Many people know Marsala, and you have probably heard of it, too. But most recall it only from cooking. It’s an ingredient for preparing great dishes like Chicken Marsala and delicious desserts like Zabaglione. But Marsala wine actually is great for drinking as well.
What Is Marsala?
Marsala is a fortified wine from Italy. It’s made from either white or red grapes and gets fortified with neutral brandy. Typically, Marsala is served as a dessert wine, but it’s also a popular ingredient in cooking.
Where Does Marsala Come From?
Marsala wine originates from Sicily, an island in the Mediterranean Sea, south of the Italian mainland. More precisely, it comes from the Trapani region on the west coast of the island, near the city of Marsala. As Marsala is a protected appellation of origin, only wines that come from this region may be labeled as Marsala wine.
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Panoramic View over Trapani Region
Until the late 18th century, Marsala was a wine for the local market. Outside of Sicily, nobody knew about it. But that changed in the 1770s when the British merchant John Woodhouse landed in the port of Marsala to escape a tremendous storm. To celebrate his lucky escape, he ordered a glass of wine. The bartender served him a strong local wine that tasted very similar to Port or Madeira wine. Both were very popular in the high society of the United Kingdom at that time. Woodhouse liked what he drank, so he bought a large quantity of this wine to sell it in England. To prevent it from spoiling during the long sea journey to his homeland, he added Brandy to the wine. And that’s how Marsala wine was born.
Woodhouse’s fellow countrymen enjoyed the wine, so he decided to invest in the region and its wineries. Within a couple of decades, Marsala wines became extremely popular all over the United Kingdom, especially in the Royal Navy.
In the 1830s, the Italian winemaker Vincenzo Florio started to build an impressive winery that contributed to spreading the popularity of Marsala across Europe. Today, this company is still one of the biggest producers of Marsala wine.
Different Types Of Marsala
We can distinguish multiple types of Marsala. The most basic distinction bases on their colors:
- Oro Marsala has a rich golden color.
- Ambra Marsala comes in amber tones.
- Robino Marsala is a wine of ruby red color.
Another important way to distinguish Marsala wines is their age:
- Fine Marsala ages for one year in wooden barrels.
- Superiore Marsala (English: Superior) ages for two years.
- Superiore Riserva (Superior Reserve) stays in barrels for four years.
- Vergine Marsala (Virgin) or Solera Marsala age for at least five years. All Vergine and Solera wines are Oro style wines.
- Vergine Stravecchio (Virgin Stravecchio) or Vergine Riserva (Virgin Reserve) also are Oro style wines. They age for ten or more years.
Bottle of Fine Marsala
Finally, we can categorize Marsala by its level of sweetness:
- Dolce Marsala is sweet with more than 100 grams of sugar per liter
- Semi-Secco Marsala is off-dry (or semi-sweet). It contains 41 to 100 grams of sugar per liter.
- Secco Marsala is dry with a maximum of 40 grams of residual sugar per liter. Vergine Marsala tends to be the driest types of Marsala.
What Is Marsala Wine Made From?
To produce Marsala, winemakers can use red or white grapes. They select the varietals depending on the style they want to make:
- With the white varietals Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino, they produce Oro Marsala and Ambra Marsala.
- Robino Marsala is made from the red varietals Nerello Mascalese, Pignatello, and Nero d’Avola.
How Marsala Is Made
Marsala undergoes a production process that is, in many aspects, unique. One of these aspects is the old-fashioned way of cultivating the grapes.
Vintners prune the vine stocks in a special way so that the clusters of grapes hang very low. They almost have contact with the ground. A roof of leaves functions as a sunshade above the grapes and protects them from too much heat. At the same time, it prevents the soil from drying out. While this traditional method of growing vines requires hard manual work, it contributes to the high quality of Marsala grapes.
Starting with the fermentation, the production processes for the various types of Marsala differ slightly.
After fermenting the wine must to dryness, winemakers fortify Ambra Marsala with neutral brandy. Then, they add about one percent of cooked grape must. This most, called “Mosto Cotto”, is basically concentrated grape sugar. It makes the wine much sweeter and also gives it its typical amber color.
For Oro Marsala, vintners add “Mistela” instead of Mosto Cotto. Mistela is a liquor made from late harvest Grillo grapes and fortified with Brandy. It increases the wine’s alcohol content and adds some sweetness, but it doesn’t change its color significantly.
Finally, Robino Marsala is made by adding grape spirit as well. For high-quality wines, this spirit undergoes an aging process of up to five years in oak barrels beforehand. Winemakers may not use Mosto Cotto to fortify Robino Marsala.
After the fermentation and fortification, Marsala has to age in wooden casks. Depending on the desired style, the aging process can last from one to more than ten years (see the section about different types of Marsala above).
For some of the highest-quality Marsala wines, winemakers follow the Solera method to age them.
Barrels for Aging Marsala Wine
What Does Marsala Taste Like?
The taste of Marsala depends on its style. In general, it’s comparable to Madeira, which is a fortified Portuguese wine. All types are rather strong, with 15 to 20% alcohol.
Ambra Marsala often has flavors of dried fruit, apricot, almonds, and different nuts. Old vintages can develop aromas of maple syrup, cherry, or spices like black pepper and thyme.
Oro Marsala comes with aromas of vanilla, hazelnuts, raisins, or licorice. High-quality wines can taste like peach jam or caramel, but they also might contain mushrooms and wooden aromas.
Robino Marsala offers fruity flavors, including cherry, pomegranate, or plum, and in some cases has flowery notes. Typically, these wines are stronger in tannins than Oro or Ambra style Marsala.
How to Serve Marsala Wine
Traditionally Marsala was drunk as an aperitif between the first and the second course of a dinner. Nowadays, it’s more common to serve it as a dessert wine with the last course.
The highest quality Marsala types are great on their own without a meal as well.
What Is the Right Glass for Marsala Wine?
When serving Marsala to your guests, pour it in dessert wine glasses. Tulip-shaped glasses with long stems are perfect, but a Port glass is an acceptable alternative. Regular red or white wine glasses aren’t ideal because their bowls are too big.
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What Is the Right Serving Temperature for Marsala?
Serve Marsala slightly chilled at around 54 to 57°F (12-14°C). High-quality Vergine or Vergine Stravecchio wines should be a little warmer: 59 to 61°F (15-16°C) is perfect.
Should You Decant Marsala Wine?
Yes, decanting Marsala is useful. It lets the wine release all its aromas. For old wines, it also helps get rid of sediment that might be present in the bottle.
How to Store Marsala Wine
Like all wines, you should store Marsala in a cool, dark place. Make sure to keep the temperature constant and protect the bottle from sunlight. A shelf in your cellar is ideal.
Can Marsala Wine Go Bad?
Yes. Like most other wines, Marsala can go off when exposed to oxygen for a long time. Due to its high level of alcohol, it’s more resistant than regular table wines, though.
How Long Does Marsala Wine Last When Open?
After opening a bottle of Marsala, it will stay fresh for about one month. You can extend this period by removing the gas from the bottle, resealing it, and storing it in a refrigerator. With these measures, Marsala will keep for up to six months after opening.
Which Food Goes With Marsala?
Dry Marsala wines go well with salty or savory meals. Serve them with veal, turkey, or mushrooms. Snacks like olives or salted nuts or cheeses like Gorgonzola, Roquefort, or Parmesan are great fits as well.
Sweet Marsala types are good pairings for chocolate desserts. But they can also go well with creamy chicken or pork dishes. As said before, these types are excellent on their own, too.
Marsala Wine Shopping Tips
When shopping Marsala in Europe, make sure that it actually says “Marsala” on the bottle label. Only wines from the Marsala DOC on Sicily may carry this name, so it’s an indicator for a traditional high-quality wine. This rule doesn’t apply to the United States or other regions, though. So if you want an authentic Marsala experience, read carefully where a wine was produced.
Entry-level Marsala is available from 10 USD per bottle of 750ml. For Riserva wines, expect to pay at least 25 USD. High-quality styles like Vergine Riserva Marsala are even more expensive. It’s not unusual to pay 100 USD or more for these wines.
If you search a wine for cooking, Oro and Ambra style Marsalas will be the right choices. Sweet wines are suitable for desserts such as Zabaglione, while dry styles are the right pick for rich dishes like Chicken Marsala (see image). Buy a Rubino Marsala only if the recipe explicitly calls for it. Entry-level wines like Fine or Superiore Marsala are perfectly fine for cooking.
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The region of Marsala offers a great variety of wines. No matter if you like dry or sweet wines, chances are high that you will find a Marsala that matches your taste. So don’t hesitate and add Marsala as an aperitif or a dessert wine to your next dinner party.