Marsala production dates back to the 1770's, when the Englishman John Woodhouse accidentally stumbled across the local wine made in a method called il perpetuum, basically a fortified wine. He immediately shipped it back to England, where it was successfully received. In the following decades more British-born merchants arrived, production increased, a harbor and nearby warehouse was built for ease of transport (based on the Oporto model) and most importantly the solera system was imported from Madeira and Xeres. This prosperity continued through the next century and beyond 1860, when the Italian states unified (Garibaldi landed his unifying army of exiles in the port of Marsala - the rest is history). At that point, an important business man named Vincenzo Florio started bottling Marsala independently and under his own name. The wine steadily rose in popularity over the years, and by the early 1900's there were a 100+ wineries in the city of Marsala, most located right on the coast for easy exporting.
By the 1960's, local wine cooperatives had grown considerably and production started focusing on quantity instead of quality. Instead of using the indigenous and traditional Grillo, coops started blending all types of white grapes indiscriminately. Furthermore, fortification, chaptalisation and the addition of caramel food coloring or cooked must to give the illusion of advanced oxidation became commonplace. Predictably, the increasingly poor quality of Marsala slowly killed off the reputation of what was once highly distinguished wine. Even today, many still consider Marsala little more than cheap cooking wine for the staple recipes of Italian-American restaurants.
Enter Marco de Bartoli. In his youth, Marco had worked with his father on his family farm near the town of Marsala. But his obsession with cars and a need for speed proved too strong, leading to a first career as a professional race car driver (how many times do you hear that???). Towards the end of this career, however, Marco was ready to turn a new leaf. Thinking back on his youth, he felt a deep sadness that the once proud tradition of Marsala had sunken so low. He decided he wanted to change this.
First, Marco reconstructed his family's old cellar on his mother's farm in the contras of Samperi. Then he searched high and wide for old solera barrels of Grillo from local contadini. Much to his surprise, many were eager to part with these ancient relics, some even happy to give them to him for free! Next came the vines, planted progressively and exclusively in Grillo, which in Marco's eyes was and is THE ONLY grape to make Marsala due to its high acidity, ability to reach high degrees of alcohol and aging potential. Finally the wines: Vecchio Samperi represented the unfortified, traditional style of Marsala while the Superiore line was fortified with mistella (sweet must and eau de vie) as a statement that the cantina was not only rooted in the past, but well versed in the present and future.
In 1984, Marco started a new project on the island of Pantelleria, originally producing only a Passito. By the early 1990's, his had garnered a stellar reputation for being alone in making truly stunning expressions of Marsala terroir.
But the story doesn't end there. By the mid 90's, Marco's children Renato, Sebastiano and Giusippina had all joined him in this work. Youthful energy led to new experiments, most notably dry white wines from Grillo and later Zibibbo from Pantelleria. While chemicals had never been used in the vineyards and the Grillo for the Marsala was never yeasted, conventional yeasts were used on the dry whites until 2006. Sebastiano elaborates on working organically and using native yeast fermentations:
"Our idea was always to make wine as a product of the land so we have always eschewed systemic chemicals. I do not remember a particular date we followed this course (organic), but I can tell you that about ten years ago I personally began to follow this campaign and have been sure of it ever since. I distinctly remember that even before then my father did not want to do intensive agriculture and prevented the farmer who worked our lands from using fertilizers, herbicides and so on...
Up to now we did not seek organic certification because it did not seem a serious approach and my father's point of view was never to have "organic" be a selling point for his work. But my dad was extreme and today organics seem to be a more serious issue. We understand the need for people to have the certification, so we are now seeking it.
For the indigenous yeasts, the key was the production of the Integer in 2006. I am not reneging the selected yeast used in the 90's because it allowed us to understand an innovative form for the Grillo and Zibibbo. But with the experiments of the Integer we understood the potential of the land was far more important than so many other things, knowing also that it was more risky.
It may not always be the same for the tastes and aromas of the wine, but it certainly enhances the territorial typicity."
For more a more in depth look at how the Marsalas and dry whites are produced, please refer to the two visit recaps below.
This visit to Cantina Marco de Bartoli took place in May, 2014.
Words by Jules Dressner. Photos by Jill Berheimer, Josefa Concannon, Jake Halper and David Norris.
On our first day in Sicily, we got a day off to hang out in the incredibly photogenic town of Trapani.
While walking around, I kept noticing locals hanging outside burning huge candles. At first I thought little of it; after all I'm not from there and maybe that's how people hang. But then I started hearing marching band music!
And along with the marching band, a huge group of people where following a statue of this guy!
Our group was a bit stumped as to what this ritual pertained to, but with some googling we were able to figure out it was a celebration for Santo Padre, who, amongst other accolades, was the 2nd Pope. Ever!
As an aside, the best painting of all time was on proud display at the restaurant we ate at that night:
The following morning we drove over to Marsala to see the de Bartoli family. Their hamlet still looks like a cross of Miami Vice and a Spaghetti Western.
Here is their adorable dog Picasso, who many felt was the cutest canine of the trip:
Here I am angering Picasso by trying to do "extreme" maneuvers on a tiny, tiny skateboard not much bigger than my foot:
This video truly gives you all an inside glimpse in the sheer professionalism we here at Louis/Dressner profess with every visit.
Right on the outskirts of the de Bartoli cellar, a limestone quarry provides a good look into what the soils/subsoils of the area look like.
Interestingly, the limestone from Western Sicily is not only great for growing white grapes, but also for building houses.
"Half of Sicily was built from our area's stones."
I couldn't help but notice this everywhere we went for our remainder of the time on the island.
To the side of the quarry, 9 hectares are planted in Grillo.
These 9 hectares produce all of the de Bartoli Grillo based cuvées: Vigna Verde, Grappoli di Grillo, Integer Grillo and of course the beautiful line-up of Marsalas the estate is famous for. The Cataratto that produces Lucido are a short 4 kilometers away and the Pignatello that produces Rosso di Marco are 10km away.
From the vines, we set off to the de Bartolis' beautiful and elaborate cellar. Before I jump into the technical stuff, I highly recommend re-reading my visit re-cap from two years ago. There will certainly be some overlap (as well as a past Miami Vice reference), but many of the details I delve into below will complement the information from our past visit that I didn't catch the first time around.
The Marsala process begins in the ground level part of the cellar:
To understand how the solera process works, the first concept to grasp is that alcohol molecules are bigger than water molecules, and therefore water molecules disappear first with evaporation, leaving a more concentrated alcoholic liquid to be topped off with new wine each year.
The top floor cellar is where the Solera process takes place, going from top to bottom barrel, which if you scroll up will notice go from smallest at the top to biggest at the bottom. The new wine added each vintage is vinified like the Integer Grillo: barrel fermentation and aging without any added sulfur. Every year, Marsala is bottled from the small aging barrels in the underground cellar (we'll get to that shortly), and wine from the huge bottom barrels is racked back into the small barrels, where they will continue aging until they are bottled. In practice, this is a never-ending process that can continue endlessly:
"Marsala can age for hundreds of years."
The average mix in a big bottom barrel is 20 vintages.
From the ground level cellar, we walked two flights down into the aging cellar.
As explained earlier, these little barrels are where the wine that has already gone through the solera process age. It is at this point that the wine is either left to age on its own before bottling or fortified with mistella to produce the Superiore line.
"Traditional Marsala was never fortified, but my father wanted to look forward while also honoring tradition, and this is how the Superiore line came to be. Still, it is the territory, the grape and oxygenation that makes a Marsala, not fortification."
At the end of the cellar visit, Sebastiano drew this very helpful diagram to understand the whole process of making a de Bartoli Marsala.
It all seems so simple when you add a cute drawing!
It was time to taste, which is always a lot of fun since the family produces so many different wines from the same vines and land.
We also got to taste the Zibibbo based passitos from the island of Pantelleria, a project started in 1984. As a fun treat, Sebastiano pulled out a few bunches of the dried grapes that make the wine for us to taste.
BEST. RAISINS. EVER.
We ended our visit with a tour of the late Marco's prized car cellar, which is full of rare automobiles from the 60's, 70's and 80's.
The funnest part was seeing his favorite sports car, this red Alpha-Romeo that served as the inspiration for the Rosso di Marco label!
This visit to the De Bartolis took place in April, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Lauren Feldman, Shawn Mead and Ian Becker.
The De Bartoli brothers 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 (ed note: since the writing of this piece, the brothers have released this wine under the name Rosso di Marco and have re-grafted their Syrah and Merlot vines with the more suited, indigenous Pignatello). 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 today has become little more than cheap cooking wine, but more on that later), the de Bartolis feel that Grillo 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 (ed note: since the writing of this piece, the Terzavia line has been discontinued and incorporated into the Marco De Bartoli label). 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 samples for us.
The wines we were tasting were the INTEGER line. 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 a never-ending process. In the late 70's, Marco de Bartoli began buying old barrels from any farmer willing to sell them to him. 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 to be exported around the world!
Fast forward to the 1960's: cave cooperatives had grown considerably, and of course started focusing on quantity instead of quality. This slowly killed the reputation of this once highly distinguished wine, which is now mostly known as a cooking 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.
D.O.C Passito di Pantelleria "Bukkuran"
Vines: Planted 1950-1970. Terraced hillside, 200 meters above sea level, south west exposition
Yields: 45 quintals per hectare
Vinification: Half of the grapes are dried in the sun for three weeks on special racks within an area delimited by black stone walls. The remaining grapes are left to mature and partially dry out on the plants. These are picked and vinified; when the fermentation is well advanced, the dried raisins are added to the wine and left to macerate for three months. The wine is aged for 30 months in 225l French oak barrels, then 6 months in steel vats.
Soil: mixed sand and limestone
Vines: Planted between 1970 and 1996
Yields: 20 hl/ha
Vinification: manual selection of the grapes; soft pressing; natural decantaton; fermentation in oak and chestnut barrels at room temperature.
Soil: Mixed sand and limestone
Vines: Planted between 1970 and 1996
Yields: 20 hl/ha
Vinification: manual selection of the grapes; soft pressing; natural decantaton; fermentation in oak and chestnut barrels at room temperature. Part of the must is enriched with acquavite to create the mistrella, which will later be added to the wine.
Soil: mixed sand and limestone
VInes: Planted in 1996.
Yields: 40 hl/ha
Vinification: manual selection of the grapes; soft pressing; natural decantation; temperature-controlled fermentation in 50 hl stainless steel tanks.
Soil: mixed sand and limestone
Vines: Planted 1996
Yields: 35 hl/ha
Vinification: The clear part of the must begins its fermentation in steel vats and at controlled temperatures and is finished in 225 and 500L French oak barrels. Aged 8 months on the lees with regular bâtonnage.
Soil: terraced hillside, volcanic
Vines: Planted in 1967
Yields: 25 hl/ha
Vinification: grapes are destemmed, crushed, then treated to a cold maceration for 24 hours. After a soft pressing at low temperatures, the must decants for 48 hours. The clear part of the must is fermented and aged in 50hl steel vats at controlled temperatures. A third is fermented and aged in French oak. The two are then blended together before bottling.