“Marsala and coke, good choice!” (Sicily, Italy – Day Three)

When I think of Marsala, usually the first thing that comes to mind is the quote used as the title of this post, from the Australian film Chopper starring Eric Bana. The quote comes from a scene in a nightclub where Chopper’s girlfriend orders a marsala and coke, to which the character Neville Bartos congratulates her on the wise decision. It wasn’t until I learnt what marsala actually was that I realised the cultural significance of this seemingly innocent exchange. Marsala is a wine coming from the town of the same name in the south-western corner of Sicily, made usually from white grape varieties (partly explaining why there are more vineyards planted to white than red on the island), and fortified similar to sherry. The wine was discovered by an Englishmen, much like port and sherry were, and were fortified and sweetened to appeal to the English market and allow them to survive the transportation. Marsala at one point was a very famous wine, and many houses were established in the 19th century, some of them English. As demand and production increased, the quality went down and marsala began to not be taken very seriously, much like other fortified wines. Unlike port and sherry the reaction was not to increase quality, but to introduce new flavours like egg and almond, and it was about this time that in Australia marsala was used in one of two ways. It was either used as a mixer in bars, purely for its alcoholic function, or in cooking. Now it is only really used for the latter, and the market is tiny. There are still dedicated houses that produce reasonable volumes of commercial marsalas with a little premium sometimes aged wines, and there are very small and passionate producers fighting an uphill battle to return the Marsala name to its former glory. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any marsala producers to welcome me, so I got to see the town by the seaside and catch up with an Italian wine blogger and journalist I had met in Vittoria for dinner. I also visited one of the most famous modern Sicilian wine brands, Donnafugata.

Donnafugata winery in Marsala

The name Donnafugata is taken from a Sicilian legend of an Austrian-born Queen Maria Carolina of Bourbon, who was forced to escape Napoleon’s invading army from Napoli to Sicily. Initially she hid in Palermo, but she soon retreated into the heart of the island where the vineyards are located, and lived out her days as the Donnafugata, the ‘fugitive woman’. The winery itself was created through the marriage of Giacamo Rallo whose family were important negociants in Marsala, and Gabriella whose family had extensive land and vineyard holdings, most importantly the warm irrigated areas of western Agrigento. This union created the opportunity to grow and produce wine made from indigenous and introduced grape varieties, under a new brand, using the historic cellars in Marsala. The winery quickly established a reputation for producing very good quality wines capable of introducing a large number of new consumers to Sicilian wine, and it was rare to see an Italian restaurant in New York that didn’t have at least one Donnafugata wine on their list. Times have changed slightly, particularly in the Italian market, and Donnafugata have worked hard to break new ground for Sicilian wines in emerging markets like Russia, South America and Asia. The vineyards in Agrigento and surrounds provide the majority of the fruit, mostly for the entry-level wines, but there is also a range of premium wines made mostly from introduced varieties like chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. The jewel of the vineyard holdings are most definitely those on the island of Pantelleria, where the particular soil types and climate are ideal for the production of sweet wines made from zibibbo. On this historic Arabic island closer to Africa than Sicily, the bush trained vines produce ripe concentrated berries that are sometimes dried to make moscato and passito wines. More recently they have purchased vineyards in Marsala, to show their commitment to the area where the winery is located. Click here to read my tasting notes.

Historic cement vats

Click here to see more photos from Day Three in Italy. On my final day in Sicily I return to Agrigento to visit the Planeta estate in Ulmo.

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