Part of the joy of wine research is going back to a place or product and rediscovering something that is not forgotten but going forward. This was true when I visited Verona in April for the VinItaly Italian tasting event and came across a producer who is reinventing the once famous liqueur wine that is Marsala. Not the sweet and sticky delight of wine-soaked Chicken Marsala and Tiramisu but a modern pudding wine with smoothness and intensity. In fact Marsala, which is a sherry-like fortified wine with 17-19% alcohol content, made from Grillo, Insolia and Catarratto grapes on the western seaboard of Sicily, had been around since a Mr Woodhouse, on a business trip from Liverpool, added a preservative slug of brandy to the local wines he liked. He started the industry and became the first Marsala wine entrepreneur earning the approval of Lord Nelson, who preferred Marsala to Rum as fortification for his sailors, calling it ‘Victory Wine’ – something which obviously worked out well at the Battles of Trafalgar and the Nile!
Marsala wine had been slowly developing as a cooking and quaffing wine when, fifty years on, Garibaldi turned up with an invasion force to re-unify Italy. The Italian patriot landed two ships at Marsala harbour and while the French garrison were wondering what to do, stayed a while for a planning meeting with his army of 1,000 partisans, enjoying the liquid benefits of locally produced ‘Marsala Dolce’. Sweet Marsala was later renamed ‘Garibaldi Dolce’ in his honour, once he had taken over Italy and become president and, yes, to boost sales of the then unknown Sicilian wine around Italy. This is fame indeed – a wine to toast the birth of a nation!
By the 20th century Marsala had evolved into a serious drink available in dry (secco) or sweet (dolce) styles; a rival to Madeira as a digestif while retaining a superior use in cuisine. You may have forgotten the happiness, magically brought on by sipping different sweet wines, something I have been lucky to experience at our WSET course’s ‘Sweet Wine’ tasting day. That kind of euphoria Italian-style was certainly there at Alagna’s Marsala stall in Verona; enjoying together the sweet spot that nature has given us since infancy. Marsala’s flavours range from raisins, dried figs, roasted almonds with delicate hints of honey and vanilla; a kind of fruit cake wine!
A producer I recommend is Curatolo Arini whose beautiful vineyards (located below) overlook the sea. Their Marsala Superiore Riserva Secco and 'Garibaldi' Marsala Superiore Dolce are reasonable priced as single bottles available at Waitrose. The ‘secco’ goes with and in chicken and mains and the dolce with deserts. It’s also great with the local Italian cheese such as pecorino, parmesan and mascarpone or can be enjoyed just as a meditation wine – to remember all things Italian, those long weekends and to fortify for the future.
Curatolo Arini, Italy
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