Exploring Marsala - It's not Just for Chickens

Marsala's Background. Learn the secrets and legacy of Marsala wine, an excellence from Sicily. Part 1

By Nina Bernheim
Apr 06, 2020

Marsala, land of stupendous myths, fabulous ruins and provocative wine and gourmet specialties that continue to fascinate and capture modern imaginations and tastebuds, and has done so since time immemorial.

Never a city prone to being overrun by outside forces or influences, Marsala has however long been a welcoming point for new flavours, cultures, and perspectives as only harbour towns can be.  Long-desired by leading cultural and economic forces looking for entry into Sicily and mainland Italy, Marsala has over time fearlessly maintained independence from external powerhouse cultures like the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Vandals, and even the mighty English naval forces.  Only in more recent history, immediately following the Napoleanic Wars of the early 1800s did Marsala succumb to external pressure, enduring a 15-year long occupation by the English hoping to thwart local political elements looking to counterbalance English dominance in the Mediterranean Sea.

With all these different elements pushing and pulling local culture, modern Marsala was born, and developed from a mèlange of different cultures and habits, like so much of Sicily.

While it's popular to note that one of Marsala's most fabled local products, Marsala wine, can trace its fame thanks to a lashing storm and an inquisitive English merchant, the area's most appreciated and beloved local export (according to this writer!) actually has much deeper roots than that.  Harking back to the journals of Pliny the Elder, there is mention of a delicious fortified wine, Mamertino, a much prized wine used during banquets and feasts to honour guests, and considered to be Marsala's predecessor. Exports of Marsala (or the earlier versions of it) also are mentioned by Dutch artist Pier Paolo Rubens, who evidently shipped casks of the wine back to Antwerp at the conclusion of his stay in Marsala, in the 1600s.  

Fascinatingly enough, Marsala wine production itself follows a regional traditional dating back centuries.  In keeping with the island's prolific viticultural tendencies, families generally kept small local vineyards in order to produce small amounts of local wines for private use.  These early vignerons would utilise part of every vintage's best bottles to top up their family's carateddu, prized casks containing approximately 26 liters of wine. The carateddus were topped up each year, allowing the different vintages to meld and blend together, presenting the finest wines over entire multiple generations.  This method, similar to the Spanish ageing process used in brandy-production, was developed and refined by the Sicilian farmers, and the subsequent wines provided refreshment at the most cherished family events, and honouring local important guests.

The Marsala wine, a classic feature of many local Marsala households and surprisingly absent from neighbouring towns and cities beyond Trapani, was "discovered" in the late 1770s in a fateful coincidence by the English merchant and businessman, John Woodhouse.  While navigating in the area, a seasonal storm forced Woodhouse's boat to seek shelter in Marsala's port. During a meal in town, Woodhouse was introduced to the marvelous, smooth perpetuum-aged wine, also locally known as Marsala. Woodhouse, recognising the wine's innate potential for an English market where Sherry was already a principle player, opted to ship several casks of Marsala wine back to England.  Before shipping, Woodhouse modified the Marsala wine with the inclusion of Brandy to increase the wine's alcohol levels, making it more stronger and more stable for shipping and enduring the long, potentially dangerous exodus back North to Woodhouse's partners. Woodhouse's instinct proved accurate, and demand for further quantities and stocks was requested almost immediately.

Woodhouse's intuition ushered in other producers, including the English businessman Benjamin Ingham, notable for his role as the first exporter of Marsala wine to markets outside of Europe.  Ingham also constructed one of the first local baglios with the exclusive goal of Marsala production and not just relegated to a family residence, providing up to 40 subsequent Marsala producers with an excellent production to follow.

In our next article, explore one of Sicily's most fascinating families, and learn more about the historic era in which Marsala began to flourish and expand its market share.  A toast to the Florio family awaits!

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