`Freude, schöner Götterfunken`(Ode to Joy!) and having spent most of one`s December & the January holiday at home, I managed to free up some much needed time to listen to some really great music, relax and read more in solid book form & read less on the pixeled screen machine. In my embarrasingly large, un-read, reading pile was a super book waiting for me. All 3.5kgs of ‘Princes Under the Volcano’ which tracks the origins of life, both social and anti-social, family and business life in Sicily during 18th 19th and up to the 20th century. Now, that is just over one kilo for each century, bravissimo!
What totally inspired me most, was not just the British influence on life and work in Palermo, Messina and Marsala back in the day, but these visits to the island by one Horacio Bronte Nelson. Yes! you are correct, our dear Admiral, and in the late 1790’s he lived there, and of course fell in love on the island, not only with Emma H, but especially with the local wine, Marsala. In those days there was danger to be found from the Straits of Gibraltar all the way to the River Nile, in the east, where pirates, bandits and waring French and Spanish warships could be found lurking around in these parts waiting for their prey. So of course the British fleet, I beleive based mainly at Malta where navigating and policing these waters. After all the Royal Navy then was the largest fleet in the world, and one of it`s Admirals, Bronte, was already quite a hero. Now according to the records, and this tremendous read, by the end of the 18th century there were three British families well set up in the wine business located at Marsala. The family Whitaker, the famous Inghams and the Woodhouse family. The latter`s baglio, was beautiful, and well positoned on the waterfront. They gained the reputation for producing the best Marsala. And thanks to Bronte Nelson, who was a good friend of John Woodhouse, the owner, I personally think that Woodhouse`s success in the Marsala wine business really took off when Nelson placed a large order for his fleet in January 1798, after the victory at Battle of the Nile. He invited John onboard the flagship `Vanguard`, moored up outside Marsala, for lunch and it was then written up in the ship`s log that before returning to Malta, Nelson had ordered thirty-six pipes and twenty-eight hogsheads of wine, all taken on board and signed for, by one Bronte Nelson. His future wishes where that John Woodhouse would infact supply the whole British fleet with his Marsala wine. So in March 1798 Nelson wrote to Lord Keith, his Commander-in-Chief that he `I have agreed with Mr.Woodhouse, at Marsala, for 500 pipes of wine, to be delivered to our ships in Malta, at 1s 5d per gallon, and as Mr.Woodhouse runs all risks, pays all freights etc. I do not think it is a bad bargain. The wine is so good that any gentleman`s table might receive it, and it will be of real use to our seamen`. So what better 18th century endorsment could one really get. What is now also extraordinary for me, is that the day after Nelson had signed this contract he was informed by the Admiralty that his command in the Mediteranen had come to an end, and he was recalled immediately back to England. A few days beforehand there was a terrible storm in the area and Nelson spent a whole day with John Woodhouse, on land, tasting the various Marsalas of that vintage. A wine from one of the barrels Nelson enjoyed so much that Woodhouse put it to one side and named it the `Bronte Marsala`. As Nelson left in such a rush two days later upon orders from the Admiralty, that he actually forgot and left the barrel behind in the Woodhouse`s baglio. Now, from what I can gather and as historically you already can remember and know from your history lessons at school, is that there was a famous battle, Trafalgar towards the end of 1805, and dear old Bronte was killed on board HMS Victory so never managed to return to Sicily to see his friend again, John Woodhouse, or to catch up with his barrel of Bronte Marsala. Ten years later, however, the 1815 grape harvest had just been gathered by Woodhouse and the news had arrived in Marsala that the battle of Waterloo had been a victory for Wellington. As the Marsala vintage, 1815, had been one of the best ever on record, John decided to set aside one solera of 1815 Marsala Superiore Riserva and blend it with the barrel from the Bronte barrel, and christened the barrel `Waterloo`.
Over the years distingusihed visitors and resonably well known connoisseurs both from England and North America got to try the 1815 Waterloo Marsala Superiore Riserva. It was an extraordinary wine for those few fortunate enough to have tasted and to have drunk some. Now of course the barrel is still there today on display in the baglio if not a lit empty and rather dry. But what your intrepid wine merchant here has done since finishing the book, is that he has actually managed to track down the one and only remaining bottle of 1815 `Waterloo` Marsala Superiore Riserva, Woodhouse & Co. in the world, and has had it shipped to London. It will be in our cellars at the end of January 2020, two hundred and five years after it was made. Now what to do with it is another question. I am rather keen to try it, but not alone of course. I will also publish it on our wine list so that if anyone shares my enthusiasm, it is there up for grabs, just drop me a line.
So, as not only a present to myself but also one for you too, I have now put together a small index of Marsala vini-definitions to help things along with your vinous education, and one more bit of 19th century news, before I leave you until February. I have just percured a unique, wonderful bottle of 1834 Marsala Superiore Riserva this time from the Woodhouse neighbour Ingham Whitaker & Co. I will also publish it on the main wine list when it arrives at our cellars.
And now for some vinipedia: Marsala is the name of a town on the west coast of Sicily, in Trapani province, so named from the Arabic marsa/Ali, or what we can now say ‘port of Ali’.
Lo-Fi (favoured by us as opposed to using the awful, fashionable and useless term `natural wine`) Wine making that is lowfidelity or unpolished, rough and ready to go! (unfiltered of course).
A baglio is a nautical term for the beam or transverse, of a ship. And literally in local Sicilian dialect, baglio also means a courtyard and by extension a fortified country estate, possibly from the post-classical Latin ballium meaning outer rampart of a castle; possibly from the Arabic baha meaning open space, square, or courtyard. You did not know that either did you, eh!
And as a reminder, Marsala is a fortified wine. In 1773, John Woodhouse and his brother Will landed at the port of Marsala and discovered the local wine produced in the region, which was aged in wooden casks and tasted similar to Portuguese & Spanish fortified wines, which in the day where quite popular in England. Hence, fortified Marsala was, and still is, made using a process called in perpetuum, which is similar to the solera system in Jerez. Our dear John Woodhouse recognized that the in perpetuum process raised the alcohol level and alcoholic taste of this wine while also preserving these and the grape characteristics during long-distance sea travel. Woodhouse further believed that fortified Marsala would also be popular in England, as another Sherry option. Then in 1806, it was Benjamin Ingham (1784–1861) who arrived in Sicily from Leeds. And it was he who opened new markets for Marsala in Europe and the Americas, and of course is still recognised today as the big Marsala producer, not necessarily the best of course.
Without banging on too much here, can I remind you that the white grape varieties that go into Marsala are: Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto and Damaschino. There is a red version called Rubino, but I do not like it at all. The Marsala (white) wine contains about 15–20% alcohol by volume. Different Marsala wines are classified according to their color, sweetness, and the duration of their aging. The three levels of sweetness are secco (with a maximum of 40 grams of residual sugar per litre, semisecco (41-100g/l) and sweet (over 100g/l).
- Oro has a golden color
- Ambra has an amber color. The coloring comes from the mosto cotto sweetener added to the wine
- Rubino has a ruby color, made from red grape varieties such as Perricone, Nero dÀvola & Nerello Mascalese
- Fine has aging of at least one year
- Superiore is aged at least two years
- Superiore Riserva is aged at least four years
- Vergine and/or Soleras is aged at least five years
- Vergine and/or Soleras Stravecchio and Vergine and/or Soleras Riserva is aged at least ten years
Marsala wine was traditionally served as an aperitif but these days I recommend serving it at the end of the meal with a Gorgonzola or a Roquefort. If you are looking for a comparative wine think no further than Moscato Passito di Pantelleria, the island south of Sicily before you land at North Africa.
Even by the year 1811 the 28th Regiment of the British Army`s officer`s mess kept Marsala Superiore Riserva on hand. Here is a picture of a toast to their victory at Albuera, on 16th May 1811. Only two officers of the 28th remained at their duty, you can see them here, the rest having been killed or wounded alongside 158 of their men. The officer’s mess was a bit lonely that night bar a bottle of Marsala.
`Über Sternen muß er wohnen` (Ode to Joy! and a very happy 250th birthday to L V B)