How to really use Marsala wine


Famous British chef Delia Smith boosted sales of Marsala years ago when she poured the amber liquid into one of her famous recipes. Sadly, since then you rarely hear of this under-rated sweetie.  That’s a pity, for it’s an intriguing wine.  

Marsala is a fortified wine that, like Port, was strengthened with alcohol to help it survive the long sea journey to England way back in the eighteenth century. Marsala, named after the picturesque Sicilian coastal town, was a star on the shelves back then.

Like many Italian grapes, the varieties for Marsala are difficult to pronounce but if you follow the Italians and use your hands, Grillo, Cataratto and Inzolia just slide off the tongue! The DOC Wine Laws (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) for Marsala were revised in 1984 to control yields and allow additional grape varieties, namely Pignatello, Nerello Mascalese, Damaschino and Nero D’Avola. Now you see how important it is to use your hands!
Making Marsala is a complex business. The grapes are left on the vines in the near-African sun past the normal harvest date to produce higher sugar levels. The fermentation is stopped by the addition of high strength grape spirit which stops the fermentation stone dead, thus retaining the natural sugars and boosting the alcohol to a heavyweight 17–19% by volume. The fortification procedure depends on the level of desired residual sugar in the finished wine.  Then comes the unusual bit as two sweetening agents can be curiously added.  

The first is called ‘mistella’ which is a blend of semi dried shrivelled grapes and wine alcohol. The second is called ‘cotto’ which is a strange concoction of cooked grapes … the smell of these grapes cooking in copper caldrons on the island is fantastic. How much of these sweetening agents is added again depends on the degree of sweetness of the final wine style. There are three sweet and two dry styles. ‘Told you that is was a complex business.

The first sweet style which goes under the confusing title of ‘fine’ is the ‘basic’ Marsala which has to have a minimum alcohol content of 17% and a minimum ageing period in wooden barrels of one year. The next is Marsala Superiore, (18% and 2 years ageing), whilst the next level up is Superiore Reserva that requires 4 years barrel ageing.
If you want to be different you could serve one of the dry Marsalas as an aperitif; look out for Vergine Soleras and Soleras Reserva. They’re ‘dry’ as none of the ‘gloopy goodies’ are added, only high strength spirit – the former requires 5 years ageing whilst the Soleras Reserva requires 10 years in the barrel to carry the prestigious label.

You have to be careful when choosing your preferred Marsala style. For example, Secco or dry, can carry up 40 grams per litre of residual sugar so is not actually ‘dry’, Semisecco, (semi-sweet) has 40 – 100 grams per litre, whilst Dolce has a tooth rattling 100 plus grams per litre of sugar. I can’t help but think that a simplification of Marsala styles would boost sales enormously.

Marsala is not the flavour of the month so you may get some odd looks as you sneak the bottle off the shelf but it’ll all be worth it as you sit back, relax and enjoy a glass of this Mediterranean classic.

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