Sicilian Secret: Grillo!
Chances are unless you are a supreme wine nerd, the white grape Grillo might be off your radar! Let’s change that!
Grillo is best known for being the star grape for Marsala, the infamous fortified wine of Sicily. I use the term infamous because sadly this fortified wine has not been treated with the same respect as its brethren (Port, Sherry, and Madeira). Sure, there are not-so-great versions of all those wines, but Marsala is almost entirely known as a cooking wine that’s meant to be bought for cheap, in jugs, and used to make pan sauces.
This was not always the case...time travel back to the 1700s when Englishman John Woodhouse discovered this wine, which was actually not fortified in those days but rather made to a naturally high degree of alcohol. Woodhouse began shipping Marsala back to his homeland where it became a hit (alongside Port, Sherry, and Madeira). (These higher alcohol wines were the perfect beverage to survive sea voyages -- hence some of their popularity during this time.)
Marsala survived for several centuries in relatively good form, but by the mid-20th century quality waned. Co-operatives dominated Sicilian wine trade, and they focused on quantity over quality. They also began to use grapes other than Grillo and even add caramel food coloring to give the appearance of oxidative winemaking. Basically, sad times for Marsala.
Thank goodness for native hero Marco de Bartoli … but it’s not that simple. See, while Bartoli was born and raised on a family farm near the actual town of Marsala on Sicily’s western coast he did not immediately pursue wine. Instead, he became a race car driver, and it was not until the end of his driving career that he thought back to the heritage of his native region and felt a calling to return to his roots.
In the 1980s, Bartoli began to resurrect the cellars on his grandmother’s property and planting row upon row of Grillo (which he views as the only acceptable grape for Marsala due to its high acidity)
Fast forward 40 years and Bartoli has in fact revived the true Marsala tradition while also creating a new one -- dry white wines from the Grillo grape.
At the shop that I manage, we are lucky enough to have both: his historic rendition of Marsala (that is unfortified) and his dry, old vine Grillo “Grappoli” that has a bit of bottle age. I recently enjoyed this bottle on an early summer evening, and it was quite simply outstanding. Think Chablis meets a northern Rhone white...in other words, tons of minerality but also a bit of weight (making it a perfect food pairing wine).
There’s not an abundance of either of these beauties so email me if you are interested in having a bottle reserved or shipped to you! Or request them today at your own local wine shop!
Here’s our pricing for perspective:
Grappoli 2014 $51 (dry Grillo)
Vecchio Samperi $86 (non-fortified Marsala)