I recently had a chance, at two different events, to taste the wines of the great modern day maker of Marsala, Marco De Bartoli. De Bartoli was primarily responsible for reviving Marsala as a fine, artisanal wine, and for bringing renewed attention to Muscat dessert wines from the island of Pantelleria. He also helped lead a fine winemaking movement generally in Sicily before his untimely death on March 18 this year. To properly appreciate De Bartoli’s achievements, however, it is important to know something about the history of the wine called Marsala.
Marsala is a fortified wine made from grapes grown in the area around the city of Marsala in Sicily. Its “invention” is generally attributed to English merchant John Woodhouse, who landed at the port of Marsala in 1770 and found that the local wine, called Perpetuum, tasted similar to the Sherry and Port for which there was then much demand in England. The local wine was made by a system called “in perpetuum,” similar to the solera system used to produce Sherry, and aged in wooden casks that permitted oxidation and concentration of the wine. Woodhouse recognized that these processes raised the alcohol level of the wine, which would help it survive long sea journeys to foreign markets. In 1773, he purchased a large quantity of this wine and added eight and a half gallons of grape spirit to each of the 105 gallon barrels of it that he shipped to England. A new, ageworthy, intensely flavorful, fortified wine was thereby born. The wine Woodhouse shipped proved so successful in England that he returned to Sicily and began mass producing and commercializing Marsala in 1796. Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose fleet stopped at the port of Marsala in 1798, introduced the wine to the British Navy as an alternative to Port, and it rapidly became a standby on British Navy ships. Woodhouse was joined in the business by another Englishman, Benjamin Ingham, who went on in 1806 to establish his own company. Ingham was a connoisseur of Port, Sherry and Madeira, and is responsible for greatly improving the quality of Marsala by testing blends of various local grapes. In 1832, a wealthy Italian merchant, Vincenzo Florio, bought up vineyards between Woodhouse and Ingham and established his own great Marsala production company. Cantine Florio was sold in 1924 to vermouth producer Cinzano, which subsequently also purchased Woodhouse and Ingham’s companies, combining them into one large enterprise. Other Italian producers of Marsala were also established, but only a few still remain, most notably Pellegrino and Rallo.
In the second half of the 20th century, Marsala became more associated in the mind of most consumers with chicken, veal and zabaglione dishes flavored with cheap versions of the wine. The reputation of traditional Marsala was further sullied by the production of pre-mixed combinations of Marsala with coffee, egg cream, strawberries or almonds, concoctions called Marsala speciale. These wines had their own DOC status from 1969 to 1984. The DOC rules were revised in 1984 to ban the use of of the name Marsala for speciale. Under the current DOC rules, Marsala can be fortified only by adding grape spirit to late-picked, overripe grapes. Marsala comes in three different colors, three different sweetness levels, and five types based on cask aging. The colors are oro (golden), ambra (amber) and rubino (ruby). The sweetness levels are secco (up to 40 grams of residual sugar), semisecco (40 to 100 grams of RS) and dolce (over 100 grams RS). The five types based on cask age are fine, with one year of cask age; superiore, in cask a minimum of two years; superiore riserva, cask aged four years; vergine, aged a minimum of five years; and stravecchio vergine, aged a minimum of 10 years. The traditional grapes are the indigenous white grapes Grillo and Inzolia, along with the higher yielding, lesser white grape Catarratto. For the much rarer rubino version, a blend of local red grapes is used.
I went to San Francisco Wine Trading Company on June 25 for the chance to taste De Bartoli’s Marsalas. One of Marco De Bartoli’s two sons, Sebastiano, who is carrying on the family enterprise with his brother Renato and sister Giuseppina, was on hand, along with Jeff Vierra of Farm Wine Imports, De Bartoli’s U.S. importer. I very much enjoyed the wines–the complex and haunting Marsalas, along with several dry, somewhat oxidative, white wines. Sebastiano let me know about a tasting the following day at the Italian Consulate featuring not only more of the De Bartoli line up, but also five other Sicilian producers, and more Marsalas. So I attended that tasting too. I will post separately about the other five producers, some of which are also making some very interesting wines. The rest of this post, however, is focused on the wines of Marco De Bartoli.
Marco De Bartoli’s Marsalas
Marco De Bartoli’s mother Giuseppina was the daughter of Paolo Pellegrino, owner of the major Marsala house Carlo Pellegrino. Marco received his degree in enology in Marsala in 1970, and then worked at Pellegrino for five years, followed by four years at Mirabella, another Marsala producer. He also got involved in racing high performance cars. In 1978, Marco retired to the family farm, Baglio Samperi. He purchased, in barrel, private stocks of fine, old Marsala, made from Grillo grapes, and blended them with younger Grillo wines using the solera system. Through this process he succeeded in taking Marsala back to its pre-Woodhouse roots, creating an unfortified but concentrated “Marsala” that naturally achieved an alcohol percentage of 18%.
Since the DOC rules required Marsalas to be fortified, Marco could not label this wine Marsala, and instead called it Vecchio Samperi, after the name of the family farm. He released the first Vecchio Samperi in 1980, and promoted it throughout Italy, angering the Marsala trade by calling it the “real Marsala.” This new wine garnered critical acclaim, but did not initially sell very well, as consumers had lost interest in fortified wines like Sherry, Port and Marsala. I have not yet had the pleasure of trying a Vecchio Samperi, as they’re rarely seen in the U.S. I did, as a result of these two tastings, however, have a chance to sample three other Marsalas that Marco created. I’ll give more background on them along with my tasting notes on those wines, and other wines from the tasting, below.
Marco’s next Marsala creation was the Vigna La Miccia. It was first produced in 1985. It was his effort to produced a wine “with all the personality of a Marsala in a more subtle and elegant form.” He used modern vinification methods, including refrigeration. The grapes are soft pressed, and fermented in temperature controlled stainless steel 50 hectolitre tanks, and then barrel aged for five years. It is classified as a Marsala Superiore Oro, and retains a lot of the perfume of the Grillo grapes that is missing from other types of Marsala. I found it quite appealing, rich but poised, with a mixture of fruit and salty caramel and nutty flavors.
In 1986, Marco produced his first traditional Marsala. This is the Marsala Superiore Samperi 1986 Riserva. He used his Vecchio Samperi 20-year Riserva as the basis for this wine. To this dry wine aged by the Solera method, he added his own “mistella” made from acquavite and the must of Grillo grapes. This transformed the flavorful dry wine into a sweeter, more alcoholic wine, as required by tradition and DOC regulations. This vintage continues to age in barrels today. For me, this was the most extraordinary wine of both tastings (and I’ve tried it again in the past week, with the same notes). It reminds me very much of an excellent vintage Verdelho Madeira with at least 35 to 40 years of age on it. It seems to me that Marco’s work was reaching a convergence of the greatest Marsala tradition with the nearly lost art of making great, long-barrel-aged vintage Madeiras. I’m hopeful that his sons, including Renato, who himself obtained an enology degree and had been making his own wines at Samperi under the Terzavia label before his father’s passing, will find a way to keep Marco’s admirable efforts in this direction going.
The last type of Marsala Marco created, in 1987, was another personal interpretation of traditional Marsala Superiore. Again derived from the Vecchio Samperi Solera, but aged for a shorter 10-year period, Marco felt it offered a taste of what “authentic, old fashioned Marsala” was like. It is also a very impressive wine, rich and complex, with an oily texture and very long finish.
- 2004 Marco De Bartoli Marsala Superiore Vigna La Miccia – Italy, Sicily, Marsala Superiore (6/25/2011)
From 500 ml – medium golden orange color with 3 millimeter clear meniscus; pan sauteed peanuts, salty caramel, baked lemon nose; tasty, rich but poised, sweet baked lemon, baked peach, salty caramel, yellow fig palate; long finish 93+ points (tank fermented, then barrel aged for 5 years) (93 pts.)
- N.V. Marco De Bartoli Marsala Superiore 1986 Riserva Marsala Superiore Samperi – Italy, Sicily, Marsala Superiore (6/26/2011)
From 500 ml – Medium dark orange amber color with pale meniscus; rich, appealing, VA, dried orange, walnut, date, subtle baked lemon nose; rich, warming, complex, silky textured, tart orange, tart date, walnut, baked lemon palate with lemon acidity; reminiscent of a vintage Verdelho Madeira at 35 to 40 years of age; very long finish (94 pts.)
- N.V. Marco De Bartoli Marsala Superiore Riserva 10 anni – Italy, Sicily, Marsala Superiore (6/25/2011)
From 500 ml – dark orange amber color with 2 millimeter clear meniscus; VA, lifted, nutty, roasted almond, date, anise nose; rich, complex, oily textured, roasted almond, date, tart apricot, spice, anise palate; very long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
Passito di Pantelleria
In 1983, Marco turned to reinventing another traditional sweet wine that had gone out of style–passito, from the tiny volcanic island of Pantelleria, southeast of Sicily (which actually lies closer to Tunisia than Sicily). According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, “Moscato di Pantelleria is one of Italy’s finest dessert wines.” It’s made from Zibibbo, the name in Sicily for Muscat of Alexandria. Rallo, one of the major Marsala producers mentioned above, started marketing Moscato di Pantelleria in the 1880s. It was placed on the list of Italy’s “typical” wines in 1936. This wine comes in two types: a lower alcohol version, and a lusher, higher alcohol, dessert style, called Passito di Pantelleria. For the latter, some of the grapes are picked at optimum ripeness, and some are left to raisin for up to 30 days. These raisined grapes can take the resulting wine up to 140 grams of residual sugar. In 1983 Marco researched how the passito had been traditionally made, interviewing islanders who had been involved in making it. He followed the old practice of drying Zibibbo under the hot August sun. After two years of barrel aging, Marco released his first Passito di Pantelleria under the name Bukkuram, the name for the area that the Arabs identified as the best for growing Zibibbo. The name means “father of the vine” in Arabic. On its release in 1985, this wine was a major critical and economic success. In 1992, Marco purchased an 18th century baglio and five hectare estate with its own vinification cellar in Contrada Bukkuram. This estate has south west facing exposure and is planted in the traditional style–the vines, gobelet trained, are buried in holes to protect them from the island’s periodic fierce winds. In the best years, Bukkuram Passito is made. In lesser vintages, De Bartoli releases a Passito di Pantelleria without the Bukkuram title. Marco’s success with these wines led to growing interest and demand for this style of wine by the mid-1990s.
I found the 2006 vintage of this wine to be quite delicious, with lots of tasty fruit flavor, and the wonderful, balancing acidity that I look for in a great sweet wine. This makes it a very ageworthy wine as well.
In the video clip below, Sebastiano, who oversees the De Bartoli operations on Pantelleria, describes how the wines there are made:
- 2006 Marco De Bartoli Passito di Pantelleria Bukkuram – Italy, Sicily, Passito di Pantelleria (6/26/2011)
From 500 ml – very dark orange amber color; rich, complex, golden raisin, baked orange, baked apricot, baked peach, baked lemon palate with good acidity; long finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
Dry White Innovations
Marco wasn’t done with experimenting and innovation with the wines above. In 1989, he selected Zibibbo grapes grown on north-facing terraces for a new dry version of the aromatic Zibibbo, or Muscat of Alexandria, grape. The wine is fermented mainly in steel vats, with one-third fermented in French barriques. The wine is then aged, two thirds in steel and one third in barriques, and then blended together. This was called Pietranera, or black rock. It too was a success, and they have continued to produce it, helping to spark other Sicilian winemakers to create their own crisp, dry whites from the local grapes. I really liked the floral nose and delicious floral and fruity, but dry, palate.
Marco followed this the next year with the first vintage of a dry wine from Grillo, an ancient grape variety of Phoenician origin, that had traditionally only been used to produce sweet wines. Marco picked the grapes early and vinified them in French barriques at controlled temperatures. The wine, called Grappoli del Grillo, is then aged for eight months on its lees, with battonage. I found this wine appealing, and leesy, and likely to be quite ageworthy, but lacking some of the freshness that appealed to me in the Pietranera.
In 1998, Marco combined the structured Grillo from Marsala with aromatic Zibibbo grown on Pantelleria to make Sole e Vento, sun and wind. This wine is fermented in steel vats, and aged in steel vats for six months. I thought this blend worked quite well, although my first preference among the dry whites is still for the Zibibbo by itself.
- 2010 Marco De Bartoli Zibibbo Pietranera I Bianchi – Italy, Sicily (6/26/2011)
Light yellow color; aromatic, floral, lifted, tart peach nose; tasty, floral, tart peach, citron, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 2009 Marco De Bartoli Grillo Grappoli del Grillo – Italy, Sicily (6/26/2011)
Light medium lemon yellow color; appealing, yeasty, focused, tart lemon, ripe grapefruit, citron nose; tasty, tart lemon, chalk, mineral, citron palate with grip; medium-plus finish (vines planted in 1996; natural decantation for 48 hours at cool temperatures; aged in French barrels for 8 months on the lees) (89 pts.)
- 2010 Marco De Bartoli I Bianchi “Sole e Vento” Grillo e Zibibbo – Italy, Sicily (6/26/2011)
Light yellow color; aromatic, grapefruit, citron nose; very tasty, citron, tart grapefruit, tart orange palate; medium-plus finish (aged in steel vats for 6 mos.) (91 pts.)
These wines are made with some skin contact during fermentation. This makes for an even more intense and oily textured version of dry Zibibbo. These wines also see aging in French barriques. The Zibibbo Integer was my favorite dry white of the entire De Bartoli lineup. The Grillo Integer showed even more of an oxidative nature, and the Grillo grape is very susceptible to oxidation. As best I can tell, the De Bartolis only started making these wines in 2006.
- 2008 Marco De Bartoli Zibibbo Integer – Italy, Sicily (6/25/2011)
Slightly cloudy, light medium lemon yellow color; intense, appealing, tart lemon, citronella, floral nose; tasty, appetizing, oily textured, citronella, citron, tart orange, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
- 2008 Marco De Bartoli Grillo Integer – Italy, Sicily (6/25/2011)
Light medium orange gold color with 6 millimeter clear meniscus; oxidative, tart kumquat, nutty nose; tasty, oxidative, oily textured, tart kumquat, mineral, tart orange palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
This final set of wines is from Marco’s son, Renato, under his own label, Terzavia. The wines were made at the family operation at Baglio Samperi. The sparkling wine seemed rather rustic, and not up to the quality of the family’s other wines. The Occidens is an interesting blend of indigenous white grapes that sees a week of skin contact. I preferred the dry Catarratto, which is a remarkable version of a grape with a very low reputation for quality.
- N.V. Terzavia (De Bartoli) Blanc de Blancs Metodo Classico Brut Nature – Italy, Sicily (6/26/2011)
Light medium lemon yellow color with few, large bubbles; reduction, earthy nose; ripe lemon, citron palate, a little coarse; short-medium finish (84 pts.)
- 2008 Terzavia (De Bartoli) Occidens – Italy, Sicily (6/25/2011)
Light medium golden yellow color; oily, sauteed onion, light bee pollen nose; lightly oily textured, tart apple, mineral, sweet sauteed onion palate; medium finish (40% Grecanico, 30% Catarratto, 15% Grillo, 15% Zibibbo; 1 week on skins) (89 pts.)
- 2009 Terzavia (De Bartoli) Catarratto Lucido – Italy, Sicily (6/25/2011)
Light golden yellow color with 4 millimeter clear meniscus; tart apple, citron, floral nose; juicy, tart apple, citron, mineral, Meyer lemon, apple skin palate; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)