You may have only heard of Marsala when it comes to Chicken Marsala, a delicious Italian dish known for its sweetness and the abundance of mushrooms amid the creamy sauce. But if you’ve ever made Chicken Marsala, or been with someone while they cook it, you may be wondering about that most important ingredient, the one that makes the dish: Marsala wine.
Is Marsala wine good to drink?
Like most answers, this one is “it depends.”
First, what even is Marsala wine and why bother asking this question?
Marsala wine has a long and interesting history.
You see, ocean exploration began to really pick up in the 1500s, and by the time that people were colonizing and immigrating to the new worlds, goods were shipped and traded.
But the sea voyage is a long one, so the greatest concern was how to keep those goods, at least the perishable ones, fresh.
And of course, we are especially concerned with the wine!
So, how do you make wine last longer?
You fortify it!
Marsala wine is a beverage invented specifically to withstand long sea voyages.
A wealthy British merchant named John Woodhouse visiting the town of Marsala, a city in western Sicily, performed the necessary homework, consulting with local vintners, and discovered a way to preserve wine.
The usual process is simple: grow grapes specific to the flavors and aromas you seek, either red or white, crush those grapes, let the grapes sit out in the fresh air, covered by a cloth of some sort to keep out bugs and other debris.
Yeast will then be naturally attracted to this sugary pulp and get to work fermenting the grape juice to wine.
But fortification adds a level of complexity.
Either before the fermentation has completed or after, a grape spirit is added.
Grape spirit is any alcoholic beverage that has been distilled, typically brandy. The effect of adding brandy to the wine is to stop all fermentation, as the higher alcohol content kills any remaining yeast, and that higher alcohol content will then also extend the life of the beverage.
Alcohol is a natural preservative.
Typically, wines come in at around 11% or 12%. Fortified wines like Marsala are between 15% and 20%.
The end result of this fortification process, then, is a much richer, much more intoxicating wine that can last much longer.
The age of Marsala wines can range from one year to over ten years, and the general rule of thumb is that the longer it has been aged, the better it is for drinking.
The younger wines, like the ones you’ll find at the bottom shelf of your liquor store, are best for cooking.
Sadly, many people don’t realize that Marsala makes a great drinking wine, usually as either an aperitif, or appetizer, or a dessert wine.
Aperitif wines are drier, which is why they are best served before a meal, and they are the result of the spirit being added after fermentation. The yeast has already consumed and converted all the sugar in the must “crushed grape juice,” and the addition of the already dry liquor will make the wine even drier.
Dessert wines are sweeter because the spirit is added before fermentation has completed, which immediately halts fermentation, leaving sugar in the wine, and then adding the higher level of alcohol from the spirit, leaving it still with a higher ABV.
What does Marsala taste like?
Marsala is usually made with white/green grapes, and then various additions are made to add complexity of flavor and aroma.
You can expect flavors to include hints of brown sugar, vanilla, honey, dried fruit, and even licorice.
Marsala wine is called by its name because of the town from which it hails, so, much like true Champagne, it can only technically be called Marsala if it indeed comes from the town of Marsala. Anything else is just another fortified wine.
There is one Marsala that is made with red grapes, called Marsala Rubino, which is a bit more robust and earthy.
How to Store and Drink Marsala
Obviously by now you know that yes, you can drink Marsala wine.
Remember, for cooking, you can use the younger, much less expensive variety. But for the best Marsala wine for drinking, you can splurge on the more expensive, aged stuff.
And don’t be afraid to splurge on this wine the way you may hesitate with other wine.
Because Marsala is a sweet, rich wine, you will drink it slowly and in very small amounts at a time, so a bottle should last you a much longer time, and, thanks to its higher alcohol content, it will keep.
Whereas with most bottles of wine you want to drink the bottle within a day or two after opening it, with Marsala you can treat it more like a liqueur or hard liquor.
Store your Marsala in a cool, dry place, like you would olive oil, and you can expect it to last up to six months.
Indeed, it will last much longer than that, but it will start to lose its flavor and fragrance at that point.
In the end, it is a great idea to buy a slightly more expensive, more aged Marsala to experiment with. If you hate it, you can always just plan for a few Veal Marsala or Chicken Marsala dishes in the months to come.
But if you fall in love with it, you can enjoy it for both cooking and drinking, or you can reserve that bottle for cooking, and buy yourself an even more luxurious bottle for enjoying as an aperitif or dessert.
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