Because Marsala as we know it today was developed by an English merchant, John Woodhouse, who docked at the town to escape bad weather in 1773 and discovered that the local wine, a strong white made primarily from the Grillo varietal, is superbly suited to aging, and that the traditional method for aging it was to draw what old wine one needed from the botti after fermenting the new vintage, and then top off the botti with the newly fermented wine. What was in the botti was therefore a collection of many, many vintages, and the aging technique was called "invecchiamento in perpetuum," perpetual aging.
Mr. Woodhouse realized this was very similar to the Solera technique employed by the makers of Sherry, in which the wine moves through a stack of casks as it ages, with the winemaker drawing from the bottom cask, refilling it from the one above, and adding the newly fermented vintage to the top cask. So he introduced the Solera technique to Marsala, and, to be certain the wine would survive the ocean voyage to England, fortified it with brandy before he set out.
His wine proved a tremendous success, to the point that Mr. Woodhouse returned to Marsala in 1793, bought land, and began to make Marsala himself. In 1800 Admiral Nelson arranged for the delivery of "the best Marsala" the Royal Navy ships stationed at Malta, and at the same time it found its way into Buckingham Palace; its status as a wine fit for the table of any gentleman was thus established, and soon other Englishmen joined Mr. Woodhouse. The most successful was Benjamin Ingham, who was, when he retired in 1851, the richest man in Sicily. It took the Italians a little longer to get involved, but in 1832 Vincenzo Florio established his winery. He also handled the distribution of his wines, building a fleet to compete with the British merchants that eventually numbered 99 vessels.
Marsala was a busy place, and it was here that Garibaldi and his picked volunteers landed in 1860, taking advantage of the English presence, which they (correctly) thought would prevent the Bourbons from cannonading them; Garibaldi's march through Sicily and on up towards Naples led to the unification of Italy under the House of Savoy. Legend has it that he didn't drink when he landed, but something about Marsala captured his attention; in 1862 he returned to the town, tried some, and the style he liked best is still classified as Garibaldi Dolce or GD by some winemakers.
So Marsala is good, and it's colorful; during the American prohibition in the 20s its aficionados were so upset by the prospect of doing without that they managed to get it classified as a medicine rather than a wine. But then what happened?
Economic upheavals, a world war, unfortunate legislation, and winemakers who cut corners for a variety of reasons combined to thoroughly sully Marsala's image, and with time people, even those who continued to cook with it, forgot there had ever been a great fortified Sicilian white wine. "The old folks still drink it," we were told at a presentation this winter in Sicily, and to be quite honest I would be overjoyed to see others discover it as well.
Enough of an introduction: What about the wines?
There are several different classes of Marsala, all of which are fortified:
- Fine: 17% alcohol, aged at least a year
- Superiore: 18% alcohol, aged at least two years
- Superiore Riserva: 18% alcohol, aged at least four years
- Vergine, or Soleras: 18% alcohol, aged at least five years
These classes can be further divided into two categories: Vergine and Conciato.
Vergine is the original Marsala made by Mr. Woodhouse using the Solera technique from just Grillo grapes, many of which come from vineyards planted next to the salt pans that part of Sicily is also famed for, and which impart a savory minerality to the wine that is absolutely necessary to keep it from seeming thin. The only thing a winemaker can add to Vergine is alcohol to fortify it -- the wine has to be 18% alcohol -- and therefore it is always dry. All Marsala Vergine wines are blends of many vintages.
Conciato is everything that's not Vergine; the word, which you won't find on any wine label, literally translates as dirtied or tanned (a conceria is a tannery) and refers to the addition of small percentages of concia, or mosto cotto (cooked grape must) which has a profound influence on both the color (amber, gold, and ruby -- made with the addition of red grapes too -- of which there is not much) and the character of the wine; Superiore and Superiore Riserva also have some mistella, which is a mixture of alcohol and fresh grape must. Because of what is added to it, Marsala conciato ranges from sweet, what used to be called Garibaldi Dolce, through Secco, or dry. Marsala Conciato can be released in vintages.
The sweeter renditions, and more specifically Marsala Superiore with quite a bit of sugar, were developed by Benjamin Ingham to compete with sweeter Iberian wines, for example Madeira and Port.
We tasted a number of wines:
Rallo Marsala Vergine Soleras Riserva
The youngest wine in the bottle is 20 years old -- a Marsala's age is reckoned from when the alcohol or concia is added -- and some is likely much older. It's tawny amber with apricot reflections, and ahs a rich nose with walnut skins and oat meal laced with brown sugar and buttery almonds, with very green apricot acidity to give it all direction. On the palate it's clean and bright, with lively acidity and walnut skin and peach pit bitterness supported by alcoholic warmth and hints of oatmeal that flow into a long clean walnut skin finish with sweet brown sugar overtones, slight bitter almond, and lasting bitter savory minerality. Great depth, and extremely elegant, a wine to sip with friends far from the table. Or better yet, a good book that won't object when you get distracted.
Cantine Florio Bagno Florio Marsala Vergine
Tawny amber with apricot reflections. The bouquet is fairly rich, with alcohol and dried figs mingled with walnut skins, bitter almonds, and dried figs. Quite dry, and drier than the Rallo; it has a lot to say but is also clearly less mature. On the palate it's clean and rich, with powerful alcohol-derived sweetness supported by warmth and bitter almond bitterness that lasts and lasts. It's quite graceful, in a tighter key than the Rallo, and brings to mind a well-muscled distance runner -- not an ounce of fat. Very pleasant to sip.
Marco De Bartoli Vigna La Miccia Marsala Superiore Oro
This is not a Solera, but rather Conciato; it's tawny pale amber with bright apricot reflections, and has a rich, elegant bouquet with bitter almonds mingled with walnut skins and oat meal. It's quick to write, but there's tremendous depth and elegance that invites one to simply swish, sniff, and smile. On the palate it's rich, in a frankly lascivious key -- the addition of mistella, fresh must and alcohol, which has a more delicate effect than concia, makes for a very different sugar balance with respect to what one finds in the Solera wines -- with moderate sweet oatmeal and brown sugar supported by clean rich savory mineral acidity and bitterness that flows into a clean bitter finish with brown sugar overtones. Very nice, and invites sip after sip. With respect to Marsala Vergine it's much more approachable, and as such would be a fine introduction to Marsala if you've never tried it.
Baglio Hopps Marsala Superiore
Baglio Hopps is one of the older Marsala houses, founded in 1811. Their Superiore is amber with lively apricot orange reflections. The bouquet is fairly rich, with herbal accents and pronounced minerality and spice. Not so much toasted or nutty as quite a bit of sea salt, which almost brings the saltiness of anchovies to mind. On the palate it's bright, and fairly sweet, with lively acidity and considerable minerality that flow into a clean savory finish. It's pleasant but very young, and I found it a bit disjointed. It needs time, something that all Marsala has in abundance.
Marco De Bartoli Marsala Superiore 10 Anni
This is a Vergine, produced with the Solera method. It's tawny amber with apricot reflections, and has a rich bouquet with alcohol and walnut skins mingled with some dark brown sugar sweetness; it's quick to write but there's a great lot going on, and it's another of those wines one can sniff and sniff. On the palate it's full and rich, with elegant savory nut fruit supported by warmth and clean hints of citrus that gain depth from alcohol-derived sweetness, while peach pit bitterness provides contrast as things flow into a long, long, long finish. Towering.
Cantine Florio Targa 1840 Marsala Superiore Riserva
This is a Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco Ambra, and is dark tawny amber with slightly greenish rim. The bouquet is powerful, with dried walnuts and bitter almonds mingled with dried figs alcohol, and savory accents. Quite nice. On the palate it's rich, and sweet, with considerable warmth and dried fruit, figs in particular but also dates, and it flows into a warm savory finish with bitter almonds and brown sugar. Quite enjoyable, and (again) more approachable than the Vergine.
Cantine Florio Donna Franca Marsala Superiore Riserva
This is a gain a Semisecco Ambra, and is tawny amber with greenish highlights and brassy reflections. The bouquet is rich, with hints of mint mingled with brown sugar and sea salt, with underlying walnut skins and alcoholic warmth. Quite a bit going on, and inviting, in a supple, athletic sort of way. On the palate it's full and rich, with elegant savory accents mingled with very green apricot acidity and brown sugar sweetness with hints of oatmeal, and is all flows into a clean bitter finish with bitter almonds supported by sweetness and savory accents, and though this sounds disjointed the wine is quite harmonious and has a great deal to say. It's entering maturity, and the conversation is interesting.
It was a nice spectrum of quality Marsala, and though the representative of the Consorzio who presented the wines said that Marsala is traditionally served with Sicilian pastries, I would be much more tempted to consider Marsala Vergine to be a sipping wine to be enjoyed far from the table. The sweeter versions of Marsala Superiore and Marsala Fine will instead work well with dry pastries, and also with creamy flavorful cheeses, including (in the sweeter renditions) formaggi erborinati along the lines of Gorgonzola or a Stilton.
The next day we set out for Marsala, which is about 150 km from Palermo. It was a pretty drive, which would have been beautiful had it not rained steadily from the time we left Palermo's city limits. The town of Marsala doesn't have storm drains -- an indication of how dry it usually is -- and we therefore navigated the puddles until we reached Marco De Bartoli, where we looked out at the vineyards behind the winery. They have 12 hectares of vineyards in Marsala, mostly Grillo with some Inzolia (and some red grapes to have red wine) trained low to the ground in the alberello, or bush style. Production is minimal thanks to intensive pruning and green harvesting, and though they aren't certified as organic because doing so would mean surrendering their freedom to the regulators, they practice organic farming. No chemicals, and to limit the growth of grass they use hoes.
The same grapes, selected bunch by bunch, go into both young and old wines, and they put everything they harvest into a chill room as it gets to the winery because at harvest time temperatures often exceed 40 C, about 105 F. The grapes are pressed cold, the must is kept chilled for 48 hours to sediment out, and then they start the fermentation with local yeasts. Wines to be drunk young ferment in steel, those to be aged in barriques, and what will become Marsala in upright wooden casks.
Yes, Marsala. They said that only 5% of all Marsala made is Vergine or Superiore, and they decided to limit themselves to Superiore and Vergine; as far as they're concerned Marsala Fine is industrial and uninteresting, and I don't know but what they're right. They only add alcohol and mistella, never concio, which, they say, primarily serves to darken Marsala, and -- since it darkens naturally with time -- make it look older than it is.
The room with the stacked casks of the Solera system -- small casks above and larger ones below -- was surprisingly cold, due to the absence of glass in the lunette above the door, and Marco's sons told us this was intentional; Marsala needs the hot summer and chill winter gusts to develop properly.
After the tour we sat down to taste whites.
Grillo Integer Sicilia IGT 2006
This is an unfiltered Grillo, and is a lively brassy gold with brassy gold reflections. The bouquet is quite rich, with herbal notes and alcohol mingled with minerality and green apricot accents; there's considerable depth. On the palate it's rich, with powerful vegetal-laced green apricot fruit with intriguing almond skin bitterness and slight smoky overtones that gain depth from hints of iodine and flow into a long finish with lasting bitterness and savory accents. It's a new wine, fermented in barriques, and though the wood isn't really obvious it does add a degree of depth that wouldn't otherwise be there. Quite nice.
Vecchio Samperi Ventennale
Made from the same grapes, though they stay longer on the vine, loosing acidity and concentrating sugars enough to go from 14 to 16% alcohol. The wine is then ages using the Solera technique, and is called ventennale (twenty years) because that's the average age of what goes into the bottle (some parts of the blend can be as young as 7, and others as old as 50). Though they make it without adding alcohol, they classify it as a vino liquoroso because its natural alcohol content is high enough that people have accused them of fortifying it. It's tawny amber with brassy apricot reflections, and has a very rich bouquet with savory accents mingled with walnut skin bitterness and heady dried fruit and nutmeats. Great depth and elegance, and it speaks volumes. On the palate it's full, with rich minerality and clean dried almond-nut flavors laced with underlying dried fruit, coupled with a delightful languidity derived from the elements drawn from the wood over the years. And it lasts indefinitely. This is one of those rare wines you find yourself remembering -- as if you had just taken a sip -- days later; in a very sense a wine like it must have been what impressed Mr. Woodhouse when he landed in Marsala, and shown him the potential of the land. Well worth a journey.
Marsala Superiore Riserva 1986
The mistella was added to wine that was up to 20 years old in 1986,and it has been in cask since then -- just one cask. The wine is tawny amber with greenish brown rim and apricot highlights. The bouquet is rich, and elegant, with greenish accents -- green almonds and some oatmeal sweetened by brown sugar and dates, with walnut skin bitterness as well. Great depth. On the palate it's rich, warm, and engaging, with bright dried apricot fruit supported by bitter accents, a combination of walnut skins and peach pits, with underlying sea salt, and it flows into a very long warm bitter finish with hints of oatmeal woven into the bitterness. It's deceptive; it only seems simple, while in reality there's a terrific lot going on, in a slightly richer key than the Vecchio Samperi, which I found to be tighter.
It doesn't get much better (or much more impressive) than this, and we left Marco de Bartoli's for Cantine Florio with heavy hearts.
Florio is down by the waterfront, where Mr. Florio's ships could easily dock to take on wines, and is enormous, with three parallel aging halls well over a hundred yards long that bring the aisles and nave of a cathedral to mind; the buildings slope gently, allowing hot air to flow up along the ridge beam and thus guaranteeing ventilation, while the floors are once again packed earth (the health people had forced them to cement everything over, but have relented) that allows the proper humidity, and also cools the halls through evaporation. The halls contain a mixture of barrels, horizontal casks, and huge upright casks of the sort pictured here, one of which was taken to NY for a World's Fair in 1915. The sense of timeless peace is remarkable, and if you're historically minded you will much enjoy both the marble couch where Garibaldi tasted Marsala in 1862, and the markers on the walls commemorating the visits of the King and Il Duce, who seem to have visited both together and separately. I could have continued to wander among the casks for much longer than I did, but we had wines to taste.
Terre Arse 1998 Marsala Vergine
Amber with apricot reflections and some greenish notes in the rim. The bouquet is fairly intense, with alcohol and walnut skins mingled with minerality and sea salt, and some rich brown sugar with underlying vegetal notes too. Nice depth, though clearly young. On the palate it's full, with bright walnut skin and bitter almond nutmeats supported by tannic structure from wood that flows into a long clean finish with tannic bitterness and alcohol, with savory accents as well. It's soft both because of the alcohol, and because there are some sugars, which are intentional: they use their sweetest grapes to make their Vergine, and some of the sweetness remains when they add the alcohol prior to beginning the Solera treatment. Elegant, though at the beginning of a long climb; if you must drink it now it will be nice after dinner.
Targa Florio Marsala Superiore Riserva 1998
Tawny amber that's slightly darker than the Terre Arse. The bouquet is fairly rich, with deft brown sugar and dried apricot supported by walnut skins and alcoholic warmth as well as a bit of marzipan and some chestnut leaves. Elegant. On the palate it's full, and rich, with bright walnuts and bitter almonds laced with some brown sugar, and it flows into a clean, long, slightly tart finish with pleasing bitterness. Elegant, though very direct, and this is clearly a factor of youth; it has a long life awaiting it.
We finished on a very different note, with a Florio's Passito di Pantelleria, a wine made from Zibibbo grapes that varies considerably from producer to producer: Prducers harvest some grapes immediately and put them out to dry, while leaving others on the vine longer and pressing them as soon as they come into the cellar; the relative proportions of the two kinds of Zibibbo give the individual wines their distinct characters. Having said this, Florio's Passito is pale tawny amber with brassy reflections, and has a rich bouquet with a great lot of sugar mingled with floral accents and dried apricots, which provide brightness and sweetness, with underlying marzipan and clover honey. The nose is frankly tremendous, but the concentration of the aromas is such that the wine can digest its sugar content -- 140 g/liter -- without seeming cloying. On the palate it's rich, full, and sweet, with dried apricot and date fruit supported by deft dried apricot acidity that brings a sunburst to mind, and flows into a clean sweet finish. Quite pleasant in an opulent key that brings a starlet to mind -- lots of curves and quite eye-catching -- but after having tasted systematically through a number of Marsalas, for all its heart-throbbing lusciousness it fell flat -- what you see is what you get, and though it is a nice package indeed, it simply doesn't have the depth nor the ability to carry an interesting conversation that Marsala has. This said, it is eminently approachable, and if you like passiti you will like it very much.
The bottom line is that Marsala is a small, but potentially beautiful universe; though the Fine grade can be pleasant, things become interesting, and sometimes spellbinding with Marsala Superiore Riserva and Marsala Vergine. If you have never tried one, but like fortified wines, prepare yourself for a real treat.
A final note: Marsala is, like Sherry, an oxidized wine. It won't go bad when exposed to air, and indeed some of the older Marsala houses have wines that have been aging in cask for decades (the Germans drank what they could, so what survives from before the War is in bottle). These older wines can be absolutely extraordinary, and should you come across an old, or even ancient bottle someone hid in a nook or cranny of your house years ago, say a prayer of thanks. It could be wonderful, even after a hundred years.