Drink It! Don't Just Eat It!
What comes to mind when you hear “Marsala”? I’d bet my 401k you thought of something you eat, not drink. Your mouth waters when you hear Marsala because you associate it with some delicious Italian recipe that includes this Sicilian nectar. When I hear it however, I immediately think of my grandfather, sipping a unique wine while eating hazelnut gelato. Or, I think of the many dinner parties I hosted and attended years ago where we would sip it as an aperitif.
Out of the 3 types/styles of Marsala, Amber (Ambra), Gold (Oro), and Ruby (Rubino), some can be syrupy sweet, as you may be accustomed to. It also comes dry as a bone. I want to focus on the often-overlooked high quality Marsala, instead of the stuff you cook with. I’ll lay a foundation for you, but it’s up to you to have fun building upon it and discovering Marsala on your own. Think of this as my Twitter-like 140 (give or take) Marsala class.
Marsala comes from the region of Marsala on the western bank of Sicily and made from various grapes like the red, Nero d’ Avola and the green, Inzolia. In the late 1700s, Englishman John Woodhouse came to Marsala, becoming enamored with regional wine. He shipped some back home and… here’s where the history gets a little fuzzy. Depending on who you talk to – Sicilians, Brits, Romans – they all have a slightly different spin. Since I’m part Sicilian, I’m biased toward the Sicilian version. That’s the one you’re going to get.
While on the Sicilian coast, John turned to Sicilian winemakers to learn more. They obliged and proceeded to drop regional wine knowledge on him. They explained their unique wood cask aging method. Also, during the fermentation process, Sicilians added brandy or other liquors to their wine. John realized the added benefit of brandy in wine allowed for longer aging, as it stabilized the wine during temperature changes. This mean it would withstand long journeys along the Mediterranean Sea.
Once back home, John aspired to build a wine empire on Marsala. Why not? Brits already loved port, a similar style, and his family raved about the Marsala he had sent back to them. Producing Sicilian Marsala and exporting it to Britain could make him a pretty penny. John made his dreams a reality, mass producing Marsala for export. Once the British had a taste of Marsala, the demand grew quickly. John was rolling in dough. The Sicilians, historically feeling wronged and pillaged by the Arabs and the Romans for similar issues, didn’t like this Englishman falling ass-backwards into money. Marsala was their blood, sweat and tears, and John was reaping the rewards.
In the 1830s, Southern Italianman, Vincenzo Florio helped the Sicilians “get their beaks wet” in the Marsala export business. Marsala was producing finer and finer wine, its demand and export numbers following suit. Ironically, Marsala saw a surge in popularity in the United States at the most ironic of times… prohibition. Because the shape and style of the bottle traditionally used for Marsala looked more like a medicine bottle, it was an easy item to smuggle.
Popularity continued through the 1950s but eventually this fabulous wine’s image changed. People considered it only suitable for cooking, if that. The handful of poor quality, large commercial producers reshaped the perception of Marsala as a whole. The steady fall from grace continued until laws were slapped on all producers of Marsala, forcing them to clean up their act while holding them accountable in the late 1980s.
Marsala now has these classifications:
Marsala Fine: aged at least one year, with at least 17% abv
Marsala Superiore: aged at least 2 years, with at least 18% abv
Marsala Superiore Riserva: aged at least 4 years, with at least 18% abv
Marsala Vergine: aged at least 5 years, with at least 18% abv.
Here we are in late 2010. Marsala’s quality is now regulated and it still is forced to fight its way back into the limelight. Help it out, would ya? Go on a personal quest for the best of this multifaceted Sicilian elixir. It’s not always the easiest to find but it’s well worth it.