Marsala is one of Italy’s most internationally renowned wines. Produced throughout the centuries in the eponymous port region of Sicily, this wine acquired its protected designation of origin in 1969.
The English wine merchant John Woodhouse discovered Marsala wines quite by accident, in 1773. He was sailing along the coast of Sicily to the port of Mazara del Vallo, and during a fierce storm, the navigator was forced to seek refuge in the port of Marsala. The sweet wine offered to the sailors in the harbor taverns caught his attention. It reminded him of the sherry he carried and traded in his maritime route. Woodhouse took some barrels to England and returned to Sicily to acquire vast expanses of vineyards to produce this wine on a large scale. He also established the necessary infrastructure for export.
Marsala gained international recognition when the famous Viscount, Admiral Horatio Nelson, placed an order of 500 barrels per year to supply the British Navy. “This is a wine worthy of any gentleman´s table,” said Nelson, a legendary hero of the Battle of Trafalgar.
Woodhouse’s success attracted competition in 1812, when the English merchant Benjamin Ingham established the second Marsala winery and started exporting it to America and Australia. Vincenzo Florio, who founded Palermo’s largest industrial dynasty, followed these efforts. He bought the adjoining area between the two English rivals and built his exports empire.
Before long, the trade in Marsala wine flourished, reaching an annual production of about 50,000 barrels in 1870. By the 20th century, in 1929, the Cinzano firm acquired the three established companies and continued marketing the wines under the Florio brand.
Made primarily with grapes of the grillo, inzolia and catarratto varieties, Marsala wines are classified according to their sweetness: dry, semi-dry and sweet. Color also plays a role in its classification: Oro (gold), Ambra (amber) and Rubino (ruby). When it comes to aging, Marsala can labeled Fine (aged less than one year); Superiore (at least two years); Superiore Riserva (at least four years); Vergine or Soleras (at least 5 years); Vergine or Soleras Stravecchio, and Vergine or Soleras Riserva (aged at least 10 years). Review our selection of international vintages.
The best Marsalas are aged at least ten years, but some younger and fresher vintages are worth a try. If you are looking for optimum quality, these wines, produced by two of the best wineries in the region will delight your palate. Look for the spectacular Exito Vergine Riserva 1982 from Cantine Martinez or Marsala Vergine Soleras by Cantine Pellegrino.
For those who prefer an even fresher flavor, the exciting Florio Fine Marsala Secco by Cantine Florio is a very attractive option. ■