Marsala wine is Italy's most famous version of fortified wine, hailing from Italy’s sunny southern region, Marsala is an ancient city on the coast of Sicily. Like its other fortified cousins - Port, Sherry, and Madeira, Marsala is a higher alcohol fortified wine (usually around 17- 20%) that is available in both sweet or dry variations. While Marsala wine is often recognized more for its use in various cooking and culinary combinations than its shipping status, this has not always been the case.
The History of Marsala Wine
During the early 1800s, England had a significant military contingent established in Marsala in response to Napolean and the French occupation of Italy. Consequently, as the British discovered the regional wine and wanted to ship it back to the homeland they employed the same strategy that they discovered for making Port in Portugal. This strategy basically consisted of adding a little grape brandy to the local still wine and voila you have a fortified wine that can endure the arduous adventure of ocean shipping without becoming unpalatable gut-rot in the process.
How is Marsala Wine Made?
Marsala is crafted from local, indigenous white grapes – like Catarratto, Grillo (the most sought after grape for Marsala production) or the highly aromatic Inzolia grape. The ruby-colored Marsalas hail from any combination of three local red grape varietals. The fermentation of Marsala is halted by the addition of a grape brandy when the residual sugar content reaches the pre-determined levels according to the sweet/dry style the maker is shooting for.
Similar to the solera system of blending various vintages of Sherry, Marsala often goes through a perpetual system, where a series of vintage blending takes place.
How Marsala Wine is Classified:
Marsala is generally classified according to its color, age, alcohol content, and sweetness/style.
Marsala Color Classifications:
- Ambra (Amber colored) – made with white grapes.
- Oro (Gold hues) – made with white grapes.
- Rubino (Ruby colored) – made with red grapes, like Pignatello or Nerello Mascalese.
Marsala Age Classifications:
- Marsala Fine – designates a Marsala wine that is aged for a minimum of one year. This is a typical cooking wine classification.
- Marsala Superiore – refers to a Marsala wine that has spent up to three years in oak, but has a baseline minimum of two years in wood.
- Marsala Superiore Riserva – has a minimum requirement of four years in oak and some producers will give it up to six years. This really starts the Marsala tier that you would look for to use as either an aperitif or dessert fortified wine option.
- Marsala Vergine – has a minimum aging requirement of five years and may go up to seven years in oak.
- Marsala Vergine Soleras – as the name implies is a Marsala blend of multiple vintages, with a minimum of five years of aging.
- Marsala Stravecchio – aged a minimum of 10 years in oak.
Marsala Alcohol Content:
The lowest aging classifications typically have the lowest alcohol content. For example, Marsala Fine is typically around 17% abv and the Superiore Riserva designation starts the alcohol content of 18%+ abv.
Marsala Sweet/Dry Style Designations:
Like other wine sweet/dry designations, Marsala shares the terms: Dolce (sweet – typically denotes a residual sugar content of 100+ grams of sugar per liter), Semi Secco (semi-sweet/demi-sec – typically between 50-100 grams of sugar per liter) and Secco (dry – has a res.
sugar content under the 40 grams per liter cut off). While Marsala is still known and loved as a cooking wine, in recent years the Italian wine designations have improved for this historic wine and as a result, Marsala has been gaining quality ground and catching glimpses of its former glory in the form of both an acclaimed aperitif and dessert wine.
Marsala Food Pairings:
Smoked meats, walnuts, almonds, assorted olives and soft goat cheese are good options for a dry (secco) Marsala. Opt for chocolate-based desserts and Roquefort cheese for a sweeter Marsala wine pairing. Or just whip up a tasty baked Chicken Marsala recipe and serve the same Marsala wine with the dish.
Marsala Producers to Try:
- Marco De Bartoli