From its humble beginnings Marsala wine gained international recognition after Admiral Horatio Nelson placed an order for 500 barrels per year to supply the British Navy. 

One of the most renowned of Italian wines, Marsala is a fortified wine made primarily with the grapes of three varieties, classified according to their sweetness:  dry, semi-dry and sweet.  Colour is also important.  The best Marsalas are aged for at least ten years, though younger bottles are still certainly worth drinking. In 1960 Marsala was the first Italian wine to gain a ‘Protected Denomination of Origin’ (PDO).

Like other great fortified wines such as sherry and port, Marsala developed historically not as a drink of the local people but as a wine primarily intended for export to London and the British Empire.

English wine merchant John Woodhouse sailing past Sicily in 1773 seeking safe refuge during a violent storm sailed into the port of Marsala. Safely berthed, the local beverage offered to the sailors in harbourside taverns caught his attention, tasting similar to the fortified sherries of Spain and Portugal then very popular in England.

Already high in alcohol due to the elevated sugar levels no doubt from the sun baked area in which the grapes were grown, it was readily transportable and capable of withstanding the rough journey back to England. 

Following the customs of the times, in his first shipment back to England, brandy was added to fortify and help withstand the sea journey. So it was a quite different tipple from that barrelled in the original thirty casks. Once on board Woodhouse poured two gallons of spirit into each of them.  4.5 litres of spirits for a total of 415 litres of wine, not a small affair at all. The outcome was a roughly fortified wine, whose taste was certainly familiar enough for the English palate.

Cleverly he didn’t mention its origin but hastened back to Marsala and bought up large tracts of land on which the grapes were grown between the two largest established Marsala producers and set about producing his own vintage. Thus began the story of the development, mass production and commercialisation of the Marsala wine industry in Sicily.

Today it remains an important industry in the area with Florio and Pellegrino the leading producers. 

Day 14, ‘Unspoiled Sicily in Style’  Explore the town of Marsala, with most of your morning free to wander the lively town with its many interesting historical sights,  strong Arab influence and colourful open air morning market. After lunch a guided visit to a local winery to sample Marsala.