PART 1: COSTE PIANE
PART 2: COSTADILÁ
PART 3: VINI VERI, VILLA FAVORITA AND VINITALY
PART 4: NUSSERHOF
PART 5: RADOAR
PART 6: I VIGNERI
PART 7: FATTORIE ROMEO DEL CASTELLO
PART 8: ARIANNA OCCHIPINTI
After saying goodbye to Arianna, we drove off to Marsala to visit the the de Bartoli brothers. They live in a little hamlet that looks like a cross of Miami Vice and the set of spaghetti western.
We got out of our cars and Sebastiano greeted the group.
After saying hello, we got to check out the only vines we'd see that day, a large parcel of Grillo located in the back of the farm.
The brothers also grow grapes in many different parts of Marsala, as well as the tiny volcanic island of Pantelleria for the Bukkuram (more info on their official website). No fertilizers are ever used, as they feel the plant's roots need to go deep into the soil to keep their substance. It's very dry where they are, so mildew and odium are not a concern. They use about three sulfur treatments a year on the vines, and are certified organic.
The soils vary, but are mostly composed of limestone; sand and volcanic ash are also present. The brothers specialize in growing white grapes, but they also have Syrah and Merlot planted, as well as a recently acquired parcel of the local red grape Pignatello (not to be confused with the white grape Pignoletto that Alberto Tedeschi grows in Emilia-Romagna).
An old farmer recently sold them a parcel in selection massale: they have been experimenting and might eventually bottle it commercially. The barrel sample we tasted was juicy and on the lighter side of things.
The grape they grow the most of is Grillo, which in indigenous to Marsala but now grown in other parts of Sicily (the TAMI Grillo, for example). It's very high yielding and in the last 50 years, most growers have been selling in bulk to cooperatives, so value has plummeted. And while people now use a ton of other grapes to make Marsala (which has now become little more than cheap cooking wine, but more on that later), the de Bartolis feel that is the ONLY grape to use when making an authentic one. Why? Because it maintains high acidity, which is great for aging.
We then started our tour of the cellar, which is subdivided in accordance to the many styles of wines produced by the de Bartoli family. The upstairs hosts all the stainless steel tanks, and the first wine we tasted was a méthode traditionelle Grillo sparkling from Renato's Terzavia line. "Terzavia" stands for "a third way"; the family produces the classic Marsala dessert wines, the unique dry whites and so the Terzavia is yet another approach to vinification. The sparkling is really, really good, and you should buy some if you haven't already. The wine has no dosage: instead Renato adds a fresh must after the wine is fermented dry to create bubbles. The wine was from 2009 and the must from 2010.
We then checked out the dry white barrel room, where Renato began extracting barrel samples for us.
The wines we were tasting were the INTEGER wines. This is something the brothers started doing a few years ago, the idea being to show how vinification choices affect the final product. The INTEGER cuvées (one Grillo, one Zibbibo) are fermented and aged in old oak with battonage, in contrast to the Grappoli di Grillo and Pietra Nera (Zibbibo) cuvées, which are cold stabilized and fermented in stainless steel, then racked in oak. Sebastiano explained that the winery had taken advantage of new technology in the early 90's (specifically referring to cold stabilization) and that this had resulted in a style of wine that became very popular with their customers. But as time went by, and with Marco de Bartoli being an azienda founded on innovation AND tradition, the brothers decided they wanted to make something a little more old school (even though making dry whites is a relatively new phenomenon in Marsala). The juice for the two cuvées styles comes from the same grapes, harvested at the same time; to reiterate, the only difference is the vinification, which does in fact make a huge difference in how the wines taste. Both styles are very good.
After our INTEGER tasting (11's are well on their way to being super solid), it was the moment we'd all been waiting for: a visit to the Marsala lair!
The Marsala cellar needs to be underground to accelerate oxidation. Two styles are made, the first being the Vecchio Samperi line, which is NOT fortified (the vast majority of Marsala produced today is fortified with alcohol). Then there is the Superiore line, which IS fortified with mistella, a combination of sweet must and eau de vie. This makes them sweeter and rounder, a result most other Marsala producers obtain by using cooked must and caramel to give that same impression of aging. Both are a product of the Solera method: this is a process where new wine is constantly being added to old wine to keep it fresh. In practice, this is never-ending process and the late Marco de Bartoli, who started the azienda in the 70's, began buying every old barrel farmers were willing to sell (which turned out to be a whole lot). Some had clearly marked vintages on them, most didn't. They are all still being used today.
When the de Bartolis release a vintage Marsala (ex: 1986), this indicates the year it was fortified, and therefore a vintaged de Bartoli Marsala will always be labeled as part of the Superiore line. The brothers also release riserva wines: the legal amount of time needed to declare a riserva is 5 years, but for the De Bartoli's it has to be at least 10.
Before we knew it, it was lunch time. Renato served up this insanely bomb seafood cous-cous.
With the couscous we got to taste the 2010 Pietra Nera from 60 year old Zibbibo vines on volcanic soils. Super fresh. The vineyards are at 400 meter elevation, and were harvested almost one entire month after the Grillo! We then tasted the Grappoli di Grillo 2010 along with the 2005 to see how the wine ages. The winery started experimenting with spontaneous fermentation in 2005, and has been using 100% native yeasts since 2008. By tasting the the inoculated '05 alongside the '10, it was a rare opportunity to taste the same wine made with and without preselected yeasts. The 2005 was certainly a very good wine, but there was a flatness, a lack of life in the middle palate I often get with inoculated wines.
Sebastiano also wanted to prove to the group that Marsala wasn't just a dessert wine, and could be paired with salty foods. He pulled out the 1986 Superiore (the first vintage wine in the azienda's history), and definitely got the point across by serving us the single saltiest plate of food I've ever had in my life.
That's salt cured anchovies, salt cured tuna, salt cured tuna heart and salt cured something-else-I-forgot. It was very salty. The 1986 was bold and elegant, and did indeed stand up to the salt really well, though I still had to drink five glasses of water and have fourths of couscous to get my palate back on track. We ended the meal with a very refreshing fruit salad and cigars.
We then returned to the cellar to taste from the original 1986 barrels.
We ended the tasting with a sip from a 1903 barrel!
To Sebastiano's knowledge, this is the oldest wine in all of Marsala.
"When my father bought it, it was basically molasses!"
The nose was incredible, with tons of depth and spice. On the palate, a never ending finish.
The tasting was over, so we we drove back to downtown Marsala, where Sebastiano had us pull over on the docks to give us a history lesson.
Marsala production dates back to the 1770's, and is a direct result of the Spanish/English war. Brits were already in Sicily at that point, and started making wine similar to Madeira and Sherry, also made using the Solera method. This continued until 1860, when the Italian states united. At this point, Mr. Florio, an important business man, started bottling Marsala independently and under his name. The wine's popularity rose over the years, and by the early 1900's there were a 100+ wineries in the city, most located by the water for easy exporting. In fact Marsala was one of the very first wines exported around the world!
Fast forward to the 1960's where the cave cooperatives grew, and of course started focusing on quantity instead of quality. This slowly killed the reputation of the once great wine, which is now mostly known as a cooking wine most people associate with a disgusting American/Italian restaurant staple.
In the 70's, Marco was sick of hearing that Marsala was an industrial wine. So he came to the countryside to produce his own. The rest is history.
After the visit, we partied in downtown Marsala all night with Sebastiano, which was a lot of fun. The next day, we flew back to Rome, had a great day, ate at some restaurant with a really cool wine list, then all flew home to our respective cities.
Thanks again to Lauren Feldman, Shawn Mead and Ian Becker for letting me use their great pictures, as well as the rest of group for making it such an enjoyable trip.