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Saturday, April 3, 2021
Napoleonic Wars that kick-started the international demand for Marsala wine
However, until the British arrived, Marsala would have never contained spirit. The next generation of the Woodhouse family made a return visit to Sicily in 1787, determined to expand the market for this delicious wine style. Yet, it was the Napoleonic Wars that kick-started the international demand for Marsala wine. After Lord Nelson purchased a large quantity of Marsala, it inevitably became associated with naval tradition. This custom spread to wealthy households in the UK, and before too long, Port and Sherry had a serious rival.
Sadly, Marsala’s reputation hit rock bottom in the 20th century. Although Port and Sherry have both suffered from changing habits and evolving fashions, Marsala has struggled to regain its former cachet. The style was awarded its own DOC (appellation) in 1969, but unfortunately, the damage had already been done. Today, even aficionados of Port and Madeira regard Marsala as little more than a kitchen standby.
So what happened? As is so often the case, Marsala was no longer in vogue by the mid-20th century. Growers responded by cheapening their product; higher yields; less care in the winery; large amounts of chaptalization with cane sugar before bottling. As a result, Marsala’s new image was forged: heavily-sweetened plonk suitable only for cooking. A few quality-minded producers attempted to fight back and remained determined to make traditional Marsala for discerning palates. Nevertheless, their efforts were not generally recognized.
But there is hope. In the 20th century, Marsala seemed to be in the deepest of doldrums, but enthusiasts are slowly waking up to its charms. The top brands continue to release bottles of Marsala, which pay homage to this wonderful fortified wine style. Yet what ends up in your glass can vary enormously.
In fact, not all Marsala is made as a fortified wine, although most are. There is no catch-all definition of fortified wine, except that the alcoholic strength was increased by the addition of grape spirit at some stage in its creation. In Sicily, this usually happens after fermentation has occurred. Growers have up to ten grape varieties at their disposal, including the ubiquitous Catarratto, Grillo, Inzolia, Nerello Mascalese, and Damaschino. These are grapes that will probably never leave Sicily – save occasional experimentation – imbuing Marsala with a flavor profile that cannot be replicated. After fermentation and blending, the wine is fortified with spirit – and quite often sweetened – either with partially fermented grape juice or heated must. After that, the winemaker has numerous possibilities open to them. However, some owners prefer to fortify during the fermentation process. Others refuse to sweeten their wines before bottling.
Indeed, Marsala comes in all shapes and guises, ranging from relatively young wines to bottles released after more than 25 years. Some growers prefer to market young wines, known as fine (one year) or Superiore, which are matured for two years before release. Others specialize in making superior riserva styles (four years age) and vergine/soleras, which are matured for a minimum of five years in wood barrels. The top category is vergine or solera stravecchio. These beautiful examples will have been aged in barrel for at least a decade.
Marsala is also subject to a curious classification system not seen in other fortified-producing regions. The color and sugar content will be graded as ‘oro,’ ‘Ambra’ and ‘Rubino’ respectively, which describes the wine’s hue, ranging from deep golden to pinkish red. Like German and Austrian wine culture, Marsala’s producers also grade their wines according to sugar content. The categories are; secco (dry), semisecco (semi-sweet), and dolce (sweet).
Contemporary versions of this noble fortified wine can be magnificent, or they can be a depressing reminder that lazy outfits still churn out overly-sweetened, boring wines. In that sense, Marsala is arguably the most polarized of all the great Italian wine styles. Leading firm Buffa has shown a remarkable commitment to promoting high-quality Marsala, as has Pellegrino and Bartoli. The latter prefers to work outside of the DOC framework for some of its top labels, including Vecchio Samperi and Vigna la Miccia. Vecchio Samperi is probably our favorite example of Marsala. It is a love letter to the styles of wine made before the practice of adding grape spirit became commonplace. A racy and complex unfortified wine, its heady aromas are exquisite and addictive. Aged in soleras for a long period of time, Samperi offers up notes of almonds, orange blossom, cinnamon, chocolate, and damson in the glass. Full-bodied and complex, it could occupy any space left by the best Port and Sherry wines. The sons of the former owner, Marco de Bartoli, also make a fantastic label called Ventennale, which is a blend of young and old vintages. Their DOC Marsalas are no less impressive. For a time, though, Bartoli almost stood alone.
Thankfully, a growing firmament of winemakers are now following suit. Marsala does not yet have a critical mass of high-quality labels; however, the situation is much improved compared to 15 years ago. If it is intelligently marketed and promoted, then Marsala’s astounding diversity of styles should find a welcome home in households again. At the very least, we implore you to experiment with different food pairings. Marsala is seldom outmatched at the dinner table.
Dry Marsala, served chilled, will really help your meal sing. Particularly if you’re serving both hard and soft cheeses – Parmesan and Stilton are our top personal choices. It’s the combination of rich texture and racy acidity, enabling Marsala to bring out the best in salty cheeses and foods like olives, nuts, and cured meats. But the possibilities are almost endless: Marsala is one of those wonderful wine styles which rarely clashes with gastronomy. Dry Marsala could match nearly any meat or fish, although we prefer the wine as an aperitif or post-dinner libation.
However, sweeter styles of Marsala will succeed where late-harvest Riesling wines and Sauternes can fail. A sweet bottle of Marsala can match any dessert, no matter how unctuous or decadent. Chocolate-based desserts are always a premier choice, simply because the pairing never fails. Sauternes tends to be overwhelmed by heavier sweet delicacies, but not so Marsala. We’ve seen gastronomes pair Tiramisu with sweet old Marsala and still come up for air. It is never outclassed.
The style also continues to thrive as an essential component of local gastronomy. Aficionados may regard this as sacrilege, but many of the world’s top chefs still consider Marsala an indispensable element in classical dishes. Who could resist poultry slowly cooked in Marsala wine, with shallots, garlic, mushrooms, and herbs providing the supporting act? After the sauce reaches a syrupy consistency, you add cream and all that’s left is a velvety, swarthy delight. The recipe also works well with pork tenderloin and fennel – braising a whole chicken in Marsala for hours provides a very sumptuous Sunday lunch. You’ll probably need two bottles: one for cooking, one for enjoying. Other recipes braise veal loins in Marsala, while we enjoy cooking fresh courgette and mushrooms in the wine before adding al dente penne pasta. Quick, simple, and to die for.
Marsala’s other famous contribution to Italian cooking is Zabaglione. It has perhaps fallen out of high fashion today, although we still see the dessert on restaurant menus across Italy. The beauty is its simplicity; Zabaglione brings together just three ingredients: egg yolks, caster sugar, and Marsala. All you need is a bowl, whisk, and some serving dishes. The end result is utterly delicious – both rich and refreshing. Zabaglione probably has Marsala to thank for that.
Marsala fortified wine was probably first popularized outside Sicily by the English trader John Woodhouse. In 1773, he landed at the port of Marsala and discovered the local wine produced in the region, which was aged in wooden casks and tasted similar to Spanish and Portuguese fortified wines then popular in England. Fortified Marsala was, and is, made using a process called in perpetuum, which is similar to the solera system used to produce Sherry in Jerez, Spain.
Woodhouse recognized that the in perpetuum process raised the alcohol level and alcoholic taste of this wine while also preserving these characteristics during long-distance sea travel. Woodhouse further believed that fortified Marsala would be popular in England. Marsala indeed proved so successful that Woodhouse returned to Sicily and, in 1796, began its mass production and commercialization. In 1806, it was Benjamin Ingham (1784–1861), arriving in Sicily from Leeds, who opened new markets for Marsala in Europe and the Americas. Founded by Benjamin Ingham and later run by Joseph Whitaker and William Ingham Whitaker of the Whitaker family. Joseph and his brother William Ingham Whitaker inherited vast vineyards and his great grandfather Ingham's banking empire. William Ingham Whitaker’s was married to Hon. Hilda Guilhermina Dundas, who was the daughter to Charles Saunders Melville Dundas, 6th Viscount Melville. William and Hilda had two children and left his fortune and estate Pylewell Park to his eldest daughter Lady Elspeth Grace Whitaker, 6th Marchioness of Northampton. Today, the current Baron Teynham, John Christopher Ingham Roper-Curzon lives in Pylewell Park with his family.
In 1833, the entrepreneur Vincenzo Florio, a Calabrese by birth and Palermitano by adoption, bought up great swathes of land between the two largest established Marsala producers and set to making his own vintage with even more exclusive range of grape.
Florio purchased Woodhouse's firm, among others, in the late nineteenth century and consolidated the Marsala wine industry. Florio and Pellegrino remain the leading producers of Marsala today.
Zibibbo is one of the rarest grapes in the world with a triple attitude: it is a wine grape, a table grape and a raisin grape. Its extraordinary adaptability is the main reason for a long history that dates back 5.000 years.
The scientific name of Zibibbo is Muscat of Alexandria: the name itself suggests that this grape variety was cultivated in ancient Egypt, either after being imported there or indigenously developed from trade contacts between the populations of the Fertile Crescent area.
Archaeological evidence suggests that winemaking existed during the Egypt’s first dynasty (3000-2890 B.C.) and greatly developed throughout time, as this beautiful picture found in the Tomb of Kakht at Thebes demonstrates.
The legend says that the Zibibbo was the grape that easier than others survived the Arabic domination: the Sicilian Arabs had the right to grow this vine for making raisins to enrich their super tasty culinary preparations, but did not disdain to make and drink good wine.
This grape grows today not only in Sicily, but also in different European Countries as well as in South Africa, California, Australia, and South America, with over 200 synonyms registered.
The most part of the Sicilian Zibibbo is cultivated in the province of Trapani. Pantelleria, a small island in the middle of the Mediterranean, has become part of the UNESCO World Heritage for the traditional viticulture methods still used for the vines’ training.
Thursday, April 1, 2021