"Marsala" production didn't begin until 1773, but grapes have been grown and wines have been made in this little corner of Sicily for thousands of years. In the mid 1700s, when the popularity of fortified wines from Oporto and Jerez grew immensely, British wine merchants explored possibilities of producing a similar product in other regions. The heady wines of dry, windswept Sicily fit the bill perfectly. As in Port production, brandy was added to the barrels and the resulting liqueur, with varying degrees of sweetness, was an immediate sensation.
About 100 years later, Paolo Pellegrino began his Marsala business. Now, Pellegrino---still completely family owned---is the largest producer in the region. They have nearly 1000 acres of vineyards and produce a full range of DOC Marsala.
Because of the natural climate of western Sicily---low levels of rainfall, hot temperatures and dry winds---treatments in the vineyards are rarely needed. All the grapes vines grown in the area can truly be called "eco-friendly." And these grapes are not seen in many other regions---Catarratto, Grillo and Inzolia for the whites; Pignatello and Nero'Avola for the reds.
In Italy, Dry Marsala is enjoyed as the aperitivo and Sweet Marsala after dessert.
A large, geographically and climatically diverse island, just off the toe of Italy, Sicily has long been recognized for its fortified Marsala wines. But it is also a wonderful source of diverse, high quality red and white wines. Steadily increasing in popularity over the past few decades, Italy’s fourth largest wine-producing region is finally receiving the accolades it deserves and shining in today's global market.
Though most think of the climate here as simply hot and dry, variations on this sun-drenched island range from cool Mediterranean along the coastlines to more extreme in its inland zones. Of particular note are the various microclimates of Europe's largest volcano, Mount Etna, where vineyards grow on drastically steep hillsides and varying aspects to the Ionian Sea. The more noteworthy red and white Sicilian wines that come from the volcanic soils of Mount Etna include Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio (reds) and Carricante (whites). All share a racy streak of minerality and, at their best, bear resemblance to their respective red and white Burgundies.
Nero d’Avola is the most widely planted red variety, and is great either as single varietal bottling or in blends with other indigenous varieties or even with international ones. For example, Nero d'Avola is blended with the lighter and floral, Frappato grape, to create the elegant, Cerasuolo di Vittoria, one of the more traditional and respected Sicilian wines of the island.
Grillo and Inzolia, the grapes of Marsala, are also used to produce aromatic, crisp dry Sicilian white. Pantelleria, a subtropical island belonging to the province of Sicily, specializes in Moscato di Pantelleria, made from the variety locally known as Zibibbo.
What are the types and styles of dessert wine?
Dessert wines come in an impressive array of styles and sweetness levels. The most straightforward method for making dessert wine is quite simply a late harvest of wine grapes, though further distinctions arise based on country of origin. The main examples include Sauternes (France), Tokaji (Hungary) and ice wine (Germany and Canada).
What are the types and styles of fortified wine?
Fortified wines (meaning alcohol has been added during the winemaking process) include Sherry, Port, Madeira, Banyuls, Rutherglen and other very small-scale styles. Sherry comes in completely dry styles (Fino, Manzanilla, Amontillado, Palo Cortado) and also in a range of sweetness levels. Madeira is typically sweet but can be made into a dry style. Port can be most simply separated into Tawny and Ruby styles. Vermouth, an herb-infused fine wine, is today popular among mixologists and other dessert wines are derived, not from wine grapes, but from different fruits.
How are dessert and fortified wines made?
As mentioned above, many wines in this category—like Sauternes and Tokaji—are produced by leaving the grapes on the vine long after the rest of the harvest has been processed in order to accumulate very high sugar levels. Often, a form of “noble” rot called botrytis plays a role, desiccating the grapes until only the very flavorful solids and sugars remain. These late-picked wines are, accordingly, often referred to as late-harvest wines. In colder climates, the grapes may be allowed to freeze on the vine for the production of ice wine. Other styles are made by letting the harvested grapes dry out (also concentrating sugars). Fortified wines are fortified with neutral spirits to increase the level of alcohol, and, depending on the final style of wine desired, arrest fermentation while some level, high to low (or no), residual sugar remains.
What gives dessert and fortified wines their color?
The different colors of most dessert wines come from the type of grape used and varying levels of oxidation during the winemaking process. The colors of Sherry and Port are mainly the result of oxidation, or lack thereof. Fino and Manzanilla styles are clear to pale gold because of the benevolent film-forming yeasts, called flor, that make a floating seal on the surface of the wine. This layer protects the wine from oxidation, and thus any browning. The other styles of Sherry use various levels of controlled oxidation, resulting in various hues of amber. The two basic styles of Port, Ruby and Tawny, also come in two basic colors, as noted by their names. Both styles are made from the same blend of Douro red varieties, but Tawny ports are tawny in color because they are made from a blend of vintages that have been aged in barrels and gradually exposed to oxygen. Ruby Ports retain their bright color because these wines are aged in barrel only for two to three years before bottling, thus minimizing any color change from oxidation.
How do you serve dessert and fortified wines?
Because of the typically higher sugar and alcohol content, the recommended serving size for most dessert, Sherry & Port wines is three ounces, which is smaller than for regular table wine. In general dessert wines should be served cold—a very sweet Tokaji is served at 40F; Sauternes are best at 50F. Fino and Manzanilla Sherries are best served at 45-50F, while the Amontillados, Olorosos and beyond, are best at 55F. Tawny Ports have a recommended serving temperature of 50-55F, whereas Ruby and Vintage Ports have a recommended serving temperature of 65F.
How long do dessert and fortified wines last?
High quality dessert wines such as Sauternes and Tokaji can often improve up to 10 to 20 years from bottling. Fino and Manzanilla Sherries should be consumed within a year or two of bottling since they are most appreciated for their freshness. Once opened, these are best consumed within a week. Store Amontillado Sherry up to about three years; once opened and refrigerated, these last two to three weeks before they decline. Store Oloro Sherry up to five years; once opened and refrigerated, these last a few weeks or longer. Cream Sherries are best consumed in their youth. Pedro Ximénez Sherry is a special case. It won’t necessarily improve with age, but is known to remain unchanged after many years of age. The two basic styles of Port can be further separated into an almost dizzying list of styles, but in general the only ones meant to age longer once bottled are crusted ports and vintage ports (from a declared vintage). Aside from those, LBV (late bottled vintage) ports should age about 4-6 years from the release date and the rest are ready to drink upon release. Fruit wines are not meant to age; the fresh fruit qualities of these wines are most prominent in their youth.