Marsala is a town but it’s also a delicious fortified wine. Let’s take a look at the wines and terroir in this coastal Sicilian wine region.
The Town of Marsala
On the western most edge of Sicily, reaching into the Tyrrhenian Sea, lies the town of Marsala. Best known for the wine to which it lends its name, Marsala encompasses a territory some 241 square kilometers (93 sq. miles) with a landscape steeped in history. The area has a mediterranean climate (as expected) but leans toward the hotter end of the spectrum in the summer.
The town has 14 kilometers (8.5 miles) of coastline, meaning a few great beaches and ocean areas for swimming. While wine is still one of the big draws, the town enjoys a lively tourism trade on its beauty and archeological features.
Marsala Tasting Notes
The most common flavors are vanilla, brown sugar, stewed apricot, and tamarind. Marsala wine ranges from dry to sweet, and high-end Marsala delivers a more extensive range of nuanced flavors such as leather, dried fruits, honey, tobacco, walnut, and mushroom.
If you can’t finish the bottle in one sitting, you can keep Marsala, once it’s been open, for about a month without too many problems.
Marsala is a Sicilian Specialty
Marsala wine is made from grapes grown from around the town of Marsala, on the western coast of Sicily. It's special because it's one of few dessert wines that makes its own brandy to fortify the wine.
The unique, unmistakable character of Marsala wine comes from 3 influences:
- Sicilian native grapes
- A special winemaking process
- Climate and soils
The Grapes of Marsala
Most Marsala is made from three white grapes, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Grillo. Each of these contributes different things to the blend.
Inzolia: Brings a nutty aroma and body to the blend. Grillo: Adds a spiciness, nuttiness, and saltiness to Marsala. Catarratto: It oxidizes easily, meaning we get that beautiful amber color. It also has a lot of acidity, helping keep Marsala wines fresh.
Winemaking: How Marsala is Made
Most Marsala happens by making white wine, then fortifying it by adding brandy and then aging it in a large, old oak barrel for a few years. The process changes the color from pale yellow to amber and changes the flavors from fruity to nutty.
Producers will add Mosto Cotto (concentrated and cooked grape juice) to add color, giving the wine caramel and burnt sugar flavor. To adjust sweetness from dry (secco) to sweet (dolce), producers will add varying amounts of Mistella - a sweet mixture made from late-harvest grapes and brandy.
Climate and Soils
With over 250 days of sunshine, a constant warming southerly breeze, and Terra Rossa (red clay) soils, these factors combine to produce grapes that are high in sugar and concentrated flavors–ideal for fortified wines. The Terra Rossa soils are rich in minerals, which also is said to add a saline-like flavor.
Styles of Marsala
Easy going Marsala - Fine, Superiore, and Superiore Riserva
If you’re looking for a simple Marsala that’s not too expensive or looking for something to cook with, then these styles are some of the easiest to find. They’ll also give you a glimpse of how amazing Marsala can be.
These wines all have Mosto Cotto and some Mistella added to them, then aged in barrels from 1 (Fine) to 4 years (Superiore Riserva). This means we’ll find flavors of caramel, dried fruits, raisins, and walnuts.
If you want a dry style, look for “Secco” and if you want something sweeter to go with your tiramisù, look for “Dolce”.
Rare Marsala - Vergine, Vergine Stravecchio, and Vergine Riserva
These wines are hard to find, but they’re well worth the effort. Complex rancio flavors of leather, mushrooms, dried fruits, walnuts, truffles, saffron, ginger, citrus, and cigar are all possible.
These wines are always dry because they don’t have any Mistella or Mosto Cotta added to them - hence “Vergine.”
The older the wines are the deeper the color. Younger wines, like Vergine aged for 5 years will be golden, whereas Vergine Riserva, aged for at least 10 years will have a more amber, almost tawny color.
Some producers age their Vergine wine in Solera - a blending technique commonly used in Spain when making Sherry - and these rare wines will be labeled Solera.
"Rubino" labeled wines are a rare style of Marsala that are ruby in color, as they are made out of red grapes such as Nero d’Avola.
Wineries to Visit in Marsala
Marsala, the city, is a great place to visit because there are many cellars you can visit, but also surround Marsala you can visit the salt flats too. Some notable wineries to visit in Marsala are:
Cantine Florio - With a range of wines from all over Sicily, but also a great selection of fortified wines from Marsala this is a great place to visit to experience how Marsala is made.
Planeta - historical cellars and a huge barrel room, carved deep into the tufo rock, this is where the family started their wine business 160 years ago. They don’t make fortified wines here, but you can find some wonderful white and red wines here.
Marco de Bartoli - An artisan producer making small quantities of rare styles of Marsala, including 40 year old Vergine Stravecchio (Vecchio Samperi)! This is a great winery to check out if you’re looking for those unique and hard to find wines.