Extract from Empire of Booze – Sicily

I’ve put an extract from my forthcoming book, Empire of Boozeup on the Dabbler website. I’m probably about halfway through the book and hoping it will appear as planned in very early 2016 or even extremely late 2015. 

From the top of the tower I could see right across the vineyards of Marsala, across to the Mediterranean and the nearby island of Mozia. The tower I was standing on was built, according to its present owner, Giacomo Ansaldi, by the Spanish in the 15th century. It was used to keep a look out for ‘Saracenas’ – pirates from North Africa. Marsala is only about 100 miles from the coast North Africa. The tower had been built into a fortified courtyard known as a Baglio. The word has the same derivation as the English word Bailey as in a Mott and Bailey castle. It now generally means a winery.  Only in Sicily would the word for winery mean fortress. I was so captivated by the view across the sea that I didn’t notice in the foreground a peculiar looking ruined building until Giacomo pointed it out that.  With its elegant Georgian lines, it looked for all for all the world like a chunk of Regency Bath had been dropped in the baking heat of Western Sicily. This is the ruins of the Baglio Woodhouse.  Once it was pointed out to me, I started to notice ruined Baglios dotted all over Trapani province.

The marsala story traditionally starts in 1773 with the arrival of a merchant from Liverpool called John Woodhouse. He tried the local wine and noticed a similarity with madeira and being a canny Scouser saw an opportunity. There was huge demand for madeira style wines not least from America and growers and producers were struggling to keep up. To ensure the safe journey back to England Woodhouse fortified it with brandy.

Sicilians, however, would say that the marsala story starts long before the arrival of John Woodhouse because the marsalans had been making a unique style of wine since antiquity.  It was known as vino perpetuo or everlasting wine.. It was made by topping up barrels of wine with the newest vintage so the wine was continuously blended like a version of the solera system. A little space was left in the top of the barrel so the wine would gently oxidise and the wine would develop flavours of almonds. The resulting wine would contain minute quantities of very old wine. It certainly would not have been fortified until the British came along. Giacomo Ansaldi keeps a nursery of old unfortified marsala in his cellar at the Baglio Donna Franca. He let me try some from a barrel started in 1957 by an old farmer who wanted a wine to pass on to his grandchildren but they’re now pursuing professional careers in the North and don’t have the space or interest to look after an enormous Botti of old wine. The smell filled the room, initially a little musty and then almonds and spiced oranges. It didn’t taste like marsala, it was more like a very old table wine. There was none of the caramel or alcoholic burn that I’d come to expect from marsala. It was fascinating to try a wine that Woodhouse would have recognised on his first trip to Sicily.

The great ingredient that the British brought to Marsala was not brandy but capitalism. As Giacomo Ansaldi put it to me ‘the British were experts in the market, the Sicilians were sleeping.’ He is echoing Lampedusa’sThe Leopard here, perhaps consciously:

Sleep, my dear Chevalley, eternal sleep, that is what Sicilians want. And they will always resent anyone who tries to awaken them, even to bring them the most wonderful of gifts.

To read on click here 

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About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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