What is Marsala Wine? [Understanding Sicily’s Finest Export]
Eager to learn about Marsala wine? Good, you're in the right place! I explain all things Marsala in the latest Wine Turtle wine guide.
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 this guide, I 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: Learn 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 Solera method for refining.
Starting Marsala Wine Production in Italy
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.
What are the Different Types of Marsala Wine?
Whether you're a novice or a seasoned oenophile, embarking on the journey of understanding Marsala's styles is akin to uncovering layers of Sicilian heritage, piece by piece.
Each of these styles, offering different shades of Marsala's charm, is a distinct chapter in the story of this Sicilian marvel.
Whether you're uncorking a bottle of youthful Fine or savouring a mature Vergine Stravecchio, you're not merely sipping a wine, but experiencing the true spirit of Sicily.
Marsala DOC Production Rules
As we delve into the captivating world of Marsala, it's crucial to grasp the stringent production rules that this Sicilian masterpiece adheres to.
Each regulation contributes to the quintessential characteristics and quality that Marsala wines are celebrated for.
Marsala wine must be produced within the territory of Marsala, located in the province of Trapani in western Sicily. This includes the island of Pantelleria and the Egadi Islands.
This region, blessed with abundant sunshine, coastal breezes, and fertile soils, provides an ideal setting for the grapes used in Marsala production.
This geographical stipulation ensures that the wine reflects the unique terroir of this region.
Specific indigenous Sicilian grape varieties are approved for the production of Marsala DOC. White grape varieties such as Grillo, Catarratto, and Inzolia are most commonly used.
However, for the production of ruby Marsala, red varieties like Pignatello (also known as Perricone), Nero d'Avola, and Nerello Mascalese are employed.
Marsala is a fortified wine, meaning that grape spirit (usually a neutral grape brandy) is added during the winemaking process to increase the alcohol content.
This process also helps preserve the wine and gives Marsala its distinctive robust character.
Oxidation & Aging
One of the defining features of Marsala wine is the oxidative aging process.
Depending on the style of Marsala being produced, the aging period can range from a minimum of one year for Marsala Fine, up to ten years for Marsala Vergine Stravecchio or Riserva.
This aging contributes to the complexity and depth of flavors in Marsala wine.
According to the production method, we can distinguish between the various types:
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.
Color & Sweetness
The color of Marsala wine can be Oro (gold), Ambra (amber), or Rubino (ruby), depending on the grape varieties used, the different processing methods, and the aging duration.
The level of sweetness, determined by residual sugar, is categorized as Secco (dry), Semisecco (semi-dry), or Dolce (sweet).
These classifications allow for a broad range of styles to suit different palates and occasions.
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.
Marsala Wine Tasting Notes
Marsala wines are a sensory delight, offering a broad spectrum of flavors and aromas.
Each style presents its unique palette of tasting notes, with the diversity spanning from vibrant fruit to nuanced nutty profiles.
Let's explore the different styles of Marsala and their signature tasting notes.
How to Serve Marsala Wine
Serving Marsala wine in the right manner can dramatically enhance your tasting experience.
Here's how you can serve this Sicilian specialty at its best.
Pairing Food with Marsala Wine
The versatility of Marsala wine, spanning a range of styles and sweetness levels, makes it an exceptional partner for a variety of dishes.
Whether you're enjoying a glass as an aperitif, alongside the main course, or with dessert, there's a Marsala to suit every meal.
Cooking with Marsala Wine
Marsala wine, with its rich and distinctive flavor profile, is an excellent ingredient for cooking.
It lends depth, complexity, and a certain elegance to a variety of dishes. From savory meat recipes to decadent desserts, Marsala wine is a versatile kitchen companion.
Choosing a Marsala for Cooking
When selecting a Marsala wine for cooking, consider the flavor profile you want to impart to your dish.
Dry Marsala wines are typically used in savory dishes such as veal Marsala or risottos, while sweet Marsala wines are often used in desserts like tiramisu or zabaglione.
Remember, Marsala wines come in different styles, each with its unique character. For cooking purposes, Marsala Fine (both Oro and Ambra) is often a good choice given its balanced flavor profile and affordability.
How Much to Spend?
As a rule of thumb, it's advisable to cook with a wine that you would enjoy drinking.
That being said, you don't need to break the bank for a bottle of Marsala for cooking.
A bottle in the range of $15 to $20 should suffice for most recipes.
While you may not want to cook with a high-end Marsala Superiore Riserva, investing in a decent quality Marsala Fine can elevate your dish significantly compared to a "cooking wine" that may contain additives and extra salt.
Tips for Cooking with Marsala Wine
- 1Marsala is commonly used to deglaze a pan, drawing out the rich flavors from the cooked meat or vegetables.
- 2When creating a Marsala sauce, remember to allow the wine to simmer for a bit after adding it to your dish, which helps in reducing the alcohol content and concentrating the flavors.
- 3If a recipe calls for sweet Marsala and you only have dry Marsala on hand (or vice versa), you can make adjustments by adding a bit of sugar for sweetness or broth for savoriness.
- 4While Marsala is best known for its role in Italian dishes, don't hesitate to experiment. It can provide an interesting twist to various cuisines.