Sicilian Marsala Wine and Florio dynasty: a long story of taste and legends
The history of Marsala wine did not begin with fireworks. No, success came later. Garibaldi did not particularly like Marsala, and the Americans thought that the right place to serve it was in the pharmacy. So how is it possible that today Marsala is one of the most beloved and famous wines in the world?
Well, it is all thanks to the British. They loved it so much that they decided to take it beyond the borders of the east coast of Sicily and make it known to the world. Today, Marsala is one of the most famous fortified wines and in Italy it is used abundantly, especially at the end of a meal or to accompany desserts.
Aged in ancient oak barrels, Marsala originates in the town of the same name in the province of Trapani. This is also where the grapes from which it is made grow to become one of the best incomparable wines of all time for desserts and sweets.
Curious to find out all about the history of Sicilian Marsala wine, its exceptional taste and the extraordinary legends that have made it irreplaceable? Let’s get started!
The history of wine in Sicily: the beginnings
According to some sources, vine cultivation in Sicily began in the Mycenaean era, and slowly vines for local wine production spread to the rest of Italy. From festivals in honor of Dionysus, which led to wine consumption closely linked to celebration and dissolute living, to the export of wine in ancient amphorae by sea to Greece and Africa, wine production stalled during Arab domination in Sicily.
Despite this, the Arabs introduced the practice of grape distillation and brought to the island the species of zibibibbo, a particular grape variety from which the wine of the same name and Passito (a sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes) is produced. For some historians, the Arabs introduced the “in perpetuum” method to the island, very similar to the “soleras method” used by the British to produce Sherry.
The Soleras Method
To the so-called ‘in perpetuum‘ a method used by the people of Marsala to age their best wine (the ‘Perpetuum‘), Woodhouse and Ingham preferred the ‘soleras,’ well known to them as it was used in Portugal and Spain for Port, Madeira and Sherry.
The soleras method involves storing wine in rows of oak barrels placed on top of each other. The younger wine is racked into the row placed higher up, those in between contain the slightly older wine, and the ready-to-drink wine is stored in the row placed at the bottom.
Thanks to this method, the wine acquires the characteristics of several vintages while ensuring a uniform product in terms of quality. Today, classic barrel aging is preferred.
The Florio dynasty and the discovery of Marsala
So much has been said about the Florio family in the more recent history of Palermo and western Sicily, one of the richest families in Italy in the 1900s. Even today, evidence remains alive of this illustrious family of industrialists and entrepreneurs who helped enhance the territory and bring prestige to modern Palermo.
The history of the Florios unfolds over the course of nearly a century, from the early 19th century to about the middle of the 20th century. Vincenzo Florio began wine production in 1833, becoming the major competitor to English companies that had begun producing and selling Marsala wine a few years earlier in the same region. These included Woodhouse, Ingham, Whitaker, and Hopps.
The Florios already had tuna fisheries, foundries, ceramic factories, historic villas and mansions, naval companies and fleets on their hands. They invested in the tobacco, cotton, and shipping sectors and also created one of the most famous automobile races, still coveted today: the Targa Florio.
Thanks to their high entrepreneurial skills, this family managed to build a real economic empire, so much so that they became undisputed protagonists of the so-called ‘Belle Epoque‘.
And what about wine? Well, Vincenzo Florio was responsible for the construction of a factory for the production of Marsala wine, which, as we said, in a few years surpassed the competing companies of the English Woodhouse and Ingham, taking the product all over the world.
Even today one can admire the Art Nouveau (Liberty style) architectural building in Palermo, near Corso Olivuzza. A wonderful period building surrounded by greenery that, due to a fire, has been restored inside and out.
Marsala wine: the rise and success
In 1773, English merchant John Woodhouse from Liverpool was heading to the west coast of Sicily on his brig “Elizabeth,” specifically to the town of Mazara del Vallo.
Due to a sudden storm, he took refuge in the port of Marsala, and in a nearby tavern he and his men tasted the local sweet wine. He was enraptured by it. This wine was known in the area as Perpetuum and took its name precisely from the method of aging. The English, great experts in fortified wines, were always looking for fine wines to bring to the tables of noble courts and with which to replace the already well-known Port, Madeira and Sherry.
Woodhouse saw great potential in Perpetuum. A wine to be fortified further by adding aquavit, and so he did. He set out again from Sicily with a test batch of fifty barrels of fortified wine to prevent the journey from spoiling it. It was a great success in England, so much so that he wanted to claim a monopoly on its supply.
A document dated March 19, 1800, signed by Admiral Horatio Nelson and John Woodhouse testifies to the first supply of Marsala to Malta.
Due to the great success of Marsala, other Englishmen such as Hopps, Payne, Ingham, and Whitaker arrived in Sicily. Together with Woodhouse, they started the production of Marsala in 1812. But in 1833, Vincenzo Florio also began producing his wine right in Marsala, and it was here that he founded the wineries of the same name. The Florio cellars soon became the leading producer of Marsala and thanks to his fleet of 99 ships he began to distribute the wine all over the world, becoming the undisputed magnate of Marsala.
The success was such that other entrepreneurs invested in Marsala and opened their own wineries. Examples include the Rallo and Pellegrino wineries. Unfortunately, American prohibition and, in particular, a law that banned the importation of Marsala to the continent, led the Florio wineries to bankruptcy.
It was not until 1931 that the first laws recognizing, protecting and circumscribing the Marsala production area were born. In 1963, the Consortium for the Protection of Marsala DOC wine was also born, and soon Marsala became the first Italian product recognized as DOC.
A few hints about fortified wines
From Marsala to Zibibbo, from Moscato to fortified Malvasia, the list is virtually endless. Fortified wines, as the name implies, come from the very vines used to make wine. Alcohol is added to the wine in the form of must, mistelle or brandy, which increases its alcohol content.
All these wines have, therefore, in common a production system of increasing the alcohol content of a base wine by the addition of pure ethyl alcohol, brandy or mistella (mistelle). A system that stems from a simple necessity: to preserve the wine longer and keep its organoleptic qualities intact.
Marsala is part of this particular category of wines, also called “fortified” (precisely because of the addition of alcohol). This is the same category of wines to which other well-known international wines such as Port, Madeira and Sherry belong.
Be careful, however, not to confuse them with passito wines or dessert wines!
Grape varieties and variants of Marsala Wine
Of Marsala there is not one! Sicilian Marsala wine, in fact, can be classified on the basis of different factors and there are, therefore, different types of Marsala.
A first classification is made, for example, on the basis of sugar content, another on the basis of color, yet another on the basis of its aging and, finally, on the basis of alcohol content.
So, choosing the Marsala wine most in line with one’s taste is not so simple, but we are here for that!
Let’s start with the color. The gold color involves the use of only white grapes, as well as the amber color. Grillo, Catarratto, Ansonica and Damaschino grapes are used for this type of Marsala wine. The oldest are Catarratto and Ansonica, which were mentioned as early as 1696 by the Sicilian botanist Francesco Cupari in his book Hortus catholicus. Grillo, today the most important grape variety, made its entry only in 1873 when Marsala wine celebrated its first 100 years.
The ruby color, on the other hand, comes from the use of black grapes from the Perricone, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese vines, with an addition of white grapes.
Depending on the color of the wine, the sugar content and the type of processing, Marsala is available in the following types:
- Marsala Fine, at 17 degrees alcohol and with a minimum aging of 1 year. It is available in dry, semi-dry or sweet styles. It is an aromatic, spicy, but not overly elaborate wine.
- Marsala Superiore, with 18 degrees alcohol and 24 months of barrel aging. Again it is available in dry, semi-dry and sweet versions. The wine has a broad and complex bouquet, with notes of candied citrus, anise, and spices.
- Marsala Superiore Riserva, a particularly fine and structured superior, with 48 months of aging in wood.
- Marsala Vergine or Soleras, characterized by strong oxidative notes, intense, pungent, spicy floral aromas, with notes of licorice, cinnamon and a caramelized fruit, honeyed, but never sweet.In fact, Marsala Vergine is never sweet, staying under 40 grams of sugar per liter. It is also ideal as an aperitif, with fish or seafood, just like Sherry.
- Marsala Vergine Stravecchio or Riserva, aged up to 120 months.
How Marsala is made
Once the grapes for the production of Marsala have been harvested and vinified, cooked must, acquavite or mistella (acquavite and cooked must) can be added to the wine. If it is a Marsala Vergine, nothing is added since it is already a naturally fortified wine. In fact, its natural alcohol content can easily reach 18 degrees.
Once fortified, the wine is put to rest in 400-liter barrels, placed one on top of the other in a kind of pyramid, according to the Soleras method we have already mentioned. The barrels are filled only 3/4 full and the wine, with successive vintages, is gradually transferred to the lower levels.
When it reaches the base of this “pyramid,” the wine is ready for bottling and so the cycle continues, vintage after vintage.
The flavors and aromas of Marsala are called marsalati or maderizzati (a term named after “Madeira“). Fortified wine has the hint of nuts, dried fruit and spices (“nutty” in English), due to oxygenation that changes the aroma, and has a high sugar content.
Sicilian Marsala wine pairings: taste the tradition!
With shades ranging from golden yellow to deep amber and ruby red, Sicilian Marsala wine is characterized by spicy aromas, hints of dried fruit and caramel, honey and candied fruit. A fresh, light and very aromatic taste that is never heavy.
Sweet Marsala, characterized by its alcoholic flavor and spicy notes, invites food pairings such as chocolate, whiskey truffles, spoon desserts and all traditional Sicilian desserts such as cannoli with ricotta, almonds and pistachios, fruit cakes and tiramisu.
A drier Marsala, Superiore or Vergine, on the other hand, becomes a fortified wine perfect for aperitifs and savory pairings: fresh and especially aged cheeses, but also cured meats, fish, meat or game and soups. Finally, Marsala Fine secco is perfect paired with a seafood dinner!
Ready to taste all the flavor of this delicious Sicilian fortified wine and try all the pairings with traditional Sicilian dishes? Leave us a comment to share more pairings or tell us about your experience with Marsala wine!