You might think that I’m about to make the argument in favour of Marsala, but I’m not. Instead I’m going to sing the praises of the wines of Marsala. And if you think that you don’t understand the difference between the two- well then, great, you’re already ahead of the game.
Marsala- on the Western side of Sicily- and Mothya- or Mozia- the island that sits just off the coast- were first settled by the Phoenicians, about 5,000 years ago.
They planted grapes there and already noticed that the same African sun- much of Sicily is actually south of the northern tip of Africa- hyper ripened grapes, raising the alcohol content significantly.
And that the same wind that was strong and constant enough to allow them to reclaim salt from evaporating the sea water, also made the wines salty and pleasantly briny.
The 5,000 year long timeline of Marsala would look something like this:
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Notice that there are three lines, a very long one and then two short ones. The first is what wine was like there for most of its history, the second is the arrival of the English and the third is our own era.
‘Line two’ represents John Woodhouse’s influence, the business man behind the exportation and promotion of Marsala in England in the late 1770’s, a market that fell ravenously onto the wine. It’s high alcohol quelled life’s pains, this the era before divorce or dentistry. And Marsala rode the coattails of other fortified wines from Southern Europe, such as Sherry and Port and Madeira. They were, unfortunately, very much in vogue.
Marsala was a runaway success but over the course of about a hundred and fifty years, it slowly petered out, leaving Sicilian producers not sure what to do.
Marsala moved from the cellar to the kitchen in some parts of the world. It’s shelf stability and high sugar made it an ingredient in the absence of fresh ones, a staple that could produce restaurant fare when the market was out of everything else.
That’s not to say that there isn’t remarkable Marsala. There is. Marco De Bartoli (now sons) produce Marsalas that vibrate in your mouth, what Rothko paintings do for your eyes.
The ‘third line’ in Marsala’s timeline is our current era, where more and more producers are actually producing wine near Marsala the place, more in the style of ‘line 1’. These wines are dry, often single varietals but they still capture the spirit of the land, of the African sun and the fierce winds. The part of Europe that feels like the end of it.
Liberated from the perpetuum (soleras) system and the alcohol-adding in the fortification process, the wines of Marsala are now free to choose their less briddled path.
They are salty, briny, often tasting of very fresh anchovy (and what is fresh anchovy, if not umami and salt)? They are profoundly minerally, wines that make the world of wine wider. They will never be a hit at anyone’s hen party. You will never be served one on a flight.
It’s unlikely they’ll ever be trendy again and for most of us, that’s a good thing. Especially for those that seek out wines that behave as terrestrial core samples, as liquid geology and anthropology. Wines that tell a story of a people and of a place.
My favourite producer is Nino Baracco, who makes many wines near Marsala and all of them from ‘line 3’. He labels most of his wines genetically and we’ve been friends since before he ever even had a winery, from the days when he moved wines through tubes by first sucking on them.
Nino is now a fixed stop every one of long-distance bicycle trips and will be one of the episodes of the upcoming show. Ask around for dry wines from the West coast of Sicily. You’re likely to just delight the person that sells you your wine.
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