Of all the celebrated wines in Italy that do not receive the recognition they deserve, perhaps no wine is as given little attention today as Marsala. This is a shame – un gran peccato as they say in Italy, as Marsala was the most famous wine from Sicily for hundreds of years; today, it is still important, but as producers on this island focus more on table wines today, a lightly sweet fortified wine such as Marsala seems to be considered a thing of the past. Un gran peccato, veramente as a top-flight Marsala that has been aged for many years at the winery can truly be one of the world’s great wines.
Marsala is a fortified wine produced in far western Sicily near Trapani; salt is a major product of this area as well and certainly one of the postcard images of this zone are the windmills that stand sentinel over the salt pans. The often torrid conditions here, somewhat tempered by breezes from the nearby sea, are ideal for ripening white grapes that are the source of a wine that reaches 18% to 19% alcohol. The primary grape used is Grillo, which tends to perform well in the heat; Cataratto grapes are also used in some blends, but clearly Grillo is the base of the finest examples.
I recently sampled five different examples of Marsala from Cantine Florio, a company founded in 1833, that is one of Marsala’s – and Sicily’s – most historic cellars. Today Florio is part of the giant company ILLVA Saranno Holding spa, which also includes Duca Enrico and Corvo wines from other areas of Sicily. Clearly the funding from this company has kept Florio a thriving wine estate, today producing some 3.5 million bottles of wine per year. But it has also remained a traditional Marsala producer, making several different versions, from the simple to the sublime.
Here are thoughts on the five different offerings of Florio Marsala I tasted:
2009 Marsala Superiore Secco “Vecchioflorio” – When you mention Marsala to Americans, most of them have an image of a cooking wine; this bottle is probably what they have in mind. A blend of Grillo and Cataratto aged for 30 months in Slavonian oak (the typical large barrels used in Marsala and many other Italian wine zones), this has a light amber color with aromas of caramel, molasses and hints of Scotch whisky. This is clean and well made with a light sweetness and should be consumed over the next six to ten months.
2001 Marsala Superiore Riserva Semisecco “Targa Riserva 1840” – 100% Grillo aged for six years in Slavonian oak. Light amber with aromas of caramel and hints of butterscotch. Medium-bodied with an off-dry finish of good length. Nicely balanced – best consumed over the next 12-18 months.
2000 Marsala Vergine “Terre Arse” – 100% Grillo aged for more than ten years in Slavonian oak (the term vergine refers to a Marsala that has been aged at least five years in oak). Light amber with aromas of heather, caramel and hazelnut. Medium-full with very good persistence and a lengthy finish with a light hint of sweetness. Good balancing acidity keeps this wine delicate in the mouth. Enjoy over the next 3-5 years.
1998 Marsala Vergine “Florio Baglio” – 100% Grillo aged for ten years in old 300 liter casks. Lovely caramel, honey and heather aromas. Medium-full with very good concentration. Rich, dry finish with excellent persistence, very good acidity and a light nuttiness. Beautifully made – enjoy over the next 5-7 years. Excellent
Marsala Superiore Riserva “Donnafranca” – Dedicated to Franca Icona di San Giuliano, known as Donnafranca, the queen of Palermo. 100% Grillo aged for more than fifteen years in 300 liter botti. Deep amber with intoxicating aromas of caramel, hazelnut, chocolate, orange peel and marzipan. Medium-full with excellent concentration, this coats the palate and glides to a lengthy, graceful finish with delicate sweetness, outstanding persistence and impressive complexity. So rich and yet so elegantly styled. Enjoy now and over the next 10-12 years – perhaps longer. Outstanding
This collection of various examples of Marsala was a real eye-opener for me, given the quality and various styles. A few of these reminded me of lovely older sherries or Vin Santo and as those wines are celebrated and noted in the international press, one wonders why Marsala is not given similar treatment. Perhaps it is the image of Marsala being something that was enjoyed last century; I imagine for some people, Marsala is not relevant. This is a shame, as the wines are magnificent!
Florio also produces other classic dessert wines of Sicily including Passito di Pantelleria and Malvasia delle Lipari, which I will review in a future post.