The Wines of Marsala

Historically, Sicily’s most famous wine, Marsala can be a delicious way to either start or end a meal. The best Marsalas are dry or off-dry with complex flavors and aromas resulting from extended aging in wood, sometimes done solera style. They compare favorably with other fortified wines like Port and Sherry. Unfortunately, their reputation in the US as a delicious cooking wine limits what many importers bring in. But with a little searching, one can find very fine ones by top notch producers like De Bartoli and Pellegrino. Their scarcity here is an excellent reason to visit the charming city of Marsala and its few remaining producers of quality fortified wine. Anyone who likes good wines should give quality Marsala a try. We provide reviews and recommendations at the end of this article.

MapMarsala is the invention of an Englishman, John Woodhouse, who landed on Sicily’s west coast in the late 18th century, tasted the local wine called Vino Perpetuo (Perpetuum), a wine aged in cask more than 40 years and drawn directly from cask. He realized he could fortify the wine to better withstand shipment and make a less costly version of Madeira since both labor and grapes were plentiful and cheap. The fact that in 1805 Thomas Jefferson purchased a barrel of Marsala is evidence of Woodhouse’s success.

While traveling in Sicily to prepare our report on The Wines of Sicily, we had the opportunity to taste several Marsala wines and to visit the oldest operating producer in Marsala, Florio. We give our assessments of these wines in tasting notes at the end of this article.

History of Marsala

Woodhouse may have invented modern, fortified Marsala, but both the Greeks and Romans knew of its predecessor. Pliny the Elder wrote about it, and the concia technique of adding cooked must to a wine (which is done in making Marsala) was used by the Romans.

Woodhouse was followed by other English merchants, especially Benjamin Ingham, and later, in 1832, by Vincenzo Florio, the first Sicilian producer of Marsala. By the late 19th century, there were 40 different producers, and by 1950 there were 226, many of whom capitalized on the popularity of Madeira by lowering its quality. Of course, this same tale—the bastardization of what was a high quality wine—has been told many times over in many different places. However, in the case of Marsala, lower quality (partly the result of substituting the high yielding, low sugar Catarratto grape for the superior, high acid, high sugar Grillo) combined with the changing consumer tastes had an almost fatal result. By 2010 only 15 Marsala producers remained, and much of what they sold was cheap wine for cooking.

StillAntique still for making grape spirits.

Woodhouse made Marsala as a fortified wine, and the regulations today sill require that grape spirits be added to the wine, although the Grillo grapes grown in the region can produce high sugars that result in alcohol levels as high as 17+ percent. Ingham’s contribution to Marsala was to introduce the solera system used to make Sherry in Spain. Today, one can find Marsalas that are vintage, solera, and non-vintage as well as wines of different sweetness and flavors. However, all Marsalas must be at least 18 percent alcohol. Marsala can only be made from grapes grown in the province of Trapani.

Regulations allow Marsala to be made of several white grape varieties: Grillo, Insolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino. There’s also the less common Rubino Marsala that is produced from red grapes: Pignatello, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. The high acidity of the Grillo grape makes it the preferred one for producing fine Marsala, while Catarrato and Insolia contribute aromatically. The vines are usually dry farmed and cultivated alberello (Sicilian head training) style. All fruit must come from the province of Trapani.

Making Marsala

Valpolicella VineyardThe barrel room at Florio

Marsala is made by creating a base wine from musts of late harvested Catarrato and Grillo with the addition of rectified concentrated grape juice to raise the alcohol level. Since Catarrato is lower alcohol than Grillo, it requires greater additions of grape juice. Catarrato also oxidizes rapidly, giving Marsala a dark color.

The finest Marsala wine is what today is called Marsala Vergine, which can have no additives other than grape spirits to the base wine. It must be aged at least five years in oak or cherry barrels. If aged another five years, it is labeled Vergine Riserva or Vergine Stravecchio. If made solera style, it is called Vergine Soleras.

The Fine and Superiore styles of Marsala have added flavoring and coloring. Sweeter versions of these wines are made by adding a sweet concotion called sifone, which is itself the product of adding grape spirits to fermenting wine. Cooked grape must and rectified concentrated grape juice are also often added to provide burnt sugar aromas and flavors as well as to increase sweetness. Fine Marsalas are aged one year, while Superiores are aged two years in barrel, and a Superiore Riserva spends four years in barrel. Marsalas are called secco (up to 40 grams RS), semisecco (40-100 g) and dolce (>100 g).

The Market for Marsala

ZebrasCurrently, Marsala produces about 75 thousand hl of DOC wine annually. About 30 percent of this is exported to, in order of importance, the US, England, Germany, and France. However, very little of this production (<1%) is Marsala Vergine, and it’s difficult to find the very best Marsalas outside of Italy. In the US, importers mostly bring in relatively inexpensive wines and almost never Marsala Vergine. A few importers do bring in Marsala Superiores of very good quality, some of which are reviewed below.

CanoliUnfortunately, Marsala’s reputation (in the US) as a cooking wine poses a challenge for selling premium Marsala at premium prices. For the foreseeable future, premium Marsala sales will be limited to the wine connoisseur who either already knows the wine or who is in pursuit of new wine adventures. Marsala has the colorful history, including the early 20th century Florio posters, that would likely make for successful ad campaigns.

We encourage readers to try some of the imported Marsala Superiores of top producers like Florio, De Bartoli and Pellegrino. And for those fortunate to travel to Sicily, by all means seek out the Marsala Vergine made by these and other top producers. Consume dry (Secco) versions of wines with cheeses, pastries or fruit. Sweet versions can also be paired with desserts. The Sicilian specialty dessert canola is a perfect accompaniment to Marsala.

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