Cooking and eating with fortified wines
There are quite a few fortified wines available. By this I mean that distilled spirits, (mostly grape brandy), are added to bring the alcohol level up to 20 per cent or thereabouts.
Well-known examples are port and sherry, but madeira and marsala should also be included.
We have just imported a dry and a sweet marsala, a wine that takes its name from a port city on the Italian island of Sicily.
Marsala was first produced by an English merchant in the year 1772 as he realised that it could be a less expensive substitute for the very popular port and sherry enjoyed in his country.
To be fair, I will say that I have cooking on my mind rather than enjoying as an aperitif or with some flavourful cheeses.
For this reason we have only imported the “cooking price” versions and both sell for $16.75 a bottle.
In 1875, a young Vito Curatolo Arini decided to build a winery at the centre of his vineyards at Marsala. Arini was Vito’s mother’s family name; it was not uncommon then to take the surname of both parents.
His dream was to introduce his own premium marsala to the world.
Vito commissioned Ernesto Basile, a well-known architect from Palermo, to design the label for his first.
Basile was father of the Sicilian ‘Liberty Style’, or Art Nouveau.
This label is still currently used and is admired throughout the world for its originality and elegance. With a talent for the business, hard work and tenacity, he managed very quickly to turn the winery into a very successful exporter of marsala. The many awards Vito received for his efforts are testimony to both his entrepreneurial skills and the quality he offered.
Vito Curatolo Arini Superiore Dry (Secco) Marsala has notes of toasted almonds, dried figs and sultanas on the nose. Delicate notes of vanilla and oak on the palate are elegant and moderately dry.
The grapes used are Grillo, Cataratto and Inzolia and maturing takes place in barrels for over five years using the same method that creates sherry.
When making veal or chicken marsala, this dry one is the choice and the internet is just so teeming with delicious-sounding recipes that I feel it is not my place to mention any here. In general, the dry version is preferred for cooking, although both can be used.
Vito Carotolo Arini Superiore Dolce Marsala was the favourite of Garibaldi, and is also known as ‘Garibaldi Dolce’.
With an intense nose of figs, almonds and sultanas, it is full and mellow on the palate with notes of dried fruit, honeysuckle and caramel and a very pleasant sweet finish.
The winemaking process requires a soft pressing and slow fermentation at a controlled temperature of 20-25C.
To the base wine, which is pale yellow in colour, is added table wine, mistella (fresh grape must with alcohol) and mosto cotto (cooked must).
This complex mixture, together with the final alcohol content and the desired sugar level, gives us the traditional “marsala” flavour.
If you want to take the non-cooking approach, give the sweet version a try with Parmesan, Gorgonzola, Roquefort and other intense cheeses.
Slightly chilling the wine would also be a benefit. Also try it in desserts, like tiramisu and zabaglione; it’s also perfect paired with custard or sweet ricotta pastries, fruit and almond-based desserts.
Last month, I mentioned that an open bottle of tawny port will keep quite well in the refrigerator for up to two months and this is a fair rule for fortified wines in general.
A partially used bottle of marsala, or the others, will also survive for weeks in a kitchen cupboard.
The fridge is only suggested as chemical reactions, such as oxidising, take place at a slower pace at cooler temperatures. So it is handy to understand that this will even prolong the life of an unfinished bottle of regular red wine by a day or two at least.
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