Marsala: Florio’s wine.
tudying a wine, it happens quite often to find unexpected, interesting stories: Marsala is no exception. Even if its grapes have always been produced only in Sicily, it was an Englishman to understand first its great potential, as English were its first admirers. Anyway, it was an Italian family to make it famous worldwide: the Florios. Let’s meet this fascinating people and learn their story, let’s deepen the knowledge of this “fortified wine” and start to fully appreciate it.
A brief history of Marsala wine.
ccording to the legend, it was the year 1773 when the ship on which the English merchant John Woodhouse was travelling, chased by a storm, was forced to seek refuge in the small port of Marsala.
An accident that in perspective proved to be very useful, because this way he could taste for the first time the so-called “Perpetuum”: a local wine, kept for special occasions and produced in small quantities with a method quite similar to one already used in Spain, the “soleras”. It was so delicious that Woodhouse decided to export it to England. He started by sending just a few barrels: the wine was added with some brandy (*1) to increase its alcohol content and thus protecting it from the deterioration due to transport.
As expected, the “Marsala” was much appreciated in England. Not a big surprise really, since its people already loved the strong taste of similar wines like Port, Sherry and Madeira. In order to satisfy the great demand, Woodhouse had to build a factory in Sicily.
A few years later, around 1810, another British businessman, Benjamin Ingham, started to produce this wine in Marsala. He was the first to export it outside Europe.
1832, Vincenzo Florio bought the land between the factories of Woodhouse and Ingham and built on it the “Cantine Florio” plant (*2). Many years had passed since Woodhouse had started his business: something that didn’t discourage Vincenzo, firmly decided to beat all his competitors. Fact is that he was counting on his own merchant fleet to ship the wine worldwide: in a few years he was so successfull that he could buy the factory of his rival, becoming de facto the greatest Marsala producer.
Over time Marsala wine experienced mixed fortunes, depending on the fashion of the period. Many have been the imitation attempts: all of them blocked starting from 1963, thanks to the DOC seal of origin (*3), that still ensures the quality of this great product.
*1: Considering these information, it would not be correct to say that Woodhouse was the “inventor” of Marsala. The English merchant just modified a type of wine that already existed, the so-called “Perpetuum”, increasing its alcohol content by adding some brandy.
*2: During the period of its greatest success, between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, Marsala wine was produced by almost fourty different companies. Some of the most important were: “Rallo” (founded in 1860), “Curatolo Arini” (founded in 1875) and “Pellegrino” (founded in 1880).
*3: It’s important to remember that Marsala was the very first Italian wine to get the DOC seal of origin.
Wines “fortified” to endure the transport.
arsala is one of the a so-called “fortified” wines, a category that includes other very famous products like Port, Madeira and Sherry. What they all have in common is that the alcohol content of their base wine is increased by adding one or more of these ingredients:
Pure ethyl alcohol;
This method was originally used to “fortify” the wine, protecting it from many of the possible problems related to its transport.
In the past, barrels could linger for many weeks in the cargo hold of a ship: during this time their content was exposed to an extremely hostile environment. Rough movements, sudden changes of temperature, contaminations, are just some of the dangerous elements that could affect the wine making it undrinkable.
By adding some alcohol, wine was both “stabilized”, meaning that any unexpected fermentation was blocked (*2), and “protected” (thanks to its antiseptic properties).
*1: Mistelle is a mix of alcohol and unfermented (or partially fermented) must.
*2: Alcohol blocks the yeasts, responsible ot the fermentation process.
The Florios and the Belle Epoque.
he story of the Florios lasts more than a century, from the beginning of the nineteenth, up to the mid of the twentieth. It’s so fascinating it could be a perfect screenplay for a movie.
Step by step and with great skill, some of the members of this family built a huge business empire, embracing multiple sectors. They became so rich and powerful to be undisputed protagonists of the so-called “Belle Epoque”.
The Belle Epoque.
The “Belle Epoque” lasted about fourty years, from 1871 to 1914. During this period the states of Europe remained in peace, thus creating the best conditions for an incredible economic end cultural development. Scientific and technological discoveries gave hope and made people believe in a bright future for all mankind. An euphoric mood and a overwhelming desire to enjoy life started to radiate from the pulsing center of the continent: Paris. All kind of artists converged in this city to create immortal masterpieces.
Style, culture and wealth.
In this particular historical context, a small group of wealthy and influential people could live like in a dream: the Florios were among them. Even if they spent great part of their time in Sicily, a place quite distant from Paris, they were so famous for their style and culture to be surrounded by the most important intellectuals and aristocrats of that time.
They lived a brilliant existence, full of hope for a bright future.
A beautiful dream shattered by the explosion of the First World War: a tragic event that caused the end of the “Belle Epoque” and the beginning of the decline of the Florios.
“Soleras” method for the Marsala.
oodhouse and Ingham prefered the so-called “soleras” to the “in perpetuum”, the method employed by the people of Marsala to age their best wine (the “perpetuum”). The “soleras” was well known to them, since it was already used in Portugal and Spain for Port, Madeira and Sherry.
Let’s see how it works:
Rows of oak barrels, in a variable number, are placed one above the other:
The youngest wine is decanted in the highest row;
The medium aged wine is in the middle rows: lower is the row, older is the wine;
The oldest wine, ready to be bottled, is in the lowest row;
Year after year, only a part of the wine is extracted from the lowest row. Its barrels are then filled up using the wine from the row just above: this goes on for all the other rows, up to the one on the top, that is filled up with young wine.
Thanks to this method:
The wine is enriched, acquiring different features coming from different vintages.
The level of quality remains constant in time.
Nowadays, with a few exceptions, the “soleras” is not used anymore: the classic barrel aging technique is usually preferred.
Garibaldi and the Marsala wine.
he eleventh of May, 1860: one thousand soldiers, the famous “Redshirts” (“Camicie Rosse”), led by the General Giuseppe Garibaldi, arrived in the port of Marsala. The military expedition that was going to conquer the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and, in the end, unify Italy, had just began.
Richard Cossins: Vice Consul AND director of the Ingham factory.
Though never explicitly admitted, the arrival of these soldiers was implicitly protected by two warships of the Royal Navy, at anchor outside the port: the Argus and the Intrepid. It was the British Vice Consul Richard Cossins that asked for their presence, to defend the safety (and the interests) of his fellow citizens. What a “coincidence”: Cossins was not just Vice Consul, but also the director of the local Ingham wine factory. Fearing that some cannon shots could damage his production facility, he took all the precautions he could to stop the Bourbon Navy from firing on the invading troops (*1).
Cossins offers a glass of Marsala to the General.
While the local people, terrified by the soldiers, barricaded themselves in their houses, a delegation of British citizens, lead by … Cossins, greeted Garibaldi and his troops. It is said that a glass of Marsala was offered to the General (*2) and that he appreciated it very much (*3).
Since then, to remember this event, a particular type of sweet Marsala Superiore was nicknamed “Garibaldi Dolce” (Garibaldi sweet).
*1: It seems that in this occasion King Francis II of the Two Sicilies, speaking about Cossins, said that in truth he was more worried about his salary than about his people.
*2: It’s quite possible that the wine offered to the general had been produced by the local Ingham factory.
*3: Some historians think that Garibaldi was almost abstemious. Recent studies suggest that he had no problems with alcohol, but didn’t drink it during his military campaigns.
The Florios: history of a dynasty.
he Florios were originally from Bagnara Calabra, a small village in the south Italy. After the disastrous earthquake of 1783, they moved to the city of Palermo, in Sicily. Here, the two brothers Ignazio and Paolo, started a grocer’s shop. Unfortunately Paolo died quite soon, leaving to Ignazio the business and his son Vincenzo.
Understanding the great potential of tuna trade, Ignazio bought two factories, the “San Nicola” and the “Vergine Maria”. It was the right choice: this business earned him a small fortune, money that he left to his nephew, when he died in 1828.
Vincenzo Florio and the Marsala wine.
Vincenzo invested all the money he inherited: he started buying another tuna factory located on the island of Favignana. Later, he entered the businesses of tobacco, cotton and maritime transports.
One of his most successful commercial initiatives was the production of Marsala wine. Thanks to his own merchant fleet, he exported this product worldwide, and in a few years his company became the most important, beating the rivals (Woodhouse and Ingham above all).
Ignazio Sr. and the Egadi Islands.
Vincenzo died in 1868, leaving a huge fortune, almost 300 millions lire, to his firstborn Ignazio (known as “senior” to distinguish him from his son).
When he married the baroness Giovanna D’Ondes, the Florios officially joined the inner circle of the Palermitan aristocracy. It has to be said that the family remained proud to belong to the entrepreneurial middle class.
In 1874, Ignazio bought for 2.700.000 lire the Egadi Islands and the exploitation rights of the surrounding sea. He also ordered the construction of his palace on Favignana, entrusting the project to the famous architect Damiani Almeyda. The same architect built for him also the Florio plant and Saint Anthony’s Church.
Ignazio Jr. takes on the business.
When Ignazio Sr. died in 1891, he left a huge fortune to his three sons. Since Giulia and Vincenzo spent all the time after their own interests (*1), it was up to Ignazio Jr. to take on the family business.
He started building the Palermo shipyards (active still today) and acquiring sulfur mines in Caltanissetta. In 1897 he completed the Teatro Massimo in Palermo, whose construction was started by his father. In 1900, he founded “L’Ora”: a journal of great importance for the south of Italy, that could count on correspondents from all over Europe and on the writings of famous authors like Matilde Serao, Luigi Pirandello, Salvatore Di Giacomo and Giovanni Verga.
Donna Franca and the Belle Epoque in Sicily.
Thanks to “Donna Franca”, wife of Ignazio, the Florios joined the international high class society.
Franca Jacona della Motta dei baroni di San Giuliano, was a representative of the oldest and finest Sicilian aristocracy: a woman very beautiful and of great intelligence. Admired like a queen, she was nicknamed “star of Italy” by the Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Her style and culture (supported by the great wealth of Ignazio), attracted to Sicily (*2) a lot of famous people.
All the most important personalities of the time, sooner or later, visited her, among them: the Czar of Russia, the Kaiser of Prussia and the King of Italy, but also intellectuals like Gabriele D’Annunzio and artists like the tenor Caruso.
The end of a dynasty.
The brilliant life of Franca and Ignazio was deeply marked by the death of three of their children: tragic events that left them without a male heir.
After the First World War, also the business started to go wrong: a slow decline, due to unlucky investments and, more in general, to the shift of economic power from the South to the North of Italy. Taxes and strikes gave the final blow to the family fortunes: to repay the huge debts, they had to sell almost everything, including the famous jewels of Donna Franca.
The death of Ignazio in 1957, followed two years later by his brother Vincenzo, put an end to the story of the Florios.
*1: Vincenzo had a great passion for cars: so much to organize the famous “Targa Florio” race.
*2: During the “Belle Epoque”, the city of Palermo became one of the favourite places of the European elite.
Many types of Marsala.
here are two main types of Marsala: “vergine” and “conciato”. It is also classified according to aging, color, sugar and alcoholic content: these elements influence quite a lot its taste and even its aspect.
Let’s examine them in detail:
Made using only white grapes, once the fermentation is complete, it is added just with alcohol and/or brandy.
According to its aging, the Marsala Vergine is classified in:
Marsala Vergine (Marsala soleras): aged at least five years. Minimum alcohol content, 18%.
Marsala Vergine Riserva (Marsala soleras riserva): aged at least ten years. Minimum alcohol content, 18%.
Even if they both have the term “soleras” in their name, this method (with some exceptions) is not used anymore. The classic barrel aging is widely preferred.
Made using white and black grapes, once the fermentation is complete, it is added with brandy, mistelle and/or cooked must.
According to its aging, marsala conciato is classified in:
Marsala fine: aged at least one year. Minimum alcohol content, 17%.
Marsala superiore: aged at least two years. Minimum alcohol content, 18%.
Marsala superiore riserva: aged at least four years. Minimum alcohol content, 18%.
It’s also classified according to its sugar content …
Secco (dry): less than 40 gr. per liter.
Semisecco (semi-dry): between 40 gr. and 100 gr. per liter.
Dolce (sweet): more than 100 gr. per liter.
… and to its colour:
Oro (Gold): made only with white grapes.
Ambra (Amber): made only with white grapes.
Rubino (Ruby): made with black grapes and some white grapes.
It’s the so-called “concia” to make the Marsala Ambra and Oro different from each other. During its vinification, the Marsala Ambra is added with cooked must (“concia”): thanks to this ingredient the wine becomes sweeter and gets the typical amber color.
HOW MARSALA WINE IS MADE
ow Marsala wine is made? Here, a brief list gives an idea about the procedure:
1) Everything starts with the must, made by pressing the grapes.
2) Selected yeasts are added to the must: this starts the fermentation process.
3) During the fermentation, the yeasts eat the sugar present in the must, converting it in alcohol.
4) Alcohol and/or brandy are added: this blocks the yeasts and the sugar is not converted anymore. Sooner the alcohol is added, sweeter the wine will be.
To make Marsala Vergine, wine is added with alcohol and/or brandy.
To make Marsala Conciato, wine is added with alcohol and/or brandy, mistelle and/or cooked must.
5) The Marsala is decanted into oak barrels and starts aging (the “soleras” method is in great part not used anymore).
WHICH GRAPES FOR THE MARSALA ?
White grapes: Grillo, Inzolia (Ansonica), Catarratto, Damaschino. These grapes are used for Marsala “vergine” and gold/amber “conciato”.
Black grapes: Nero d’Avola, Nerello Mascalese, Perricone (Pignatello). These grapes are used for ruby Marsala “conciato” (white grapes can be used too, but not more than 30% of the total).
MARSALA: “VICTORY WINE” FOR NELSON
he famous Adrmiral Horatio Nelson enjoyed very much the Marsala wine. He once said about it: “this is a wine worthy of any gentleman’s table”. For this reason he decided to buy every year many barrels of it, to supply the entire Royal Navy. Nelson used the Marsala as his personal “victory wine”, to celebrate the greatest victories.
MUSIC FOR A BELLE EPOQUE
Listening to this music, composed between the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, it’s really possible to feel the splendor, the joy of life and the optimism characterizing the Belle Epoque.
J. Offenbach: “Can can”.
R. Marenco: “Balletto Excelsior” .
G. Bizet: “Habanera”.
C. Debussy: “Arabesque”.
SCALLOPS WITH MARSALA
callops are one of the most famous Italian recipes. Many different types of them exist: they differ from each other for the type of wine (*1) used to cook the meat. Some of the best are those made with Marsala wine. How to cook them? Let’s give a look.
Beef / pork or turkey meat;
Extra virgin olive oil;
01. Cover the meat with a thin layer of flour;
02. Put the meat in a pan with oil at low temperature;
03. During the cooking, gently turn the meat. Add some salt;
04. When the cooking is almost complete, add some Marsala wine (*2);
*1: Instead of wine, it can be used lemon or orange.
*2: When the meat is ready, it’s possible (but not necessary) to add some sweet gorgonzola cheese and wait for it to melt.
THE FLORIO FLEET SHIPS MARSALA WORLDWIDE
he success of the Florios as Marsala producers was due not just to the great quality of the wine, but also to the efficiency in its distribution: a task performed by the family’s own fleet. The “Flotte Riunite Florio”, during the period of its maximum expansion, could count on 99 ships (*1).
*1: Why 99 and not, for example, 100? Well, because 99 was the the maximum number of ships allowed by the law.
THE FLORIOS IN VIDEO
elow, the link to a very interesting documentary about the fascinating story of the Florios: their early years, the golden period and the sad decline. A family saga deeply connected with the belle epoque: so much, to share the same destiny.
Please click HERE to play the video (in Italian language).
Many thanks to its authors.
INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE FLORIOS
A modern factory.
In the year 1840, Vincenzo Florio founded a cotton spinning mill and recruited more than 700 women. This factory soon became famous for the revolutionary way its workers were treated: they had a nursery, a lunchroom and even an insurance fund. All innovative services for that period.
Donna Franca and the Kaiser.
The Kaiser of Prussia Willhelm II was a good friend and a great admirer of Donna Franca Florio. Legend says that, during one of her visits to Vienna, he gave her as a token of affection one of the horns he used on his cars. This way, when she moved around the capital with her car, people would bow, mistaking her for the king.
Aegusa and Ignazio Jr.
“Auegusa”, the ancient name for the island of Favignana, was particularly dear to Ignazio Jr. So, it was not by chance that he used it for the yacht he loved most (he had many of them) and for the best quality of Marsala produced by his company.
LOST DENOMINATIONS OF MARSALA
t may happen that some bottles of Marsala bear on their labels names of denominations of the past. Some examples:
Marsala fine: “I.P.” (Italian Particular).
Marsala Superiore: “G.D.” (Garibaldi Dolce), “L.P.” (London Particular).
Some other denominations that date back to the golden age of this wine, are not used anymore, for example: “Erin Dolce”, “Parigi”, “Trinacria”.
THE RIGHT FOOD FOR THIS BEVERAGE
arsala is a very versatile wine that, depending on the type, can accompany both sweet and salty foods.
For example, a dry Marsala, fresh, tasty and warm, is perfect with a medium-long aged cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano.
The acidity and the saltiness balance the sweet tendency and the fat.
The alcohol balances the (induced) succulence.
A Marsala Superiore, sweet and warm, is perfect with a dessert made with almond paste.
The sweetness balances that of the almond paste.
The alcohol balances the (induced) succulence.
The persistence of taste matches that of the dessert.
All the images used in this page, with the exception of those marked with the “webfoodculture” logo, are released in public domain:
©:1 (*) – Franca Florio, Boldini, 1900 (Wikipedia Link)
©:2 (*) – Cancan dancers, Bonnot (Wikipedia Link)
©:3 (*) – Vincenzo Florio, unknown author, 1869 (Wikipedia Link)
©:4 (*) – Sen. Ignazio Florio, 1891 (Wikipedia Link)
©:5 (*) – Fiat 50 and Vincenzo Lancia, 1908, Targa Florio (Wikipedia Link)
©:6 (*) – Franca Florio and the Kaiser Wilhelm II (Wikipedia Link)
©:7 (*) – Sir Horatio Nelson, L.F.Abbott, 1799 (Wikipedia Link)
©:8 (*) – Battle of Trafalgar, C.F.Stanfield, 19th cent. (Wikipedia Link)
©:9 (*) – Garibaldi, 1861 (Wikipedia Link)
©:10 (*) – Fruit, A.Mucha, 1897 (Wikipedia Link)
©:11 (*) – Tour Eiffel, Georges Garen, 1889 (Wikipedia Link)
©:12 (*) – Bal du moulin de la Galette, Renoir, 1876 (Wikipedia Link)
©:13 (*) – Titanic at the docks of Southampton, April 1912 (Wikipedia Link)
©:14 (*) – Mariani wine adv., J. Chéret, 1894 (Wikipedia Link)
©:15 (*) – Cinematograph adv., H. Brispot, 1895 (Wikipedia Link)
©:16 (*) – Vincenzo Florio ship, 344 tons, 1859 (Wikipedia Link)
©:17 (*) – Portrait of Horatio Nelson, J.F. Rigaud, 1781 (Wikipedia Link)
©:18 (*) – La partenza da Quarto, 1860 (Wikipedia Link)
©:19 (*) – Milan, Florio advertisement, 1900 (Wikipedia Link)
(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.