The Sordid Tale of Marsala Wine #ItalianFWT

Sweet and dry marsala wine

Marsala is a wine with a colorful history

Italian Food Wine & Travel Group Indulges in Italian Sweeties
This month, our Italian Food Wine & Travel (#ItalianFWT) group will be sampling and posting on sweet wines from Italy. Take a look farther down in this post for links to my fellow Italian wine enthusiasts contributions for the month.

There is no shortage of wonderful, highly regarded sweet wines from Italy: Moscato d’Asti, Brachetto, and of course, rich wines from dried grapes such as Montefalco Sagrantino Passito. This month, I’m taking on Marsala, that neglected, nearly forgotten wine of past glory from Sicily.

Sicily is the big island off the toe of the boot of Italy. Marsala is a small port town on the western side of the island.

What’s Marsala?
Marsala wine is made in the western part of the island of Sicily, in the region around the port town of, you guessed it, Marsala. The base wine is made from indigenous white grapes grown in Sicily, and the dark color comes from cooked grape must which is added during the winemaking to give more intense flavor and color. The wine is fortified with a neutral grape spirit (aka brandy) to stop fermentation. Marsala is aged in a solera system, similar to sherry which involves a system of wooden barrels through which the wine is blended with wines of prior vintages to produce a unique flavor that is constant from vintage to vintage. There are multiple versions, we usually only see “Fine” Marsala which is young, aged only 1 year, and in either “dry” or “sweet”. Dry Marsala is actually mildly sweet, and sweet Marsala is, well, sweet.

Greed, Shenanigans, and a Sad Imprisonment on Grocery Shelves
I love reading about the history of wines, as there are so many points of view to each story. The storybook view of Marsala describes it as one of the great fortified wines of the world with a noble history. Once upon a time, the world loved and cherished sweet wines; Sauternes, Port, Madeira, Marsala all were loved and drunk often.

A slightly grittier story goes like this: In the late 1700’s, English merchant John Woodhouse visited Sicily at Marsala and sampled the local wine. He was surprised how similar it tasted to the famous wines of Port and Madeira and how inexpensive it was. He immediately set up to ship the wines in unmarked barrels to England where he would make a fortune selling the anonymous wine for Madeira prices. Of course, like Madeira, the wines would need to be fortified with spirits to help them survive the heat of a long ocean voyage in barrel. So Marsala was born, although it wasn’t exactly called that….

Florio Fine Marsala "Sweet"

A beautiful color in the glass with a lovely aroma

Other merchants soon arrived, scooped up all the grape growing land in the region and began producing and exporting Marsala. Along the way, many improvements in winemaking did occur, including the introduction of the solera aging system “borrowed” from Jerez in Spain where sherry is made. Italians didn’t even enter the ownership scene for Marsala until the mid-1800’s with the arrival of the Florio family.

Marsala cooking wine on the grocery shelf

The sad fate of the vast majority of Marsala wine – filled with salt & pepper and stuck on a grocery store shelf

Unfortunately, greed overcame attention to quality, and Marsala slipped into a period of overproduction and an eventual position as only suitable for cooking. In fact, most people only know of Marsala as a cooking wine with salt and pepper already added, unsuitable for drinking at all. Sad.

Dry Marsala wine in the glass

Italian Producers have been focusing on quality since the 1980’s, with a desire to reclaim the reputation.

Luckily, high quality producers of Marsala wine never gave up. Look on the dessert wine shelves of your local wine shop, and you are likely to see one or two Marsala wines. Typically, they are the young “Fine” versions. Go ahead and buy a bottle and give it a try. Over time, maybe we’ll see more of the solera aged artisanal bottles on local shelves. Let’s hope so!

Florio Fine Marsala "Sweet"

Sweet, with lively acidity to balance

Florio Fine Marsala DOP “Sweet” ($8 for 375ml bottle, locally)
Eye: Clear, pale translucent caramel color, reminds me of the burnt sugar top of crème brulée.
Nose: Clean, medium- intensity. Golden raisins and fresh ripe figs, nuts – pecans.
Mouth: Unctuous and sweet, the wine is balanced by nice acidity. Caramel and nutty flavors in a mouth coating body, very nice. Very enjoyable, and so inexpensive!

Curatolo Arini Fine Marsala "Dry"

Curatolo Arini Fine Marsala DOP “Secco (Dry)” ($15 for 750ml bottle, locally)
Eye: Clear, medium caramel brown
Nose: Clean, medium- intensity, ripe figs, like the inside of a fig newton!
Mouth: semi-sweet, medium acidity, seems a little flat to me. Raisins and figs persist in a medium finish. The wine was nice, but it didn’t seem to have quite the sweet/acidity balance just right.

Italian Food Wine & Travel Posts on Sweet Italian Wines

Take a look at all the excellent sweet Italian ideas below.  If you see this soon enough, please join our chat on Twitter – Saturday June 3rd 10:00 am CDT at #ItalianFWT.

Jen from Vino Travels features Passito from Pantelleria

Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Camilla features “From Start to Finish with Brachetto d’Acqui

Susannah of Avvinare features Red sweet wines from il Bel Paese

Gwendolyn of Art Predator features Passito Dessert Wine by Anselmi: No Other Dessert Needed!

Jeff of Foodwineclick features The Sordid Tale of Marsala Wine

Marsala References:

Wine Folly article on Marsala

Polished History of Marsala

Hopeful Story of a Marsala renaissance

Marsala wine is so much more than cooking wine, buy a nice bottle at a wine shop and enjoy it at dessert! Details at


8 Responses to “The Sordid Tale of Marsala Wine #ItalianFWT”
  1. Michelle says:

    I lived
    in Nicolosi, Sicily for awhile and traveled to Marsala thinking it was a cute wine town/region…NOT…it was a
    downtrodden isolated place and since the Africican continent is within reasonable miles their are many immigrants and war refugees.

  2. Duff's Wines says:

    Heading to Marsala this fall. Great introduction to the wine and its history. Thanks.

  3. Okay, Jeff, I can admit I was in the “Isn’t Marsala a cooking wine?!?” camp. Embarrassed, but happy to learn something new this morning. And, yes, when I see it on the shelf in the WINE section – not the vinegar/oil section – I will pick up a bottle Thanks, as always, for helping me be less ignorant. Cheers!

  4. I fall into that bucket of only using it for cooking but I appreciate the wineries that struggle to overcome this mentality to prove it’s more than that.

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