When Americans hear the word Marsala they usually think of a bad chicken dish at a wedding buffet. But wine professionals say that if people knew how magical Marsala could be in a glass, they would think again.
Once sought out by oenophiles all over the world, this Sicilian fortified wine, which has been produced for centuries, if not millennia, fell out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century and hasn’t quite regained its footing. And that’s a shame.
“I wish I could say that Marsala is back to all its glory, but unfortunately most Americans might not realize the nobility and care that goes into producing Marsala,” says Shelley Lindgren, co-owner and wine director of the A16 restaurants in California’s Bay Area and co-author of three Italian wine books.
“I think most people still think of Marsala as strictly a cooking wine,” says Joe Campanale, co-owner of restaurants Fausto and Lalou in New York City and author of Vino: The Essential Guide to Real Italian Wine. “Our guests are often surprised when I tell them that Marsala can be an elegant and complex sipping wine.”
Relegated to the bottom shelf by far too many consumers, Marsala is ripe for discovery.
What Is Marsala, Exactly?
If industry experts agree that getting serious about Marsala is worthwhile, they also agree that this wine can be hard to describe. It’s possible that this Sicilian fortified wine’s biggest problem is how many things it can be and how hard it is to pin down.
This much is true: To be legally labeled Marsala, a wine must be made in the northwest corner of Sicily from grapes indigenous to the region, with Grillo being the most appreciated of those, and then fortified (that is, strengthened with must or distilled spirit) before bottling.
The Styles of Marsala, Explained
There are three styles of Marsala: oro, ambra and rubino. There are also five aging designations: fine (aged at least one year), superiore (two), superiore riserva (four), vergine (five) and vergine stravecchio (ten or more years).
The History of Marsala
Most people will say that Marsala was popularized by the English in the late 18th century as the world was falling into the era of colonialism and the market for wine that could travel was expanding. But the Marsala region of Sicily had long been producing this unique style of wine by the time the English arrived.
Renato de Bartoli, who joined his father Marco in an effort to revive a pre-British style of Marsala production in the 1990s, points out that more than 2,000 years ago, the Phoenicians already shipped the wines of Marsala to their colonies across the Mediterranean. Only then, Marsala wines weren’t fortified. Instead it was produced by a method known as “in perpetuum,” which saw a Solera-style multi-vessel aging process.
In the 1960s, the global market for wine was growing and super-producers like Sicily began to favor quantity over quality. The slow-moving traditional process was often modified in favor of using chaptalization, fortification or the addition of cooked grape must to make Marsala ready for market faster. And the diversity of production methods made the wine increasingly difficult to categorize, while cutting corners deteriorated its reputation.
As a result, many of the finest producers of Marsala now make wines that are not even labeled as such, wishing to return to older practices that pre-date this turn, or even the earlier British intrusion.
Getting Back to Greatness
Gabriele Gorelli, the first (and still only) Master of Wine in Italy, observes that given the prodigious memory of the wine-drinking world, people of a certain generation might still understand Marsala can be great, but that vision is fading, and younger drinkers are disconnected from its once-greatness.
To be sure, the identity-nomenclature problem is one Marsala shares with all Italian wine, points out Andrea Mancìn, wine director at LaRina in New York City. It puts at risk the loss of Marsala’s territorial identity, which is what he sees as Marsala’s only way forward. De Bartoli agrees, emphasizing that it must be tied to its place of origin, showing its Sicilian identity no matter what face it presents.
This history combined with the many faces of this unique wine is what so impresses Roberto Magnisi, winery director of the major Marsala producer Cantine Florio. He calls the wine “a love story.”
Magnisi points out that Marsala is so exciting because it can reproduce the vicissitudes of a long-term relationship: It can be challenging, but is constantly evolving. It becomes even more rewarding with investment. And on the subject of investment, Marsala remains an absolutely screaming deal for anyone who wants to dip a toe in this part of the Sicilian wine sea.
Even the highest-quality Marsala arrives at relatively affordable price points considering how age-worthy, exciting and profound it can be.
What Marsala should we be drinking then? Here’s what the pros have to say.
The Best Marsala Wines
The Best for Cooking
Florio Marsala Superiore Dry will deglaze your pan beautifully, but while you’re at it, take a sip. Gorelli says this bottling is a great point of entry for those new to Marsala.
The Best for Everyday Drinking
Lindgren loves Vito Curatolo Arini Marsala Superiore Riserva Dry, which she calls a “classic unsung hero of Marsala.” She loves even more that it comes in around at a reasonable $27 retail for a 750ml bottle.
The Best Affordable Marsala
Gorelli really enjoys the Francesco Intorcia Heritage bottling, though it can be harder to find on the U.S. market.
Campanale suggests the De Bartoli Cinque Anni Oro Superiore as something that delivers excellence at a reasonable price.
The Best Splurge Marsala
Lindgren answers immediately with the splurge, De Bartoli Riserva Marsala Vergine 1988, which she likes to pair with a baba au rhum studded with pistachios, lemon and pomegranate.
The Best Sweet Marsala
Lindgren thinks the Cantine Pellegrino Garibaldi Marsala Superiore Dolce is a delicious exploration of Marsala’s sweet side. It retails around $14 a bottle, which means it counts as an affordable choice as well.
The Best Marsala That’s Not Technically Marsala
Campanale is a big fan of the Nino Barraco Viteadovest Alto Grado, made in the pre-British Marsala style without fortification. It’s aged seven years in chestnut casks after spending a few days on the skins.
The Best Overall
The consensus holds that De Bartoli is making the very best of the best, whether it be labeled as Marsala or not. Its Vecchio Samperi in perpetuum bottling is the hands-down winner, according to most wine pros we consulted.
What Color Is Marsala?
Marsala ranges from golden yellow to deep copper to garnet—indeed, the aesthetic of these wines alone are a good reason to try it, as watching it glow in the glass is part of its absolute magic.
Can You Drink It or Is It Just for Cooking?
Like all wine, definitely both!
What Does Marsala Taste Like?
Because of the many different styles of production available on the market today, it’ll come as no surprise that Marsala can taste like many different things. Nuts, stone fruits and vanilla are all notes associated with Marsala, but they’re certainly not the only things you might find in your glass, especially in the rarer, older iterations of this drink, which might bring out dark chocolate, crushed roses, tobacco leaf, spices and sea air.
What Should I Cook with Marsala?
Chicken Marsala—thinly pounded chicken cutlets floured and cooked in stock and Marsala—is gorgeous in its simplicity and deserving of its popularity when executed with care, but it’s far from the only dish that this wine can elevate.
Rabbit stewed in Marsala with pine nuts and raisins is a particularly rich and rustic favorite. Also, pairing raw oysters with Marsala can be a positively transcendent experience—without having to cook at all.
How Long Does Marsala Last?
Marsala has amazing duration, one of the many reasons it’s such a winning suggestion when it comes to both drinking and cooking. Campanale remembers having tasted a bottle of Nino Baracco Viteadovest Alto Grado that had been open for six months—and was still singing.
If I Can’t Find Marsala, What Should I Try?
Campanale pulls out Chinato, which straddles the space between amaro and vermouth, while Mancìn similarly looks to the broader vermouth category as a great place to start. Mancìn also reaches for Amaro Reset, which he likes because it not only shares the characteristics of a Marsala, but also channels the botanicals and terroir of Sicily.
Mancìn’s attention to terroir is another point on which everyone agrees.
Terroir is where Marsala will find its footing, literally and metaphorically. The future of Marsala is uncertain, but as Gorelli says, it’s unquestionably tied to the way the world perceives Sicilian wines, and the way the world understands Sicily more broadly. Marsala is wine at the end of the day, whatever its other unique qualities, and like all great wine, it must taste of a place, whether on your plate or in your glass.