Magical as a metaphor for a place so ancient, and a wine craft with such a long tail of lore. Yet when you visit your local wine shop, search the web, the intrigue evaporates in a flash.
You are left with an image of boatloads of sweet dreck, commoditized cooking wine, and Marsala itself at the very bottom of the list of fortified wines.
Few of the most wine enthused know that the traditional regional wine, perpetuum, is still being made. Nor that unique and delicious natural expressions of the Grillo and Zibibbo grapes are available, albeit impossible to find.
Marsala as a region, as a brand, as a wine type is truly a mess in the wine market’s eyes. But well worth brushing off and reimagining.
I did so with a visit recently. Two winemakers, Renato De Bartoli and Antonino Barraco, were at the top of my discovery list, hinting at what Marsala is really about.
This huge cask is in the ‘perpetuum’ room, a 200-year old cellar on the vineyard where the De Bartoli family has been growing grapes for 6 generations. Marco, the patriarch and regional wine revivalist, started the winery that holds his name in 1978, fermenting a back-to-the-past-future of truly delicious and place-unique natural wines.
In these immense casks, Grillo, the chameleon-like indigenous grape of the region, is being transformed into Vecchio Samperi, the De Bartoli family perpetuum wine. An ancient wine that predates the creation of fortified Marsala in 1796, patiently aged using the Solera method, a blending style where new vintages of Grillo are added to old, year after year, decade after decade.
Take organic Grillo grapes, add the deepening power of time, natural oxidation and concentration. Open the cellar to atmospheric humidity, an air born terroir from Sicilian winds—the Scirocco from Africa, warm and wafting from the Southeast, the Tremonton, cooling from the North
What you get is Vecchio Samperi, 17-18% alcohol, unnervingly compelling and delicately rich on the palate. A ticket to taste hundreds of years old.
Renato De Bartoli, one of Marco’s three sons is the winemaker of the Samperi vineyard. He told us tales of the wine, this place, and Grillo with unbridled exuberance, a palpable disdain for what Marsala has become in the world’s eyes and a resolute focus on recreating the best of this regions tradition for today’s market.
I liked him instantly—even more so after we spent hours feasting on local fare, tasting bottles of Vecchio Samperi equal to my age, samples of Grappoli del Grillo, back to the mid 1900s, and Bukkuram, made from the Zibibbo grape, grown on their vineyards on Island of Pantelleria.
An astounding (and very long) evening. A deep stride into De Bartoli’s Marsala–in taste, in authenticity, steeped in the old and focused on recreating something uniquely their own.
This is the infectious smile of Antonino (Nino) Barraco, natural winemaker, holding court under the Sicilian sun, pouring Grillo, serving fresh caught shrimp and sea urchins at his tiny (8,000 sq. meters) Vignammare Vineyard.
We are in Riserva di Capo Feto nature preserve, a salt marsh with a dirt road, heading due west to the ocean. At the very end, ocean smack there, the Scirocco and the Tramontana winds in full force, is the vineyard.
Not a cellar in sight, just sea, sand, salt….and Grillo grapes.
Nino comes to winemaking through his father, a grape grower, and we are drinking their first vintage of Vignammare, 100% Grillo, grown where we stand. As natural and non-interventionist as can be– organic, spontaneous fermentation with long skin macerations. Unfiltered, unclarified and no added sulphur.
This is wine born of the love of land, the taste of the sea, and a trust in nature and the winemaker. This is bottled fruit, time, place and natural intent.
Salty to the tongue, a touch of iodine in the palate, spicy somehow, ocean fresh and just a pleasing clarity of taste with distinct minerality.
Perfect with the fresh sea urchins, the hot sun, feet in the sandy loam, surrounded by friends in a foreign place. Perfect just about anywhere really.
This is the Marsala I discovered.
I fell in love (hard!) with Grillo, and these winemaker’s expressions of this grape. But I never had the chance to spend much time with Zibibbo. Or Perricone, the local red variety, especially interesting in the care of Marilena Barbera of Cantine Barbera in Menfi.
There is just something very special here that I barely tapped.
The distinctive quality of the indigenous grapes. The hot sun tempered by a deep loamy limestone soil. The sea itself as important as the bordering lands. And the crisscrossing of winds, whipping up something unique in each and every glass.
These wines are really hard to locate. Marco De Bartoli is imported into New York by Louis Dressner, but near impossible to find with the exception of a few at Chambers Street Wines. Baracco is without distribution here at the moment.
Consider asking for wines from these producers when you are in a wine friendly place. Your local shop or wine bar, or when chatting with your favorite sommelier. With some luck, someone will eventually say, ‘Yes!’, we have it.
The pleasure will be all yours. I guarantee it.
For those interested in excellent posts by my fellow wine bloggers, check them out here.