Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Marsala: Mmm, Mmm Good!

When most hear the word Marsala their thoughts turn to chicken recipes rather than quality fortified wine. And why not? When was the last time you or anyone you knew purchased a real bottle of Marsala to enjoy as an aperitif, a before-dinner drink? Cheap supermarket rip-offs and American generic brands have sullied the reputation of this once well-regarded wine. Its popularity has followed a trajectory similar to that of Sherry, with a recent resurgence in interest after a long period of obscurity.

Vintage bottles of Intorcia Marsala.
All true Marsala hails from the island of Sicily where it was first popularized by English merchant John Woodhouse (it is unclear the relationship he had, if any, to the Port producer Smith Woodhouse) in the late 18th Century. Eponymously named after the port city, the grapes that produce the wine must come from a delimited area on the Western end of the island. Marsala made from white varieties such as Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto is referred to as Oro or Ambra, while Marsala made from red grapes like Calabrese and Nerello Mascalese is called Rubino.

There are many different types of Marsala, from dry to sweet, light to dark, but common to all its styles is the method by which the wine is matured. The aging regiment is called "in perpetuum" and bears a resemblance to the Solera system used in AndalucĂ­a for Sherry. This system ensures consistency, stability and the aromatic complexity that Marsala is known for. The oxidative maturation afforded by this system yields nutty, dried fruit and toffee aromas in the final wine.

The Marsala DOC became an official Italian wine appellation in 1969, with the rules governing production further refined in 1984. Written into law are the aging requirements and their accompanying descriptors:

Fine (Dry or Sweet): Aged a minimum of 12 months
Superiore (Dry or Sweet): Aged a minimum of 24 months
Superiore Riserva (Dry or Sweet): Aged a minimum of 4 years
Vergine/Solera (Dry or Sweet): Aged a minimum of 5 years
Vergine/Solera Stravecchio or Riserva (Dry): Aged a minimum of 10 years

If your interest is piqued, the good news is that Marsala is affordable. Because it isn't as fashionable or popular as other fortified wines like Port, Marsala enjoys the economic advantage of being in relatively low demand. This translates to the fact that one can find Superiore Riservas like Vito Curatolo Arini's for under $25. And better yet, a basic Marsala like Intorcia Dry costs less than $15 a bottle.

Marsalas should be served with a slight chill. Drier version can best be enjoyed on their on their own before a meal, while sweeter versions like Vito Curatolo Arini Sweet Marsala Superiore can be enjoyed after dinner or with a cheese plate. Of course, these are brilliant wines to cook with and numerous recipes call for the use of Marsala, best known is the aforementioned Chicken Marsala. Ever versatile, it also makes a great, though often-ignored, cocktail ingredient in drinks like flips or as a substitute for Amontillado Sherry. So next time you need a Marsala for sipping or simmering, skip the supermarket imitator, try the real stuff, and taste the difference.

Cheers from DrinkUpNY!

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