One of my favourite Italian dishes is Veal Marsala, made with the amazing fortified wine of Sicily. Unfortunately, Marsala does not get a lot of publicity here in North America other than as a cooking wine. As a result, there isn’t much available, perhaps because it’s overshadowed by more well-known fortified wines like Port and sherry. Whatever the reason, it’s most unfortunate, because the wine is a delight.
Its production is based around the seaside city of the same name on Sicily’s west coast. Like Port and sherry, it is fortified by adding grape brandy or spirits. This increases the alcohol, which ranges from 17 to 18 per cent or higher depending on the style and aging. Like its counterparts, it comes in both sweet and dry versions and can be red or white depending on the grapes used. It’s made from local, indigenous grapes like Inzolia, Catarratto and Grillo (the most popular) for white styles, and Calabrese, Perricone, Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese for the red versions. Some Marsala is aged in a “Solera System” similar to sherry, where different vintages of wine are blended together.
Classification of Marsala is based on its colour, age, alcohol content and sweetness. From a colour perspective, there are three styles. “Ambra” (amber coloured) and “Oro” (gold coloured) are made from white grapes and “Rubino” (red coloured) is made from red grapes.
Aging of Marsala takes place in oak, and age classifications are most interesting. “Fine” is a wine that is aged for at least one year. It’s a simple, straightforward style often used for cooking. “Superiore” must age for at least two years, but is often kept in wood for up to three. With “Superiore Riserva,” the wine starts to have more complexity and is worthy of sipping as an aperitif or dessert wine. This is aged for at least four years, often up to six. “Vergine” has a minimum aging requirement of five years, but many producers will stretch that up to seven. A wine labeled “Vergine Soleras” is a blend of many different years and aged for a minimum of five years. The ultimate in Marsala is “Stravecchio.” At least 10 years of aging are required for this baby. Styles with less aging requirements are fortified at the lower end of the alcohol spectrum.
When it comes to sweetness, certain words on the label indicate such. “Dolce” means sweet (100+ grams of sugar per litre), “Semi Secco” means the wine is semi-dry (between 50-100 grams of sugar per litre) and Secco tells you the wine is dry (less than 40 grams of sugar per litre).
Producers to try include Marco De Bartoli, Florio, Curatolo Arini, Pelligrino and Lombardo.
As mentioned earlier on, Marsala’s claim to fame here in North America is as a cooking wine. Generally, drier styles work best with such delights as meats (especially smoked), soft cheeses such as goat, olives and nuts. Sweeter versions go well with desserts (especially chocolate), and strong, aggressive cheeses such as Roquefort. More specifically, Marsala sauce works wonders with ribeye burgers, beef tenderloin, porterhouse steak, pork chops and veal cutlets. Check it out with smoked duck in a fruit compote, turkey cutlets or chicken meatballs. Try searing scallops or shrimps in it or glaze sea bass or tilapia with it.
For sweets, how about strawberries or dried figs and Marsala? Maybe match it to trifle or truffles! What about with tiramisu, baked apple, poached pears, zabaglione, or one of my favourites: homemade Cannoli with Mascarpone cream? In fact, quality designations for this historic wine have improved so much over the last number of years, you’ll be happy simply sipping it straight up as an aperitif or dessert wine.
If you have the opportunity, whether here or in Sicily, give Marsala a go. Versatile and delicious, there’s definitely a style that will appeal to every taste.
Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator and judge
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