Historic fortified wine style of the Marsala zone, in the west corner of Sicily, whose reputation was built by the British during the mid-18th century, fresh from creating Port, and keen to have options as they fought Bonaparte! British merchants would tour round the small artisan producers of white wine from the Grillo, Catarratto and Inzolia grapes, who would keep their wines in botte grande for years, waiting for the knock on the door. These would then be blended together in a solera (‘perpetuo’) system and, if necessary, fortified with acquavite prior to beginning its journey to England.
The quality industry was taken over by the new fledged Italy in 1870, led by the likes of Florio, but then subsequently ruined by the large Bourbon estates, who, after WW2, turned it from a high quality, artisan product – a stravecchio wine – into a volume product, adulterated with ‘mistella’ (grape concentrate and brandy). The rise of the cooperative movement (‘cantine sociale’), along with the fashion for sweet carbonated drinks (eg Coke), exacerbated the problem. Marsala became an industrial product, and preferred cooking ingredient. But since 1978, Marco De Bartoli has led a counter-revolution to restore the good name of Marsala by using wine made from his own estate.
Marsala is classified into three styles: Vergine (the finest, aged for 10+ years, fortified but without mistella); Superiore (the middle level, the ‘British style’, aged for 5 yrs, with added ‘mistella’ and fortified) ; and lastly Fine, aged for 2 yrs, mistella added and fortified)
Marco De Bartoli is regarded as the region’s top quality producer, making wines that echo those of their heyday. His flagship wine is Vecchio Samperi: a ‘stravecchio’ wine in the original, authentic style of Marsala, made without ‘mistella’ or fortification.