This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
A few years ago a publisherI had worked with previously asked me what I wanted to write next. I replied that I’d been thinking about something on the great lost fortified wines of the world. She looked at me askance and then said that she couldn’t think of a less commercial book.
I never heard from her again but I still think it’s a great idea and the place I’d start would be western Sicily, home of Marsala.
The wines from Marsala were once spoken of in the same breath as sherry, port and madeira. Indeed, Marsala began life as a madeira substitute.
With their heady aromas of burnt orange and almond they’re like stepping into the pages of The Leopard
In the 1780s the Liverpudlian merchant John Woodhouse visited Sicily, tasted the wines and noted their similarity to madeira, which was all the rage. He fortified and sweetened the wines for British tastes and began exporting them. A stroke of marketing luck happened when Nelson visited from Naples, where he had been canoodling with Emma Hamilton. He tried Woodhouse’s wares and declared: “the wine is so good that any gentleman’s table might receive it, and it will be of real use to our seamen”.
Other British merchants such as Benjamin Ingham from Yorkshire arrived — there was fabulous money to be made. These businessmen married into local families and formed an Anglo-Sicilian merchant aristocracy. The Whitakers, relatives of Ingham, built the Villa Malfitano Whitaker in Palermo, whose fabulous trompe l’oeil interior looks like something from The White Lotus.
Sadly, most of the legacy from this golden era is not in such good nick. All over western Sicily you’ll see ruins of wineries looking like little slices of Regency Bath or Cheltenham. The decrepitude reaches its apogee at the harbour-front at the town of Marsala. The wine is not in much better shape. Marsala never really recovered from phylloxera, the vine-eating pest which arrived in Sicily in 1893. The vineyards were planted with lesser grape varieties and producers went for quantity rather than quality. The Whitaker and Woodhouse families sold up to Cinzano in 1929 and Marsala, once enjoyed by connoisseurs including Thomas Jefferson, became an industrial wine mainly used for cooking.
Some good Marsala, however, is still made today. Sandwiched between the ruined Woodhouse and Ingham/Whitaker warehouses is Baglio Florio. Most of the output is quite ordinary but they do produce a little vergine, unsweetened wine, under the brand name Terre Arse, which sounds like a painful malady but it’s Italian for “scorched earth”. It used to be fairly easy to find and not expensive, but it seems to have doubled in price in the last five years. Florio’s great rival, Pellegrino, also produces some fine vergines.
The greatest producer, however, is Marco de Bartoli. A scion of the Pellegrino family, he bought up old casks of wine as the marsala business declined in the 1970s, before setting up on his own. He died in 2011, but his family have continued making wines in the old way from hand-picked grillo grapes from their own vineyards.
The pinnacle of the range is the unfortified Vecchio Samperi, a taste perhaps of what got Nelson so excited. None of these wines makes sense from a utilitarian point of view. If you love dry fortified wines then you get much better value from sherry. But there’s nothing else quite like them. With their heady aromas of burnt orange and almond they’re like stepping into the pages of The Leopard. Hard to find, these are wines for romantics.
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