Produced exclusively in and around its namesake town on the Italian island of Sicily, Marsala is a fortified wine made with indigenous red grape varieties like Pignatello and Nerello Mascalese, and white ones like Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto and Damaschino. It’s fortified with brandy, and ranges similarly in color, available as ambra (amber), rubino (ruby) or oro (gold).
Marsala varies in style, too. It can be dolce (sweet), semi-secco (semisweet) or secco (dry), with flavors that swing from dried fruit and nuts to floral and fresh, to vanilla and licorice. Bottlings are also classified by age and range from young, fine expressions aged a minimum of one year, to Stravecchio bottlings, which are aged in oak for at least 10 years.
In modern times, Marsala has developed a reputation as a cooking wine, but that wasn’t always the case. The style was popularized in the late 1700s, when European trade routes were at peak activity.
English merchant John Woodhouse is credited largely for its spread. He was introduced to the wine when a bad storm led him to dock at Marsala’s port. Enjoying it at a local inn, he was reminded of fortified wines like Madeira and Port that were gaining popularity with English drinkers. By the time the storm cleared, Woodhouse had nixed his previous plans. Instead, he set off to sea with thousands of gallons of Marsala wine.
The decision paid off. People were excited to try a new style of wine and it soon became a drink of choice for British naval officers, merchants and other sailors who sought wine that wouldn’t cook on their ships.
By the turn of the century, however, Sicily’s poor infrastructure and inability to market the wines properly left Marsala in the dust. Lower-quality versions entered the market as cooking wine, and its status waned.
Today, Marsala is indeed great for cooking, but its enjoyability in the glass shouldn’t be overlooked.