The City Of Wine
by John VerPlanck and Jennifer Laskey VerPlanck,
Black Sheep Wine and Beer Shop, Harpswell,Maine
Travel to the island of Sicily, the far western end to be specific, and you’ll find Marsala, “The City of Wine”.Marsala wine is made exclusively in this region, producing more than eight million liters annually.
In the mid eighteenth century there was a war going on that dramatically affected the Iberian Peninsula. Unable to obtain their favored Ports and Sherries, England was in the market for something comparable. So, in 1773, John Woodhouse, an English merchant, discovered the local Sicilian Marsala wine called Perpetum tasted similar to Sherry. Perpetum was produced using a system similar to the solera used to make Sherry, with vintages constantly (perpetually) blended and aged in wood barrels resulting in a naturally sweet and powerful wine. He added brandy to fortify the wine for the sea voyage home. It was an immediate success.
Admiral Nelson celebrated his victory over Napoleon at Trafalgar with Marsala and declared it his “Victory Wine”, and ordered five hundred barrels a year for his fleet.
Marsala was so popular that Florio, the importer, had ninety nine ships and was prevented from building more because he would have had more ships than the Royal Navy.
The wines are categorized by color, age, and dryness. Colors are oro, ambra and rubina, which are tied to the grapes used. The principal grapes are the preferred grillo and the more prolific catarratto, for the oro and ambra, both popular Sicilian wines in their own right. The rubina Marsala is much rarer, made from blends of red grapes including nero d’avola.
Aged Marsala can be: Fine, aged one year,(used for cooking), Superiore, aged a minimum of two years in oak or chestnut, Superiore Riserva, four years, Vergine, five years, Vergine Stravecchio for ten years and Vergine Solaras, a blend of multiple vintages aged a minimum of five years in wood barrels. Sweet Marsala is dolce, off dry is semisecco and dry is secco.
Often regarded as just a cooking wine, good Marsala is delightful and will easily hold its own with the other fortified wines of southern Europe. Distinct flavors of dried figs, dates, honey, caramel, orange peel and almonds make this historic wine a great aperitif. Match the dry versions with smoked fish or meat, olives, nuts and hard cheeses. Sweet Marsala is used in Italian dessert dishes like Zabaglione and Tiramisu; it matches well with Roquefort cheese, dried fruits or desserts such as dark chocolate, cookies and custards.
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