Marsala: Florio’s wine


Marsala: Florio’s wine.

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tudying a wine, it happens quite often to come across interesting stories: ‘Marsala’ is no exception. Even if its grapes are grown in Sicily, it was an Englishman the first to understand its great potential, as English were the first to really appreciate it. Anyway, it was an Italian family to make it famous worldwide: the Florios. Let’s meet this fascinating people and find out their story. Let’s deepen the knowledge of their delicious ‘fortified wine’.

A brief history of Marsala wine.

Marsala wine.

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ccording to the most widely known story, it was the year 1773 when the ship on which Mr. John Woodhouse was travelling, chased by a storm, had to seek refuge in the small port of Marsala.
An accident that proved to be very useful, since it gave to the English merchant the opportunity to taste for the first time the ‘Perpetuum’, a wine usually kept by the locals for special occasions. It was produced in small quantities with a method quite similar to one used in Spain, the ‘soleras’.
This wine was so delicious that Woodhouse decided to commercialize it in England: he started by sending just a few barrels. Some brandy (*1) was added to protect their content from deterioration.

Woodhouse

As expected, the ‘Marsala’ was much appreciated. Not a big surprise: after all the English people already loved the taste of similar wines like Port, Sherry and Madeira. Woodhouse had to build a factory in Sicily to satisfy the great demand.

Ingham

A few years later, around 1810, another British businessman, Benjamin Ingham, started to produce it. He should be remembered because he was the first to export it outside Europe.

Florio

In 1832, Vincenzo Florio bought the land between the factories of Woodhouse and Ingham and built the ‘Cantine Florio’ production plant (*2). The strong competition didn’t discourage him: he was in fact counting on his merchant fleet to ship Marsala worldwide. His success was so great that in a few years he surpassed his rivals, becoming the most important producer.

During time this wine experienced mixed fortunes, much depending on the fashion of the period. Many were the imitation attempts: great part of them stopped in 1931, thanks to an official decree much similar to a designation of origin (*3).

Notes:
*1: Woodhouse cannot be considered the ‘inventor’ of Marsala: the English merchant modified a type of wine that already existed, the ‘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 forty different companies. Some of the most important were: ‘Rallo’ (founded in 1860), ‘Curatolo Arini’ (founded in 1875) and ‘Pellegrino’ (founded in 1880).
*3: Marsala was the very first Italian wine to be certified.

Wines ‘fortified’ to endure the transport.

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arsala is one of the ‘fortified’ wines: this category includes very famous products, like Port, Madeira and Sherry. They all have in common that their alcohol content is increased, by adding one or more of the these ingredients:

Pure ethyl alcohol;
Brandy;
Mistelle (*1);

This was a method originally used to make wine ‘stronger’ (‘fortify’), thus protecting it from many of the risks associated with transportation.
In the past, barrels could linger for many weeks in the cargo hold of a merchant ship: during this time their content was exposed to an extremely hostile environment. Rough movements, sudden changes of temperature and contaminations could ruin the wine, making it undrinkable. By adding some alcohol, it was both ‘stabilized’ (any unexpected fermentation was blocked) (*2), and ‘protected’ (thanks to its antiseptic properties).

Notes:
*1: Mistelle is a mix of alcohol and unfermented (or partially fermented) must.
*2: Alcohol blocks yeasts, responsible for the natural process known as ‘fermentation’.


Marsala wine.

The Florios and the Belle Epoque.

Bal du moulin de la Galette (img-12) Ritratto di Donna Franca Florio (img-01)

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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 used as the script 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 ‘Belle Epoque’.

The Belle Epoque.

The ‘Belle Epoque’ lasted about fourty years, from 1871 to 1914. During this period of time the states of Europe remained in peace, creating the best conditions for an incredible economic and cultural development. Scientific and technological discoveries gave hope in a bright future for all mankind. An euphoric mood started to radiate from the center of the continent: Paris.



Style, culture and wealth.

In this particular historical context, a small group of wealthy and influential people had the opportunity to 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 personalities of their time.

This beautiful dream was shattered by the explosion of the First World War: a tragic event that caused the end of the ‘Belle Epoque’ and the decline of this incredible family.


Fruit, A.Mucha (img-10)

‘Soleras’ method for the Marsala.

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oodhouse and Ingham used the ‘soleras’ method to age their Marsala wine (*1): it 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 poured 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;

Soleras method.

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 the characteristics of different vintages.
The quality stays constant in time.
Nowadays, with a few exceptions, the ‘soleras’ is not used anymore, replaced by the classic barrel-aging technique.

Note:
*1: The people of Marsala used the ‘in perpetuum’ method to age their best wine, known as … ‘perpetuum’.

Garibaldi and the Marsala wine.

Garibaldi in uniform (img-09)

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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 started the unification of Italy had begun.

Richard Cossins: Vice Consul AND director of the Ingham factory.

Though never admitted, the landing of these soldiers was implicitly protected by two warships of the Royal Navy at anchor outside the port: the HMS Argus and the HMS 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 Redshirts, barricaded themselves in their houses, a delegation of British citizens led by Cossins greeted Garibaldi and his troops. It is said that he offered a glass of Marsala to the General (*2) and that he appreciated it very much (*3).
A particular type of sweet Marsala ‘Superiore’ was nicknamed ‘Garibaldi Dolce’ (Garibaldi sweet) to celebrate this event.


Garibaldi, leaving Quarto (img-04)

Notes:
*1: King Francis II of the Two Sicilies, speaking about Cossins, said that he was more worried for his salary than for 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 explain that in truth he had no problems with alcohol, he was just not used to drink during the military campaigns.

The Florios: history of a dynasty.

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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 Florio, (img-03)

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 it worldwide, and in a few years his company became the most important.

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 the family palace on Favignana, entrusting the project to the famous architect Damiani Almeyda. The same architect designed for him the Marsala production plant and the Saint Anthony’s Church.

Ignazio Jr. takes on the business.

Vincenzo Lancia, 1908, Targa Florio (img-05)

When Ignazio Sr. died in 1891, he left a huge fortune to his three sons: Giulia, Vincenzo and Ignazio. Since the first two 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.

Franca Florio and the Kaiser Wilhelm II (img-06)

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 member 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 a lot of famous people to Sicily (*2).
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 their 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.

Note:
*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.


Teatro Massimo, Palermo.

Many types of Marsala.

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here are two types of Marsala: the ‘vergine’, made only with white grapes, and the ‘conciato’, made with black and white grapes. This wine is classified according to aging, color, sugar and alcoholic content: characteristics influencing its taste and aspect.
Let’s examine the typologies in detail:

Marsala vergine:

It’s made only with white grapes. Once the fermentation is complete, it’s added 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 are both ‘soleras’, this method, with some exceptions, is not used anymore to produce them. The classic barrel-aging is used instead.

Marsala conciato:

It’s made with white and black grapes. Once the fermentation is complete, it is added with alcohol, brandy, mistelle and/or cooked must.

Marsala conciato is classified according to its aging 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 (*1).
Ambra (Amber): made only with white grapes (*1).
Rubino (Ruby): made with black grapes and some white grapes.

Note:
*1: It’s the ‘concia’ to make Oro and Ambra 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 its typical amber color.


Rows of barrels.

Nelson about Marsala (Img-16)

HOW MARSALA WINE IS MADE

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ow is made Marsala wine? Here follows a brief explanation:
1) Everything starts with the must, made by pressing the grapes.
2) Selected yeasts are added to the must: the fermentation process begins.
3) During the fermentation, the yeasts eat the sugar present in the must and produce alcohol.
4) Alcohol and/or brandy are added: this stops the yeasts. That’s why sooner the alcohol is added, sweeter the wine will be.
To make Marsala Vergine, the wine is added with alcohol and/or brandy.
To make Marsala Conciato, the wine is added with alcohol and/or brandy, mistelle and/or cooked must.
5) Marsala is poured into oak barrels and starts aging (the ‘soleras’ method is generally not used anymore).

MANY GRAPES FOR MARSALA WINE

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 added in a percentage not higher than 30%).

MARSALA: ‘VICTORY WINE’ FOR NELSON

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he famous Adrmiral Horatio Nelson used Marsala as his ‘victory wine’, to toast at the end of a battle. He loved it so much he once said “this is a wine worthy of any gentleman’s table”. That’s probably why he decided to supply the entire Royal Navy with it.

MUSIC AND MARSALA WINE

Here follows some classical music to get in the mood of the Belle Epoque and to accompany the reading of this article:




ESCALOPES WITH MARSALA WINE

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scalopes are one of the most famous Italian specialities. There are many different types of them, they differ from each other in what is used to simmer the meat (*1).
One of the most delicious is made with Marsala wine:

The ingredients

Beef / pork or turkey meat;
Flour;
Extra virgin olive oil;
Marsala wine;
Salt;

The recipe

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. Simmer with Marsala wine until reduced (*2);

Note:
*1: Lemon or orange juice can be used instead of wine.
*2: When the meat is ready, it’s possible (but not necessary) to add some sweet gorgonzola cheese.

THE FLORIO FLEET SHIPS MARSALA WORLDWIDE

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he success of the Florios as Marsala producers was due not just to the great quality of their wine, but also to the efficiency in its distribution: a task performed by the family’s merchant fleet. The ‘Flotte Riunite Florio’, during the period of its maximum expansion, could count on 99 ships (*1).

Note:
*1: Why not 100? Because 99 was the the maximum number of ships allowed by the law.

INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT THE FLORIOS

A modern factory.

In 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 great admirer and a good friend 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 of the island of Favignana, was particularly dear to Ignazio Jr. 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.

LOST DENOMINATIONS OF MARSALA

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ome bottles of Marsala still today bear on their labels denominations used in the past. A few examples:
Marsala fine: ‘I.P.’ (Italian Particular).
Marsala Superiore: ‘G.D.’ (Garibaldi Dolce), ‘L.P.’ (London Particular).
Some other denominations, dating back to the golden age of this wine, are not used anymore. For example: ‘Erin Dolce’, ‘Parigi’ and ‘Trinacria’.

Beverages.

THE RIGHT FOOD FOR THIS BEVERAGE

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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.




The images bearing the logo ‘webfoodculture’ are copyrighted.

The following images are public domain:

Click here for the list.

img-01 (*) – Franca Florio, Boldini, 1900 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-02 (*) – Cancan dancers, Bonnot (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-03 (*) – Vincenzo Florio, unknown author, 1869 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-04 (*) – La partenza da Quarto, 1860 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-05 (*) – Fiat 50 and Vincenzo Lancia, 1908, Targa Florio (Wikipedia Link)
img-06 (*) – Franca Florio and the Kaiser Wilhelm II (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-07 (*) – Sir Horatio Nelson, L.F.Abbott, 1799 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-08 (*) – Battle of Trafalgar, C.F.Stanfield, 19th cent. (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-09 (*) – Garibaldi, 1861 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-10 (*) – Fruit, A.Mucha, 1897 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-11 (*) – Tour Eiffel, Georges Garen, 1889 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-12 (*) – Bal du moulin de la Galette, Renoir, 1876 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-13 (*) – Titanic at the docks of Southampton, April 1912 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-14 (*) – Mariani wine adv., J. Chéret, 1894 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-15 (*) – Cinematograph adv., H. Brispot, 1895 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}
img-16 (*) – Portrait of Horatio Nelson, J.F.Rigaud, 1781 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

The header image is pubblic domain:

Image 01 – Franca Florio, Boldini, 1900 (Wikipedia Link) {PD-US}

(*) The copyright of this image has expired.
(**) Image released in public domain by its author.