Marsala
: History

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

  • About

Although the province of Trapani, where the wine is produced, has always been a centre of Sicilian viticulture, Marsala can said to have been born with the arrival in Marsala in 1770 of John Woodhouse, an English merchant and connoisseur of port, sherry, and madeira, who noted a striking similarity between the wines of the subzone of Birgi and the fortified wines of Spain and Portugal. Woodhouse ‘invented’ Marsala in 1773 by adding 8 l/2 gal of grape spirit to each of the 400-l/105-gal barrels which he shipped to England, and proceeded to open a warehouse and cellars in the township of Marsala in 1796. The victualling of Nelson’s fleet in 1798 doubtlessly assisted in spreading the name of the wine, and Woodhouse was followed by another Englishman, Benjamin Ingham, who founded a Marsala firm in 1812 and contributed greatly to improving the area’s viticulture. The largest Marsala house, Florio, whose premises once occupied a full km of seafront, was founded by Vincenzo Florio from calabria in 1832. Marsala’s production and marketing has always been dominated by large commercial houses, although there has been little continuity over time. These three pioneering houses failed to survive the 1920s and were absorbed by the vermouth house of Cinzano in 1929, and of the various Italian houses founded in the 19th century only Rallo, Pellegrino, and Vito Curatolo Arini remain today, with the last being the only producer still run by descendants of the founding family.