For decades, the most famous wine exports of Sicily were the Sherry-like fortified wines of Marsala, named for the Moroccan-accented port town on the island’s west coast. The wines of Marsala, which have been banished to the kitchen in recent years, are perhaps the most vivid examples of the myriad ethnic influences that shape Sicily’s culture and cuisine. The name Marsala, for example, is thought to be derived from the Arab phrase “Marsah-el-Allah,” or, “port of God,” a name likely bestowed on by the island’s Moorish rulers centuries ago.
Marsala wine was first commercialized the British, who, as in Jerez in Spain and Oporto in Portugal, created wines that could withstand long sea journeys by fortifying them with grape brandy. At its most basic, Marsala), like Sherry, is a fortified wine made from white grapes (although there are some versions made from red varieties). And like Sherry, Marsala is as stylistically diverse as wines come: It can by dry, semi-sweet, or sweet, and it comes in “oro” (gold), “ambra” (“amber”) and “rubino” (ruby) versions. There are also different age categories: Fine (aged only a year, not necessarily in wood); Superiore (aged a minimum of two years in oak or chestnut, and four years for Superiore Riserva); and Vergine/Soleras (aged a minimum of five years in wood and a minimum of ten for those labeled “Stravecchio” or “Riserva”).
Confused? Well, that’s Marsala. Generally speaking, the market for the more sippable, Sherry-like styles of the wine has dried up, while mass-market brands used for cooking continue to survive on the margins. Often these wines are made using a substantial percentage of cooked grape must rather than straight wine and grape brandy, a practice which has greatly diluted the character of the wine.
That said, one of the lone holdouts in the production of artisan Marsala, Marco De Bartoli, is again shipping his long-aged nectars stateside. DeBartoli’s “Vecchio Samperi,” an example of the rare Vergine/Soleras style, is aged using the fractional blending method known as Solera, made famous in Jerez, Spain. Using a battery of progressively smaller casks, DeBartoli continually “tops up” his oldest wines with wines from the next-oldest vintage, with the newest wines going in the largest cask at the end of the battery. Vecchio Samperi is more than 40 years old, with the smoky, nutty complexity of a fine Sherry. Try it with aged pecorino cheeses, or maybe slightly chilled alongside some shellfish or other seafood as an aperitif. It is a rare treasure in the world of wine, and while its distribution is spotty in the US, it is worth seeking out.