Although I have been traveling up and down the California coastline, valleys and mountains for over ten years, it was not until recently that I came across a winery, in fact two , that produce a Marsala in the traditional style.
The first was at Hecker Pass Winery in the Santa Clara Valley just a few weeks ago and the second was last Saturday at Oak Ridge Winery in Lodi, a Conti Royale Marsala. Both are very similar and reasonably priced. Both have loads of butterscotch and caramel on the nose, subtle hints of oak and dried fruit. They are balanced and slightly sapid with a taste of almonds and hints of liquorice. If you have never had an American produced Marsala I highly recommend that you check one out!
WHAT?! You never heard of Marsala?
Marsala is a fortified wine originally produced in the region surrounding the Italian city of Marsala in the west section of Sicily and it first received Denominazione di origine controllata, or DOC, status in 1969 The creation of Marsala dates back to 1798 when the locals managed to substitute their own wines in place of the standard rum in an English naval shipment. In those seafaring days, something had to be done to wine to allow it to last the long ocean journeys. Brandy, another fortified wine, was added to allow the wine to last longer, and to be more resistant to temperature changes.
There is both a ruby red and a golden ambur white style of Marsala. Traditionally, red Marsala is made form Pignatello, Calabrese, Nerello Mascalese, Nero d’Avola grapes whereas the amber white is made from Grillo, Catarratto, Inzolia and Damaschino
Marsala is made in the “solera” tradition - a melding of years. First, a keg is put down and then subsequent years with similar tastes are placed in kegs above the first. When liquid is drawn out of the bottom, it is resupplied with wine with wine at the top, and so on. In this manner, the taste remains the same throughout the cycle, and every bottle you get potentially has some wine from the very first vintage.
Like Port, Marsala is classified according to its color, sweetness and the duration of their aging. The three levels of sweetness are secco (with a maximum 40 grams of residual sugar per liter), semisecco' (41-100 g/l) and sweet (over 100 g/l). The color and aging classifications are Oro (Golden color), Ambra (Amber color) and Rubino (Ruby color). The coloring in comes from the mosto cotto sweetener added to the wine. The levels consist of: “Fine” has minimal aging, typically less than a year, “Superiore” is aged at least two years, “Superiore Riserva” is aged at least four years, “Vergine” is aged at least five years, “Soleras Riserva” is aged at least ten years
Marsala wine is also frequently used in cooking, and is especially prevalent in Italian restaurants in the United States. A typical Marsala sauce, for example, involves reducing the wine almost to a syrup with onions or shallots, then adding mushrooms and herbs. One of the most popular Marsala recipes is Chicken Marsala, in which flour-coated pounded chicken breast halves are braised in a mixture of Marsala, butter, olive oil, mushrooms, and spices. Marsala is also used in some risotto recipes, and is used to produce rich Italian desserts such as zabaglione and shortcake.
So, if you are interested in checking out a bottle of Marsala, I highly recommend visiting Oak Ridge Winery in Lodi. They have a really an interesting tasting room that is made from a transformed redwood wine holding tank that dates to the end of Prohibition. The tank had a capacity of 49,429 gallons and now it has a great size and shape for a tasting bar, done in brick with beautiful redwood walls. The winery itself was founded in 1934 and Oak Ridge utilizes 50 to 100 year old vines to produce a very deeply flavored Old Vine Zin as well as other local Lodi grapes. In addition to extremely robust variety of wine they produce very silky smooth Cream Sherry and a wonderful Solera Zinfandel Port style wine and as I said, a really nice Marsala. But like many other Lodi wineries, they are known for their Zinfandels and their OVZ and Moss Roxx Ancient Old Vine Zin are excellent representatives of the Lodi region.