Marsala is one of the world's great fortified wines, made exclusively in and around the town of that name, in the far west of Sicily, southern Italy. Like some of its fortified counterparts from other parts of Europe, Marsala has seen a significant slump in popularity and sales over the past few decades, although there are efforts underway to re-establish its once-gleaming profile.
The Marsala wine style is generally accepted to have been created by English wine merchant John Woodhouse, who specialized in Port, Sherry and Madeira distribution and came to Marsala in 1770. The wine quickly gained a strong reputation in the British market and great volumes of the wine were made. A large proportion of it was sold to the expanding British navy of the time: 500 barrels a year was Admiral Nelson's famously large order. Two centuries later (in April 1969) Marsala wines were granted DOC protection, just a few months after Etna became Sicily's first DOC.
In the original Marsala DOC laws the conditions placed on the production (disciplinare di produzione) of Marsala wines were very relaxed, allowing excessively high yields. To make matters worse, at that time the Italian government was actively encouraging wine producers to increase their crop yields. Government subsidies helped vineyard owners convert from the traditional goblet (bush-shaped) method of vine training to the more productive guyot (cane-pruning) and tendone (pergola) methods. It was tempting to capitalize on this change by using irrigation to swell the new crops to bumper proportion; few producers resisted, and many even dropped the traditional Marsala grape varieties Grillo and Inzolia in favor of the more prolific Catarratto (still the most widely planted variety in Sicily). This led not only to even more fruit being gleaned from each vine, but also a flavor change in the base wine into which it was made.
The overall result was that year on year, vast amounts of low-quality Marsala were generated, low in natural sugars and typically in need of sweeteners such as cane sugar, which further reduced the unique character of the wines. An alternative to using raw cane sugar was to use artificial flavorings such as coffee and chocolate, which entirely disguised whatever natural character the wine may have had left. This essentially destroyed Marsala's image as a product of quality and a fine wine in its own right, and condemned it to years in the dark recesses of kitchen cupboards. This is changing, but very slowly.
Modern Marsala can be made from any one of ten grape varieties, including the traditional Grillo and Inzolia and the modern, mass-planted Catarratto (Catarratto Bianco Comune and Catarratto Bianco Lucido included). Other grapes are the Sicilian specialties Pignatello, Nerello Mascalese and Damaschino and the only variety on the list to be grown outside Sicily, Nero d'Avola. The latter, along with Pignatello and Nerello Mascalese, provide color in the red-hued Rubino Marsala wines, which must be made from at least 70% of these varieties.
There are five ageing-related categories for the wines: fine (one year), superiore (two years), superiore riserva (four years), vergine/soleras (five years), and finally vergine/solera stravecchio (ten years). These are complemented by official mentions around the color and sugar content of the wines: oro, ambra and rubino describe the gold, amber and ruby hue of the wines; secco (dry, at 40g/l, or grams per liter), semisecco (semi-sweet, at 40–100g/l) and dolce (sweet, at more than 100g/l) indicate the quantity of sugar (residual and supplementary) in the finished product.
In November 1984 the DOC's production conditions were revised, and in an attempt to encourage quality over quantity, the high-yield allowances were reduced. They now stand at 100 quintali per hectare for white grapes, 90 quintali for reds. Thirty years later there are some glimmers of recovery, but few signs that Marsala will ever regain the glory it once knew.