Legendary Marsala turns 50, sweeter than ever

Famed dessert wine first to get DOC status in 1963

Legendary Marsala turns 50, sweeter than ever

(By Denis Greenan). Rome, July 11 - Sicily's legendary Marsala is set to mark the 50th anniversary Friday of its becoming the first Italian wine to garner the coveted DOC label, a landmark made sweeter by its recent reincarnation as a trendy cocktail. Marsala was long a sweet dessert wine loved by cooks, and few others, but its standing has been gaining since its official recognition in 1963, while its versatility is being appreciated by a new generation of wine buffs. "You no longer talk about Marsala as an end-of-the-evening 'digestivo' or, more prosaically, a vital ingredient in regional cooking; young people see it as 'the Sicilian mojito', a cocktail on the rocks with a sprig of basil, a chalice of meditation," enthused the head of major Marsala producer Baglio Curatolo Arini 1875, Roberto Curatolo. Giuseppe Martelli, of the national committee for regionally specific wines, recalled: "the first talk of giving wines a certificate to mark them out as unique terroir products came with the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and the Italian government took the decisive step six years later, in 1963, when Marsala became a DOC, paving the way for Moscati d'Asti, Asti Spumante, and all the powerhouse reds to come, like Barolo and Brunello di Montalcino". The mayor of the Sicilian town of Marsala, Giulia Adamo, said the anniversary "celebrates not only the long and prestigious tradition of a land devoted to fine wines but also Marsala's ability to keep up with the times". She urged visitors to come to Marsala, which has been named this year's European Wine City by the European Network of Wine Cities (RECEVIN). Adamo recalled the wine's "long and noble history" including its adoption by Risorgimento hero Garibaldi as his favourite pre-battle tonic as he launched his campaign to re-unite Italy - even naming a favourite steed after the wine - and its "rediscovery and reinvention" by English wine merchants and oenologists in the 18th and 19th centuries. Marsala has now regained its reputation to such an extent that one of the original English Marsala families recently started producing the fortified wine again. The Hopps brothers' ancestors were part of the Marsala goldrush of the nineteenth century that saw several English merchants making vast fortunes ageing and exporting the local wine worldwide. But by the mid-twentieth century the English entrepreneurs had all sold up. And in the later half of the century, the wine's reputation plummeted, victim of the cheap strawberry and egg-flavoured confections sold with the Marsala name. Almost 10 years ago, Fabio and Giovanni Hopps decided top start producing Marsala again. "Our ancestor was John Hopps, the nephew of John Woodhouse", 57-year old Fabio Hopps said on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the DOC appellation award. "Woodhouse was the man who first exported Marsala from Sicily in the 1790s". The brothers inherited a family vineyard that made Marsala up to the end of the Second World War, when falling demand sent more than half of the 100-odd Marsala firms out of business. "We started up again for the love of quality wine. Our Marsala costs twice as much as other firms', but we go by the French motto that if you begin with the grape, the wine follows," said Hopps. "We harvest the grapes by hand and select the grapes very carefully. We are throwing away about half the grapes at the moment." The small seaside city itself has fought to re-establish the wine's popularity, and is gradually getting the upper hand. It is hard to go anywhere in Marsala without finding traces of the wine-producing past, from the decrepit warehouses on the seafront, to the well-signed wine- sellers and wine producers who are Marsala specialists, and even the town's fountains: an old-fashioned cherub holding a bunch of grapes, and a huge teetering sculpture of a drunken woman knocking back a cask of wine, her mule collapsing beneath her. More than 20 wine producers around Marsala now give tours of their cellars to the public. They range from massive producers - Vinci, De Bartoli, and Florio, a Sicilian producer traditionally considered the best and now owned by a multinational company - to tiny cellars, such as Perricone. After a trip through their wine-scented warehouses, which show off the process of pressing and casking the wine, visitors retire for a tasting session at one of the town's many wine bars. Antonio Agate, proprietor of the 'Morsi e Sorsi' wine bar in Marsala, started up his business a decade ago in the wake of this new demand. Over a recent tasting, he explained that Marsala is aged using the Soleras system: as nearly 20% of the wine evaporates from the casks each year, new wine is piped in. "The minimum time is one year, which makes a cooking wine". After two years' aging, the process makes Marsala 'superiore', a sweet wine, and three years, a dry wine, fragrant wine; four years aging is called 'riserva' and the wine looks much clearer, like cognac, and a lighter colour, and eight years, 'vergine', a very clear yellowy-red drink. "I like it chilled with a strong cheese, preferably a seasoned Pecorino. But I prefer the aromatic Marsala, and it is good with sweet Sicilian desserts such as cassata siciliana and casatelle," said Agate. The story of the English Marsala families was told by Raleigh Trevelyan in his book 'Princes Under the Volcano', republished by Phoenix Press recently. It remains the definitive account of the 200-year period that saw English merchants create an international business exporting Marsala. The Marsala story started by accident when a ship carrying John Woodhouse, a Liverpool merchant, docked in Marsala. Woodhouse tried some of the strong local wine, liked it, and decided to send 8,000 gallons to Liverpool. To preserve the wine better during its journey he added alcohol to the wine. Under the banner 'Madeira', a sweet fortified wine that the English market already knew, it sold quickly, and Woodhouse decided to develop a business. The greatest breakthrough came when Woodhouse managed to sell Marsala to admiral Horatio Nelson and the British Navy, turning the wine into an almost patriotic product. From then on Woodhouse sold the Marsala that Nelson liked under his first name, Bronte. Other merchant families soon joined Woodhouse, including the Inghams; but it was a young Sicilian merchant, Vincenzo Florio, who started up in the early 19th century, who eventually made the best living. The last of the English Marsala families sold up in the mid-20th century century, and although descendants of the Inghams are still found in Marsala, most of the others have either left Sicily, or, like the Hopps, become bona fide Sicilians.

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