Marsala Wine Guide: Birth Of A Legend
Marsala wine is one of the heritages of Italian enology and, although it enjoys little fame today, everyone should keep a couple of bottles of this fortified wine in the cellar. And we are not talking about the wine to make zabaglione or tiramisu…
It is not a wine easy to approach, it is not a soft or banal wine, but if you give it a chance, you will find a masterpiece behind its splendid and decadent aromatic complexity. But above all, Marsala wine is not a simple sweet wine: of course, there are sweet Marsala wines, but also dry and semi-dry. So let’s not say it’s a dessert wine. It would be colossal nonsense.
Very trivially, Marsala wine is considered an Italian Port. History teaches us that Mr. Woodhouse, attracted by this powerful wine that resembled Port wine, added aqua vitae to transport it to England, thus giving rise to the myth of Marsala. Still, in reality, it is much more similar to the Spanish Sherry, either for the production method or for the flavors and aromas. But we will return to the history of this noble wine, now let’s move on to the production method.
How is Marsala wine made?
The bunches are harvested and vinified; then, there are various paths to take. You can add cooked must, brandy or brandy and cooked must or nothing if it is a Marsala Vergine. Its natural alcohol content is more than enough to reach 18 degrees.
Once the wine is ready, it is left to rest in 400-liter barrels, stacked in 3 rows placed one on top of the other: yes, it’s the soleras method! As the harvests alternate, the wine passes from a higher level to a lower one. In the meantime, it is reduced, oxidized and concentrated. Obviously, the barrels are only 3/4 filled to allow the cellarmen to fill the barrels with more wine. When it reaches the base, it is ready and is taken and bottled. And so the cycle continues indefinitely and each vintage mixes to create an incredible and complex symphony.
The flavors and aromas of Marsala are defined as “marsalati,” sherried or maderized. This means that oxygen has changed the aromaticity of the wine: they are those typical aromas of hazelnuts, dried fruit and spices, called nutty in English. Macallan and Glenmorangie lovers know what we are talking about.
And all this is thanks to the excellent sugar content of the wine, to the imposing structure of the base wine, which does not always need cooked must or additional alcohol. So as you can see, Marsala is a world, not a wine. It is a tradition and a way of living and interpreting a territory. Like for Sherry, the sea with its breezes influences the maturation of the wine and although there is no flor, the famous mold that covers the wine, the flavor of Marsala is fabulous. A mix of spicy, ripe, herbaceous and salty flavors swirl and create addiction. But to understand better, let’s see how the various types of Marsala have been divided.
Types of wine and grapes used to produce Marsala
First of all, the subdivision given by the color changes the pigmentation but also the vines with which they are produced: Oro and Ambra are made with the main white grape varieties, namely Grillo, Cataratto, Ansonica and Damaschino. While Perricone, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese are used for Marsala Rubino.
Having made this distinction, we move on to processing and adding mistella, must or alcohol. The mistella is cooked must to which aqua vitae has been added.
Marsala Fine, the first step: it has 17 degrees and must be aged for at least 1 year. Dry, semi-dry or sweet. The wine is aromatic spicy, but not too elaborate.
Marsala Superiore, 18 degrees of alcohol, 124 months of barrel aging and also, in this case, it is available in dry, semi-dry and sweet versions. Here we begin to think: the bouquet is large and complex with suggestions of candied citrus fruits, anise, spices and a certain elegance.
Marsala Superiore Riserva is an excellent and structured superior that deserves further aging in wood to enhance its aroma: 48 months of aging in wood.
Marsala Vergine or Soleras: we get to the heart of our beloved wine. Here the wine has undergone strong oxidation and thanks to the passage between various barrels and other vintages. It develops a crazy aromatic charge. The aromas are intense, pungent, floral, with spices, licorice, and cinnamon. The fruit has become caramelized but never cloying since a marine tension on the palate is always perceived. Attention Marsala Vergine is never sweet. It stays under 40 grams of sugar per liter. You can also drink it as an aperitif, with fish or seafood, just like Sherry.
Marsala Vergine Stravecchio or Riserva. When a wine is particularly deserving, it is left to rest for up to 120 months, ten years in cask.
Organoleptic characteristics of Marsala
We talked about scents like caramel, honey, candied fruit, and spices, but the flavor is mesmerizing. Indeed if you have never tasted it, it’s is an unsettling experience. The aptest term is used by the British to describe Sherry and the whiskeys they age in old Jerez casks: nutty.
We could define nutty, of dried fruit such as walnuts, almonds and all those in the world. And this is its distinctive feature: a blend of sweet, bitter, herbaceous aromas and flavors with a decadent fruit in the background. And we’re not talking about egg Marsala for cooking. The real Marsala is another planet.
Its peculiarity is the freshness that mixes with the aromatic richness, but it is never redundant or heavy, but it moves sharply, hops on toes like a boxer and gives you a few jabs on your nose. It is not a bland or codified wine but a living being. Taste Marsala and broaden the boundaries of your palate.
The history of Marsala
The port of Marsala has always been a crucial hub since the time of the Phoenicians, who first introduced viticulture to Sicily. Then came the Greeks and Romans, but Marsala wines always remained in vogue, thanks to their innate strength due to an impressive sugar content.
The practice of tanning wines, added to cooked must and then evaporate them, dates back to Roman times. At the end of 1700 the merchant Woodhouse, decided to send some barrels of Marsala wine to England, but to prevent the wine from deteriorating, he added a good dose of brandy.
From that moment the myth was born and Marsala has become over the years one of the most sought after and successful fortified wines.
Structure, alcohol and spicy suggestions: all characteristics that invite difficult combinations such as chocolate, whiskey truffles, donuts with bacon and maple syrup, but also rich desserts such as Sicilian cannoli with ricotta, candied fruit and pistachios; Tuscan cantucci, tiramisu, apple pie, creme brùlée.
If it is a dry Marsala Fino, combine it with Sicilian seafood.