It might come as a surprise to Marsala wine lovers that it is the British who were responsible for introducing the fortified wine to the masses. In 1773, John Woodhouse – a commercial trader from Liverpool, England – exported the wine to England to test the market. It was so successful that Woodhouse returned to Marsala in 1796 and began mass-producing the wine. Ten years later, Benjamin Ingham from Leeds, began his own Marsala production company, exporting it throughout Europe and North America.
“[The British] brought with them something even rarer in Sicily than capital: the spirit of enterprise, the understanding of commerce, the knowledge of markets and the ethos of industry and collaboration. They also brought a market-driven standard of consistency to Sicilian winemaking,” Di Savino and Nesto explain. In 1832, Vincenzo Florio Sr. bought land between Woodhouse and Ingham vineyards. Eventually, Florio bought out and merged both Woodhouse and Ingham’s companies. The Florio winery remains one of the leading producers of Marsala today. The European Union granted Marsala Denominazione di Origine Controllata status in 1969, used exclusively for wines produced in the Marsala regions and limited vineyards in the provinces of Agrigento and Palermo.
The wine owes its unique profile to Western Sicily’s warm, dry and windy climate. “It creates a perfect growing environment for densely planted vineyards of alberello bush vines. The steady western winds from the Mediterranean Sea give the ripening grapes a hint of salinity,” say Di Savino and Nesto. Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto and Damaschino white grapes produce oro and ambra dry and semi-sweet Marsala. The mosto cotto added to dry Marsala, gives ambra its golden colour. Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese red grapes result in sweet varieties. Marsala Fine and Superiore are aged for one and two years, respectively. The higher quality variety includes the Superiore Riserva (four years), Vergine (five years) and Vergine Riserva (10 years). Sweet Marsala has a fruity and sweet profile, while drier Marsala leaves subtle tobacco and liquorice notes on the palate.
A distinguishing feature of the wine is the vino perpetuo aging method. “It is called ‘perpetual’ because as wine is removed for consumption, younger wine is used to replenish the barrel – allowing the wine to ‘live on’ forever,” explain Di Savino and Nesto. Stored in oak barrels in a pyramid, the young wine is poured in at the top, percolating and refining through the barrels, as the matured wine is bottled from the bottom. “The vino perpetuo of Marsala is truly Sicilian in origin and expression. It should inspire true wine lovers in search of the authentic to rediscover Marsala in the twenty-first century,” attest Di Savino and Nesto.
Marsala’s versatility in Italian gastronomy makes it a staple that more consumers should take advantage of, says Karine Boudreau, sommelier at Il Fornetto restaurant in Lachine. “Marsala can be used in cocktail recipes or simply as an aperitif. It is mostly used in traditional Italian dishes, such as veal or chicken Marsala, but it is equally a must-have in desserts, like tiramisù or sabayon.” If you don’t have a sweet tooth, Boudreau recommends pairing dry Marsala with blue cheeses, such as gorgonzola and roquefort, and hard, robust cheeses like reggiano or pecorino. Di Savino and Nesto agree: “It’s a wine which pairs beautifully with a range of Sicilian cuisine and evokes the beauty and history of western Sicily.”