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July 3, 2024

A Late Encounter with Marsala

I’ve been writing about wine in some capacity since the late 1970s and drinking it even longer, yet somehow I had lost track of Marsala.  No, not Wynton Marsalis, nor the bad guy, Marsellus, played by Ving Rhames in Pulp Fiction, but the fortified wine produced around the city of the same name at Sicily’s western tip.   

I can’t remember the last time I had a glass of Marsala – if I ever did – although I read up on the region long ago when I first became interested in wine and was religiously learning about all its iterations and all of its origins.  Having since consumed lots of other fortified wines – Sherry, Port, Madeira – I sort of had an idea what a Marsala should taste like.

This was not a total dereliction of wine-writing duties on my part, although I once did spend three evenings in the city of Marsala, tasting Sicily’s wonderful table wines and somehow never having a glass of the region’s namesake.  But, still....

The fortified wine trade was largely an invention of the British, who went to great lengths to find something to drink.  As England didn’t make wine, and as most fresh wines didn’talways arrive in London tasting so good after a long, hot seagoing voyage from distant lands, the Brits decided they needed to invent something else.  So, they had producers dump neutral alcohol into wine as a preservative.  It is hard work being the innovator.

Fortified wines, especially sweet ones, were traditionally consumed at the end of the meal, but as society increasingly learned to eat quickly, waiting for an extra wine lost much of its appeal.  Yet most fortified wine producers, especially those who make Port, learned to adapt, Marsala didn’t.

Instead, Marsala became known for its cheap sweet wines and as cooking wines, something that Julia Child might have in her cupboard if she got a hankering for chicken Marsala.  In my edition of Jancis Robinson’s Oxford dictionary, she says in part, “Marsala has fallen on hard times as declining quality, evaporating markets, and plunging production levels have called into question the very survival of the wine, or at least its better types.”  Hence, my dereliction.

But neither did Marsala producers or their representatives come knocking at my door to get me interested and involved.  Not until a few days ago.

Then, six wines of Marsala from the well-known Cantine Florio showed up on my doorstep, as orphaned wines tend to do.  Two bottles were labeled “Vergine Riserva,” two “Semisecco Superiore Riserva,” and one each “Vecchioflorio Superiore Dry” and “Vecchioflorio Superiore Sweet.”  All were vintage dated.

A visit to the Florio website to learn a bit more was both instructive and entertaining.  To begin, Grillo, which is widely available as a pleasant, dry table wine, is the base grape for Marsala.  But after it is picked, the website robustly informs me, the grapes undergo “extreme extraction” followed by “tumultuous fermentation.”

During fermentation, Florio goes on, the wine “falls in love” on its way to becoming a fortified wine. Marsala Vergine is made by a combination of the fermenting wine, added alcohol and time in oak.  Marsala Superiore additionally has “cooked must” for color and “mistelle” to adjust sugar content.

Vergine is considered the better category and sees a minimum five years in oak barrels and Vergine Riserva spends a minimum 10 years on oak.  Superiore is aged at least two years, while Superiore Riserva has at least four years.

Vergine is the driest category, secco is next, and then semisecco and dolce.
Thus armed, I went about tasting the wines, not all of which are currently available in the U.S.  The closest taste comparisons, I think, are the drier and semi-dry Sherries.  The basic flavors such as nuttiness and cane sugar are found in all the Marsalas, everyday or premium, to varying degrees,
The basic 2019 Florio “Vecchioflorio” Marsala Superiore Dry or Secco is available in the U.S. – about $8 – as is the 2020 Dolce for $12.  The dry has lots of cracked-grain aromas and tastes much like those in Bourbon whiskey, along with other notes of alcohol, honeycomb, raisins and other dried fruits.  The sweet has a lot of cane or sorghum flavors along with sugar water and fresh nuts – nice and flavorful though not complex.
I couldn’t find standard prices for the 2001 and the 2008 Semisecco Marsala Superiore Riservas, so I doubt either is available in the U.S.  The 2001 has a lovely maderized nose and is limpid and velvety on the palate with complex flowers of grain, honey, vanilla bean and wood with a long and lovely finish with piercing acidity.  I don’t have enough experience with Marsalas to rate it, but the number “91” popped into my head.
The 2008 has a brilliant bronze color and a bit of a reluctant nose, which oddly is a little like coconut.  It has much leaner and oakier characteristics than the 2001.  Perhaps newer casks? I think a “90” for this one. 

The two Vergine Riservas are available in England and are totally in another quality and price category, especially the 1998, which I would rate a “94.”  It has a lovely golden hue, and beautiful flavors of honey, almonds and plump dried fruits like apricots – amazing for 23 years in the cask.  It is fairly dry.  Its British price translates to about $330.

he 2006 Vergine is not as impressive, having little of the lively acidity of the 1998 and a paucity of fruit – a “90?”  Perhaps that is why it’s selling in the UK for about $65.

Have I now become a dyed-in-the-vat advocate of Marsala, and will I serve it to guests when entertaining?  No and yes.  But it is on my radar, my brain being what it is these days.  Marsala, take notice – I’m now paying attention.      

Posted by Roger Morris at 5:01 PM