5 Jul 2010

Sun, Sea, Sand and... Vergine

IF Carlsberg did wine conferences, they’d probably look like this. Speakers imported from core markets (and Romania) shaded under bamboo on the beach. We’d come to Marsala’s inaugural international conference to tell producers and press how the famous fortified is seen in our countries. The unorthodoxly sited event coincided with the commemoration of Garibaldi’s controversial ‘liberation’ of Sicily 150-years before.
We’d visited a handful of the 25 producers, vastly reduced from 125 a half-century ago. These included: Martinez, Casano, Vinci, Intorcia, Pellegrino and the largest, Florio, but not the trail-blazing Marco De Bartoli who proclaims independence from the Consorzio. In many cases I’d observed a grim situation facing Marsala where non-fortifieds and an unthinkably large production of robust communion wines were steadfastly eclipsing it. But I’d found hope in the aromas of caramelised plantain, hazelnut and crème brûlée in unsweetened ‘Vergine’ in a blind-tasting just hours before.
As Rai’s cameras focussed, from one island to another I reported what British writers, sommeliers, importers and consumers had said. Many were fast to criticise producers of the ‘antiquated’ drink for not promoting their product. Why, said a wine writer, weren’t they at Jerez’s ‘Vinoble’ fortifieds symposium? It was curious, said a consumer, to see little effort to sharpen bottle design and make sleek ads. Another asked, where exactly does the style fit between Port, Sherry, Madeira and Malaga? How should it be served, enquired a sommelier, tepid and soupy, refreshingly chilled, as a cocktail component, or liberally doused into pudding? A food writer posed, is it an ingredient or a drink? Apparently sub-editors often interchange Marsala with ‘Masala’, leading to desserts that taste of curry and curries of wine...
The trade deplored supermarkets for stocking grim egg-yolk potions, if at all. Michelin-starred Italian restaurants were slightly saddened by its demise, but rarely proactive enough to stock it. Good examples were just too hard to trace. Indeed, ‘all-in’, Italian specialist, Enotria sells fewer than 200 cases/year, a scenario possibly exacerbated by the name of their line, ‘Terre Arse’.
My audience fell silent. Only holidaymakers happy shrieks filled the void. But it gradually occurred that other than being laissez-faire, Marsala’s producers hadn’t really done anything wrong. It was the British who ‘discovered’ Marsala wine long before Garibaldi, and the British who now turned their noses up at its mere mention. Perhaps the quirky conference marks the start of this wine’s renaissance? Through marketing, vinotourism and erudite hand-selling, the future could yet be Marsala-scented...
Commissioned by, and printed in Harpers Wine and Spirit Magazine
For more photos, please see Visuals