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Episode #221: Magical Marsala – The Sweet Taste of Sicilian Wine

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Western Sicily, home to Marsala wine and the salt pans, is lesser known and visited than the East, with a very different and contrasting rugged beauty. This region’s unique climate and soil is home to vineyards producing the renowned Marsala wine, which is much more than the sweet cooking wine that might spring to mind – with dry and well as sweet versions. Alongside its famed vineyards, we’ll discover the enchanting salt pans and iconic windmills that pepper this landscape and coastline. 

Show notes

In the next in our series on Italian wine with Untold Italy’s Olivia Windsor and her partner Andrea Mitti Rua from Italian Wine Tales, we continue our focus on individual wine regions. Australian Liv has been living in Italy for 5 years and hosts our Untold Italy Tours all over Italy. She is an Italian food and wine expert and both she and her soon-to-be husband Andrea, who is from Piedmont, are currently studying to be qualified sommeliers in Italy. Italian Wine Tales is their online resource on Italian wine and for wine tours or winery recommendations. Sign up for the Italian Wine Tales newsletter here. Their previous episodes introduced us to the famous reds Brunello di Montalcino (episode 213), Barolo (episode 206) and Tuscan red (episode 196), about white wines in general (episode 189) and some sparkling wines (episode 179).

DISCOVER: Untold Italy’s unique small group Tour of Western Sicily.

What you’ll learn in this episode

  • Australian Liv and Italian Andrea run Italian Wine Tales – an online resource where you can learn more about Italian wine in a fun and approachable way. Liv also leads many of our Untold Italy Tours, which include tours of Western Sicily  (and Eastern Sicily too)
  • Both Liv and Andrea, from the Northern Piedmont region, are set to become qualified sommeliers in Italy as well as to achieve become husband and wife this summer!
  • They do a wonderful job educating people about the diversity of wine in Italy which has over 400 varieties. There are so many things to learn about the terroir and each grape is important and the many things which affect the taste and style of the different wines
  • The area we are talking about for Marsala wines is the North Western corner of the island of Sicily which is definitely off the beaten path of most visitors
  • We visit this area on our tours of Western Sicily and love how untouched and traditional this part of the island is. Here you’ll find the iconic salt pans and windmills and ancient ruins of Segesta and Selinute
  • In Sicily, they’ve been producing wine for over 6,000 years, so a very long history of winemaking
  • Sicily has the most vineyards planted in Italy and is the leading producer of organic vineyards in the country. It’s a big player when it comes to Italian wine

Marsala – that sweet wine?

  • They do make the sweet Marsala wine, that you may think about, but you also get dry and semi-dry. There’s something for everyone if you are interested in trying Marsala
  • There are only 21 wineries that produce Marsala, but back in the day when it was more popular, there were over 200 producers of Marsala
  • Katy thinks back to when her parents had a bottle of Marsala at the back of the cupboard which would occasionally be brought out after dinner and many think of it only as a sweet cooking wine
  • Like sherry in Spain, it has gained a bad reputation, but there is actually many different types of Marsala to try, with much more complicity and diversity than you might think
  • The cooking version of Marsala wine is really cheap and has been aged for just a year. You will find versions, however, that like sherry and port, have been aged for 10-plus years so are really good
  • Marsala wine is a fortified wine. It’s produced using, normally, the Grillo grape. Grillo is the symbol of the Trapanese wine region, which is where Marsala is produced
  • They take a base wine like Grillo and they add a grape spirit, which is normally brandy, and that boosts its alcohol content – at around 15 to 20% alcohol content. Then it goes through an aging process, which can be anywhere from 1 year (for the cheap cooking stuff), at 2 years it gets a bit better – Superiore and then it gets really nice at around 4 or 5 years – that’s the Superiore Riserva.  All the really good wines will be 10-plus years age. So the different Marsalas that are produced vary greatly in quality and taste
  • There’s also different colors – Amber and Gold and Ruby
  • The Amber one is generally the sweeter one because they add caramelized grape must (mosto cotto) to it, which serves as a sweetener
  • They can play around with the different sugar levels and the aging to produce dry, semi-dry, or sweet Marsala

Pairing different Marsala wines with food

  • Dry Marsala is good to have for aperitivo if you want to have something different from your usual Spritz when you’re in Italy.
  • Semi-dry will be perfect when paired with a dessert or with cheeses, like a nice blue cheese
  • The sweet ones are good with chocolate
  • You need to be careful (especially if having it as an aperitivo) as the alcohol content is quite high – between 50 and 20%. so drink in moderation and savor it
  • With the tuna, famously from Western Sicily, you could pair it with a very dry Marsala – definitely not the sweet and this would be the tinned version – Liv and Andrea wouldn’t recommend it with the normal tuna because it’s like mini red meat, quite intense
  • Italian tuna is nothing like what you probably get in North America/Australia. If you get the chance, to go to an Italian delicatessen and buy yourself a tin of tuna, and you will experience something very different. Katy had some homemade preserved tuna in oil that the lovely Pierpaolo from Joe Banana gave her and it was incredible

What can we see if we go visit Marsala?

  • Liv and Andrea visited Western Sicily last year together, and then she was also in that region for our Untold Italy Western Sicily Tour and they find it utterly stunning
  • It’s very different to the East Coast of Sicily. It has got more Arabic in feeling and generally feels more untouched – it is all about the nature and nature reserves. It’s not built up like the east part of Sicily
  • There are the salt pans and windmills – which are iconic symbols around this area – around Trapani, which is just above the town of Marsala, and the region where this wine is produced
  • It’s very beautiful and you have the coast, so you get the coast breeze and that marine salinity in the wines
  • Liv was fascinating seeing the salt pans last year on the tour. She had never seen how salt was made and it was both interesting and absolutely stunning. The salt pans are flat areas where the salt is made with a layer of water that washes over the top from the sea and then they’ve got the big windmills. These look very striking in the distance, against the flatness
  • It’s stunning at sunset or sunrise. The sky is often a beautiful shade of pink, with the blue of the sea and these stunning windmills. Very picturesque
  • During the Untold Italy, they visit both Marsala for the tasting and the salt pan. It’s a perfect combination – and nothing beats enjoying a glass of Marsala whilst watching the sunset
  • Katy is pondering how she is involved in creating these incredible tours but that she hasn’t gotten to go on them all. She very much wants to go on this one and experience this – as it is an area of Sicily that she would really love to visit and which is pretty undiscovered for the most part by most English-speaking travelers

Where else to visit in Western Sicily

Erice

  • Back up towards Palermo, there’s the beautiful medieval hilltop town of Erice – Liv’s favorite spot along the West Coast
  • It’s tiny and when you go up to it, it’s a complete temperature change – definitely pack a jacket. They often have what Liv likes to call the mists of Avalon descend upon the area. When she and Andrea visited last year, it was very misty and mysterious looking. When she then went on the Untold Italy tour, it was a beautiful, bright, sunny day. It is nice for her to have had both, contrasting experiences
  • There is a famous pastry shop in Erice that they go to on the tour and have a special experience learning to make traditional pastries with the Sicilian owner of the shop. She’s in her 90s now, and she still comes to the shop every day. Her whole family works in the shop as well, so you get to meet everyone in this traditional family business

Scopello

  • Another town along the West coast that Liv visits with the Untold Italy tour and she and Andre also went to last year, is Scopello. They’re really famous for tuna fishing. Although that doesn’t happen anymore, this was where a lot of their industry was, and a lot of money came in from. They have Tonnari – the fishing area you can visit. You can do a tour there and learn all about it and it is a stunning place. There’s the beach and the Faraglioni rocks in the distance, making for a really stunning view
  • The water is beautiful and there are some great restaurants in town
  • Katy says when she first saw it, she actually gasped. She thinks it looks a little like the Amalfi Coast, but a bit more undiscovered of course

Selinunte

  • On the tour, they head south down from Marsala and stop at Menfi for a few nights. Near to Menfi, if the incredible temple sight of Selinunte
  • It is Greek as there was a big Greek influence in the area
  • It’s centuries old, but it’s still very, very well preserved – one of the best preserved
  • A stunning place to see and particularly at sunset, you’ve got the view of the temple, the sun going down behind it

Agrigento

  • Going further south, driving another 2 hours or so, you get to Agrigento, known as the Valley of Temples
  • It’s a little bit of an effort to get there, but it is very much worth it. It is not only stunning but these temples have been there here for over 2,000 years – nearly 2,500 years
  • When Liv was on the tour of Salinente, the guide was fantastic at bringing it all to life
  • What was interesting to hear about was the ancient temple and more modern history cooling as they were shown bullet holes in the temple from the Second World War

Recommended Wineries/Enoteca

  • The are 2 very historical and famous wineries in Sicily – Florio and Pellegrino. They’re going to speak English at those and you can book online
  • An important thing to consider when you go and visit is that they’re not generally open on a weekend. Sunday is a definite no, Saturday mornings are a maybe, but your best bet is Monday to Friday
  • Florio is a very important family in Sicily. It was an industrial family in Sicily that helped Sicily to grow
  • There is an interesting series of books which are called The Lions of Sicily, telling the story of the Florio family from the beginning to when they became rich – which his all linked to Marsala
  • They originally came from Calabria, the region that borders Sicily, in the 1700s. They moved to Palermo, originally and had a spice shop there. From there, they grew into exporting spice all over Europe and began to grow into other sectors, including wine. It’s a very beautiful and interesting read

Getting around

  • The area around Marsala is a good two-hour drive from Palermo
  • As a side note, when it says 2 hours on Google Maps, it probably means 2 and a half to 3. These are not well-managed roads, and the signage and the correctness of Google Maps situation can be a little challenging
  • Don’t consume much alcohol if you’re driving because firstly, the drink driving laws in Italy have recently gotten very strict, but you also really need your wits about you on these roads
  • This is definitely an advantage of taking a tour. On our tour, we visit a lot of wineries, and you have no restriction on your indulgence. You can feel free to snooze on the bus as we make our way to the next destination. No car or wits required

So much to see

  • It is astounding that Sicily has so much to see and do in a relatively small patch area
  • If you look at it on a map, it might seem like you could see most in a week, but having been there a few times, Katy laughed at herself that she once thought that a remote possibility
  • You ideally need more than a few weeks on this beautiful island to do it justice

Other wines to try

  • Grillo is the symbol of the Trapanesi wine region. It’s a white wine and is quite fruity. You can think of it a little bit like a full-of-bodied version of a Pinot Grigio. It has flavors of lemon, apple and nuttiness
  • Contessa Entellina is a small winery and DOC (that we go to on the Western Sicily tour). Created in 1993 it has red, white and rosé (Katy is quite rosé obsessed a the moment)
  • There is the famous Nero d’Avola red wine which is quite popular down in the south 
  • They’ve got a lot of international grape varieties there. The winery that we go to on tour also has some indigenous varieties that you won’t find anywhere else, with the name literally translates to something like Antique Grape

More on Italian wine from Andrea and Liv

The website for Liv and Andrea’s fantastic online wine resource is www.italianwinetales.com. You can follow them too on Instagram @italianwinetales, or join their Facebook group ItalianWineLovers. They are also preparing to launch a podcast of their own that later on in the year. You can also connect with Liv on @livguine, or meet her in person on one of our Untold Italy Tours

SUBSCRIBE: To the Italian Wine Tales newsletter here.

Untold Italy’s Sicily Tours

There’s a saying by German poet Goethe – “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” You are unlikely to meet anyone who regrets their time in Sicily.

If you are one of our lucky tour guests joining us on one of our tours to Sicily, exploring Marsala, Mount Etna, and other wines from the island, you can take advantage of Liv’s expertise, as well as that of our other tour host, to help you order wines to send back home. Liv is also in charge of choosing the wineries we visit and is very particular about where we go.

We have 2 amazing week-long tour itineraries in Sicily. The Western Sicily Tour departs from Palermo and visits Erice, Scopello, Cefalu, and (of course!) Marsala and the salt pans. The Eastern Sicily Tour starts in Catania and explores the Baroque Val di Noto, Taormina, and Ortigia. There is plenty of wine tasting and food exploration too. A glass of sweet marsala wine sounds like the perfect accompaniment to a delicious cannolo. If you would like to learn more about these trips head on over to the Untold Italy Tours website where you will find a complete day-by-day itinerary and more.

About our guests – Olivia Windsor and Andrea Mitti Rua

Olivia, an Australian who moved to Italy in May 2019, and Andrea, an Italian from Piemonte, Northern Italy are based in Rome and have recently launched the Italian wine site Italian Wine Tales, where you’ll find not only the best wines to try, but also information on all the Italian wine regions, the best wine tours and wine clubs you can join. Follow them for Italian wine inspiration on Instagram @italianwinetales, join their Facebook group Italian Wine Lovers or sign up for the Italian Wine Tales newsletter here.

Olivia writes a blog called Livguine, named after her love for pasta and her nickname Liv.  She has explored the country south to north, working in agriturismi and organic wineries before settling in Turin, Piedmont for a time after meeting a local Piemontese Andrea. They are both now based in Rome and Olivia hosts various Untold Italy Tours throughout the year in Piedmont, Liguria, Tuscany Capri and Puglia.

You can find Liv and Andrea on these channels:

Untold Italy Tours

Join Liv on one of the many Untold Italy Tours she hosts around Italy. Untold Italy Tours helps you discover your authentic Italy and discover the Italian places, faces, stories, and tastes whose memories linger for years to come.

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Places mentioned in the show

  • Marsala –  coastal town in western Sicily
  • Trapani – the capital city of the province, found in western Sicily with a crescent-shaped coastline
  • Erice – ancient town in North Western Sicily on the top of Monte San Giuliano 
  • Scopello – a village on the North West coast of Sicily
  • Tonnara di Scopello – the old tuna fishing factory
  • Menfi – town that lies between the rivers Belice and Carboj
  • Selinunte – archaeological park with amazing temples
  • Arigento, Valley of the temples – another amazing archaeological site with temples

Recommended wine/wine makers

  • Florio – famous, winery with a family with a fascinating and important history in Sicily
  • Pellegrino – traditional winery specializing in marsala wines

Food & Drink

  • Pedro Ximenez – famous sherry from Spain
  • Grillo – wine grape widely used in Sicily and for making Marsala

Resources

Resources from Untold Italy

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