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Marsala: Diverging paths plus eight bottles worth seeking out

Marsala, one of Italy’s most historic wines, is facing a dilemma about its future. Asa Johansson uncovers the debate.

Last year I received an invitation to a round table to talk about the future of Marsala. Behind the idea was Cantine Florio, an estate established in 1833 and today part of the corporate group Illva Saronno Holding.

Due to the pandemic, the round table was cancelled but I recently visited the Sicilian west coast to try and understand more about how what was once one of Italy’s most prosperous regions is today struggling to survive.

Scroll down to see tasting notes and scores for eight Marsala wines to try

Marsala: the glorious beginning

The glory days of Marsala began in 1773 when the English trader, James Woodhouse arrived on the west coast of Sicily. Here, he discovered a wine that relied on an ageing process not unlike the solera method used to make Sherry in Spain. Woodhouse added brandy to the wines to preserve them during the journey back to England, and so Marsala as we know it was born (although until around 1830, the wines were labelled as ‘Sicily Madeira Wine’, since the Portuguese cousin was more famous at the time).

During the 19th century, the small town of Marsala became one of the richest in Italy as the popularity of its wines grew – but things would soon change. By the 1920s, its air of prestige had disappeared and its reputation declined. Phylloxera, the financial crises in the 1920s and the two world wars put Marsala in difficulty. There were also imitators making cheap versions of the original, and some of Marsala’s producers began putting out less expensive versions in order to compete.

Eight Marsala wines to try:

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