Marsala Wine - Not Just for Cooking

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Chicken Marsala is a well known Italian dish. But, did you know that Marsala is also a fine drinking wine?

Marsala is a fortified wine that originated in the town of Marsala on the west coast of Sicily. True Marsala still only comes from Sicily and is produced from Sicilian indigenous grapes.

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 wines are also produced in 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 (i.e., 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 up to 30% 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. And because it’s fortified, it doesn’t need to be kept in a refrigerator. Just store it in a cool, dark place and it will retain its flavor for a very long time.

So, don’t drink the cooking wine. Save it for great sauce reductions. But do seek out a nicer bottle and enjoy! Cheers!

Behind the Cork™ - Clayhouse Adobe Red

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2012 Clayhouse Adobe Red Blend ($14)

This was an interesting find. I love Paso Robles and the wines that are produced there. But, I wasn’t previously familiar with this one.

The Clayhouse estate Red Cedar Vineyard is located on the east side of Paso Robles within two of the sub-AVAs: San Juan Creek and Paso Robles Estrella District.

This blend is from winemaker Blake Kuhn who got his start at UC Santa Barbara with degrees in biology and environmental sciences. He later attended UC Davis to further his wine education.

Blake has done well with this Adobe Red. It’s 39% Petite Sirah, 34% Zinfandel, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Syrah, 3% Tempranillo and 2% Malbec.

It has nice black fruit flavors of cherry and blackberry with a bit of jammy flavor, some nice oak additions of vanilla and cocoa and finishes very smooth. This is a very tasty red blend at a great price. Cheers!

Ever Wonder About the 'Legs' You See in a Wine Glass?

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It’s something that you see wine drinkers do - swirl their wine glass and then look at the ‘legs’ that run down the inside of the glass. And, often they’ll equate the quality of the wine with the legs by saying things like “Oh!…this wine has really great legs.”

It’s a real phenomenon, that involves some chemistry and physics, but I won’t bore you with the details.

The simple explanation of the ‘legs’ in a wine glass is that it’s all about the alcohol.

The droplets that form and move down the sides of the glass after the wine is swirled are a product of the fact that alcohol (ethanol) in wine, evaporates more quickly than water. The alcohol crawls up the glass as it evaporates, but since there is a film of water on top, it is pushed up in an arch. Eventually gravity causes the water's surface tension to be broken, allowing the water to run down, in ‘tears’ that form ‘legs.’

If you really want the technical details on this effect, look up the Marangoni effect.

So, yes, a great wine can exhibit great legs inside a wine glass. But the truth is that any wine can do that. Cheers!

Behind the Cork™ - Panthera Russian River Chardonnay

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2016 Panthera Russian River Valley Chardonnay from The Hess Collection ($45)

This 100% Chardonnay comes from The Hess Collection of wines from the Russian River Valley.

Hess Family wines was founded by Donald Hess in 1978. Today, Tim Persson (Donald’s son in law) and his wife Sabrina are owners of Hess Family Wine Estates and are the fifth generation of the Hess family to lead the company.

Panthera is part of a new collection of wines that are not Hess branded. But it certainly represents the tradition and heritage of Hess wines.

This Panthera Chardonnay has a great balance of pear, peach and hints of pineapple along with some acidity and is rounded out with light oak. The oak comes from 15 months of aging in 35% new French oak.

According to the notes, “The word Panthera is believed to be of East Asian origin, meaning ‘the yellowish animal’ or golden-yellow.” This coloring in indeed striking in this inaugural vintage of Panthera.

This Panthera should please any Chardonnay drinker. Look for it!


Disclosure of Wine Sample Submission: I received this wine at no cost for review. The opinions expressed are entirely my own.

Sample Provided by Donna White of Donna White Communications


Ever Wonder -- Can Oak Flavor in Wine Come from Powder, Chips and Staves?

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Oak has been used as an aging vessel for wines for centuries. Wines get added flavors and complexity from being aged in oak barrels, especially new oak.

But oak barrels are expensive. And they only impart flavor to wines during their first two to three uses.

So, to get the oak flavors without all the cost, some wines are made with oak chips, oak staves and even oak powder.

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Using these oak barrel alternatives allows wine makers to use less expensive containers (e.g., Stainless Steel tanks) and still get the desired oak flavors.

After the wine has the necessary time in contact with the chips, staves or powder, they are physically removed or filtered out and consumers never know the difference.

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This may seem ‘wrong’ to many wine purists, but it is allowing winemakers to produce oak flavors in their wines at considerably lower costs. And, studies have been done that show consumers can’t tell the difference.

But, since wine labels don’t tell us the difference, I wonder if we’d change our opinions of wines that are produced with these oak alternatives instead of the traditional oak barrels?