Marsala Wine: Capitalism’s Bastard Child

Date November 14, 2008

Learn About Marsala Wine

As with all the fortified wines we have discussed thus far, Marsala is no different in having been blended with grape spirits to preserve it on long sea voyages. That tradition was already long established with Port, Madeira and Sherry. But it wasn’t until 1773 that Marsala was picked up on by a Brit named John Woodhouse who already knowing the astounding successes of the other fortified wines in cold rainy England jumped at the chance to line his pockets with the undoubted wealth commercializing Marsala wine would bring him. And damn if he wasn’t right. He fortified the Marsala, shipped it back to England and over the next two centuries opportunistic Marsala firms moved in and bastardized Sicily’s most famous wine to the gutter spillage we think of only as a cooking supplement today.

The port city of Marsala sits in the western tip of Sicily straddled by flatland vineyards producing Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia white wine grapes.

  • Catarratto: can make full bodied wines with lemon notes
  • Grillo: is golden in color, rich, full bodied with soft “oxidative” qualities of roasted nuts
  • Inzolia: makes a full-bodied white also golden in color with fresh, floral notes similar to Viognier

Marsala wine itself comes in three types: oro, a golden colored Marsala, ambra, an amber colored Marsala and rubino, a ruby colored Marsala that is extremely hard to find. Within each type are three styles or levels of sweetness: dry, called Secco, semi-sweet, called Semisecco, and very sweet, or Dolce.

To top it off each style can be classified by the aging regimen the Marsala goes through. These are as follows:

  • Fine Marsala: aged a minimum of one year
  • Superiore: aged for at least two years
  • Superiore Riserva: aged four years or more
  • Vergine or Solera: aged in cask for a minimum of five years employing a solera system
  • Vergine Stravecchio Riserva: a dry wine requiring a minimum ten years in cask

A note about Solera. At its basic a solera is a pyramidal system of wine casks containing wines of different ages with the oldest wines on the bottom. When the wine reaches a suitable age it is removed from the bottom barrels and bottled. The wine taken from the bottom barrels is then replaced with newer wines from the barrels directly above them. This is done all the way up until there is room for a new vintage in the topmost barrels.

The various ways Marsalas are made are too lengthy for a single post and could probably fill a book on its own as each style has its own production notes. But the finest Marsalas, like Sherries, are produced using the solera system. That said, I will end this post on Marsala wine and conclude my series on fortified wines.

If you missed the previous posts you can find them here:

Fortified Wine




There you go and now I think it’s time to fortify myself with a nice glass of Graham’s Late-Bottled Vintage Port, satisfied with the results of my endeavor to help you learn about wine. </smugness>

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