Marsala: Bringing back a wine from the dead.

Marsala is a drink which is barely remembered today, even by those who drink fortified wines regularly.  Its major market is as a product sold cheaply for cooking with, mainly in Italy and France, often flavoured with other products like vanilla or eggs – or worse.  As an ingredient it adds richness to a sauce, maybe some nutty, torrified sweetness.  There is nothing wrong with chefs using it; but there is – or at least was – much more to the wine than that.

Marsala was developed by an English merchant, John Woodhouse, in 1773.   I avoid saying that he invented it because wine – rich, strong, wine – was already being made in this part of Sicily before Woodhouse arrived there; those old wines might merely have been made from grapes left to concentrate sugars late on the vine, or may be strengthened with mosto cotto – boiled (thus concentrated) grape juice making a kind of caramelised juice which could be added to the wine to sweeten it and add flavour.  What Woodhouse did was see how it could be marketed on the back of sherry, port and Madeira and – like those wines – be produced to a consistent style and standard, by careful fortification.  The Marsalese talk of their wine as being similar to Madeira, though to me the link to sherry is perhaps more useful. 

The fortification meant that the wine was able to travel to all corners of the British empire in rickety sailing ships without turning to vinegar.  By the end of the 19th century, on the back of both British merchants and some enterprising local producers the wine had become as well known as the other fortified wines.  Yet as recognition of its use as a cooking aid expanded, so its reputation declined.  Production was concentrated in larger companies with less connection to local viticultural traditions who mass produced cheap wines which were sold providing profits coming from volume sales with thin margins.  Most producers went out of business and the market for quality Marsala has dropped dramatically over the last century, to the point where it is almost an extinct wine.

Almost, but not quite.  A few still want to make a wine which continues to reflect its old reputation.  Some of these have a foot in both camps – the volume and the quality.  A small number are still the standard bearers for the latter, trying to keep the body alive before it dies, or maybe resuscitate it so that it can live again.

One of the most well-known of these ‘resuscitators’ is the firm Marco de Bartoli.  The eponymous founder had his roots in the marsala establishment, but decided, in 1980, that he wanted to rediscover the old styles of the wine, made to be drunk rather than just used as a condiment in the kitchen.  It was a difficult process, which produced a great deal of local opposition.  I don’t want here to go into that history (interested readers can explore the story in Nick Belfrage’s book Brunello to Zibbibo); what I am interested in is how, today, the company is producing great wines which challenge the long-term decline of the Marsala denominazione and whether or not this means the wine can be brought back to life.

When Marco de Bartoli decided to set up in wine production, he chose to leave the town of Marsala, where the main companies are based, to escape the claustrophobic emphasis on ‘cooking wine’, and created his winery in locality of Samperi, about 12 kilometres away.  Rather than focus just on production, he wanted to start with the vineyard.  It’s a chalky soil (much like that for sherry grapes), with deep sub-soil, ideal for water retention in the hot, dry summers.  He chose only to work with the grillo grape, rather than the higher-yielding and less interesting cataratto.  He also decided only to use his own grapes, rather than buy in from lots of local growers (this enables careful quality control).  All their grapes are grown around the winery, except for their red table wines, which need a different soil, and a passito from Pantalleria.  The key here is the attention to detail and commitment to quality, and a focus on place rather than a wine style, which they claim to be alone in the region to have.  Grillo, so Sebastiano de Bartoli says, is essential for conveying that sense of Samperi – ‘it’s talking about the territory’.  Territory is a word that Sebastiano, one of Marco’s sons, keeps returning to with emphasis when we talk and encompasses not just the terroir, but also the traditional variety and the traditions of making the wine.

Chalky soils

Marco de Bartoli also had a vision to renew the wine styles.  He wanted to return to the original ‘madeira from Marsala’ (as the wine was first known), sold by Woodhouse to Horatio Nelson when his fleet was in this part of the world.  Even more than that – as we’ll see – the vision was to see if the styles of wine made before Woodhouse could also be recreated.  Wines that were already distinctive and of high quality.  As part of his drive for improving quality, when he established the cellar in the 1980s he bought up a lot of stock of old wines from other small producers who were selling up and leaving the business – even one butt of wine from 1903, which they still use as blending material for some of their top wines.

The cellar at De Bartoli

The production of marsala is complicated, and the profusion of styles makes even sherry look as simple as a child’s six piece jigsaw (for those who are interested and can access Jancis Robinson’s website there is a great article about it by Tim Jackson MW here).  Crucially there are two distinctive styles: a wine which is fermented dry then fortified to about 19% alcohol and aged for five years or more, called vergine, and similar to an oloroso sherry; the second is a wine fortified to 17-19% with alcoholic grape juice or mosto cotto added to sweeten it to one of three different sweetness levels – plus three different colours and three different periods of ageing.  The permutations are enormous, especially when you add on at least six other official terms which can be applied to the wine.  However, I’m just interested in the vergine and the best sweet(ish) wines (superiore riserva) as these are the most significant qualitatively and historically.

Nevertheless, Marco de Bartoli’s attempt to recreate the older wine styles went further than just finding a special place and making good wine.  He wanted to take the vergine wine back to its pre-Woodhouse roots; an unfortified but high alcohol, oxidatively aged, wine.  He has done this with Vecchio Samperi, a great, complex wine with intensity, length and beautiful balance; it’s also aged in a solera, again mirroring sherry.  You could argue that this is a desire to make an older form of authenticity: the Sicilian marsala, of elegance and power, that preceded the arrival of the British.  There’s just one problem though.  The specification for the PDO of marsala requires contemporary vergine wines to be fortified to 18% alcohol at least – and the de Bartoli version is an unfortified wine.  It may reflect the Sicilian vergine of over 250 years ago, but it can’t call itself that.

Vecchio Samperi Solera at De Bartoli

Just once did Marco make a ‘legal’ vergine – in 1988 – just really to show that he could.  It’s similar to the Vecchio Samperi, very complex, though – inevitably – with more evident alcohol.  For what it’s worth I prefer the non-fortified equivalent.  However, it’s never to be repeated; Sebastiano told me they haven’t made another since and when the supplies of this wine run out that will be it.  You need to get it soon if you want to try it (though be prepared to pay upwards of 100€ a bottle for the pleasure).  Again, we have a disappearing wine.

As well as this dry style, wines with the designation ‘marsala’ are still made by the company.  These are fortified, and are sweeter, also having a great emphasis on poise and balance (showing a distinctive hint of curry aromas, which are often typical of good marsala); these, however, are fortified in accordance with the regulations.  Even here, though, they are making the wine as they believe the first Woodhouse marsalas were made, using fortified grape juice to sweeten, and not the mosto cotto which they consider gives simpler, less fine wines, with the cooked character masking the vinous nature of the drink.

For all that the company doesn’t live in the past.  They have been at the forefront of developing red and white table wines in the region – and the acidity in grillo allows some very fresh, direct white wines to be made.  Sebastiano also showed me the wines they are making with skin contact and ageing in amphorae, as well as an ancestral method bottle fermented sparkling wine.  All very trendy – while carefully made; each a good example of the style.

Is this enough to save the marsala?  I’m a sucker for oxidatively aged wines and find what they offer is brilliant, and good value.  The Vecchio Samperi is gorgeous and has less alcohol than a typical amontillado or oloroso sherry, so I’ll go on drinking it.  However, I’m hardly the typical wine drinker and my few bottles won’t save the industry; a drinker who prefers New Zealand Sauvignon blanc or Gevrey Chambertin may find them a bit strange.  Even Italians don’t seem to know about it, and certainly don’t seem to drink it, which is a shame given their commitment to other ancient styles of wine like amarone and vin santo.  The wines deserve a wider audience, but is there enough momentum now?  As Sebastiano says, as his parting shot, ‘port is a big nation, sherry and madeira are large regions.  Marsala is just a small town’, and perhaps it’s on the way to being a dead town.  Yet I also suspect the family don’t worry about that so much; they are there to perpetuate a tradition and respect the wines of the past, to ‘make a speciality’ as he says.  Whatever happens beyond them isn’t so significant then.

Other good marsalas are available: Rallo have a long tradition with the style.  There are also Carlo Pellegrino (who are putting a lot of effort into marketing cheaper but still carefully-made wines) and Duca du Salaparuta; both produce some good wines, though these are much larger company with a range of offerings to distract them.  I’d love the wine to continue, but at present I’m not sure that it will.  The fact that you have to get to the end of Italy, almost the southernmost tip of Europe, to see the wines doesn’t really help the revival.  It becomes a pilgrimage, rather than part of a tourist destination.