Marsala Florio: a Southern Sea-born wine legend

Filippo Bartolotta

Marsala, land of stupendous myths, fabulous ruins and provocative wine and gourmet specialties that continue to fascinate and capture modern imaginations and tastebuds, and has done so since time immemorial.

Never a city prone to being overrun by outside forces or influences, Marsala has however long been a welcoming point for new flavours, cultures, and perspectives as only harbour towns can be.  Long-desired by leading cultural and economic forces looking for entry into Sicily and mainland Italy, Marsala has over time fearlessly maintained independence from external powerhouse cultures like the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Vandals, and even the mighty English naval forces.  Only in more recent history, immediately following the Napoleanic Wars of the early 1800s did Marsala succumb to external pressure, enduring a 15-year long occupation by the English hoping to thwart local political elements looking to counterbalance English dominance in the Mediterranean Sea.

 

With all these different elements pushing and pulling local culture, modern Marsala was born, and developed from a mèlange of different cultures and habits, like so much of Sicily.

While it’s popular to note that one of Marsala’s most fabled local products, Marsala wine, can trace its fame thanks to a lashing storm and an inquisitive English merchant, the area’s most appreciated and beloved local export (according to this writer!) actually has much deeper roots than that.  Harking back to the journals of Pliny the Elder, there is mention of a delicious fortified wine, Mamertino, a much prized wine used during banquets and feasts to honour guests, and considered to be Marsala’s predecessor.  Exports of Marsala (or the earlier versions of it) also are mentioned by Dutch artist Pier Paolo Rubens, who evidently shipped casks of the wine back to Antwerp at the conclusion of his stay in Marsala, in the 1600s.  

Marsala Florio

Fascinatingly enough, Marsala wine production itself follows a regional traditional dating back centuries.  In keeping with the island’s prolific viticultural tendencies, families generally kept small local vineyards in order to produce small amounts of local wines for private use.  These early vignerons would utilise part of every vintage’s best bottles to top up their family’s carateddu, prized casks containing approximately 26 liters of wine. The carateddus were topped up each year, allowing the different vintages to meld and blend together, presenting the finest wines over entire multiple generations.  This method, similar to the Spanish ageing process used in brandy-production, was developed and refined by the Sicilian farmers, and the subsequent wines provided refreshment at the most cherished family events, and honouring local important guests.

The Marsala wine, a classic feature of many local Marsala households and surprisingly absent from neighbouring towns and cities beyond Trapani, was “discovered” in the late 1770s in a fateful coincidence by the English merchant and businessman, John Woodhouse.  While navigating in the area, a seasonal storm forced Woodhouse’s boat to seek shelter in Marsala’s port.  During a meal in town, Woodhouse was introduced to the marvelous, smooth perpetuum-aged wine, also locally known as Marsala.  Woodhouse, recognising the wine’s innate potential for an English market where Sherry was already a principle player, opted to ship several casks of Marsala wine back to England.  Before shipping, Woodhouse modified the Marsala wine with the inclusion of Brandy to increase the wine’s alcohol levels, making it more stronger and more stable for shipping and enduring the long, potentially dangerous exodus back North to Woodhouse’s partners.  Woodhouse’s instinct proved accurate, and demand for further quantities and stocks was requested almost immediately.

Marsala Florio

Marsala Florio

Woodhouse’s intuition ushered in other producers, including the English businessman Benjamin Ingham, notable for his role as the first exporter of Marsala wine to markets outside of Europe.  Ingham also constructed one of the first local baglios with the exclusive goal of Marsala production and not just relegated to a family residence, providing up to 40 subsequent Marsala producers with an excellent production to follow.

Here begins the Marsala wine boom, which includes modern, fascinating background stories of the local families who developed these wines.  And it’s in this timeframe where we can explore the dramatic family dynasties the Marsala wine movement gave birth to, an engrossing peek into Italian family dramas of the Belle Epoque era.

One of the founding families (and modern-day proprietors of one of the finest Marsala cantinas) of the Marsala boom was the urbane, fascinating Florio family, one of Sicily’s wealthiest, best-connected family with roots and business interests spanning the entire island.  Beginning with Vincenzo Florio Sr., the family accumulated wealth and industrial heft with interests in international shipping, fish processing, banking, sulfur processing, and much more. Cantine Florio, founded in 1832, was the first Marsala wine Cellar, still existing today with its beautiful 6 corridors, each 165 meters long, where 6 million liters of Marsala (40 years old on average) is gracefully aging!

The mesmerizing tuff rock cellar was built in the the city of Marsala, right in front of the sea. The relationship between Marsala wine and the sea is unbreakable. The Grillo Varieties were vilified to produce a still white which was then fortified to 19 degrees of alcohol and blended with a mistella (mix of unfermented grape must + sugar) and eventually also with some cooked grape-must for the sweeter Amber version. Whether it was a dryer or a sweeter version, this wine making technique is similar to port or Sherry o Madeira. Marsala belongs to what I call “the sea-born wines”: wines invented to cope with the tough climatic conditions of a sea vessel crossing the Ocean!

The Florios, who also invented the tin-can tuna, had a fleet which was also reaching New York and when prohibition  in the USA stop wine making, Florio managed to keep selling Marsala to the USA, branding it as a Tonic, a Hospital Size with a recommendation of 2 small glasses a day!

Marsala Florio

And although this was a commercial idea, when I taste Marsala, with its beautiful balsamic nuances and medicinal herbs aromas, I have the felling that it’s good to me!
Drinking the 1939 and 1941 Florio Aegusa straight from the original barrels brought me into another dimension where it’s almost impossibile to tell where the wine is sweet or dry for the complexity it delivers. There’s sweetness in it but the salty veins are so persistent that it taste dry. Today some of these old vintages can be miraculously purchased at the winery.

MINI CLIP 1939 LUCKY wine guy fd1187436ac448d8856889271f642951

Those vintages I tried during my last trip to Marsala, were produced under Ignazio Florio Jr.  Junior inherited the family fortune, Sicily’s overall industry and commercial relevance was already beginning to deteriorate, and Florio was forced to confront and manage a crumbling empire.  However, with a ready fleet of merchant ships at their fingertips, the Florio family was well-placed to branch out into the production and shipping of Marsala wine, which thanks to John Woodhouse, was creating waves in the English market as a wonderful alternative to the brandy and sherries enjoyed throughout England’s sophisticated drawing rooms.

Ignazio’s generation of the Florio family had a tremendous impact socially and economically in Marsala, in the cantina alone giving employment to circa 300 local workers.  Beloved by the local populace, and renowned also for their Villa Olivuzza, a castle-like property where notable international figures would stay when visiting, from the Rothschilds to the Leopold II of Belgium to Theodore Roosevelt and many others, the family maintained socially acceptable roles in affluent local society.

I can’t refrain from thinking how we have all forgotten about this amazing wines which can be enjoyed by the most refined palates as well as by the younger wine lovers. The single old vintage selection like Aegusa claim their spot in the world of dessert fine wines, while some readier to drink version like Targa or Terre Arse are perfect also as provocative food companion.

Terre Arse Vergine Secco Riserva 2003 is a dry wine with loads of acidity, perfumes of bay leaf, toasted almonds, intriguing leathery and oxidative tones with an iodine finish and a salty bite is a perfect aperitivo and as a result I would go with some smoked fish, a crostino with cray fish & gorgonzola cheese or a simple anchovies&butter sandwich!

Targa Marsala Superiore Riserva 2006, with its 7 years of aging in the big Slavonian barrels, is a voluptuos dessert wine packed with dry figs and dates, chocolate and raisins with very ripe fruit and a marron glasse finish would be perfect with blue cheese or some avocado, tuna and pecan crunch.

Oltrecento Marsala Superiore dolce 2012 is a sweet wine with a vanilla, cardamom, licorice, fudge and ripe apples driven nose and a chocolate finish. And yes this wine is shouting for chocolate, but don’t be shy to try a dark chocolate with salty caramel or chocolate and bottarga while you are at it. Of course if you have a salty tooth, blue cheese does always the trick!

With such a fascinating backdrop, filled with colourful local and international family dynasties, intriguing developments in local wine production, and a stupendous geographic location, it’s no wonder that the world of Marsala wines is an exciting world to discover and taste.  Each drop of these wines express their origins, and with such full flavours and glorious history, an exploration of Marsala wines is long overdue.