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Marsala in a Glass

Who needs a time machine when you’ve got chicken Marsala? This signature dish of many gingham tablecloth restaurants in the 70s and 80s is what we typically associate with a Marsala wine—a wine that actually deserves to stand on its own. Even the bombastic and peculiar American food TV personality, Guy Fieri, a has a “Chicken Marsala Radiatori” recipe and claims that “no other dish can bring that coast of Marsala, Sicily, feeling into your kitchen like this one can.” OK Guy.

If you’ve ever travelled to Marsala, you’ll know why such a chicken dish is the furthest thing you can get from the food of the north-western Sicilian coast.

 

First off, you’d be remiss not to pay respect to the amazing and plentiful seafood available in this part of the world, which is often served crudo with olive oil, herbs, and not much else because its freshness needs no interference. Alongside your pesce spada you can drink a world-class Catarratto, Inzolia, or Grillo sourced from a nearby winery which probably also has roots in making in the famous Marsala wine.

Marsala is clearly a place that has been anointed by different cultures of the world, with influences throughout history from the Arabs, Spanish, Normans, Greeks, and in 1773, a British shipping merchant named John Woodhouse who stopped there to take shelter from the weather. Woodhouse was already familiar with some Spanish and Portuguese wines, and discovered that the local wine in Marsala, a strong white made from the Grillo grape, was not only particularly suited to ageing, but that it was made in a fashion that strongly resembled the Soleras method used to make Sherry in Spain.

The Soleras method is a series of wood barrels stacked together where the wine flows through the various levels of casks as it ages. Also referred to as perpetuum, the winemaker draws wine from the bottom cask for bottling, then refills the bottom cask from the cask above, and finally adds the newly fermented vintage to the top cask. The casks are oxygenated so the wine develops depth and increased longevity. Woodhouse is credited with introducing Soleras to Marsala after drawing the production method comparison to Sherry, and deciding that exporting fortified Marsala wine to England was going to be a profitable commercial enterprise.

Over the next two centuries, with the help of Woodhouse, his British compatriots, and Vincenzo Florio, a Calabrian naval fleet captain, Marsala wine earned a reputation as a fine wine and became a worldwide success. After Vincenzo Florio’s investment in the winemaking endeavour, other historical Sicilian families became involved in the production of Marsala. Among them mentioned are Rallo (1860), Martinez (1866), Curatolo Arini (1875), Carlo Pellegrino (1880), Lombardo (1881) and Mirabella (1927). Ultimately, it was a combination of political and economic factors that contributed to Marsala’s slow but eventual decline. By the 1980s Marsala was that dark curvy bottle languishing in the back of the pantry that was used only once for a basic chicken dish.

Today, Marsala which is made by a handful of attentive winemakers is receiving much deserved international acclaim, and there are calls for it to be “rediscovered.” One of those winemakers is the historic Rallo winery located in heart of Marsala. Operated by the Vesco family and encompassing three estates, Rallo produces a range of certified organic wines made from indigenous Sicilian grapes, a few international varieties, and Grillo for Marsala. Their Grillo vineyard, Piane Liquide, is located directly adjacent to the Riserva Naturale dello Stagnone di Marsala, a nature preserve comprised of a large lagoon and evaporation ponds where the famous Trapanese salt pan farming takes place. The native plants that thrive in this area are adapted to a high degree of salinity in the soil, including the Grillo vines that grow nearby.

Rallo’s Marsala Soleras Vergine Riserva is made from Grillo grown as bush vines, a system known as albarello marsalese. The grapes are harvested by hand at the end of August and transported to the nearby winery for vinification. After fermentation which lasts for 15-20 days, the wine matures in steel tanks for about 6 months before being fortified with brandy, then transferred to the oak barrel Soleras system where it ages for a minimum of 20 years; meaning, the youngest wine contained in the bottle is 20 years old. It is likely that a bottle of Rallo Soleras Marsala contains wine that is far older.

Marsala secco (dry) is intended to be enjoyed chilled, as an aperitif. It matches well with first courses like soft cheeses, salty snacks, or can also be paired with some desserts. A honeyed amber colour in the glass, the wine has aromas of toasted almonds blended with brown sugar and candied citrus peel, with vanilla and a touch of liquorice. The complexity of the wine is the first thing you notice, and its delicate salinity is fascinating; evocative of where the grapes are grown. The palate is refreshing, slightly savoury, but the length of the finish is remarkable. Flavours of toasted nuts and a touch of honeyed citrus remain on the palate and really give you that coast of Marsala feeling.

MARSALA CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM

Marsala is categorised into five main quality levels, three sweetness levels, and three colour categories based on grape varieties used in the blend:

QUALITY
  • Fine (aged for 1 year)
  • Superiore (aged for 2 years)
  • Superiore Riserva (aged for 4 years)
  • Vergine or Solera (5+ years)
  • Vergine Stravecchio or Vergine Riserva (10+ years)
SWEETNESS
  • Secco (dry) – max 40g/L residual sugar
  • Semisecco (off-dry/semi-sweet) – 40-100g/L residual sugar
  • Dolce (sweet) – min 100g/L residual sugar
COLOUR
  • Oro (gold) or Ambra (amber) – Any proportion of Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto or Damaschino
  • Rubino (ruby) – minimum 70% Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola or Perricone (Pignatello); maximum 30% Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto or Damaschino

 

MARSALA AVAILABLE AT ENOTECA SILENO:

Rallo Marsala Soleras Vergine Riserva 20 Anni 500ml – OR048 - $84.50

Antichi Baronati Marsala Fine Ambra Semisecco 750ml – OR015 – $23.00
Made from Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto.
Amber with golden tints. Intense and harmonious. Pleasantly sweet and full bodied.

Antichi Baronati Marsala Fine Ambra Secco 750ml – OR017 – $23.00
Made from Grillo, Inzolia and Catarratto.
Light golden with topaz nuances. Intense aromas of nuts and vanilla. Mellow with a pleasant taste of liquorice, almond and coffee.

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