Marsala: Meditate on This
Once illustrious, now forgotten, Marsala deserves another chance
I’m nursing three glasses of Marsala in La Sirena Ubriaca, “The Drunken Siren,” a wine bar in the port town of Marsala on Sicily’s western tip. My head is spinning, but not from the wine. It’s reacting to a chart titled “29 Expressions of a Unique Wine,” which parses Marsala into its various categories. That’s right; 29 permutations, stacked in a multicolored pyramid, with age on the ascending side, color on the base, and sweetness levels wedged in between. Let’s repeat: Age (Fine = 1 year, Superiore = 2 years, Superiore Reserve = 4 years, Vergine = 5 years, Vergine Reserve = 10 years). Color (gold, amber, ruby). Sweetness (dry, off-dry, sweet).
My hat’s off to wine-shop owner Salvatore Ruccione, whose enthusiasm for Marsala compelled him to create this chart (which really is quite helpful).
But let me make it simple: If you love wine, there really are only three categories of Marsala: Vergine, Marsala Superiore Reserva, and Everything Else.
Why this is so involves a bit of storytelling. So let’s take a break while you run out and buy of bottle of the good stuff. Look for Marco De Bartoli’s Vecchio Samperi, Pellegrino’s Marsala Vergine Soleras Secco, or Florio’s Marsala Superiore VecchioFlorio Secco. Now pour yourself a glass and settle into a leather chair before a roaring fire. If so inclined, grab a slice of aged pecorino, some roasted almonds, or a creamy, not-too-sweet dessert, like ricotta cheesecake or crème brûlée. Ready?
Marsala’s history begins in 1773 with a storm and an Englishman. John Woodhouse, a merchant from Liverpool, was sailing to Mazara del Vallo on Sicily’s southern shore when a sudden scirocco storm forced him to seek refuge in the port of Marsala. While there, he and his men dined at an osteria that served up its best special-occasion wine. Called il perpetuum, it was named after an aging process that involve a perpetual replenishing of wine in large wooden casks. After years of maturing, a portion of wine is drawn off to be sold. The cask is then topped off with new wine, and so it continues over the years, creating a blend of multiple vintages within one cask.
Woodhouse suspected this complex wine would fit like a fine leather glove in the cultivated parlors of England where Port, Madeira, and Sherry were all the rage. These fortified wines came from what the British called “the sun belt”— the Mediterranean region extending from Portugal to Turkey—and Sicily was smack in the middle.
Woodhouse leapt into action, shipping home fifty 412-liter pipes. As was the custom, he added alcohol to stabilize the wine for its long sea journey. Then he waited. When his father sent word that this Marsala was a smashing success, Woodhouse created a commercial operation, buying vineyards and farms in the countryside, and—like the British shippers of Port in Oporto—building an aging lodge near the Marsala port for easy shipping to England.
Other Englishmen followed: Corlett, Wood, Payne, Hoppes, and most importantly, Benjamin Ingham and his nephew Joseph Whitaker, who began exporting Marsala beyond Europe. It was Ingham who introduced an ingenious advancement in the perpetual-aging/blending system, borrowed from Spain’s sherry production: Called solera, it uses gravity to transfer wine between multiple rows of stacked barrels. Each row contains progressively older wine. Wine is drawn off from the row closest to the ground (suelo). That barrel is replenished with younger wine from the barrel above, and so on, with the brand-new vintage added to the top row.
It wasn’t until 1833 that a Sicilian got in on the act. Vicenzo Florio outgrew them all, with a fleet of 99 ships exporting Marsala to points around the globe. (Unlike the British, this native son poured money back into the city of Marsala, giving it a stylish facelift.) And so the race was on. Florio was followed by Rallo (1860), the notary Pellegrino (1880), and many more. By 1900, 40 firms were supplying the world with what was then the most famous of all Italian wines. Marsala was at its apex. But not for long.
Two World Wars and a Depression hit hard. Marsala managed to squeak by Prohibition due to its reputed medicinal properties; bottles destined for the U.S. were labeled “hospital size” and prescribed “a small glassful twice a day.” But after World War II, Marsala’s decay hastened as its image mingled with a flurry of aromatized liquors. Then in 1961, additives and cream concoctions of every sort were authorized. Egg cream, almond, hazelnut, even banana Marsalas rolled off the assembly line. Methods of fortification also expanded. Originally only neutral grape spirits or acquavite were used. But as codified in the 1969 regulations, Marsala producers could also use mosto cotto, or unfermented grape must boiled down to a concentrate to increase potential alcohol, as well as sifone, or must from late-harvest grapes whose sweetness was fixed by the addition of alcohol. Both bolstered sweetness and color, but could also dilute the essential character of the wine.
When Marsala became a DOC wine in 1984, some necessary housecleaning took place. “Special” concoctions were prohibited (except egg-cream Marsala, now sold as Cremovo). But other worrisome habits remained. Although boiled must was banished from most Marsalas, at least 1 percent is still required in the amber versions of Fine, Superiore, and Superiore Reserva—an industry shortcut to the rich hue and caramelized flavors that come with long cask aging.
“Mosto cotto, that was the ruin of Marsala,” says Sebastiano De Bartoli, son of Marco De Bartoli, surely Marsala’s most admired renegade winemaker, who has spent the past 30 years making Marsala using the original techniques. “The transition began in the 1960s with the introduction of coops in Sicily,” Sebastiano continues. “The quality of the base wine went downhill during this time.” Because of overproduction in the vineyards, “it had low sugars and thus low alcohol, so they needed to fortify it. If you start with a good base wine at 13%, you can reach 17% or more” just through evaporation during the long aging process. “But to compete against each other in price, they also started to cut down on the aging time. After all, real estate in a barrel costs money. But this doesn’t allow the alcohol level to rise naturally. So again, they added alcohol,” even codifying the practice. As for the boiled must, “that’s another cut corner. Yes, it gives caramelized notes, but it creates a bitterness and it doesn’t age well. It’s never as elegant.”
By 1980, Marsala had hit bottom. Old dusty bottles were occasionally brought out of kitchen cupboards to make chicken marsala or zabaglione, but Marsala’s illustrious status as a meditation wine was gone with the wind.
It was during this period that Marco De Bartoli entered the fray, an artisan David among industrial Goliaths determined to resurrect Marsala’s tarnished reputation. He’d spent the previous decade in the family business, growing grapes to sell to Marsala firms Pellegrino and Mirabella. (He also raced cars professionally during that decade.) Then in 1980, he founded his eponymous winery on his mother’s farm in the Samperi contrada. His first wine, called Vecchio Samperi, had more in common with the original perpetuum wine than Woodhouse’s fortified Marsala, let alone the mass-produced Marsalas of the 1970s. Like all Vergine Marsalas, it had no must or sifone to add sweetness and color. But it also had no added alcohol, achieving 18% just through a combination of well-ripened grapes and evaporation in the soleras circle. As a result, Vecchio Samperi falls outside the DOC rules, which require fortification, even for Vergine; that’s why you don’t see the word “Marsala” on the Vecchio Samperi label.
Still, if I had to pick one desert-island Marsala, it would be this Ur wine. Concentrated but dry, blended in soleras, and aged an average of 20 years, Vecchio Samperi is truly a meditation wine, a siren song that pulls you in deep through waves of nut, caramel, dried fruit, and sherry-like oxidative notes.
If you like this dry, nutty style, look for the Vergine category. Like its name implies, it’s virgin wine, with nothing added but neutral grape spirit, whose magic comes from long aging in wood. It can be labeled either Vergine or Soleras. Add the words “Reserva” and “Stravecchio,” and that doubles the aging minimum, from 5 years to 10.
Along with aging, grapes matter. De Bartoli has taken the lead in privileging grillo, grown in Sicily since Phoenician times. “To understand the wine, you must understand the grape,” says Sebastiano. “Grillo is full-bodied, it has the highest degree of sugar, and it can ferment with its own natural yeast. In all, it’s a powerful grape.” Vecchio Samperi is pure grillo. De Bartoli also pioneered grillo as a dry white table wine, kicking off a trend in Sicily with his crisp and lovely Grappoli del Grillo—a welcome trend, given the island’s abundance of seafood.
I’m also partial to De Bartoli’s Marsala Superiore Reserva 10 Anni. Sweeter than a Vergine, with a luscious caramel, dried apricot, marmalade, and nut character, this wine has been fortified with mistella from insolia must and acquavite, then aged 10 years, versus the required 4. Like Vecchio Samperi, it uses the soleras system, as does another favorite of mine, Pellegrino’s Marsala Vergine Soleras Secco. Unlike Vergine, which is always dry, Marsala Superiore can range in sweetness, so check the label for secco (dry), semisecco (off-dry), or dolce (sweet).
Bottom line, the best Marsalas don’t cut corners. While Fine is fine for cooking, it takes years, even decades, to achieve a truly elegant meditation wine, one whose concentrated flavors come from slow evaporation and oxidation in casks, followed by further mellowing in barrique. (In De Bartoli’s cellar, I spotted a barrel labeled 1958 and another from 1903.) Marsala Superiore Oro begins to have the right stuff, while wise old Vergine deservedly sits at the top of the pyramid.
These wines took their time getting here. Now take some time to enjoy them. Heed the siren’s call.
Published in the January/February 2011 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.