A newsletter for the industry pro (or aspiring pro).


Bright Old Things

December 12, 2019

Story: Tom Downey

photos: Francesco Lastrucci


Bright Old Things

December 12, 2019

Story: Tom Downey

photos: Francesco Lastrucci

A group of Sicilian winemakers is on a mission to bring back the original, unfortified Marsala. They’re calling it “Pre-British.”

“Young wine is for pedophiles,” says Pierpaolo Badalucco, as he pulls a few tastes of his old, oxidative, unfortified grillo out of the barrel with a wine thief. This is not the Marsala lining grocery store shelves, or even the stuff you might find at your local wine store. This is Marsala as it was produced two centuries ago, before the British arrived to make it both a fortified wine, and a household name.

“I can’t stand all this talk of glou-glou wine, easy wine, Badalucco says of the style of juicy, easy-drinking wine that has defined the current drinking zeitgeist. He pops the cork on a bottle of a new cuvée called “Perpetuum,” which he has not yet released, that is made from a base of old grillo combined with new catarratto each year. He’s not happy with the wine; it needs more time. He goes inside and returns with an open bottle of the same thing. “I uncorked this a month ago,” he says. “It’s amazing now. But can you sell a wine that you need to open a month before you drink?”

Before the British came to the Sicilian city of Marsala in 1773, locals had long made a wine they called perpetuo. A barrel of it sat in nearly every house in the land, from Mazara del Vallo, north along the coast to Marsala and Trapani, and east to inland Alcamo. Each year that barrel would be topped up with wine from the newest vintage, drunk down about halfway over the course of the next 12 months, and then topped up again each subsequent year with new wine. This yielded a mature wine with plenty of contact with air, almost certainly the kind of wine John Woodhouse, the first British exporter of Marsala, tasted when he landed.

Woodhouse realized that, like Sherry, Port and Madeira, Marsala would need to be fortified before shipping so that it wouldn’t spoil on the journey. That’s when the wine as we know it today was born: a long-aged, oxidative white wine, which passed through a solera-like system blending older and newer vintages and was then fortified with brandy before bottling. In subsequent years, though, Marsala devolved from Woodhouse’s original formula into many things unrelated—and injurious—to good wine: a flavoring used in preparing dishes like veal marsala or zabaglione; a novelty alcoholic drink mixed with random substances like almond, banana, coffee or egg; a souvenir that tourists buy because they imagine they ought to bring home something—anything—from their Italian holiday. This devolution, which began in the early 20th century, ultimately brought the Marsala industry to its knees. Nearly a century later, it’s given birth to a new movement back not just to the drier, higher quality fortified Marsala of the 1800s, but to something many consider to be a much more authentic expression of the region.

marsala badalucco wine
The land stretching from Mazara del Vallo to Marsala and Trapani, and inland to Alcamo, has produced wine for centuries.

Winemakers like Badalucco, as well as the De Bartoli family and Nino Barraco, among others, are devoted to reviving what they call “Pre-British” Marsala, a term coined by Barraco in 2015 to describe aged, oxidative nonfortified wine. (A much larger, traditional Marsala wine producer, Intorcia, has even recently tried to trademark the term “Pre-British” much to Badalucco’s dismay, as he sees it as a process and a tradition, not a brand.) The godfather of this kind of wine—and this new wave of local winemakers—was Marco De Bartoli. De Bartoli was heir to an industrial Marsala winery, but initially rejected the trade to strike out on his own, first as a race car driver, then eventually as an independent winemaker. He took over his mother’s family baglio, or wine estate, in 1978; in 1980 he released “Vecchio Samperi,” perhaps the first Pre-British perpetuo wine that had ever been bottled for sale. Two things distinguished it from the Marsala of the time: First, it wasn’t fortified. Second, the new wine in Vecchio Samperi came entirely from one contrada, or vineyard site, rather than the typical mix of bought and grown grapes that obscured Marsala’s sense of place.

It didn’t exactly take off. “Things were incredibly difficult for my father in the early years,” De Bartoli’s daughter Josephine says. “Even this first wine, Vecchio Samperi, which he loved the most, really only started to be widely appreciated in the last decade.” De Bartoli died in 2011, but not before he had, singlehandedly at first, created a renaissance of independent winemaking in a region dominated by industrial-scale Marsala makers.

Vecchio Samperi is now joined by a number of other Pre-British wines. Nino Barraco’s “Altogrado,” first released in 2016, is a single-vintage grillo aged for years with exposure in the barrel to oxygen. It’s topped up during the first two years, as needed, with wine from the original vintage. Badalucco’s “Pipa” cuvée, first released in 2018, is somewhere in between De Bartoli’s blended, multiyear Vecchio Samperi and Barraco’s single vintage. Pipa starts with a single vintage as its base and then ages in the barrel, with a quarter left empty for air. As it evaporates and needs to be topped up, Badalucco uses the wine of the previous year, or an older wine, to do so. The movement hasalso begun to expand beyond the original three to include Pre-British cuvées from the natural wine producer Viteadovest; from Intorcia, who recently introduced their own perpetuo cuvée; and Fodera, who, when I visited them in October, offered me a glass of theirs, which they had not yet begun to bottle.

These Pre-British wines are made in tiny quantities—Barraco makes 700 bottles a year, while Badalucco makes less than 1,000—but as soon as they are rolled out to customers in Japan, throughout Europe and at natural wine events like RAW, they become underground classics, sought after by Sherry lovers in Tokyo as well as natural wine geeks in America. Just a few years ago, though, this newfound relevance felt like a long shot.

marsala wine italy
Winemaker Nino Barraco coined the term “Pre-British” Marsala in 2015.
"The Fields Make You Poorer and Ruder"

Badalucco’s grandfather abandoned winemaking in 1970 when he saw the wine world he knew, in which local landowners didn’t just grow grapes but also made quality wine, destroyed by industrial Marsala manufacturers and the grape growers’ cooperatives that supplied them. When he shuttered his cellar, he issued an ultimatum to his children, including Badalucco’s father: “Go to Palermo and study. Don’t come back here until you’ve earned a university degree.” Badalucco’s father became a professor of agronomy and raised his son in Palermo. Pierpaolo later moved to Madrid to work in a bank.

One night in 2000, Pierpaolo’s father called: “I got an offer to sell our three hectares of vineyards in Triglia [a seaside contrada],” he recalled. “Unless you want me to hold onto the land, I’ll sell it.” Pierpaolo asked him to wait so he could think it over. That night he reflected on the harvests of his youth, when the entire family would move to this land from their home in Palermo, spend all day picking grapes, then eat alongside the workers. He thought about his grandfather, who had to abandon what he’d loved, and about his father, who had been forced out of his hometown because of the collapse of this industry.

In the morning he called his father and said, “Papa, do you need the money you’d get for selling Triglia?” His father said no. “Then I think I’ll come home,” Pierpaolo said. A week later he quit his job and returned to Sicily. He and his partner, Spaniard Beatriz de la Iglesia Garcia, who makes the wine with him, spent almost all of their personal savings cleaning up the vineyards, which had been leased to growers who used chemical fertilizers that polluted the land. That left them very little capital to begin with. “There’s an old saying among winemakers here,” says Badalucco. “‘The fields make you poorer and ruder.’”

The couple had no formal training in winemaking but came to share a cellar with Nino Barraco. Through trial and error, and with guidance from friends, Badalucco and de la Iglesia Garcia started to realize the potential of the grillo they were harvesting from Triglia, which was very high in sugar but had extremely balanced pH. As a test, Badalucco stuck some of it in a barrel and left it there for years, as he did with many other wines, to see what might happen. He wasn’t convinced the wine, which was unusually high in alcohol, would ever become something he wanted to drink; he was still in pursuit of a younger, fresher style. But around 2008, a few years after it had been put in the barrel, a French sommelier came to taste through his experiments, all piled up in one corner of the cellar. She got to that long-aged grillo and immediately turned to Badalucco to ask if he would sell it to her. “That made me think,” he says. “I thought I’d been looking for something else entirely different. But maybe there was something here.”

marsala wine italy
Pierpaolo Badalucco uses a wine thief to extract and sample his aged, oxidative white wine, representative of his family’s heritage in Marsala.

Badalucco, ever patient, waited for his grillo to properly mature; a decade later he made the first bottling of what he’d call “Pipa ¾-1,” a reference to both the name of the barrels once used to export Marsala and the fill of those barrels—3/4, to get sufficient contact with air—decreed by the second British producer of Marsala, Benjamin Ingham. Badalucco’s Pipa is the only wine made today following a document called the decalogo, authored by Ingham in 1834, which laid out his ideas of the proper production process for wine: separation of grapes, crushing by foot, proper maceration, the vital importance of hygiene. It could be thought of as a kind of early blueprint for clean natural winemaking. (Ingham’s decalogo laid out not the process for making fortified Marsala wine, but for producing the best base wine for aging.) Pipa has an unmistakably different nose than any of the other Pre-British wines: intensely savory, with a strong initial whiff of butterscotch, then an acid bite that cuts through its nearly 16 percent alcohol.

Though De Bartoli started bottling and selling perpetuo decades ago, this style of wine, and the movement that is giving birth to it, is in its infancy. But this desire to go out in search of something purer, and more meaningful, is a perfect symbol of the wine world’s fresh look backward—not as a form of cosplay or dogma, but as a way for a new generation of winemakers to engage with their own personal history in new ways.

So Old, It Is Actually New

One way of thinking about the extremes of wine taste that have recently come back into fashion—intentionally oxidative production, long skin contact, super high acidity—is as a return to challenging flavors that people probably at one time appreciated, even adored, but were eclipsed by tastes easier to enjoy. That is, in essence, why fast food and industrial food and drinks, and the instant, direct pleasure they deliver in the form of addictive fat, flavor, sweetness and texture have become so popular. Though easy-drinking glou-glou wine is one face of wine today, especially natural wine, there is also an increasingly relevant counterpoint to be found in Jerez, the Jura, Sardinia and beyond, that showcases the complexities, depths and differences that come from wine aged with long contact with air.

marsala wine italy
“Things were incredibly difficult for my father in the early years,” says Josephine De Bartoli, whose father, Marco, created a renaissance of independent winemaking here.

“Now is the time to make this kind of wine,” Nino Barraco told me. “People are finally ready to appreciate it.” That said, the streets of Marsala aren’t yet flowing with Pre-British, but the style is starting to gain some local fans. I first learned about it through the owner of Enoteca Bellini, located on a pedestrian street in the old city, whom I asked about the best Marsala-style wines. She pointed out a couple of classic Marsalas, but it was clear she was holding something back. She sized me up, looked back at the shelf, then steered me to the Pre-British section. “These wines don’t technically count as Marsala,” she said. “But they’re really special.” At Le Lumie, a fine-dining restaurant situated in the wine country just outside Marsala’s city limits, I ate busiate, the classic, coiled pasta of the region, looked out over vineyards that stretched down to the sea and drank Altogrado and Vecchio Samperi, both offered by the glass.

But the real return of Sicilians to this style of wine is happening, if it’s happening anywhere, in Palermo. That more cosmopolitan city an hour and a half north of Marsala has recently seen a flurry of interest in natural wine, and in the wines from this side of Sicily, which have long been overshadowed by Etna wine, made in the east. At CiCala, a new wine bar in the Kalsa district, I spent a night drinking Pipa with its young owner, Filippo Cosentino. Like Badalucco, Cosentino lived abroad for years, then came back home. When he did, he found Sicilians had become much more open. “That’s not to say everyone is drinking Pre-British,” he said. “It’s still something for wine geeks and people nostalgic for the past. But that’s a beginning.” One of the best restaurants in the city, Gagini, now has a section of its by-the-glass offerings devoted to Pre-British, which it classifies as “wines for meditation.”

“For every local winemaker, especially the natural winemakers, making a Pre-British wine has become something you really have to do,” said Antonio Corsano, sommelier at Bocum, a Palermo wine bar. Corsano, an opera singer turned sommelier, told me about his first time tasting these wines: “I was up all night thinking about them,” he says. “In the bottle you find the life of the winemaker.”

Back at his family baglio, Badalucco showed me the old tanks, now in disuse, that his grandfather had purchased when he had a particularly successful harvest many decades ago. Those tanks are still empty, for now, but nearby are the many smaller barrels in which Badalucco continues his impassioned experiments in search of the past—and the future. “From the time that my grandfather stopped making wine to when I began,” he said, “no one made wine here in our family’s cellar. This isn’t a product to me, it’s much more. I hope others like my wine. But if they don’t, I’ll drink it myself.”

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Tagged: marsala, wine

Tom Downey writes for a variety of publications including WSJ. Magazine, Afar, Smithsonian, The New York Times and many others. Downey studied English Literature at Princeton University, spent a semester abroad at the American University in Cairo, and taught filmmaking at a film school in Singapore. He lives in New York.