'Marsala' is a distinctive, fortified wine, produced exclusively in the area around the town of Marsala on the west side of Sicily. It can be either dry or sweet and was granted DOC status in 1969. Although the origins date back to Roman times (Pliney the Elder mentioned it after a visit to Sicily), it was not until the 18th century that it was brought to the attention of the outside world. An English merchant, John Woodhouse, visited Marsala in 1773. He drank some of the local wine and noticed that it was aged in wooden casks and tasted similar to 'Sherry', a fortified wine from Jerez in Spain that had become very popular in England. Marsala wine is produced using the 'Perpetuum' method of wine production, a process that increases the alcohol levels and makes it suitable for long-distance transport.
Woodhouse exported some of the wine which proved to be so popular that he returned to Marsala in 1796 to set up commercial production. In 1833, an Italian, Vincenzo Florio, who had been born in Calabria and raised in Palermo in Sicily, bought up large areas of land around Marsala and also began the production of Marsala wine. He eventually bought out Woodhouse's company and, along with rival company, 'Pelligrino', is still one of the largest producers of Marsala wine today.
Marsala wine is produced using the Grillo, Inzolia, and Catarratto white grape varietals, among others, and contains approximately 15-20% alcohol by volume. The classification of the wines is made according to their colour, sweetness and maturity.
Oro - Golden.
Ambra - Amber. (This coloring comes from adding mosto cotto sweetener to the wine.)
Rubino - Ruby. (This colouring comes from using red grape varieties such as Perricone, Calabrese, Nero d'Avola and Nerello Mascalese.)
1. Secco (Dry) - Less than 40 grams per litre.
2. Semisecco (Semi dry) - Between 40 and 100 grams per Litre.
3. Dolce (Sweet) - Over 100 grams per Litre.
Fine - Less than a year.
Superiore - Al least two years.
Superiore Riserva - At least four years.
Vergine Soleras - At least five years.
Vergine Soleras Stravecchio - At least 10 years
Vergine Soleras Riserva - At least 10 years
Marsala wine was traditionally served as an aperitif between the first and second courses of a meal. These days, the drier versions are served chilled to accompany spicy cheeses, and the sweet version is served at room temperature as a desert wine. It is also frequently used in cooking. Many Italian restaurants in the United States will make a 'Marsala' sauce by reducing the wine to a syrup with onions, mushrooms and herbs. Another popular dish, 'Chicken Marsala', consists of chicken breasts, braised in Marsala wine with butter, olive oil, mushrooms and spices. It is also added to risotto and rich Italian deserts such as: zabaglione or tiramisu.
Other major red varieties are Ciliegolo, Gaglioppo, Lagrein, Lambrusco, Monica, Nerello Mascalese, Pignolo, Primitivo (Zinfandel in California), Refosco, Schiava, Schiopettino, Teroldego, and Uva di Troia. "International" varietals such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc are also widely grown.
Other important whites include Carricante, Catarratto, Coda de Volpe, Cortese, Falanghina, Grechetto, Grillo, Inzolia, Picolit, Traminer, Verduzzo, and Vernaccia. As far as non-native varietals, the Italians plant Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer (sometimes called traminer aromatico), Riesling, Petite Arvine, and many others.