The legendary lost wine of Marsala

When I was a youngster I read Melody Maker every week. Sadly my pocket money could not keep pace with my interest in indie music so most of the bands I read about, I had never heard. Nowadays almost everything is just a click away but then I was limited to what was available from Record House in Amersham and what John Peel played on his show. Still it was important to have an opinion on everything. Often the bands that I hadn’t heard, I would have the strongest views on.

I feel this way about certain wines especially the ones that are extinct or nearly extinct. Wines such as malaga from Spain, constantia from South Africa and most of all marsala from Sicily. I have read so much about them but  can only imagine what they taste like. Marsala as a commercial product was the creation of a Liverpool merchant called John Woodhouse in the late 18th century who tried the local wine of Western Sicily and saw something of madeira in it.  He took this wine, usually made from a grape variety called grillo and added brandy and/ or cooked grape must (accounts vary) in order to make it hardier for long sea voyages. Business really took off when Nelson tried it and declared ‘the wine is so good that any gentleman’s table might receive it, and it will be of real use for our seaman.’ The wine became a staple of the Royal Navy and a marsala boom started on the island. One that was exploited first by the British merchants (for a brief period during the Napoleonic wars Sicily was a British colony), the Woodhouses and the Inghams, and later by Italian families from the mainland, Florios and Pellegrinos. Huge fortunes were made. Much of the Ingham fortune went into financing America’s railways whereas the Florio warehouses were once spread over a kilometer of the harbour. The wines fetched as high prices as the best madeiras and sherries.

Sadly as with madeira and sherry, the producers reacted to fluctuations in the market by creating a cheaper product through planting inferior grape varieties, overcropping, irrigating and then sweetening heavily to mask deficiencies in the base wine. The low point came in the 1969 when wines flavoured with eggs, almonds and bananas were allowed to be sold as marsala. Whereas in Spain and Portugal the bad stuff never quite destroyed the reputation of the regions and good wines continued to be made,  marsala is now only available in debased form as a sweetened liqueur wine used in Italian cookery.

Or not quite. There are still a couple of producers making something like the real thing. One is Cantine Florio, one of the first families, who make a vergine (unsweetened) wine from 100% grillo called Terre Arse. For obvious reasons it is not widely available in Britain. I brought a bottle back from Sicily a few years ago. I think it cost me about 8 euros. I was amazed by its nutty exotic flavour. It’s like biting into a brandy-soaked North Africa.

And then there is Marco de Bartoli. According to Nicholas Belfrage, the Italian wine expert, Mr Bartoli has a grudge against the British for ruining his native wine by sweetening and fortifying it. His signature product is a wine that he claims reflects Marsala’s pre British wines. It is called Vecchio Samperi and because it is so atypical of most marsalas, is simply sold as a vino di tavola. Mr Bartoli’s opinion of British tastes is so low that for a time he refused to export his wines to these shores.

Terre Arse is the only true marsala I have tried. I have spent far longer reading about the stuff rather than drinking it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Terroirs wine bar stock de Bartoli. I went along to their sister place, Brawn, a couple of nights ago. The food was very good but I was really there for the wine. We started with a pungent Las Medallas mazanilla sherry and moved on to a delightful Sicilian red which smelt of cinnamon and had a yeasty finish like a good bitter all the while dreaming of that first sip of the legendary true marsala. Sadly they only sold it by the bottle and my finances would not stretch that far. Oh gods why do you taunt me! Despite the excellent meal, I left Brawn crushed and disappointed. Perhaps I will never get to try marsala again or I will just have to bite the bullet and order a case from one of the merchants below:

Terre Arse is available from Enotria and Fareham Wine Cellars.

De Bartoli’s wines are imported by Cave de Pyrene.

About Henry

I’m a drinks writer. My day job is features editor at the Master of Malt blog. I also contribute to BBC Good Food, the Spectator and others. You can read some of my work here. I’ve done a bit of radio, given some talks and written a couple of books (Empire of Booze, The Home Bar and the forthcoming Cocktail Dictionary).
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10 Responses to The legendary lost wine of Marsala

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  2. Henry says:

    Sadly Marco de Bartoli died recently. Perhaps the best way to remember someone who was by all accounts a remarkable man is to drink his wines and make sure that Marsala does not die out.

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  5. Martin Saxon says:

    S Hailstone told me to read your blog. I was lucky enough to visit Samperi several times.
    The first time Marco said he’d meet me on the main road as the winery was difficult, near impossible, to find. We meet and with a ‘follow me’ wave, off we went. Keeping up with him in his road going but race tuned Giulietta in my lowly hire car was interesting. After many wines and cous cous for lunch, he asked to to drop his mother in law off in Marsala. I’m not sure if that was because he trusted my driving or he wasnt particularly fond of her.
    Much missed.

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