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Marsala – The Perfect Sipping Wine

What’s the first thought that comes to mind when we say the word Marsala.

You’ve probably started off with Italian wine, which it is of course. But from there, your mind starts going to all of the things that you’ve heard about Marsala wine in the past.

Principally, your mind’s telling you that Marsala is a cooking wine. It’s great for use in making all sorts of dishes. But as a wine that you actually drink?

No thank you!

That idea of Marsala is a common one that many people share. Yet, we would argue that it’s also an incorrect one. Marsala is much more than a wine that you use in cooking. It’s also more than the dessert wine that others may class it as.

As a standalone wine, a good Marsala is absolutely worth drinking.

And to explain why, let’s go on a journey through time…

The Fortified Wine That Was Perfect For Shipping

Marsala came to prominence back in the 1700s. The wine likely existed in various forms before then. But it was during this time that it first started to gain a reputation as the perfect shipping wine.

Note that we said “shipping” there.

You see, back in the 1700s, ship voyages could last weeks at a time. With no real systems in place to propel a vessel forward, beyond wind and oars, sea and ocean voyages could least weeks, or even months, at a time.

And that made drinking regular wine on such voyages almost impossible.

Whites couldn’t be kept chilled, which meant that they lost their structure. And though reds could be taken, they ran into two problems. The typically damp conditions on a ship meant that the wines lost their quality in fairly short order. And of course, an opened red must be consumed pretty quickly, especially in the days before vacuum technology allowed us to halt the oxidation process.

So, regular wine was off the table. But the men who went to see still wanted wines that they could drink during the voyage.

And that brings us to fortified wines.

Such wines have a sweeter flavour and higher alcohol content. However, they also last much longer than regular wines, both in storage and once opened. 

Marsala is one example of a fortified wine. And so it stands to reason that it would become a favourite of sailors on long voyages. But why Marsala instead of the many other fortified wines that existed at the time.

For the answer to that, we must look at its region of origin…

The Great Sicilian Wine

For those who don’t know, Sicily is a small island that sits off the southern coast of Italy. The region has gained fame over the years for being the supposed home base of the Mafia, or at least a major branch of it. But its status as an island means that it has always been something of a port city.

Marsala is a product of this famous region.

And so, the wine became popular amongst sailors due, in part, to it being one of the most readily accessible fortified wines they had. Or at least it was more accessible to Sicilian sailors. However, any ship that stopped in the islands ports would invariably come away with some Marsala for their later voyage.

But let’s fast forward into the 20th century now.

By this point, Sicily has gained a less than favourable reputation in the Italian wine industry. In fact, it’s so bad that many people view the wines that come out of the country as little more than table wines, at best.

This impression may have tainted Marsala too.

With ships no longer spending anywhere near as much time at sea, alongside new technology that allowed for better cooling and storage of wine, Marsala no longer enjoyed its reputation as a sailor’s favourite.

Couple that with the negative reputation of the island from which it came and you have the reasons for its decline in popularity.

As mentioned at the top of the article, people began to view Marsala as little more than a cooking wine. They believed that it was not suitable for drinking, at least in the sense that a normal wine would be. And so, it became a common ingredient in many dishes instead.

It was almost never the bride (the wine to drink). Instead, it would be the bridesmaid (the wine that adds an extra touch of flavour to a dish).

The Marsala Reality

This perception of Marsala still endures to this day. In fact, most of the people who you ask about the wine will default to saying that it’s good for cooking automatically.

We’d like to contend with that viewpoint.

We’ll say straight away that Marsala isn’t a wine that you’ll pair with most types of food. It’s fortified nature means that it’s likely too sweet for most meals. 

Of course, that’s if we ignore dessert.

Marsala has its place on the table because its sweetness makes it a perfect accompaniment to some of the sweeter and richer treats that you might experience.

But that’s not all.

We’d also argue that Marsala makes for a great sipping wine.

Note that we said “sipping” instead of “shipping” this time!

Imagine that you’ve just enjoyed a huge meal with your family. The plates are clean and you don’t think you could handle one more bite. That means dessert is off the table. And yet, you still have a hankering for something sweet.

A small glass of Marsala is the perfect tonic. 

It’s the perfect wine to sip and savour. And as you do, you’ll realise that this is not a wine that’s only suitable for cooking. It’s a wine that requires you to invest time into it and to not drink it as you would a regular Italian white or red wine. 

It’s a wine that rewards you for patience.

So the next time you see Marsala, don’t skip over it or think of it as little more than a cooking wine. With a little patience, you may just uncover your new favourite Italian wine.

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