Wine Notes – Mastering Marsala
Cooking With Wine This Summer? Better Get the Good Stuff.
Tasting wine is often more fun than drinking it. Before COVID-19, we would roam from station to station, stand shoulder to shoulder, and get educated by the person pouring the wine. Most importantly, we experienced the flavors from different regions side by side. We also got to determine if the person pouring was just trying to sell us something.
I received many emails this past year offering opportunities to participate in online tastings. I guess you watch someone open a bottle and describe its wonders. I didn’t fall for it since no one offered to send me wine in advance. They were obviously just selling. One high-end tasting we attended only offered wines that cost more than $60. Now this was a great educational experience, since I prefer to spend $20-$25 for most of my wine. One selection we tried was a $100 white Burgundy — one of the best expressions of chardonnay I’ve had. Then we were told that if we came back in a couple of hours, he was going to make a chicken stir-fry with it. The chef who was pouring insisted that you have to use the best wine if you want to create great dishes.
Cooking with wine is one of my favorite experiences. Sometimes I even put it in the food. Still, you can’t expect to cook with a bad tasting wine and expect your dish to turn out great — don’t ever cook with something labeled “cooking wine.” The rule of thumb is if you can’t choke down a glass, it doesn’t belong in your cooking.
One of my favorite wine dishes to cook is chicken or veal Marsala. I love the nutty flavor and have been trying to recreate the “I’ll have what she’s having” experience my wife once had at Harry Caray’s in Chicago. I will admit that I used to go to the grocery store and buy the cheap stuff that says Marsala but doesn’t come from Italy. It never produced the right flavor, so my search began.
Marsala is the westernmost town on the island of Sicily and was “discovered” as a wine world gem by English trader John Woodhouse after his ship was accidentally blown into the port in 1773. He was planning on loading the vessel with the industrial chemical sodium carbonate, but instead returned to England with a full cargo of wine from Marsala. Wine didn’t travel well at the time, so Woodhouse added alcohol to the barrels to reduce spoilage. His Marsala sold out in England and became the most popular wine in the British navy, where it was commonly used to toast the force’s many victories. Woodhouse returned to Marsala, purchasing the vineyards and creating a successful wine empire.
Today’s amber Marsala is made from a combination of grillo, catarratto and inzolia grapes. They are harvested late, increasing the sugar content of the grapes and creating its signature nutty raisin flavor. A neutral brandy distilled from wine grapes is added to the must (a mixture of fresh grape juice and solids), stopping the fermentation. Whatever amount of sugar not converted by the yeast at this point remains in the wine. This results in a sweeter wine fortified to 18% alcohol. Fortified wine will last much longer once opened and exposed to oxygen, making it the perfect bottle to sit in the kitchen ready to be added to your favorite creation.
I traveled the Merrimack Valley in search of the best Marsala wine available for drinking and for cooking. The selection of fine Marsala is rather slim. I purchased six different bottles, all under $15, and tasted and cooked with each. Nothing seems available in the area that’s a fine-drinking Marsala, but I did settle on Vecchioflorio Marsala Superiore as a very good choice. Vecchioflorio is aged in oak for 30 months, which is six months longer than the law requires and gives this wine a definitive edge. The Florio winery began when Vincenzo Florio purchased a wasteland adjacent to the winery that Woodhouse created, and it became one of the largest, most respected brands from the region. You won’t have much trouble finding Vecchioflorio. It is widely distributed in better wine stores in the Merrimack Valley. When I come across a Marsala exceptional enough for an aperitif, I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, this choice will remain in my kitchen as I continue to try to recreate Harry Caray’s chicken Marsala.