To some people, the name Marsala wine may conjure up images of curry and spices. It’s an understandable mistake. After all, the name comes very close to the Masala mixture of spices that emanates from Asia. Perhaps this is a spicy wine so names because it has similar undertones to that very dish.
We’re afraid that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the Marsala wine has absolutely nothing to do with the Masala dish, no matter how similar the names may sound.
So, what is it? That, dear reader, is a question that we’re going to answer over the course of this article. Let’s take a journey to Marsala to find out what makes its wine so unique.
As we implied above, the Marsala wine is so named because of the region that it comes from. A small city in Sicily, Marsala has made the wine for several centuries. In fact, it’s one of the ones that Sicily is most renowned for, though it perhaps doesn’t receive the same level of acclaim as some of the more famous wines to come from the region.
As for the wine itself, it can come in a couple of varieties. Typically, you’ll find that it’s either sweet or dry. We’ll get to those different versions in a little while, but let’s explore the wine’s current status a little more first.
The wine has carried the DOC status since 1969, which means that there are strict rules about what a Marsala wine can contain and where it can originates.
There are also some differences between the wines that Sicilian natives drink and the Marsala wine that gets exported outside of Italy. You see, the Marsala that most outside of Italy drink is actually a fortified wine. Much like Port or Sherry, it has a sweeter taste than you may expect from an Italian wine. However, there are versions of Marsala wine that are made in a more traditional fashion. Some people from the city favour this wine, but it’s a little harder to get your hands on that the fortified version. Still, the right sources can point you in its direction.
As with many other fortified wines, the fortification process was originally used to allow the wine to survive long journeys overseas. However, that same process has stuck with the wine since. In fact, many outside of Italy aren’t aware that there are unfortified Marsala wines to be tried.
So, what’s the story behind the wine?
As is often the case in the Italian wine industry, the story of Marsala wine is shrouded in a little mystery. Experts can’t agree on when the fortified version of the wine was first made. However, many believe that an Englishman named John Woodhouse is the reason why it gained so much popularity overseas.
Records show that he arrived in Marsala in 1773 and quickly took to sampling the local wines of the region. That’s when he discovered the wine and was delighted to find that it tasted fairly similar to the Portuguese and Spanish fortified wines that he had tried before.
He took to learning more about the production process. This led to him learning about how the higher alcohol volume of fortified wines allows them to maintain their taste over long sea voyages.
Believing that the wine could become popular in his native country, Woodhouse decided to bring some back with him. Little did he know how successful the wine would prove. Demand for Marsala wine grew so strong that Woodhouse was soon making regular trips to Marsala to buy more. He eventually returned to Sicily to plant the seeds for the mass production that would be needed to ensure the supply of the wine meet the demand he had discovered.
But he wasn’t the only one who took responsibility for the wine’s popularity. Another Englishman named Benjamin Ingham discovered the wine about 30 years later. He took it even further afield than Woodhouse. Because of him, Marsala wines found new markets throughout Europe and even managed to enter the Americas.
Finally, there is Vincenzo Florio. A Calabrese native, Florio was an entrepreneur who recognised the great potential that the Marsala wine has. In 1833, he started buying huge amounts of land in the region with the intention of planting more exclusive varieties of the grape. His efforts culminated in his purchase of the company that Woodhouse had set up to mass produce the grape. Alongside other purchases, he eventually became the leading producer of Marsala wine. In fact, the Florio brand of Marsala is still one of the most popular in the world today.
The wine actually uses a large number of grape varieties to achieve its distinctive taste. Among the red varieties are Inzolia, Catarratto, Grillo, and Damaschino. However, producers may also add a number of white varieties into the mix.
Typically, the wines will have a volume that falls between 15% and 20%. They also carry different classifications based on their age, colouring, and sweetness. In fact, there are three sweetness levels: secco, semisecco, and sweet. The latter is the sweetest of the three, but even seco contains 40g of sugar per litre of wine.
As a fortified wine, Marsala has found various uses over the years. Many treat it as an aperitif to be consumed before meals. Its sweetness often serves to cleanse the palate between the first and second course of a large meal. Yet others enjoy the dryer varieties of the wine with various cheeses.
However, it’s also a popular cooking wine, particular in US-based Italian restaurants. Dry Marsala wine often finds its way into savoury dishes, whereas the sweeter varieties aid in the creation of some wonderful Italian desserts.
The Final Word
As you can see, Marsala is an interesting wine with a fine pedigree. It’s versatile too. While you may want to buy a bottle to drink, you can also use it to lend flavour to a dish.
Why not try Marsala wine today and find out more about what has made this Italian wine so popular for so many years?