After a lengthy journey from Auckland to Palermo in Sicily/ Italy - I was informed that the trains to Marsala on the far north-western tip of the island were not working. I had to wait for a local bus to make the trip across the island arriving in the early evening. So I quickly checked in to my hotel, and found a lively wine bar nearby to immerse myself into the local culture, and what better way here in Italy than to watch the national football team play in Euro 2012. The next morning I made my way to Florio Marsala located just on the edge of town, which is an icon of Marsala and Sicily, plus an imposing building built some 100 meters from the deep blue Mediterranean Sea.
The history of Marsala is among the most amazing I know, not only because it is a wine discovered as an accidental effect by its inventor, but also for the fact it is one of Italy’s finest wines. Today Marsala is living a new lease on life, where quality is finally the main characteristic of this wine, leaving in the past the errors and mistakes made by many producers for too many years. In the course of the last twenty years, producers made considerable efforts in order to finally give back to Marsala the dignity this great wine deserves, as well as giving more attention on the vinification practices and quality.
Vincenzo Florio was the first Italian to establish a winery dedicated to the production of this unique wine. In 1773, because of a storm at sea, the English merchant John Woodhouse was forced to land at the port of Marsala, instead to the one of Mazara del Vallo, where he was sailing. When he landed, he entered a tavern in search of refreshments and here he had the chance to try the local wine. In fact they served him some perpetuum, the wine traditionally produced at Marsala. Perpetuum - or perpetuo (literally, perpetual) - was produced by filling the barrel with wine from the latest harvest and then drawn off according to need, the barrel was then refilled - which contained some of the wine of all the preceding vintages - with the new. A wine therefore undergoing a natural oxidation process according to its progressive emptying and taking ‘new life’ with the adding of the wine from the new vintage.
John Woodhouse enjoyed the wine, plus it reminded him the famous wines of Madeira and Jerez, being much appreciated in his homeland. Being an astute merchant, he decided to ship some of this wine to England while hoping to start a thriving trade. As Woodhouse knew of the adverse conditions the wine would suffer in the holds of ships, he decided to add some brandy to each barrel in order to ensure better travels. Woodhouse returned to England with his precious cargo and, when he arrived, he realized the reinforced wine had become better than when he left Sicily: it was an dramatic success. Woodhouse then returned to Sicily and established his winery, in a few years his Marsala wine became successful in England and it soon become the wine mainly consumed in the ships of her Majesty's fleet. It is said Horatio Nelson - who particularly appreciated Marsala - used to celebrate the victories in his battles with this wine, and for this reason it was called ‘victory wine’.
At the beginning of the 1800s, two Englishmen, encouraged by the success of Woodhouse, entered the history of Marsala: Benjamin Ingham and his nephew John Whitaker who established Ingham winery near the one of Woodhouse. In 1832 the first Italian entered the scene - Vincenzo Florio a skilled merchant from Bagnara Calabra, a successful merchant of spices and descendant from one of the most prestigious and rich Italian family of the time - who decided to establish his winery between Woodhouse and Whitaker. The contribution of Vincenzo Florio for the development and the image of Marsala was remarkable. Thanks to this, Marsala soon changed its image and from wine destined for the sailors of the English fleet, it became a wine appreciated and looked for in the noble courts all over Europe. The skill and the success of the Florio family and their wines seemed unstoppable and in 1904 they establish, together with other entrepreneurs of Marsala, S.A.V.I (Società Anonima Vinicola Italiana, Anonymous Italian Wine making Society) which in few years acquires the wineries of Woodhouse and Ingham-Whitaker.
In 1924, the Florio family decides to sell the winery of Marsala to Cinzano, another important family in the history of Italian wine. In the course of World War II, because of the bombing raids of the allied aviation, Florio cellars were severely damaged (as you see from my photo above, the oldest vintage now left is from 1939), and the restoration of the winery took a very long time, and only in 1984 was restoration completed. In January 1998 the control of Florio winery passes to ILLVA Saronno Holding, which in 1987 already owned the 50% of the firm's shares, therefore beginning a new and important chapter of this historical winery. Important and fundamental changes in the production and commercial management - contributing to the rebirth of Marsala Florio - as well as to the qualitative image of Marsala in general - by adopting scrupulous selections in every phase of production and by introducing productive criteria at very high levels. Marsala is today living again the glorious events of its history and the Florio name is everywhere in the world the synonym of quality Marsala.
During my visit at Florio - I had the pleasure to go through all the cellars seeing the whole process and careful ageing in the specifically designed barrels for the development of each of the Marsala wines. Every detail - from the purposely constructed, though subtle slope of the cellars so the seas breeze can enter the winery from the front and taking the warm air as it leaves from the top. Keeps the cellars at a constant temperature, plus humidity and dust is removed from the air by the limestone floor. We ended the visit with a tasting in the grand hall at the rear of the cellars.
The current production of Florio is divided between excellent Marsala and sweet wines, such as Malvasia delle Lipari, Passito di Pantelleria, Grecale and Morsi di Luce, an excellent wine made from Moscato d'Alessandria, known in Sicily as Zibibbo. Florio is currently producing five different styles of Marsala: Marsala Superiore ‘Vecchioflorio’ - an excellent value wine - Marsala Superiore Riserva Targa, Marsala Vergine Terre Arse, the excellent Marsala Vergine Baglio Florio and, the last born, Marsala Superiore Riserva Donna Franca, a tribute to Donna Franca Florio, a prominent figure of belle époque, as well as woman of refined class and beauty. Marsala Superiore Riserva Donna Franca is in fact the last piece of magic created by Carlo Casavecchia, the result of years of researches and studies, which led to the creation of this charming and smooth wine which will certainly be capable of satisfying the senses of the most exacting enthusiasts.
Each Marsala has its own indisputable class and elegance; the next few days was a continuous discovery made of aromas and emotions, the confirmation of the quality Marsala Florio has been able to achieve in the course of its long and prestigious history. Even though it was a journey - and I can say this now with a smile on my face. It is definitely worth the effort - please be clear, don’t take this journey lightly, but when you are here and you enjoy the wines, paired with the local cuisine looking out to the Mediterranean Sea, it doesn’t get much better than this.