Written by: Tim Edison

Updated on: June 12, 2022

What is Marsala Wine? [Understanding Sicily’s Finest Export]

Eager to learn about Marsala wine? Good, you're in the right place! We explain all things Marsala in our latest wine guide.

What Is Marsala Wine - Understanding The Goodness Of Sicily

Marsala wine is a unique fortified wine produced in the small town of Marsala, in the province of Trapani in Sicily. 

But understanding Marsala as a single wine is reductive.

It is obtained from different types of grapes and through different processes that determine the color, aroma, and flavor.

In our guide, we explain the history of Marsala, before explaining how it's made, and the different varieties that exist.

A Brief History of Sicilian Marsala Wine

According to legend, Marsala wine finds its origins in 1773 when merchant John Woodhouse docked in Marsala and tasted the local wine for the first time.

He found its taste to be surprisingly different to the majority of Italian wines, and had more in common with Spanish or Portuguese wines.

Marsala is made using a particular aging technique called the Solera method (translates to “in perpetuity”). This involves continuously adding newly produced wine to the oak barrels that contain already aged wine, to keep the flavors and aromas.

It is said that for Woodhouse, Marsala was love at first sip, so he decided to load barrels of wine on his boat to export the beverage to back England.

But for the wine to resist the long and harsh voyage on the sea, Woodhouse decided to enrich (fortify) the wine with spirit.

Related: We explain how to fortify wine in our guide.

This fortified Marsala had such a great success in the England’s market that Woodhouse decided to return to Sicily and start the production and merchandising of the wine, using the Soleras method for refining.

What is the Solera Method?

Solera is an aging process for wine used most commonly in Portugal and Spain. It is mainly used for the production of Port and Sherry.

It's basically a blending process where already filled wine barrels are periodically added to with more wine. This fractional blending technique means the finished wine is composed of wines of many different ages.

Marsala also benefits from this aging and fortifying method in which the oak barrels are placed on overlapping rows.

There are five different rows or layers; the first batch of wine is poured in the highest barrels and aged for a year. In the following year, a third of the content of the barrels is poured in the barrels on the level below and the new batch is poured in the highest barrels.

In the third year, a third of the wine in the second layer is poured in the barrels below, a third of the content of the first layer from the top is poured in the second layer, and the new wine is added on the top layer. The process continues for five years until the wine finally reaches the lowest level.

After a year of aging in the lowest level, this wine is bottled, while the process continues in the same way for the remaining barrels.

Before bottling, fortification is conducted by adding spirit or brandy to the aged wine.

A Short History of Marsala Production in Sicily

Marsala is one of the few Italian wines produced according to an imported method. That’s why local producers only became interested in Marsala wine about a century after its first creation when Vincenzo Florio started to compete with the English companies in 1833.

Vincenzo founded the Florio Winery and in only two decades, Florio Marsala surpassed (in terms of quality and credibility) the wine produced by Woodhouse.

The next step was the incorporation of the Woodhouse winery into Florio, and the local success of this wine inspired many local producers, such as Don Diego Rallo, Carlo Pellegrino, and Vito Curatolo Arini, to get involved in the production of Marsala wine.

In 1920, the famous Cinzano acquired Florio and several other factories, unifying the production of Marsala wine under the Florio brand.

Sadly, due to the war, Marsala and its wine went through a rough time. Counterfeits started to discredit the prestigious brand shortly after the First World War, that’s why in 1931, the wineries in the region took the first legal steps to protect Marsala wine from imitations.

The government agreed on the need to protect this beverage and set rules that established what could and what couldn’t be named Marsala.

In 1969, Marsala wine became the first Controlled Denomination of Origin (DOC) wine in Italy’s history.

marsala wine and glass

Marsala Wine Production Rules

Currently, Marsala wine is produced in the municipality of Marsala and throughout the province of Trapani, with the exceptions of the towns of Pantelleria, Alcamo, and Favignana. 

Depending on the color tonality, which is influenced by various factors such as the grapes used, the different processing methods and the aging duration, Marsala is distinguished into three categories: Gold, Amber, and Ruby.

A further classification of Marsala is made on its sugar content

There are three types of Marsala wine:

  • Sweet: with a sugar concentration higher than 100 grams/liter
  • Semi-Dry: with a sugar concentration between 40 and 100 grams per liter
  • Dry: with a sugar concentration of fewer than 400 grams per liter

According to the production method, we can distinguish between the various types:

  • Fine - tanned (description below) and aged for at least one year
  • Superiore - tanned and aged for at least two years
  • Superiore Riserva - tanned and aged for at least four years
  • Virgin or Soleras - non-tanned and aged for at least five years
  • Virgin Riserva or Soleras Stravecchio - non-tanned and aged for at least ten years

Tanned Marsala (Conciato in Italian) is wine that has had cooked grape must (Catarratto grapes) added to it to increase the level of tannin. This improves the aroma and adds sweetness to the final product.

Mistelle (Mistella) can also be added when tanning. This is obtained from late harvest Grillo grapes. These grapes are crushed in barrels that contain alcohol, usually brandy, which prevents fermentation. The addition of mistella gives a strong, sweet taste to the beverage.

Map of Sicily

Marsala Vines and Wine Aging

The production of white Marsala varieties is defined by the terms Gold and Amber.

These are made using only the prestigious white grape varieties: Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino. 

The Gold variety is obtained from fresh juice while the Amber variety is obtained from the cooked must.

Marsala Ruby is obtained from the black grape varieties Pignatello, Nero d’Avolato, Mascalese, and Nerello.

Some Ruby varieties are blended with white grapes, although the percentage of white grape juice can’t exceed 30%.

Marsala wine aging is variable and can last from one to ten years.

The complexity of flavor and aroma usually increases with age. But so does the price tag!

Marsala Wine Tasting Notes

Marsala Fine, produced in Gold and Amber varieties, has a color ranging from yellow to intense golden and amber. 

It is characterized by a persistent, typical scent that recalls the aromas of tobacco, wood and licorice, and a sweet, warm and intense flavor.

Marsala Fine Ruby is instead characterized by a strong ruby red color which with aging tends to get an amber shade. The aroma is intense and presents aromas of sour cherry jam and a hot flavor which is aromatic and rich.

The minimum alcohol concentration of both Fine types is 17% ABV.

Marsala Superior Gold or Amber has a transparent, bright color ranging from deep golden to amber yellow.

The scent is very persistent, harmonious, and complex, with a velvety, sweet taste characterized by a balanced structure.

The Ruby type presents an intense ruby red color which gradually becomes amber through aging.

Its aroma is intense and characterized by hints of dried flowers and fruits, with an aromatic, warm, harmonious, and rich flavor.

Superior Reserve has the same characteristics but is distinguished by a longer aging process.

Superior Marsalas have an alcohol concentration of at least 18% ABV.

Lastly, Marsala Virgin in the types Gold or Amber has a bright color with golden or yellow amber shades, an intense, persistent, and ethereal aroma; the flavor is typically warm, dry and intense, optimally balanced and with an imposing structure.

Marsala Virgin Ruby has a brilliant ruby red color; aging gives it orange and amber hues while the bouquet is intense, persistent and complex.

The flavor is velvety, dry, structured and wonderfully balanced. The minimum alcoholic content for Virgin and Virgin Reserve is at least 18% ABV.

Serving and Pairing Marsala Wine

All Marsala wine must be served in a tulip style glass with a tall stem. This fortified wine is considered one of the best dessert wines in the world and is perfect to pair with desserts, fruit, and many pastry specialties.

The recommended serving temperature is between 53.6 and 64.4°F.

In particular, we recommend combining Marsala Fine with biscuits, mignon pastry, and dried fruit.

Marsala Superiore is best paired with creamy pastries and fresh fruit.

Marsala Virgin, instead, pairs wonderfully with bakery products and savory pastries.

Marsala can also be served on its own; in this case, we recommend the Sweet or Semi-Dry varieties served at a temperature of about 60.8°F.

Marsala Virgin and Vintage Virgin, instead, have an optimal serving temperature between 53.6 and 57.2°F.

Besides being paired with dishes or served as an aperitif, Marsala wine is also a base ingredient in many savory dishes and desserts.

Italy’s classic zabaglione features Marsala, but many meat dishes can also benefit from this wine.

The classic scallops with Marsala are a fine example of how this fortified wine can enhance the taste of a dish.

Pies, roasts, but also the sweet Sicilian cannoli and many other desserts also include Marsala wine in their composition.

About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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