Marsala wine is certainly one of the lesser-known variants of this globally popular and widely praised alcohol. It is, however, certainly deserving of your attention.
The term ‘Marsala’ is protected – much like ‘champagne’. In fact, the European Union granted Marsala wine the status of Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and thus most countries prohibit the use of the name ‘Marsala’ in an attempt to protect the Marsala area.
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What is Marsala Wine?
Marsala Wine is a fortified wine that is produced on the island of Sicily – an Italian town near Marsala itself. While its production is restricted to this region, you can certainly experience an excellent Marsala wine tasting in London, for example.
All fortified wines are supplemented with a form of spirits. For marsala wine, this spirit is brandy. This raises the alcohol content to between 15-20%, hence why it is commonly served in small glasses. It is widely renowned as a cooking wine and as it is available as either a sweet or dry alcohol, it can complement a wide variety of sweet and savoury dishes of varying cuisines.
Is Marsala Wine Red or White?
Dry marsala wine is made from a calculated combination of certain local grape varieties. These include: Damaschino, Inzolia, Grillo, and Catarratto. While these are all white grape varieties and thus the wine is typically white, it occasionally includes a red grape variety.
Marsala wine is also classified according to its colour. Its colour is largely determined by the variety of grapes it’s made from.
The primary categories, according to colour, are:
- Ambra (amber)
- Rubino (ruby)
- Oro (gold)
The Oro version of Marsala wine is typically comprised of white grapes much like ‘Ambra’. Ambra’s distinct flavour profile is attributed to the use of a type of cooked grape called ‘Mosto Cotto’.
This category of dry marsala wine is typically made with the white grapes Cattaroto, Inzolia, Grillo, and Domaschino. ‘Rubino’ is made with mostly red grapes such as Nerello, Mascalese, and Pignatello. It can also contain up to 30% of white grapes
How is Marsala Wine Made?
The first steps to any wine making process are the collection and crushing of the grapes. Once this is done, the fermentation process can commence.
When making Marsala wine, the fermentation process will be interrupted for the purpose of fortifying. The timing of this interruption will depend on whether the winemaker wants a sweet or dry Marsala wine.
A sweeter wine will, of course, retain higher quantities of residual sugar. This is achieved by fortifying the wine before the fermentation process has run its full course. This means that if the spirit – in this case brandy – is added for fortification after the fermentation process, a dry marsala wine will be produced.
Types of Marsala Wine
Not all marsala wine is the same. Its flavours can range from honeyed notes to hints of fruit, nuts, or aniseed. It is generally priced by the length of time for which it has been aged as well as its colour. It ranges drastically in levels of sweetness too. One Marsala wine may be dry and mildly sweet and another could be substantially sweeter.
Its degree of sweetness can be broken down into three distinct categories:
Secco is the driest variation and its residual sugar content is below 40 grams per litre. Semi-secco is, as the name would suggest, semi-sweet with a 50-100 grams of residual sugar per litre. The sweetest option is therefore dolce with a sugar content that exceeds 100 grams per litre.
The final type of classification for Marsala is, naturally, its age. Younger wines are typically used for cooking while aged varieties are often appreciated as a sipping wine paired with the correct food.
The ageing categories range from fine Marsala, aged for a minimum of one year, to stravecchio which is aged for a minimum of ten years without added sugars.
In between these two extremes lies another three categories. Arranged in order from youngest to oldest these are superiore, superiore riserva, and soleras or vergine.
How Do You Serve Marsala Wine?
Marsala cooking wine is a popular application for this rather niche product. It can therefore be a flavour-enhancing addition to a wide range of meals.
The use of either sweet or dry Marsala wine will depend on the nature and flavour profile of the dish you serve. Sweet Marsala is an excellent addition to most chicken or pork dishes. It is also commonly used in the cooking of particularly sweet sauces.
Dry Marsala wine, on the other hand, is traditionally used as an ingredient in savoury entrées. It mimics the effects of caramelization and is particularly suited to turkey, veal, mushrooms, and beef.
People tend to underestimate the importance of a wine glass. Experts insist that the shape of the glass does, in fact, influence the rise of the wine’s vapour, thus influencing the taste and smell. Smaller port glasses are appropriate for sweet Marsala while the drier varieties are best served in standard white or sparkling wine glasses. Always ensure that the glass allows enough room for you to swirl the wine before taking a sip. This allows the wine to breathe and thus allows it to release its unique concoction of subtle flavours.
When serving, the temperature of the wine is another important consideration. When serving Marsala wine, follow the general guidelines of wine-serving temperature. A dry Marsala wine is best served slightly chilled – ideally at 15 degrees Celsius. A sweet Marsala tastes best when served at room temperature.
How to Pair Marsala Wine?
When you are not specifically using Marsala wine in cooking, there are certain food pairings that wine connoisseurs recommend. Secco and semi-secco are typically paired with a variety of sweet fruits and fruits. They are also well-suited to richer foods such as nuts, blue-cheese and Mediterranean olives.
Dolce Marsala is more of a dessert wine and is the perfect accompaniment to just about any chocolatey dessert.
Give Marsala wine a try and discover a taste of Italy with every sip!