Marsala wine: a legend started by the British merchants
Marsala, a sweet wine bearing the same name as the city and which, in 1969, was the first wine in Sicily to be awarded recognition as a denomination of controlled origin (DOC), owes its creation to an Englishman, John Woodhouse.
Woodhouse was a merchant from Liverpool who traded soda ash and who, in 1773, was sailing along the Sicilian coast towards Mazara del Vallo. The ship, however, never reached this famous Sicilian port because a storm forced it to make an unscheduled landing in Marsala port which, at that time, was full of taverns. And it was in one of these inns that Woodhouse was offered perpetuum, the best wine of the area that the farmers kept for special occasions.
Woodhouse was literally amazed and immediately understood that it was a perfect wine to be supped in refined English drawing rooms. His worry was that the wine could suffer some kind of change during its journey to England. And so he decided to add a little wine brandy to the perpetuum and he shipped the first 50 pipe (barrels with a capacity of more than 400 litres) to Liverpool, aiming to observe the effect.
And this was how the legendary Marsala was created, a drink that Admiral Nelson defined as “worthy of the table of any gentleman” and with which he supplied his fleet.
Woodhouse’s success gained the attention of many other English businessmen: Corlett, Wood, Payne and Hoppes. A particular mention goes to Benjamin Ingham, who, as of 1812, together with his nephew Joseph Whitaker, invested a lot of money to modernise production techniques and to expand exports to other continents. In fact, it is thanks to him that Marsala arrived in Brazil, North America and even further, to the Far East and Australia.
What had up until then been a modest agricultural area was suddenly changed into a hive of industrial activity.
In 1832, the first Italian businessman, Vincenzo Florio, set himself up between Woodhouse and Ingham. The Florios, a wealthy family of industrialists and ship-fitters, not only took Marsala all over the world on board the 99 Florio Company ships, but also gave the entire city a facelift and left an impression of illuminated bourgeoisie.
Since then the Marsala wine companies have multiplied.
Marsala is produced using the Grillo, Inzolia, and Catarratto white grape varietals, among others.
Marsala contains about 15–20% alcohol by volume.
Different Marsala wines are classified according to their sweetness, colour and the duration of their aging.
The three levels of sweetness are:
- Secco (with a maximum 40 grams of residual sugar per liter);
- Semi-secco (41–100 g/l);
- Sweet (over 100 g/l).
The colour and aging classifications are as follows:
- Oro (golden color);
- Ambra (amber color; the coloring comes from the mosto cotto sweetener added to the wine);
- Rubino (ruby color; made from red grape varieties such as Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese);
- Fine (minimal aging, typically less than a year);
- Superiore (aged at least two years);
- Superiore Riserva (aged at least four years; try our Curatolo Arini, Marsala Superiore Riserva);
- Vergine (aged at least five years);
- Vergine Riserva (aged at least ten years).
Marsala wine was traditionally served as an aperitif between the first and second courses of a meal. Contemporary diners will serve its drier versions chilled with aged Parmesan, Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and other spicy cheeses, with fruits or pastries, and the sweeter at room temperature as a dessert wine.
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