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Sicily’s treasured Marsala wine makes its way back into our hearts.
One of Italy’s most specialized winemaking styles may have lost some of its recognition over the past few decades, but with a resurgence––and a little rebranding from the classic Marsala-producing cantinas––chefs, sommeliers, and wine lovers are singing its praises once again.
The beautiful city of Marsala is one of Sicily’s secret gems, tucked away as far west as you can go. The coast is lined with sea salt pans, the harbor is filled with fishing boats, and a wild warm Scirocco wind blows through the town regularly. In Marsala, there has been the tradition of making fortified wines since the 1770’s. At first it was a high alcohol beverage that could withstand long voyages from Sicily to England. John Woodhouse, a British wine merchant started out distributing other fortified wines like sherry, port, and Madeira before arriving in Marsala. He found the location in what is now southern Italy, in Marsala’s harbor that would be ideal for growing grapes and shipping wine. The Mediterranean climate provides very hot and windy summers with mild and fairly dry winters.
The downfall for Marsala wine may have been the excess of over 100 cantinas that opened during the early 1900’s. Methods of advanced oxidation, adding caramel colors, or artificial flavorings such as coffee and chocolate became commonplace and as to be expected, the quality and reputation plummeted very quickly. Until recently, it was known only as a cheap cooking wine (sometimes hidden away in your kitchen cabinet for years) and not thought of as an elegant and refined wine that could be paired with a meal. You can seek out incredible versions but there will still remain those terribly disappointing bottles sold in supermarkets. We are working on educating wine lovers by reintroducing quality Marsala back onto our wine lists.
It might sound complicated at first with all of the DOC regulations, the different colors, categories of aging, level of sweetness, and the grape varieties but I’ll try to simplify it for you. The DOC certified Marsala wines must be made from Grillo, Inzolia, or Catarratto white grapes, or Pignatello, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola and Damaschino red grape varietals. The categories of Marsala reflect how long it has been aged in barrels. “Fine” Marsala has been aged for at least one year, “superiore” for two years, “superiore riserva” four years, “vergine solera” five years or “vergine solera stravecchio” has been aged for at least ten years. While “oro” gold, “ambra” amber, and “rubino” ruby, describe the color of these wines, “secco” dry, “semisecco” semi-sweet, or “dolce” sweet, relate to the amount of sugar in the finished product.
Whether it’s amber, a toasted golden brown or ruby red in color, Marsala’s incredible range is the most unique characteristic. You’ll recognize notes of bitter almonds, burnt honey, vanilla or spices while others have the essence of dried figs, carobs, balsamic or dried fruits.
If you’re new to Marsala, start by looking for the classic producers like Cantine Pellegrino or Cantine Florio who have been making Marsala since the 1800’s. A highly-respected but newer addition to the list is Marco De Bartoli who started making Marsala in the 1990’s. Although Marsala is commonly paired with desserts or dark chocolates, it can be served with dishes like aged cheeses with marmalade, fresh oysters, smoked fish, or Sicily’s famous tuna roe bottarga.
A dear friend of Casa Mia, Francesco Alagna from Ciacco restaurant, is one of the people spearheading a Marsala revolution in his own city. Along with his wife Anna Ruini, of Donnafugata winery, they promote Marsala tastings as well as full meals that are paired with special Marsala wines at their restaurant. We suggest you give Marsala another chance. At Ciacco, they like to say “The artichoke is the enemy of good wine, but the artichoke is the best friend of Vecchio Samperi.”, a 20 year-old signature wine from Marco De Bartoli made with the traditional solera method of adding new, fresher wines to barrels containing wines already aged. When correctly matched with food or even sipped on while smoking a cigar, the wine pairings can be perfect.
If you’re interested in visiting Marsala, Casa Mia offers a new Cooking Lesson & Lunch experience:
In the historic center of the city, guests meet their local chef for a morning visit to the outdoor food market. Guests source ingredients for a hands-on chef led cooking lesson. After picking up ingredients like qualeddu a foraged green only found in this area, wild fennel, freshly caught fish and seafood, the chef takes guests back to the restaurant for a private cooking lesson featuring three local Sicilian dishes. Guests are welcomed with a coffee before tying on aprons to start their special lesson in a newly renovated kitchen in the middle of beautiful Marsala. They get an introduction into the world of Marsala’s food and wine with a certified sommelier and our Casa Mia selected chef. Menus are based on family recipes, traditional Sicilian cuisine, and local specialties. Dishes may include fresh red mullet, pasta con le sarde, sweet-and-sour eggplant caponata or a very special bread and parmigiano “meatball” with tomato sauce. Lunch in the sunny piazza includes local bread, cured olives and extra virgin olive oil along side of the food created together in the lesson. Meals will be paired with Marsala or local Grillo. The entire experience in Marsala will be professional and a great deal of fun. Contact Casa Mia for pricing and booking information: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Cheeky Chef, Linda Sarris was raised in a big Greek-American family with a Chef grandfather, a fisherman Dad and a kitchen full of women who loved to cook. After a career in book publishing and a secret night-school culinary degree, she ran away to Sicily with a scholarship to work for a farm-to-table cooking school. She has worked as a fishmonger at Eataly, consulted for a restaurant in Romania, cooked for a Tuscan winery and underground supper clubs in New York. With a home base in Brooklyn, Linda works as a private chef and often travels to Italy for freelance jobs like her new project SNACK, a chef’s guide to Sicilian food/wine.