Wine Culture and Information - Volume 12
Home Page About Us:Write Us:Distribution:Back Issues:Advertising:Index 
Events Polls Serving Wine EnoForum EnoGames Wine Places Aquavitae Wine Guide


 Editorial  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 30, May 2005   
MarsalaMarsala  Contents 
Issue 29, April 2005 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 31, June 2005

Marsala

The great Sicilian wine which made the history of Italian and worldwide enology, after ups and downs, in the last twenty years is finally reviving the events of its renowned and important past

 Despite the recent history of Sicilian enology is made of table wines, in particular reds, the fame of this region is essentially associated to a wine - complex and rich - whose history set its root in truly ancient times. Marsala, which is named after the homonymous port city in the province of Trapani, in the south-western coast of Sicily, is one of the few wines which have arrived to our days after having passed centuries of history. A history - the one of Marsala - which lived high moments of glory, as well as sad and decaying moments of oblivion, a precious and noble wine, present in the glasses of the most refined connoisseurs, which has also lived such a decay as to consider it, in the best cases, an ordinary kitchen wine. From a not truly noble recent past, Marsala - thanks to the will and passion of serious producers - has today become again a great wine, rich, complex and full of emotions, an excellent wine capable of surprising both when tasted alone as well as matched to many foods.

 

History of Marsala

 Tradition tells about an English merchant - John Woodhouse - who was in Marsala and discovered the local wine, then he decided to ship it in his homeland and from that moment began the great history of Marsala wine. This is the story everyone knows and which certainly tells facts really happened as well as proved by some documents. Indeed the history of Marsala should be completed by also remembering the essential origins of this wine, already known since the times of ancient Romans. Whether it is true John Woodhouse had the idea of fortifying Marsala - therefore defining the character of Marsala the way we know it today - it should be remembered Pliny the Elder cited in his works Mamertino, the renowned wine which can be considered as the ancestor of Marsala. Despite the indisputable merits of the famous English merchant on the destiny of Marsala, he was not even the first one to export this wine outside the borders of the beautiful island of Sicily. The painter Pier Paolo Rubens, enchanted by this particular wine, at the end of his stay in Italy - from 1600 to 1608 - brought some Marsala with him at Anverse.


The production area of Marsala
The production area of Marsala

 Since the times of ancient Romans was known a strong and conciato wine produced in the territory of Marsala, a wine which certainly is to be considered as the most probable ancestor of Marsala as the “concia” technique is still used for the production of this wine. Concia is a wine making technique which was very common at the times of ancient Romans consisting in adding some cooked must to a wine, to allow its evaporation until it reduces its volume of more than one third. After periods of alternate events and fortunes, the real change for Marsala happened in 1773 when the English merchant John Woodhouse - it seems because of a storm - was forced to land his ship Elizabeth in the port of Marsala. After a visit to the local taverns, Woodhouse tried the wine which was produced in this city and he realized the similarities with the other renowned wines of those times and that were so successful in England. His commercial skill let him realize he could make huge profits out of this wine. It was more likely the wine which Woodhouse drunk was the famous Perpetuo - the father of modern Marsala - a wine aged in cask for more than 40 years and which was directly drawn off from the cask, while filling the drawn part with other aged wine.

 As John Woodhouse spent some time at Malaga where he learnt the technique of Moutain wine, he thought about using the same methods for the local wine of Marsala. He decided to ship some pipes of Marsala - casks having a volume of about 420 liters (110 gallons) - in England, without specifying what wine was. In order to have the wine to better stand to the stress of such a long journey, he decided to add about 8 liters of wine brandy - corresponding to about 2% - therefore defining the modern recipe for Marsala. When the ship arrived in its homeland, the English thought it was Port wine and the success was so high Woodhouse decided to move to Marsala and to start a flourishing wine making business. To support him, arrived in Sicily his brothers who, after having bought vineyards and wineries, invested a huge amount of money for the construction of the port of Marsala including the connection with the city. In other words they set everything in order to ensure the best productive and commercial condition for that wine which, in a sense, they discovered and that from Marsala become successful in every country of the world.

 However they also ensured good conditions for all the others who came to Marsala after them. The first one was Benjamin Ingham who established his winery near the one of Woodhouse. Ingham was described as a man having a real talent in using the intuitions of others while introducing improvements and the same did with Marsala. The success of Sicilian wine transformed Ingham from a fabric merchant to a talented Marsala producer and he had the merit - among the many - for having exported Marsala outside the European borders to Australia and to the American continent. He was also involved, since the very beginning of his business, to the improvement of the production techniques, from vineyard to bottling, and he also wrote a decalogue which must be scrupulously followed in every production stage. Benjamin Ingham also had the merit for introducing in Marsala - by importing it from Jerez - the Soleras y Criaderas system with which were obtained huge improvements for the quality of Marsala wine. Ingham had no direct heirs, therefore when he passed away and according to his will, his wine empire passed in the hands of Joseph Whitaker, another important name for the history of Marsala.

 It was only in 1832 an Italian finally entered the Marsala scene. Vincenzo Florio - who was from Bagnara Calabra and who owned an important commercial naval fleet - decided to invest on wine and he did it by being involved in that new wine which was so similar to the renowned Madera. He established his winery between the ones of Woodhouse and Ingham, and he was so successful he soon bought the Ingham's winery. After Vincenzo Florio other historical families were involved in the production of Marsala and among the many are mentioned Rallo (1860), Martinez (1866), Curatolo Arini (1875), Carlo Pellegrino (1880), Lombardo (1881) and Mirabella (1927). After a long period of success, also witnessed by the preferences of illustrious men such as admiral Horace Nelson and Giuseppe Garibaldi, Marsala faced in the course of 1900's a progressive decay which completely destroyed its high quality and fame. From a precious wine it became a wine considered, in the best cases, suited for cooking only, the result of wrong productive choices and deprecable speculations. It will be only after the 1980's - also thanks to the formulation of a better law which regulates its production - that Marsala reached again the high levels of the past, therefore giving back to the joy of connoisseurs a great, magnificent wine, unique and amazing like few others.

 

Classification of Marsala

 Marsala is a fortified wine, that is a wine to which is added some wine brandy during production. According to the Italian quality system, Marsala is a Denominazione d'Origine Controllata wine (DOC, Denomination of Controlled origin) whose production is regulated by a specific disciplinary (law n. 851 of November 28th, 1984) in which are defined the types and the characteristics of each style. Marsala is in fact produced in many styles - each one being produced in other different styles - and that can also be classified according to sweetness. Despite the scarce interest that for years characterized this wine, Marsala is a very complex wine, both in the production and - above all - in tasting, probably like few other wines in the world. Talking about Marsala means - first of all - clearly specifying the style, as every Marsala can be considered as a world of itself.


 

 Before discussing the classification of Marsala, it is opportune to talk about the area in which this extraordinary wine is being produced. Marsala - according to its disciplinary - can be made in the whole province of Trapani with the exclusion of the communes of Alcamo, Favignana and Pantelleria. By considering the many styles in which the wonderful Marsala is being produced, it is good to proceed by mentioning the primary categories. Marsala - according to the way it is produced - is classified into Ambra (amber), Oro (gold) and Rubino (Ruby). This first classification also defines - as a matter of fact - the grapes allowed for the production. Marsala Ambra and Oro are produced with white berried grapes and precisely Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia and Damaschino, alone or in different percentages. Marsala Rubino is produced with red berried grapes and precisely Pignatello, Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese to which can also be added - and for a maximum of 30% - the white berried grapes allowed for the previous categories.

 The other important classification for Marsala is determined by aging and the alcohol volume, and precisely: Marsala Fine (Fine Marsala), minimum aging of 1 year and a minimum of 17% alcohol volume; Marsala Superiore (Superior Marsala), minimum aging of 2 years and a minimum of 18% alcohol volume; Marsala Superiore Riserva (Superior Reserve Marsala), minimum aging of 4 years and a minimum of 18% alcohol volume; Marsala Vergine or Soleras (Virgin or Soleras Marsala), minimum aging of 5 years and a minimum of 18% alcohol volume; Marsala Vergine Stravecchio o Riserva (Virgin Very Old Marsala or Reserve), minimum aging of 10 years and a minimum of 18% alcohol volume. Some categories of Marsala can also have special historical indications, a custom - it should be remembered - less and less used. In Marsala Fine it can be used the acronym I.P. (Italia Particolare, Italy Particular), whereas in Marsala Superiore can be used S.O.M. (Superior Old Marsala), G.D. (Garibaldi Dolce, Garibaldi Sweet) and L.P. (London Particular).

 Finally, the last detail about the classification of Marsala is about sweetness, a quality which is defined by the quantity of residual sugar present in the wine. It is defined as Secco (dry) a Marsala having a quantity of residual sugar lesser than 40 grams per liter; Semisecco (demi-sec) with residual sugar from 40 and 100 grams per liter; Dolce (sweet) when the quantity of residual sugar is greater than 100 grams per liter. The sweetness in Marsala is defined by the production technique and in particular by the quantity of mosto cotto (cooked must) and/or sifone (mistelle), ingredients which are, for example, forbidden in the production of Marsala Vergine and therefore this style can exists in the secco (dry) version only. By combining the many categories can be obtained Marsala in different styles. For example, a Marsala Superiore can be produced both in the Ambra and Oro styles, as well as in the Secco, Semisecco or Dolce styles. The definition of these categories is always mentioned in the label and - generally speaking - represents the specific name of the wine, such as Marsala Superiore Oro Secco or Marsala Superiore Ambra Semisecco.

 

Production of Marsala

 Marsala is traditionally produced with white berried grapes - Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto and Damaschino - and only in recent times has been introduced the one from red grapes - the Rubino - produced with Pignatello, Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese. Among the white berried grapes used for the production of this wine, the most noble one certainly is Grillo, responsible for the best and valuable Marsala Vergine. Catarratto is generally used to give aromas, just like Inzolia. The main difference between Marsala Ambra and Oro is represented by concia, that is the ancient practice of adding cooked must to the wine, responsible for the amber color - hence the name - and for sweetness. Cooked must is generally produced with the must of Catarratto grapes that, after having been heated (cooked) in copper boilers for about 24 hours, its volume is reduced for more than its half. Before adding it to wines, cooked must is usually aged, a procedure which also improves its characteristics. Sifone (or mistelle) is obtained by Grillo grape must from late harvest and opportunely dried. To the must is added wine brandy in order to avoid any fermentation, while keeping sweetness. It is good to remember the use of cooked must is allowed in Marsala Ambra only, whereas it is forbidden in Marsala Oro and Rubino.

 The production of Marsala begins with the fermentation of the must and since this preliminary procedures, the appropriate techniques are used according to the style to be obtained. In Marsala Semisecco and Dolce, the fermentation is interrupted when the appropriate quantity of residual sugar is reached, by adding wine brandy. During this phase - and according to the category - it can also be added cooked must or sifone in order to define both the color and the sweetness. Fortification of Marsala Vergine is done at the end of fermentation. It is good to remember that in this type of wine is not allowed the adding of cooked must or sifone: a characteristic which explains the origin of the vergine name. After having obtained the base wine according to the style to be produced, Marsala is transferred in casks where it will begin the aging according to the category. Marsala Vergine can also be produced by using the Soleras y Criaderas system - imported from Spain by Benjamin Ingham - a characteristic which is mentioned in the label. Marsala is an extraordinary wine - unique in the world - and which always requires the taster to use all of his or her attention in order to understand it fully. Marsala is not a wine to be appreciated absent-minded: its vast and rich world of complex aromas, of strong flavors, make this wine one of the most amazing pleasure a glass can give.

 




 Editorial  Share this article   Share on Google+   Summary of ABC Wine column Wine Tasting 
  ABC Wine Issue 30, May 2005   
MarsalaMarsala  Contents 
DiWineTaste Polls
When you are about to choose a wine, at the restaurant or a shop, do you usually have a clear idea?


Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   Share on Google+ 
In choosing a wine, how much important is it the appellation?


Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   Share on Google+ 
What kind of wine do you like having in April?


Result   Other Polls

 Share this poll   Share on Google+ 


Events Polls Serving Wine EnoForum EnoGames Wine Places Aquavitae Wine Guide
Home Page About Us:Write Us:Distribution:Back Issues:Advertising:Index 

Download your free DiWineTaste Card  :  Test your Blood Alcohol Content  :  Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on Twitter

Download DiWineTaste
Copyright © 2002-2014 Antonello Biancalana, DiWineTaste - All rights reserved
All rights reserved under international copyright conventions. No part of this publication and of this WEB site may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from DiWineTaste.