The Case Of Marsala

07 Jul 2001

The press conference held to present the Second Slow Food Award – which will be awarded in Porto on 13th October this year – provided a perfect opportunity to return to the Douro valley, an exciting place for all wine enthusiasts. The valley’s spectacular terraced slopes overlook the river on which the barges carried wines to the cellars of Porto in the old days, and this is the heart of an epic wine story that has involved many areas of Europe; I am referring to the fortunes of Porto as well as Bordeaux, Cognac, Madeira and Jerez, and the fundamental role the English have played in discovering these wines and bringing them to the attention of the international community. The cornerstones of Port wine production are still marked by English names: Churchill Graham, Taylor, Fladgate and Yeatman and Dow’s, to name just a few.
Thinking about the huge historical continuity of these glorious wineries, founded between 1650 and 1800, I am saddened to note the now seemingly irreversible decay of Marsala. This Sicilian wine once stood among the ranks that include the glorious names mentioned above, and enjoyed the attention of the British for the whole of the 19th century, and after.
The impetus provided by the English markets allowed the people of Marsala to experience a period of affluence throughout the 19th century. However this ended when exports collapsed due to a consumption which undermined the product’s image. The “legendary” Marsala all’uovo was present in every Italian home throughout the 20th century symbolising the decay of this wine from Trapani owing to the consumer interest in using it as a cooking wine. Nevertheless credit is due to Sicilian winemaking, which is now turning back to quality. Excellent products are again emerging from the island, obtained from both native vines, such as Inzolia for whites or Nero d’Avola for reds, and from international vines such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Shiraz. But Marsala is still having trouble getting over the crisis period it entered when it followed productive criteria directed towards large quantities which flooded the market.
This is a real shame because the low profile image as a cooking ingredient that Marsala has not yet shaken off penalises the few large producers who are trying to reverse the trend. Recently I tasted an excellent Marsala and would strongly recommend it to enthusiasts: Marsala Vergine Soleras, 12 years old, from the Rallo winery. Rallo is something of an institution in Marsala and its old cellars continue the noble practice of making this great wine and restoring it to the splendour of previous centuries. We will be counting on them to bring Marsala back into the elite of European fortified wines – regardless of the English, of course.

Carlo Petrini

from La Stampa 07/07/2001

(English adaptation by Ailsa Wood)

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