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Tom Strenk

Poised for a Comeback

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Once prized among the finest fortified wines of Europe, Marsala was relegated to a cooking wine in the U.S. Can it appeal to the American market?
By Tom Strenk May 2011 Beer

I love fortified wines—Port, Madeira, and Sherry—and it was a delight to recently discover a new one: Marsala.

The wine’s inviting bouquet smells of almonds and honey with a touch of lemon. The taste is rich and complex: figs and briny olives with a long nutty finish. The slight sweetness is balanced by good acidity.

During a visit to Sicily last month, I had the pleasure of tasting a Marsala Superiore Riserva made by Caruso & Minini in its 19th century wine cellar. Although the firm produces a large and excellent portfolio of table wines, its heart is in Marsala.

“Marsala is my love, my passion,” says Leonardo Nicotra, direttore commercial for Caruso & Minini. The company will begin distributing this Superiore Riserva in the U.S. next year.

Italy’s most celebrated fortified wine, Marsala was greatly acclaimed in the 19th century. It was considered on a par with Madeira, Port, and Sherry. In the 20th century Marsala’s golden status faltered. Modern agricultural methods led to higher grape yields. Quantity ruled over quality. To correct this, DOC regulations for Marsala were revised in 1984, reducing yields. Producers large and small refocused on tradition and excellence. And today the wine is regaining some of its former glory, especially in Italy and parts of Europe.

Although it has lost some of its luster in the U.S. and is not widely known, Marsala can still be a world-class wine, well worth the effort to educate yourself, your staff, and your customers to its unusual delights.

On-premise

In America Marsala is often used as a sauce for veal, chicken, and zabaglione, the frothy dessert of egg yolks, wine, and sugar.

“Marsala is one of the great secrets of Italy, but it’s not very well introduced into this country yet,” says Pietro Migliaccio, proprietor of Café Gabbiano in Sarasota, Florida. “Here it’s mainly for cooking. Customers are not so much used to drinking Marsala in America,” he concedes, “but in Europe, absolutely.”

For Italophile customers, Migliaccio serves dry Sperone Marsala, chilled and straight up as an aperitif or with cheese or biscotti after dinner.

A complex wine, Marsala needs the same hand selling as a fine Port or superior Sherry and has an intriguing back-story with a great taste to back that up.

Ancient Roots

The ancient city of Marsala on Sicily’s westernmost coast absorbed the influences of its numerous conquerors. The Arabs called the harbor city, Mars el’Allah, or Port of God. Under the Greeks, viticulture flourished and the island produced some of the finest wines of the ancient world. But Sicily’s most famous wine was developed in the 18th century.

In 1773, a storm forced English merchant John Woodhouse to the safe harbor of Marsala where he discovered the local wine. He shipped some back to England where it was a great success, beloved by the British upper class.In 1832, CalabrianVincenzo Florio established a cellar in Marsala; today, the house of Florio is the largest and most important producer. Other top houses include Pellegrino, Lombardo, and artisanal producer Marco De Bartoli, who is leading Marsala’s renaissance.

Complex Production

Modern Marsala is made in a number of styles and from both white and red grapes. White varietals include Grillo, Insolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino, which produce Marsala Oro (gold) and Ambra (amber). Marsala Rubino (ruby) is made from red varieties Pignatello, Nero d’Avola, and Nerello Mascalese, blended with up to 30 percent of the white grapes.

During vinification, brandy is added to the wine. Alternatively, mistella (grape must blended with the alcohol) adds sweetness and aroma. Marsala is classified by sweetness, from secco(dry) to semisecco(semi-sweet), and dolce (sweet).

Another unusual factor in Marsala production is a cask-aging system called perpetuum, similar to Sherry’s Solera. New wines are placed in the top tier of barrels, while the aged wines are drawn for bottling from casks in the lowest tier. Casks are replenished from the next barrel up; in theory, each bottle contains some of the oldest wine in the Perpetuum. Oxidation during aging creates depth and enhances longevity—great Marsalas can age gracefully for half a century or more.

Aging falls into five categories: Fine Marsala is aged for one year; Superiore, two years; Superiore Riserva, four years; Vergine or Solera, five years; and Vergine/Solera Stravecchio, 10 or more years. For the much-prized Marsala Vergine, it is always fermented dry, and grape must (freshly pressed grapes, with the juice and skins and sometimes seeds and stems) is never added.

As for Marsala’s future in the U.S., Migliaccio sees parallels in other great Italian wines like Brunello and Amarone. Unknown to most Americans until recently, they now enjoy popularity in this country, thanks to well-traveled and better-educated consumers.

“It could be the same with Marsala,” the restaurateur says.