How to really use Marsala wine

 


Famous British chef Delia Smith boosted sales of Marsala years ago when she poured the amber liquid into one of her famous recipes. Sadly, since then you rarely hear of this under-rated sweetie.  That’s a pity, for it’s an intriguing wine.  

Marsala is a fortified wine that, like Port, was strengthened with alcohol to help it survive the long sea journey to England way back in the eighteenth century. Marsala, named after the picturesque Sicilian coastal town, was a star on the shelves back then.

Like many Italian grapes, the varieties for Marsala are difficult to pronounce but if you follow the Italians and use your hands, Grillo, Cataratto and Inzolia just slide off the tongue! The DOC Wine Laws (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) for Marsala were revised in 1984 to control yields and allow additional grape varieties, namely Pignatello, Nerello Mascalese, Damaschino and Nero D’Avola. Now you see how important it is to use your hands!
Making Marsala is a complex business. The grapes are left on the vines in the near-African sun past the normal harvest date to produce higher sugar levels. The fermentation is stopped by the addition of high strength grape spirit which stops the fermentation stone dead, thus retaining the natural sugars and boosting the alcohol to a heavyweight 17–19% by volume. The fortification procedure depends on the level of desired residual sugar in the finished wine.  Then comes the unusual bit as two sweetening agents can be curiously added.  

The first is called ‘mistella’ which is a blend of semi dried shrivelled grapes and wine alcohol. The second is called ‘cotto’ which is a strange concoction of cooked grapes … the smell of these grapes cooking in copper caldrons on the island is fantastic. How much of these sweetening agents is added again depends on the degree of sweetness of the final wine style. There are three sweet and two dry styles. ‘Told you that is was a complex business.

The first sweet style which goes under the confusing title of ‘fine’ is the ‘basic’ Marsala which has to have a minimum alcohol content of 17% and a minimum ageing period in wooden barrels of one year. The next is Marsala Superiore, (18% and 2 years ageing), whilst the next level up is Superiore Reserva that requires 4 years barrel ageing.
 
If you want to be different you could serve one of the dry Marsalas as an aperitif; look out for Vergine Soleras and Soleras Reserva. They’re ‘dry’ as none of the ‘gloopy goodies’ are added, only high strength spirit – the former requires 5 years ageing whilst the Soleras Reserva requires 10 years in the barrel to carry the prestigious label.

You have to be careful when choosing your preferred Marsala style. For example, Secco or dry, can carry up 40 grams per litre of residual sugar so is not actually ‘dry’, Semisecco, (semi-sweet) has 40 – 100 grams per litre, whilst Dolce has a tooth rattling 100 plus grams per litre of sugar. I can’t help but think that a simplification of Marsala styles would boost sales enormously.

Marsala is not the flavour of the month so you may get some odd looks as you sneak the bottle off the shelf but it’ll all be worth it as you sit back, relax and enjoy a glass of this Mediterranean classic.

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Comments

  • Nice article. Appreciate the insight into this enhanced vino.

    Jan 24, 2019 at 3:23 PM


  • Snooth User: qutiful
    1333123 43

    Thanks for the tip. Will try.

    Jan 24, 2019 at 3:35 PM


  • Not much about "how to really use Marsala wine" in this article! I was expecting a few recipes, or at least a few suggestions about pairing with cheese or maybe chocolate, or even a cocktail! This was more of a history lesson Kind of a disappointment.

    Jan 24, 2019 at 3:38 PM


  • Snooth User: nratt
    678530 73

    I agree with Bob. The piece is fine insofar as it goes, but it surely doesn't support the headline.

    Jan 24, 2019 at 4:11 PM


  • Snooth User: pox
    1802102 35

    Yes, where are the recipes? I have a bottle of Marsala waiiting for them.

    Jan 24, 2019 at 4:12 PM


  • Very nice article for the few of those that never eared about it. In Italian cooking it's famously know to pair with Veal. Veal a la Marsala. We use do it with marsala 2 years old and filter by eggs white.

    Jan 24, 2019 at 4:45 PM


  • Snooth User: qutiful
    1333123 43

    Off Topic:
    Where can I sell older red wines and older Champagne?

    Jan 24, 2019 at 7:04 PM


  • Snooth User: duncan 906
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    425274 2,811

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    Most people who buy Marsala wine buy it to make Tiramasu a delightful Italian desert

    I once visited the small town of Marsala. It was like a ghost town because it was lunch time and all the inhabitants were in the restaurant

    Jan 26, 2019 at 7:17 AM


  • Snooth User: 1206gene
    1298826 51

    I hardly ever actually DRINK Marsala or Madeira, but oh boy, are they ever great to cook with! A properly cooked Veal or Chicken Marsala is divine.....restaurants too often ruin it by using cutlets that are too thick and serving it over pasta. These wines also make fantastic pan sauces with steak and pork, mixed with shallots, butter and dried cherries or cranberries.

    Jan 26, 2019 at 12:11 PM


  • Snooth User: qutiful
    1333123 43

    Duncan 906,
    Thank you, I,m in the USA. Someone recommended craigslist or e-Bay..................

    Jan 26, 2019 at 12:11 PM


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