Saturday, 18 May 2013


In 1770 a young Englishman, John Woodhouse, was forced to seek refuge in the Sicilian port of Marsh-alla. The port, with it's Arabic name  can be roughly translated to "Port of God", is situated on the western coast of Sicily and belongs to the town of Marsala, and it was here that Woodhouse would make discover a wine which would change the World wine market. Woodhouse, the son of a Liverpool merchant, was on his way to Mazara del Vallo, in southwestern Sicily to pick up a consignment of soda ash for his father. However, a storm that almost shipwrecked Woodhouse, forced him to take cover in the port of Marsh-alla to ride out the storm. As anyone would when forced to take cover in a strange place he headed straight for the local inns looking for a bed, some food and some wine. It was in one of these inns that Woodhouse first sampled the thick, sweet, dark wines of Marsala, that he believed could easily compare with the most expensive sherry of Spain and Portugal. 

So taken with the wines, Woodhouse contacted his wife-to-be, who worked for a wine producer in Madeira, to come immediately and join him. After extensive sampling they both agreed that the wines held great global potential and could even possibly break the monopoly on fortified wines held by the wines of Madeira and sherries of Spain. Woodhouse, with the backing of his fiancée and father, took on the difficult task of marketing Marsala to the rest of the world. Although Sicilian grapes were easy to get hold of and local labour was very cheap it still took a the year trail period before the first production of Marsala was shipped to England where, to both Woodhouse's delight and relief, it was instantly a hit and quickly became very popular. This quickly lead to Woodhouse instituting regular shipping runs between Marsala and Liverpool to cope with the ever increasing UK demand fo the wines of Marsala. 

Seven years later Woodhouse got the breakthrough he needed in the shape of a state order. In 1800, Admiral Nelson sent a written commission for 500 barrels of Marsala to be supplied each year to the English fleet based in Malta. Five years later Nelsons fleet won the decisive victory at the battle of Traffalger against the combined fleets of France and Spain, Marsala was heralded around the world by the returning British fleet - as Marsala "The Wine Of Victory". Alas, this sudden global popularity was to eventually become the downfall of Marsala wine. When this sudden high demand lead to a shortage of Sicilian grapes, Woodhouse had the ingenious idea to increase production by advancing farmers the necessary capital to grow more grapes and produce more Marsala, but at the same time Woodhouse still retained the right to set the price for any grap or basic wines the farmers supplied. Woodhouses success lead to competition and in 1806 another Englishman, 22-year-old Benjamin Ingham arrived in Marsala and quickly set up a new, bigger an technically more advanced production plant at Lugomare Mediterraneo, just a short distance away from Woodhouse's stronghold. Ingham new that the key to success was the farmers, so he began his own campaign to get the growers on his side. At harvest time Ingham sent town criers to offer production tips to small producers on how to improve the quality and productivity of their vineyards. Ingham established a ten-point plan for ensuring quality, some of Inghams points are still used today by some of Marsala's greatest producers. As with many other Italian wines this increased demand comes the temptation to short-cut which, in the case of Marsala, lead to a dramatic fall in quality and therefore popularity.

In 1833 a Sicilian entrepreneur decided to take the fate of Marsala into his own hands. By using the name of a friend, Vincenzo Florio, acquired a large vineyard estate, which bordered Woodhouse's property on one side and Inghams estate on the other. This lead to the unstoppable rise of Marsala Florio S.O.M - with its familiar trademark of a drinking lion. On the deeds founding the firm belonging to Vincenzo Florio were signed on October 20, 1834, and strangely still to this day refer to the production of a Madeira-type wine, not a Marsala. Even though Woodhouse will be forever accredited wit the discover and marketing of Marsala, it was Ingham who first established the ethos of quality over quantity, and Florio who finally developed a truly marketable wine, the demands for which grew year by year. Despite the initial difficulties, Florio won over the local grape producers and Marsala's worldwide success was now in local hands.

There are various types of Marsala produced, even today, some of which - such as the notoriously inferior wines of Marsala all' Uovo - have fortunately gone out of fashion. There are lower alcohol varieties called Oro, made from white grapes, and Rubino, made from red grapes and there is even a aromatised variety which is flavoured by various means, but probably the most interesting Marsala's are called Fine, Superiore, Vergine and Vergine Stravecchio. These quality Marsala wines can be up to 18 per cent proof and man are now matured for four, six or upto ten years in cask before being bottled and sold. Marsala in all it's different forms are an ideal aperitif or dessert wine. 

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