The Wine of Victory
Admiral Horatio Nelson, (1758-1805) was one of Great Britain’s most venerable sea commanders, having distinguished himself in countless naval engagements. In 1800 he commissioned 500 barrels of Marsala wine to be delivered to England’s Mediterranean fleet on an annual basis. In 1805, after resoundingly defeating the combined French and Spanish armada at the Battle of Trafalgar, Marsala came to be known as “Marsala Victory Wine.”
Clearly Nelson knew a good thing when he saw it. Sadly, he didn’t live to see his beloved Marsala exalted as a commemoration of his success as he gave his life at Trafalgar.
What Is Marsala?
Marsala is a fortified wine, i.e., a wine to which brandy or neutral spirits are added to boost the wine’s alcohol content. Most fortified wines contain between 17 - 21% alcohol as compared to 8.5 – 14% for most table wines. Fortification was originally developed as a preservation technique.
Most fortified wines are sweet. When augmented with additional alcohol the yeast become inundated and cease converting the natural sugar in the grape juice into alcohol. The resulting wine is left with a higher degree of residual sugar. Nevertheless, dry styles of fortified wine exist as well.
Marsala, Italy’s most famous fortified wine is produced around the port city of Marsala in western Sicily. Although developed by an Englishman named John Woodhouse in the late 18th century, Marsala-type wines had been made as far back as the Romans.
Types of Marsala
Marsala, which contains a minimum of 12% alcohol comes in threes styles: Secco is dry, semisecco is semisweet and dolce is the sweetest.
There is a hierarchy of quality levels, each plateau representing a longer period of aging. From youngest to oldest are: fine, superiore, superiore riserva, vergine, and vergine stravecchio, (also known as vergine riserva).
While a fine is aged for one year, vergine stravecchio matures for a minimum of ten. Vergine Marsalas are dry, exhibit a caramel and smoked wood flavor, and are usually savored as aperitifs. The sweeter versions are relished as dessert wines.
More Marsala Distinctions
There are three other important descriptors of Marsala wine. Ambra and oro are Marsalas made from white grapes, (Catarrato, Damaschino, Inzolia, and Grillo), while Rubino is Marsala produced from red grapes, (Calabrese, Nerello, and Perricone). However, some of the aforementioned white grape varieties can be included in Rubino.
And Then There Is Madeira
Madeira is another magnificent fortified wine. Real Madeira hails from the Portuguese island of Madeira, located in the Atlantic 375 miles west of Casablanca, Morocco. Madeira gleans its characteristically tangy and burnt caramel flavor from heating the wine. This process, known as estufagem, (the Portuguese word for oven), involves aging the wine in heated tanks, or running heated pipes through its storage vessel for 90 days. It is then aged in wood for years.
Like Marsala, Madeira is made in dry and increasingly sweet styles. Each of the following designations is also the name of the grape employed, which must comprise 85% of the blend. Sercial is the lightest and driest.Verdelho is somewhat sweeter and stronger. Boal is fuller and sweeter still. Finally Malmsey is the stoutest, darkest and sweetest.
Also like Marsala, the dry renditions are cherished as aperitifs while the sweeter ones naturally serve as dessert wines. Madeiras termed “Sercial-style” or Boal’style” for example, contain less than 85% of the principal grape. The inferior Tinta Negra Mole grape will constitute a greater percentage of the mix. To make matters worse, there are cheap American knock-offs of Madeira that while inexpensive, are mere shadows of the authentic product.
In addition to straightforwardly drinking Marsala and Madeira, both wines are delightful in cooking, the most common application being sauce-making.
Veal Marsala is a time honored dish and common to virtually all American-Italian restaurants. In a nutshell, veal scaloppini is sautéed and then finished with a sauce made from Marsala. However, like countless recipes the world over, there are plenty of variations. I exhaustingly perused innumerable veal Marsala recipes from various cookbooks and websites.
Allow me to present my recipe for veal Marsala and then we can delve into the permutations.