Fortified Wine: Marsala

Previously we've established that fortified wine is wine that has grape spirit added. While typical wines have between 10 to 15% alcohol by volume (ABV), fortified wines end up with 15 to 20% ABV.  Early on, this proved to be quite beneficial, as the high alcohol levels would preserve the wine when making long journeys across oceans.  These fortified wines became known by the city or region where the wine originated; Port from Oporto in Portugal and Madeira wine from the Portuguese Islands of Madeira. This time we'll focus on Marsala wine from the town of Marsala on the west coast of Sicily.

True Marsala still only comes from Sicily and is produced from Sicilian indigenous grapes. And much like Madeira, Marsala is most often thought of as a cooking wine.  But, there are actually five quality levels:

  • Fine - Aged for 1 year and commonly used in cooking
  • Superior - Aged for 2 years and used most commonly in cooking
  • Superior Reserve - Aged 4 years
  • Virgin or Solera - Aged 5 years
  • Virgin Stravecchio/Virgin Reserve - Aged for 10 or more years

Marsala has three levels of sweetness:

  • Secco - Dry (little to no residual sugar). This wine completes fermentation before it is fortified.
  • Semisecco - Semi sweet. This wine is fortified near the end of fermentation so as to leave a small amount of residual sugar.
  • Dolce - Sweet. This wine is fortified during fermentation. The higher level of the fortifying alcohol kills the yeast before fermentation is complete, hence sugar remains in the wine.

There are also three styles of Marsala wine:

  • Gold - Produced with white grapes (Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Domaschino and Grecanico)
  • Amber - Also produced with white grapes but the grape must (unfortified grape juice) is cooked to the point where the natural sugars caramelize, giving the wine the amber color
    • Flavors of Gold and Amber Marsala include apricot, brown sugar, and vanilla
  • Ruby - Produced with red grapes (Pignatello, Nero d'Avola, Nerello Mascalese, and Frappato)
    • Flavors of Ruby Marsala include cherry, dried fruit, honey, walnut and licorice. 

High-end Marsala wines are produced by a system called 'Soleras' where new and old wines are blended. This will be the subject of a future posting.

A glass of Marsala wine should be served at approximately 55 degrees F and is wonderful when paired with Parmesan, Gorgonzola, Roquefort and other bold cheese. Cheers!