success of this ancestor of Marsala lies in the technique used to produce Perpetuum. The wine was aged in large barrels, and every year a certain amount was removed and immediately replaced with younger wine. In this way, a perpetual blend of different vintages was created, contributing to a much more complex product. This technique was very similar to the so-called Soleras method, which was and still is used to produce wines much loved by the English, such as Jerez and Madeira. The taste of Perpetuum was therefore very similar to these two products. When the Napoleonic Wars made it much more difficult to import wines from Spain and Portugal, the easiest solution was to replace them with Marsala. Many English entrepreneurs followed Woodhouse’s example and bought land and vineyards in the town of Marsala to establish their companies.

    The spread of Marsala throughout the world

    John Woodhouse e Vincenzo Florio

    After the success of the first sales in Great Britain, John Woodhouse immediately moved to Sicily, later joined by his sons, to establish a Marsala production company. It was thanks to John Woodhouse that the Soleras method, already used in Madeira and Jerez, was introduced to the production of Marsala. Old John’s example was soon followed by other English entrepreneurs, such as Benjamin Ingham and the Whitaker and Hopps families. Thanks to them, Marsala began to be imported to Brazil, North America, the Far East and even Australia. It was Vincenzo Florio who broke the English dominance in this market, opening his production company in 1833, already strong and with an immense fortune. By 1900 there were about 40 manufacturing companies in Marsala. In the following decades, the change in consumer tastes, combined with various historical events, caused this Sicilian excellence to lose some of the successes achieved in the past.

    Marsala: produzione, classificazione e Metodo Soleras

    The classification of Marsala wine can be made according to several criteria. These are contained in the production regulations, the document that lists all the conditions that must be met for a wine to be defined as Marsala. In the past, many variations were born, such as Marsala with egg or Marsala with almonds. Today it is no longer allowed to define these products as “Marsala wine”, but as flavoured wines. In the first case we speak of Cremovo and in the second of Crema alla Mandorla.

    Types and classification of Marsala

    Marsala wines are classified according to different criteria. According to its color, Marsala can be: gold, amber and ruby. On the other hand, based on the residual sugar, it is distinguished between: dry, semi-dry and sweet. According to the aging period, Marsala is defined as “Fine” if the aging period is at least one year, “Superiore” if the aging period is at least two years, and “Superiore Riserva” if the aging period is at least four years. A very important distinction is that between Marsala Vergine and the so-called “tanned” Marsala. The former is obtained by adding only ethyl alcohol or wine spirits to the must fiore. The latter, on the other hand, is obtained by adding “tannins”, which can be either cooked must or mistelle, that is, must in which fermentation has been stopped. There are two kinds of Marsala Vergine: Marsala Vergine, if it is aged at least 5 years, and Marsala Stravecchio or Marsala Riserva, if it is aged at least 10 years.

    Marsala Vergine and the Soleras method

    Botti disposte secondo il metodo Soleras nella Cantina Florio

    Marsala Vergine and Marsala Vergine Stravecchio can be produced using the Soleras method, although this is not mandatory. This is a special aging method typical of fortified wines such as Jerez or Sherry that dates back to the 18th century. The barrels are placed on top of each other in different rows, forming a pyramid. The row of barrels closest to the ground is called the soleras, while the others are called criaderas. The layer closest to the ground contains the oldest wine, which is then tapped for bottling. On the other hand, at the top of the pyramid, called the sobretabla, is the younger wine. Every year, some of the wine is transferred to the barrel below and replaced by an equal amount from the barrel above. In this way, the Marsala obtained is a complex product, the result of the union of wines from different vintages.

    Marsala in Sicilian cuisine

    Marsala is also a precious ingredient in the kitchen. One of the most famous recipes is certainly scaloppine al Marsala. Among the desserts, zabaglione must be mentioned. In Sicilian cuisine, Marsala is also the protagonist of some important recipes. In fact, it is one of the ingredients used in the preparation of the cannolo wafer, perhaps the most famous Sicilian dessert in the world. This particular fortified wine is also used in the duci di tibbi, a typical dessert of Realmonte, and in the funciddi di Buccheri, a kind of nougat prepared with orange peels, typical of Buccheri, a splendid village in the province of Syracuse.

    Sergio Campolo

    I graduated in Economics and Management in Rome, I worked for 6 years in Milan especially in Web Marketing and now I live in Trento. In 2021 I founded The World of Sicily with the aim of making the beauties of this region known to the whole world.

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