Marsala: Sicily’s most famous wine

Peay Vineyard

For centuries, Sicily’s most famous wine has been Marsala. You may be more familiar with chicken marsala than high quality Marsala wine, but there was a time when this wine produced on the west coast was the equal of Sherry and Madeira, and maybe even Port.

The history of Marsala wine begins with John Woodhouse. In 1770 the English merchant from Liverpool arrived in Sicily on business, looking for products such as almonds, honey, oil and tuna salami. One day, while he was sailing to Mazara for a load of soda ash, a storm forced his ship to find shelter in the port of Marsala. Here he found refreshment in a tavern and was impressed by the local wine; a wine of high alcohol content produced by the farmers of the area, which he found similar to the already famous Port and Madeira.

He changed his mind, loading his ship with Marsala wine instead. To prevent the wine from spoiling on the long journey, he fortified the wine with a little brandy. He transported it to Liverpool and sold it, making a huge profit in an English market already addicted to fortified wine from Spain and Portugal.

John Woodhouse established his winery at Marsala in 1796. Benjamin Ingham founded a competing firm in 1812, followed by two Sicilians, Vincenzo Florio in 1832 and Paolo Pellegrino in 1880. Woodhouse was a supplier to the British navy under Horatio Nelson, who selected Marsala as the wine ration for his sailors. The British Monarch added Marsala to its cellars, leading the popularity of the wine to skyrocket across Britain. These wineries produced vast quantities of Marsala wine for export to England, and later America and Australia.

The original DOC production rules were very relaxed, allowing excessively high yields. At the time, the Italian government was also incentivising farmers to increase yields, which led winemakers to replace the higher quality Grillo and Inzolia varieties with the more prolific but lower quality Catarratto. This both reduced the concentration and changed the taste of the resulting wine. Winemakers also starting adding cane sugar, coffee or chocolate to replace the sweetness lost, further disguising the wine and relegating Marsala to use in the kitchen. When asked about Marsala, most people think of chicken marsala.

The DOC rules were changed in 1984, reducing yields and prohibiting blending with sugar or other additives. Winemakers have turned back to producing high quality Marsala with Grillo and Inzolia. Thirty years later there are glimmers of recovery, but Marsala has a long way to go to once again sit alongside Sherry and Madeira.

Marsala is made in three colours: Oro (gold), Ambre (amber) and Rubino (ruby). Gold and Amber marsala are the traditionally high quality wines, with Ruby being of lower quality. Like Sherry and Madeira, Marsala is an oxidised, fortified wine. What makes Marsala unique is the use of only native varieties. Gold and Amber Marsala is made using Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Grecanico and Damaschino. Ruby Marsala is made using Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Frappato and Pignatello (aka Perricone).

Following grape pressing, the wine is fermented to dryness, fortified with neutral grape spirit then aged in old oak barrels filled only two thirds full with wine, and the remainder air. The bung, or the plug which seals the top of the barrel, is also left only lightly inserted, meaning that air can gradually circulate as the wine ages.

Oxidation is fervorously avoided by winemakers in the production of normal table wine, but in the case of Marsala, it’s part of the appeal. Once a wine has oxidised, it’s stable, and can be transported long distances (think sea transportvto England) or left exposed to air for long periods of time without any further spoiling. The price you pay for this is the bitter taste that an oxidised wine takes on. If you’re familiar with dry sherry, you understand the bitter aftertaste of Marsala.

This dry, fortified wine is Oro Marsala or Gold Marsala.

This is where things get interesting: To produce Amber Marsala, winemakers add a cooked grape must called mosto cotto to Oro Marsala. Mosto cotto (literally cooked must) is made by taking the the residual grape skins and flesh from pressing and cooking it for 36 hours to concentrate the residual sugars and the phenolic and colour compounds in the skins. When this is added into dry Oro Marsala, the residual sugar balances the bitterness from oxidation and the wine takes on its amber colour. The result is a wonderfully complex and rich wine with some sweetness. Different producers add varying amounts of must, and so produce wines of varying sweetness. Sweetness designations indicate the amount of residual sugar in the finished product. These are secco (dry, at 0-40g/l), semisecco (semi-sweet, at 40–100g/l) and dolce (sweet, at more than 100g/l).

Marsala wine without mosto cotto is known as vergine (or virgin) Marsala. This shouldn’t be considered lower quality, just a different style. High quality Oro Marsala is aged for decades or is made using the solera system made famous in sherry production. This fractional blending system combines wines produced from different vintages, producing a non-vintage wine that tends to be very consistent year-to-year.

Marsala is classified into different quality levels, based on how long the wine matures in barrel. Fino (one year aging) and Superiore (two years) are frequently used for cooking and aren’t worth sipping. Superiore Riserva requires four years of ageing, but Amber Marsala is frequently released under this designation with significantly more age as this is the highest quality indication for Amber Marsala. Vergine Solera Oro Marsala requires an average age of five years, and Vergine Riserva requires 10+ years. These last two quality levels require vergine wine and so exclude amber marsala.

Marsala has a typical flavour profile of apricot, vanilla, tamarind, brown sugar and tobacco, honey and maple syrup. Older wines can take on additional flavours of dried fruits, morello cherry, walnut and licorice. If the wine is dry, then it will have a bitter flavour, which tends to be balanced by the residual sugar in Amber Marsala.

When you leave a normal table wine exposed to air, it oxidises and takes on a bitter taste. Fortified wines tend to last better, but still not forever. Marsala wine, on the other hand, can last for years, even decades. This is because it is purposely oxidised in the production process, so there’s no spoiling left to happen!

Marsala wine pairs very well with chocolate, as well as some other hard-to-match foods like asparagus and brussel sprouts.

The changes in production rules make the future of quality Marsala look bright. Hopefully winemakers continue their work to return this wine to its historic fame.