Marsala is a wine made on the island of Sicily, in the south of Italy. It is made in the same way sherry is: by aging in a succession of smaller casks. When wine is removed from the oldest cask it is topped up from the next oldest, and so on. In this way annual variations are minimized, producing a consistent flavor profile year after year. Like port, Marsala is fortified by the addition of brandy, which enables it to keep for months at room temperature after opening. Marsala is available in dry or dessert versions.
About Marsala Wine
Marsala is made from a range of white and red grapes native to Sicily. Nero d’Avolo, one of the red varieties, is the only one exported as a table wine in its own right. White wine grapes are used to make the traditional golden or tawny Marsala, while red wine grapes are used to produce the lightly-regarded ruby Marsala. The wine is fortified with brandy as a preservative, a measure taken in the late 18th century when an entrepreneur sold the local wine to the British navy as a substitute for rum.
Marsala begins with the winemakers producing a white or red wine in the ordinary manner. Instead of being aged in a steel vat or tightly closed barrels, the wine is kept in a large open cask. Under a protective covering of yeast and grape must it oxidizes in a controlled fashion, like sherry. Over time the wine moves by stages from the largest and newest cask to the smallest and oldest one, where the wine is bottled. This process creates wines with a complex, nutty flavor.
Dry vs. Sweet Marsala
Marsala is available in dry and sweet versions. Both are made in the same way, the sole difference being the sweetness of the wine going into the first cask. Dry Marsala is made from a dry wine, and sweet Marsala is made from a sweet wine with high residual sugar. As a drinking wine, dry Marsala is usually consumed slightly chilled as an aperitif, either before the meal or between the first two courses. Sweet Marsala is a dessert wine, consumed after the meal.
Both sweet and dry Marsala are widely used in cooking. The best-known savory Marsala dish is chicken or veal Marsala, in which the wine is used to make a pan sauce. After the meat is pan-fried, Marsala is stirred into the pan to dissolve the browned-on juices, reduced to a thick consistency and finished with butter or cream. Either sweet or dry Marsala can be used, and both have their adherents. Sweet Marsala is used in such classic Italian desserts as tiramisu and zabaglione.
References and Resources"On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen"; Harold S. McGee; 2004
The Oxford Companion to Wine; Marsala; Jancis Robinson; 1999
Wine Intro; Marsala Wine Information; Lisa Shea; 2011
Cooking for Engineers; Chicken and Mushroom Marsala; Michael Chu; Oct. 16, 2004