Marco de Bartoli – Marsala champion
The historic estate, Marco de Bartoli, Samperi (the place), is famous for two reasons. First, de Bartoli was the creator of the modern dry, table wine made from the local Grillo variety. Before this initiative, Grillo was seen merely as a component of Marsala. Second, the estate has continued to champion Marsala, despite the relative lack of interest shown by the rest of the wine world. In brief Marsala in its fortified form was ‘invented’ by British merchants who wished to export wine in the last decades of the eighteenth century, along the lines of Port, Sherry and Madeira. Like all fortified wines it has suffered recently as consumption of lighter, table wine has continued to flourish but people have had to worry about drinking and driving. Rather like Madeira it has also been the victim of cheap versions, used for cooking, becoming the dominant way that the wine is perceived. No doubt the big companies made a lot of money from cooking Marsala but it has left the few remaining quality producers fighting a lonely battle. But the wines of de Bartoli demonstrate that there is much for the wine lover to enjoy in true Marsala.
Introduction to Marsala wine
Marsala is a high alcohol (15-20% abv) wine made from traditional varieties within the confines of the Marsala DOC in the south-west corner of Italy. Most of the wines are perceptibly sweet. However, the wine is bedevilled by a lack of agreement as to how it is made. Is it a fortified wine or not? Is solera-type production inherent to the style? At least the labelling scheme is now pretty clear if complicated and at times questionable :
- white varieties: Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia, Damaschino
- red varieties: Perricone, Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese
- Marsala Fine – minimum 17.5% abv, a minimum of one year of ageing: as with many schemes, it is counter-productive to label your most basic product ‘fine’
- Marsala Superiore – minimum 18%, a minimum of 2 years of ageing: better
- Marsala Superiore Riserva – as above but a minimum of 4 years of ageing: OK, but is really necessary to have a 4- and a 5-year old category?
- Marsala Vergine or Solera – as above, a minimum 5 years of ageing: the introduction of vergine as this stage will puzzle all but the insider. It appears to mean no added mistella, the addition being either mosto cotto (cooked grape must) or fresh juice and grape spirit.
- Marsala Vergine Stravecchio or Riserva – vergine as above but minimum ageing of 10 years: stravecchio (very old) is fine for Italian speakers but daunting for others; Vergine Riserva risks confusion with the younger ‘riserva’ category
Colour: To this basis scheme you may add three colour categories: Oro (gold), Ambra (amber), Rubino (ruby)
- Secco less than 40g/l RS
- Semisecco above 40 and below 100g/l
- Dolce: more than 100g/l
From all this, you can see that it is possible to come up with virtually a sentence to communicate the category of Marsala: Marsala Fine Oro Dolce; Marsala Superiore Riserva Ambra Semisecco and so on …
The de Bartoli approach
As a result of this situation, the only thing to do is not worry too much about the finer points of the the Marsala DOC regulations. Rather we should taste, evaluate and enjoy the better wines. And with Marco de Bartoli’s wines that is really not a problem. All these wines are 100% Grillo and therefore no higher yield Catarratto or Inzolia.
Vecchio Samperi, Vino, 16.5% This is the wine with which Marco sought to revive quality Marsala. He was addressing a situation in which farmers and grape growers were harvesting their grapes and making very basic wines. They then sold them on to the large companies and cooperatives, who aged and commercialised them. Sadly this was a recipe for a race to the bottom in terms of price and quality.
Marco de Bartoli’s response to this was to create a high-quality wine to be sold simply as ‘vino’, not ‘Marsala’, without a quality classification. This gives the company complete freedom in terms of production and ageing but in this case, it is with a view to the highest possible quality. As the champion of Grillo, it is no surprise that T
the grapes are 100% of that variety. The best fruit is picked in a late harvest. The young wine is macerated on the skins for three weeks in an open cask – for some textural quality and a bit of oxidation which is integral to the best Marsala. No fortification is involved and the elevated alcohol is achieved by picking very ripe fruit with a potential alcohol of 22% and then ageing it in hot, dry conditions in a solera for twenty, yes twenty, years to lose water and gain concentration and complexity.
The resulting wine is wonderfully complex and concentrated in the glass – orange skin and nutty on the nose, citrus, ripe apple and almond on the palate, excellent persistence. A touch of sweetness (13 g/l RS) remains as part of the richness, offset by plenty of acidity. Outstanding. It may not be called Marsala, but it is everything you could wish for in a glass of named after the western Sicilian city.
The de Bartoli production options are beautifully summarised in a diagram in the cellar downstairs. The lighting is better for the wines than for photography:
Vigna la Miccia Marsala Superiore Oro DOC Riserva 5 anni – This bottling is about preserving fruit and freshness. You can (just) see from the diagram that it does not go into the solera system. In contrast to traditional Marsala, the juice is fermented in stainless steel tanks with temperature control to preserve the fruit character. The wine is then fortified with a mistella (blend of grape juice and grape spirit). It is aged in French oak barriques kept topped up (again unlike traditional Marsala where oxidative ageing is the norm) for four years. Honeyed, fresh citrus, then the classic Marsala baked fruit note, much less oxidative than all the other wines. Easy to drink, rewarding.
Marsala Superiore Riserva DOC 10 anni, 18.5% – As with the previous wine, it is very welcome that the label clearly indicates the age of the wine. This ten-year-old blend is fermented in old oak and chestnut wooden casks in an oxidative manner. It is fortified with a mistella (a blend of grape juice and grape spirit) and aged in old barrels of various sizes. This is an intermediate style with a presence of lemon and apple fresh fruit along with quite marked oxidative, nutty themes. Very good.
And another fine oldie to complement the non-vintage Vecchio Samperi with which we started:
Marsala Vergine 1988 Reserva, 19% – as indicated this is a vintage wine but one that has been aged in old oak for 20 plus years. It is a special bottling for Berry Bros in London. The fermentation here is in oak and chestnut casks at cellar temperature – so there will be highs and lows involved. It is a vergine, i.e., no mistella, but it was lightly fortified. The date given is the date of fortification, not the vintage of the grapes … Very nutty, slightly spirity but with great depth with roasted coffee beans, citrus rind, and pleasant acetic touches. Tastes attractively dry after all these years.
In general, Marsala as a wine style may have fallen on hard times. However, the wines of Maro de Bartoli show why we should seek out the best of western Sicily’s unique contribution to the world of wine.