Origins of the name
Marsala wine is the oldest among Italian wines and the first to have obtained the DOC mark in 1969. Its name derives from the homonymous Sicilian city near Trapani.
Its origins date back to 1773 and originally its production was encouraged by its discoverer, the English merchant John Woodhouse, who exported it to England.Today it is known all over the world. 8 million liters are produced, of which 25% is reserved for export. The characteristics of Marsala wine are established by law no. 851 of 28 November 1984. Marsala wine has a minimum alcohol content of 17 degrees and in some varieties it can exceed 18 degrees. Depending on the sugar content, it can be sweet, dry or semi-dry. The name “Fine” derives from the aging time, with an aging period of no less than one year; “Superiore”, with an aging period of not less than two years; “Riserva”, with an aging period of not less than four years. Among the superior qualities there is the Garibaldi Dolce, dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi, who tasted this wine, when he arrived in Marsala for “lo sbarco dei mille.The different processing of the basic grapes determines the gold tones, amber and ruby. Aging takes place exclusively in oak barrels and vats. According to the directives of the law, production and bottling can only take place in the territory of the province of Trapani, with the exception of the islands and the city of Alcamo. Today Marsala is counted among the four best dessert wines in the world.
The gold and amber Marsala wines is produced by the white grapes of Grillo, Catarratto , Damaschino and Inzolia. Pignatello, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese grapes, mixed with white ones, originate the ruby Marsala.
The grapes that will become Marsala wine ripen in the hot and arid climate of western Sicily, in a luxuriant territory of vineyards and spontaneous vegetation typical of the Trapani province. Here, in the inland towns, almost every house has a vine in front of it, a symbol of abundance, and the ancient custom of cultivating one’s own vineyard for exclusively personal use is still alive.
Marsala owes its fortune to the British merchant John Woodhouse who by chance, following a shipwreck, found himself staying in Marsala, the city from which the original Sicilian wine then took its current name. in the custom of the Mediterranean peoples, as a sign of hospitality, the best local wine was tasted, the one that the peasants called Perpetuum . He was so impressed by the taste that he sent some pipes home to test the effect with the English aristocrats, and to prevent it from spoiling during the journey he added alcohol. The result was a liqueur wine very similar to Port, which has always been very popular in English salons. Woodhouse invested in the production and export of Marsala, becoming enormously rich. Other entrepreneurs followed his example and starting from 1812 this excellent wine crossed the borders of Europe to make itself known and appreciated in other parts of the continent. Admiral Nelson was a great admirer of Marsala and is still served at Buckingham Palace today.
It was only in 1832 that the first Italian entrepreneur, the Calabrian Vincenzo Florio, descendant of a rich family of industrialists and shipowners, entered in the production, giving a new impulse to the production of Marsala, literally exporting it to every corner of the world aboard his merchant ships. The wineries multiplied; some of them are still in business and can be visited. Another record is owed to Marsala, in fact in 1962 the first consortium of the south was founded, the “Consortium for the protection of Marsala Wine” which brings together the companies that today produce 90 % of production.
Marsala can be virgin or tanned. The tanning consists in the addition of cooked must, which gives the delicate velvety consistency and the amber color; of alcohol or wine brandy to increase the alcohol content; of “CARAMELIZED MUST” or “MISTELLA”. This must is obtained from the late harvest of the ripe Grillo grapes, which will give the sweetness. This must is deposited in the barrels together with alcohol to stop fermentation, in order to increase the alcohol content over 16 degrees. It is added to Marsala, it develops its perfume.
The Production Regulations approved in 1969 and modified in 2014 classify Marsala on the basis of three elements: color, sugar content and duration of aging. The combination of these characteristics leads to different types. The main ones are listed below.
- Virgin Marsala or Soleras : it is a dry wine defined as virgin because it is not cured. The only addition it can receive is that of a small percentage of alcohol or brandy.It is aged in oak barrels for a period that by law cannot be less than five years, even if this phase actually lasts at least twice as long to allow the wine to absorb the tannins from the wood with which it will express the maximum aroma and aroma. The term Soleras with which it is sometimes called derives from the solera , a winemaking technique originally from the Iberian peninsula and then spread also in Sicily: the wine of the last vintage is flavored with a small amount of wine, called yeast , taken from the most old ones stored in the cellar. In turn, the older barrels are topped up with the younger wine, up to the progenitor whose content thus continues to retain its vitality. The color is a bright and joyful light amber.
- Marsala Superiore Riserva: it is produced by adding 8-9% alcohol and 10-20% mistella to the base. It is the latter that gives it a slightly less dry taste than virgin. Aging cannot be less than four years and is carried out with the Soleras method. The color is a light amber but more nourished and lively than virgin.
- Dry Marsala Superiore: by law it must be aged for two years but some producers go up to three or even five years to refine its characteristics. It is tanned with alcohol (8-9%), caramelized must (5-9%) and concentrated must (5%). The color is a consistent and majestic golden amber. From this wine we get the Marsala London Particular , or Marsala LP, adapted to the British market and with a semi- sweet taste.
- Sweet Marsala Superiore: identical to dry Marsala Superiore except for the sugar content, which cannot be less than 10%. It is pleasantly sweet and derives from a base wine tanned with alcohol (8-9%), caramelized must (5-9%) and concentrated must (9%). Among the most famous wines of this category we must mention the Garibaldi Dolce, born in 1862 on the occasion of a visit that the Risorgimento hero made to the Florio factories. This denomination was then abandoned by Florio and acquired by another company, the Lombardo brothers . Like the dry Marsala Superiore, the sweet one offers a golden amber color.
- Marsala fine: in spite of the name it is the least valuable quality because it is subjected to an aging that can take just one year. It is the only one to have an alcohol content of 17 degrees and is tanned with alcohol (7%), caramelized must (3%) and concentrated must (5%).
- Special Marsala: it is a fine Marsala flavored with sugar, alcohol, spices, aromas or other ingredients. In this category only egg Marsala has a true tradition and is present on the market with high quality products. For the rest, these are often poor products, made outside the Sicilian territory with the most varied additions: almonds, hazelnuts, cinchona, coffee and fruit.
Marsala, by virtue of its sweet and fortified taste, is an elegant wine to be enjoyed as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to dessert, and in some menus it can replace the traditional sorbet.
It can be served cold or hot and is pleasant on the palate, even at room temperature.
The virgin Marsala served at 8 degrees is an excellent aperitif.
Marsala Superiore Riserva is recommended with smoked fish, spicy or seasoned cheeses and as a digestive, served at a temperature of 12-15 degrees.
Marsala Superiore dolce is the ideal wine for any type of dessert and for fruit.
Young Marsala is the ideal wine to accompany fresh cheeses.
In the gastronomic field, the recipe where it is best known is that of escalopes with Marsala, but it is also present in preparations such as liver pie and chicken galantine or as an ingredient for meat jelly. It can also be used as an alternative to other fortified wines such as Port, Madeira and Sherry, when these are indicated for cooking meat dishes or soups. The advice is to always add it at the last moment, when cooking is almost completed, so as not to lose its flavor and aroma.
Marsala wines must be served strictly in a tall-stemmed tulip glass.
It is possible to enhance its digestive properties by macerating 80 grams of sage leaves in a liter of Marsala Superiore Riserva for eight days.
Our grandmothers, added a spoonful of it to the hot broth as a remedy for colds and flu. The system may not necessarily work, but it is certainly more pleasant than an aspirin.