Marsala is one of the great fortified wines, with a rich history. But until recently it has been known as little more than a cooking wine associated with dishes such as zabaglione.
Hopefully that is set to change as a small block of premium producers re-emerge, boosted or enabled by the tremendous improvement in quality of table wine on the island of Sicily over the last decade. This mirrors the situation in Portugal, where renewed interest in port (on both the part of the producer and the consumer) is due to the extraordinary development of ultra-premium table wine.
Comparisons with Portugal do not end here. Port was famously created by the British who, when trouble flared with France, sought an alternative wine to their beloved Bordeaux from France. They turned to Portugal, but the shipping route was rather lengthy compared with the Paris-London run. And so it came about that the addition of (high alcohol) spirit to the bulk wine was found to act as a stabiliser on the high seas.
Decades later, a trader named John Woodhouse from the northern English city of Liverpool, found himself forced to seek shelter in the Sicilian city of Marsala. It is on the north-western tip of the island, where it enjoys excellent conditions for wine production: exposure to winds on three sides, low summer rainfall, and year-round pleasant temperatures. Woodhouse so enjoyed the local wine that he decided to ship some back home.
Knowledge was on his side. Ivan Cappello, winemaker at premium Marsala producer Vito Curatolo Arini, says that Woodhouse had already had experience of Port and Madeira (the other Anglo-Portuguese fortifieds) and so knew about adding spirit as a stabiliser. Back in the UK, he began to sell Marsala as a sort of sister beverage to Madeira.
But as consumer knowledge grew, it became a drink in its own right. As they’d done in Portugal, the British artfully developed production and, to this day, Marsala is the only Made-In-Italy wine allowed to use the English language on its labels.
Marsala is the longest-established DOC in Italy – it was first delimited in 1931, and formalised in 1969. It is also undoubtedly the most complicated. A bewildering number of 33 types of wine can be created. The three main criteria are based on colour (Gold, Amber and Ruby), level of sweetness (from 40g/L to more than 100g/L), and extent of ageing (Fine, Superiore and Superiore Riserva). It is a minefield. The British cleverly marketed just four key types, such as London Particular and Garibaldi Dolce, which remain included in the 33 in the DOC.
The grapes that are now becoming so fashionable for table wines, such as Grillo, Inzolia and Cataratto, are precisely those used in Marsala production. Of these, Ivan Cappello considers Grillo to be the “king”.
Birgi is often considered the best sub-region with its clay and limestone soils, but Cappello says Grillo grows particularly well in the Triglia Scaletta sub-region, where sandy soils allow the roots of the vines to go very deep. This brings more structure to the wine and produces excellent ripeness.
What is distinctive about Marsala is the fact the base wines can reach potential alcohol levels as high as 17 per cent, which means that the spirit addition can even be as low as 1 or 2 per cent. This allows the wines to achieve a purity of fruit and a wonderful balance because the sense of high alcohol levels is not present.
Key in Marsala production is the addition of the Mistella – fortified grape juice – which tastes delicious and beautifully honeyed. For the richly coloured Ambra category of Marsala known as Mosto Cotto, cooked must is then added. At Curatolo Arini this is produced in huge copper pots over a traditional wood fire, stirred frequently for 24 hours until it is thick and dark. The stirring is done by a relay of people, because the work is back breaking and tough. A wine-based spirit such as grappa is then added.
Of the 33 aforementioned categories, the top include Marsala Superiore and Marsala Vergine, both made according to the Solera system used to make sherry.
The Curatolo Arini Superior Seco can be enjoyed from about three years of age. It is a fine wine, clean on the finish, with lovely aromas of apricot, fig and nuts. Vergine needs at least 10 years of ageing before it is bottled: a barrel sample of the Curatolo Arini 2010 was still quite alcoholic, not yet integrated.
The key with Marsala, just as for Port and Madeira, Ivan Cappello says, is age. He found some “forgotten” semi-dry wines in the cellar estimated to be 35 years old. The term “semi-dry” here means the perfect balance of sweetness without cloyingness. And what length It shows.
Marsala is not easy to find, even though the vast majority of the production is exported. When you do find some, says Cappello, put at least one bottle in the cellar and “forget” about it for about 20 to 35 years, and then serve with cheese!