Sicily has been a major wine producer since it was ruled by the ancient Greeks. The island is ideal for viticulture, thanks to its combination of a balmy climate (around 300 days of fine weather each year) and fertile, volcanic soil. Unfortunately, during much of the modern era, Sicily’s bountiful harvest resulted in low-caliber, bulk vino, often used to add a dose of sunshine-fueled punch to bland blends from the north of Italy.
In the 1990s, though, Sicilian vineyards saw the opportunities in focusing on quality rather than quantity, according to Bill Nesto, author of The World of Sicilian Wine, and began promoting premium Sicilian wines for the first time. He points to the arrival of winemakers such as Frank Cornelissen and Andrea Franchetti as critical for the improvement of both harvest and reputation. Annual exports from the region hit almost 99 million in 2013, up 16.8 percent since 2008.
One Sicilian wine staple, though, still languished unloved amid this Sicilian wine renaissance—at least until recently: marsala, the local fortified wine which acts as a response to Portugal’s Madeira or port. It’s appearing on prestige wine lists stateside—offered by the glass at Nick Anderer’s Maialino in New York or Suzette Gresham’s white-tableclothed Italian Acquerello in San Francisco. Carbone, the lavish Greenwich Village restaurant trying to reclaim Italian-American traditions from conventions of kitsch, even has a vintage marsala from 1930 on its wine list for $375 per bottle. Italian producers are responding to this uptick overseas by getting more ready for visitors—last year, one of the oldest vineyards, Cantine Florio, even introduced a glossy new tasting facility.
In the U.S.
Stateside, where marsala suffered from its association with that Atomic Era dinner party staple, chicken marsala, higher-grade vintages are displacing cooking-quality wine in stores and on shelves. Cocktail maestros such as Death & Co’s David Kaplan are experimenting with it as a new ingredient to add to their menus, and it’s slowly surfacing on high-end wine lists. “I always make sure to have one or two good quality marsalas,” explains Dusan Vranic, sommelier of Moshulu in Philadelphia. “Once you start interacting with a guest who knows about port or sherry, marsala is something I have to talk to them about.” He pauses: “It’s not only for chicken.”
Keith Wallace founded the Wine School of Philadelphia, where Vranic studied; speaking by phone from there, Wallace argues that marsala can be “ridiculously good.” He sees a parallel between its revival and the rise of retro-minded millennial drinkers, who are increasingly “looking backwards at great, old styles.” (There’s certainly a whiff of 1970s nostalgia in Pantone’s choice of marsala as its color of the year 2015.) He likens marsala’s rise more to a coming out than a rebirth, though. “Gay marriage is good, but sweet red wine is bad,” Wallace laughs, “We’ve all loved [marsala] behind close doors: high alcohol, delicious, tannic, and sweet.”
Struggling for Cachet
Indeed, it was that punchy sweetness that first earned the attention of a British trader, John Woodhouse, in the late 18th century. He chanced on the local production on a trip to Sicily and saw parallels with port and Madeira, already popular with British drinkers. Since America didn’t have an established tradition of drinking these fortified vintages, they struggled to attract cachet; sweet wines were for cooks, whether to add to dishes or sip in the kitchen. “We consider ourselves classless, so we’re always so worried about whether we’re classy or not,” Wallace continues. “That also made sweet wine taboo.” The fading of such barback fatwas has proved a boon for such brands as Cantine Florio, Marco de Bartoli, and Carlo Pellegrino. These top-tier marsalas are all now available stateside.
Now that they're freshly destigmatized, the new challenge is how to serve or drink them like a savant. Florio’s Benedetta Poretti, on the telephone from her head office in Milan, stresses the versatility of marsala. “You can start and finish a meal with the same wine. As an aperitif, serve it with a blue cheese—and it’s better in this case that the marsala is really cold,” she explains in English. “Then you can have it with some dessert, too, like cake, when it’s better to serve it at room temperature.” Indeed, Poretti says that Florio will soon introduce a special semi-sweet marsala to America that can be served both before and after a meal. It’s called Targa Florio, and it spends seven years aging in oak barrels.
John Rankin of New York’s Chambers Street Wines agrees. Speaking by phone from the company’s warehouse in Chelsea, he is a proud marsala aficionado. “It’s a misconception they’re all sweet. Some of the best are very old, dry ones that are lovely to have with food, especially Mediterranean or African cuisines with their spicy characters.” Rankin suggests pairing a drier marsala with salt-cured fish or tagine-cooked dishes, such as couscous, a nod to Sicily’s eclectic cultural heritage.
Other sweet wines are benefiting from marsala’s resurgence stateside, too, notably the little-known passito. This is the classification for a dessert wine made from grapes left out to dry in the heat. This flavor-concentrated fruit is used to make a rich, sweet Italian vino that's more than a match for Sauternes or Hungary’s Toccai. It’s often associated with the volcanic island of Pantelleria off Sicily’s southern shore, beloved by Giorgio Armani, but it can also be made elsewhere—and of course, Sicily’s own sunbaked climate is ideal. Ashley Santoro, wine director of chef John Fraser’s Narcissa restaurant, is a longtime passito booster. She can secure only a half a case of her Occhipinti Passito Passo Nero every year and has seen a surge in interest. Right now, at $120 a bottle, her supply is already sold out—add your name to the waiting list when she manages to secure a few more precious bottles.