John Woodhouse and the birth of Marsala wine
The story of Marsala wine is one that the English can lay some claim to having brought into existence. But whilst the name and the wine are known throughout the world, the families and dynasties that grew round it is populated with some of the most interesting characters in Sicily in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The story begins in 1773 when an Englishman by the name of John Woodhouse, en route to buy a consignment of soda ash from Mazara del Vallo, was forced into the port of Marsala by a fierce storm.
Such hazards were no doubt a regular interruption to travel in the eighteenth century and one doubts Woodhouse would have been too perturbed. And furthermore, during his unscheduled layover he evidently found delight in the local Marsala wine. The strong, aromatic vino perpetuo – aged for years in the same cask, a portion siphoned off and bottled and the cask topped up with the annual grape must – was evidently much to Woodhouse’s liking.
Throughout the eighteenth century, sherry and Madeira-style wines had become popular in England and they transported easily due to their higher alcohol content. Recognising an opportunity, Woodhouse abandoned his quest for soda ash and bought 50 pipes (the 100 gallon barrels in which Marsala is traditionally aged) to ship back to England. But to avoid the chance that the wine should go off during the journey, he mixed brandy into the wine.
The consignment was evidently a success, since a short time later, Woodhouse set up wine production in an old tunnery on the western tip of Marsala.
His wine was aged in wooden casks and was made using a process called “in perpetuem”, a method that had been in use in this region for centuries and was similar to the soleras system used to produce sherry in Jerez. In essence the method involved a large barrel from which the fermented wine was drawn, which was in turn topped up each autumn by the new grape must. The essential point was that the barrel preserved the same yeast culture from year to year. But in addition, the process raised the alcohol level and the alcoholic taste.
This was the time of the Napoleonic Wars when Sicily was, in effect, a British protectorate. As I have written about elsewhere, it was Lord Admiral Nelson who in December 1798 had conveyed the Bourbon King Ferdinand and his wife Maria Carolina from Naples to the safety of Sicily.
Woodhouse junior met Lord Nelson in 1798. Writing with his left hand, Nelson signed a contract for two hundred pipes (a pipe was the equivalent of around 550 litres) of Woodhouse’s Marsala wine. It turned out to be a lucrative contract for Woodhouse and one that would ensure the production of Marsala wine for a long time to come.
It wasn’t long before other English entrepreneurs began to join Woodhouse. The most famous of these was Benjamin Ingham who arrived in Sicily from Leeds in 1803. In 1806 he moved to Marsala and set up his own wine company.
He employed his family members in the business, though having no children of his own he called for his nephews in Leeds to come out and join him on the island. He must have worked them hard and under the strain of the long hours at least one of them committed suicide. We still have letters Ingham wrote back to Leeds recounting how he had “worn out” the nephew they had sent him previously and asking for them to send another.
The most well known (and longest surviving) of these nephews was Joseph Whitaker, the son of Ingahm’s sister, who would later become the father of a prominent English family in Palermo.
By all accounts, Ingham spoke good Sicilian (though with a slight Yorkishire accent) and had no qualms dealing with the local ruffians. He married a local aristocrat, Duchess di Santa Rosalia Alessandra Spadafora and went on to become one of the most successful businessmen in Sicily.
His vast residence in Palermo was the building that would subsequently become the grand Les Palmes Hotel. In those days, the gardens were extensive. Across the front lawn stood the Anglican Church. Today, crowded as it is by tenement blocks and tall palazzi all this is somewhat difficult to imagine. At the turn of the twentieth century, Via Roma was bulldozed through the tranquility of this quarter of Palermo and now separates Les Palmes from the Anglican church.
When Benjamin Ingham died in 1861 he was the richest man in Sicily, though having no children of his own, he left his empire to his nephew Joseph Whitaker.
The sulphur industry
We have come to view Sicily as the exploited island of the Mediterranean, the poor man of Italy, the progenitor of mass emigration to Northern Europe and the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. And certainly this is true. The conditions of the peasants, dockworkers and mineworkers at the beginning of the twentieth century was little better than some of the worst medieval slums. However, there were some in Sicily who were making vast fortunes.
Success in the wine trade had allowed the Ingham & Whitaker & Co to diversify into other industries – most notably, sulphur mining.
Throughout the 19th century, Sicily was the world’s biggest producer of sulphur and the English were the largest sponsors of it. The nineteenth century will not be remembered for its concessions to fair working practices and safe working environments. And alas the English sponsorship, or rather, exploitation of some of the most atrocious working conditions in nineteenth century Europe are a scar on the name of this otherwise successful business.
Meanwhile, the production of Marsala continued unabated, earning its investors huge sums of money.
Marsala wine is produced using a blend of three common white Sicilian grape varieties: Grillo Inzolia and Cataratto, with usually a greater percentage of Grillo. It can attain an alcohol content of 15-20%. Although the traditional method for producing Marsala is the soleras method outlined above, nowadays, the higher alcohol content is also obtained by adding a brandy distilled from the wine to the wine itself.
Choosing a bottle of Marsala off the shelf can be confusing as there are a variety of different categories, several levels of sweetness – secco, semisecco, dolce – and a handful of different colourings. The three main categories are: fine, superiore and vergine. However, despite its laudable-sounding epithet, Marsala Fine is usually anything but. It has usually been aged for around a year and is mainly used as a cooking wine. Marsala Superiore just about lives up its name when compared to the “fine”, but starting from such a low base-line, is not terribly propitious and is often a rather sickly dessert wine.
Both the “fine” and the “superiore” have usually been sweetened with “mosto cotto”. This is a syrup of boiled down grape juice that has been used as a sweetener in Sicily since time immemorial. (It does however, make a wonderful jam and if you are lucky enough to find it on your breakfast table in Sicily, you will be delighted).
However, the Marsala Vergine (also sometimes called the Marsala Soleras) is a dry Marsala with none of the added sweet grape must. It has also been produced using the soleras method as described above and the only addition may be alcohol to bring it up to the required 18%. This is the Marsala that is closest to the one Woodhouse would have tasted when he first arrived in Marsala.
All this goes a long way to explain why Marsala is usually thought of as a dessert wine and is drunk sweet. However, the traditional Marsala, and the one I would personally recommend, is the dry Marsala – Marsala Vergine – drunk as an aperitif or between the first and second courses of a meal. This last Marsala, has a truly refreshing and unique taste.
It is unfortunate therefore, that almost all the Marsala served in restaurants in the town is of the vino liquoroso variety and is handed round as a “free” digestif at the end of the meal. To my mind, this is a cheap trick and a huge shame, which only goes to perpetuate the name of Marsala as a rather ugly and inexpensive freebie rather than promote it as the grandfather of fine Sicilian wines.
The Florio Family
But let us return to the lives of some of its creators.
The story of the Florio dynasty would merit an article of its own, but their story is so entwined with Marsala wine that it merits retelling here.
Born in 1799 in Calabria, Vincenzo Florio came to Palermo from his home town of Bagnara Calabro following an earthquake. He opened what was to be one of the first pharmacies in Palermo and became known as a competent chemist. Subsequently, his knowledge of chemistry brought him into contact with industrialists in the city and he became involved with the sulphur industry which further consolidated his wealth.
In 1832, on the patch of wasteland between the Ingham and Woodhouse wineries, Vincenzo Florio built the winery that came to be emblematic in the production of Marsala wine and the basis of the family fortune. Although it was sold to Cinzano in the 1920s, it continues to produce Marsala to this day and the Florio brand is still one of the most respected in the industry. The labels on the bottles still carry Vincenzo’s surname and family name is still emblazoned on the exterior wall of the winery.
Vincenzo Florio died in 1868 and his son Ignazio Florio took over most of the commercial interests of the family. They diversified further, buying the island of Favignana (one of the Egadi islands) where they built the massive “tonnara” (a building for processing and tinning tuna). It was the Florios who pioneered the process of preserving tinned fish in olive oil. They also owned an iron foundry in Palermo and branched out into shipping, creating the Navigation General Italian (NGI) a ferry company that still operates to this day.
When Ignazio Florio died in 1891, his elder son, also called Ignazio (1869-1957), took over the management of the family interests and also began investment in the shipyards of Palermo. Meanwhile the younger son, Vincenzo became an automobile enthusiast and would later go on to found the famous Targa Florio motor race.
Ignazio Florio junior married Francesca Paola Jacona della Motta who came from an old (yet impoverished) Sicilian aristocratic family. Her father was the Baron of San Giuliano and her mother descended from the houses of Notarbartolo and Montcada. Not only was she extremely beautiful, but she also possessed great charm and spoke with a voice that cast spells on her listeners. The world seemed to smile on her and, better known as simply “Donna Franca” (Lady Franca) she became the great socialite of Palermo society.
In 1899 Ignazio Florio purchased Villa Igiea on the outskirts of Palermo which became the family home and the scene of some of the most lavish parties Palermo had ever seen. Donna Franca was introduced to the German Emperor Wilhelm II and he later became one of her greatest admirers. The English King Edward VII and his wife Alexandra of Denmark came to visit them at the Villa Igiea. As did the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and the Russian Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. On the family yacht, Donna Franca travelled to Taormina and the Côte d’Azur. Fate seemed to smile on Donna Franca.
Photographs of Donna Franca show her either in the rigid poses expected by early portrait photography, or blurred by smokey sepia or else hidden beneath the regalia of Belle Epoque fashion accessories. The closest we get to reading her character is perhaps in the portrait painted of her by Giovanni Boldini. Slim and elegant, in a black taffeta off-the-shoulder dress and lavish hair pitch-forked into a rick atop her debonair mien she appears effusive and carefree. A huge pearl necklace loops round her neck and hangs down to her knees.
But perhaps all this seemed too good to be true. Indeed, the pearl necklace in the portrait by Boldini doesn’t inspire such envy as it might first appear. It was said that her husband Ignazio would give her the gift of a pearl each time he betrayed her.
Meanwhile, the English families who had built their fortunes on Marsala were also enjoying this lavish lifestyle.
Ingham’s nephew, Joseph Whitaker, who had inherited the empire after his uncle’s death, had married Sophia Sanderson – one of the Sanderson dynasty: a family of rich English merchants who had settled in Messina and had remained there until the earthquake in 1908.
Their son, also called Joseph, though better known as “Pip” (from Giuseppe, the Italian form of Joseph), subsequently inherited the enormous fortune of his great uncle Benjamin Ingham.
It turned out however, that Pip Whitaker had little interest in wine and commerce and rather more in ornithology and scholarship. He wrote the definitive book on Tunisian birds and his collection of stuffed birds was renowned – indeed some of it still remains in the Natural History museum in London to this day.
His other great passion was for archaeology and he was determined to find the Carthaginian capital in Sicily. Convinced that it was located on the island of Mozia off the west coast of Sicily, he purchased the whole island around the time of the first world war and began digging (it still remains as property of the family to this day). His intuition proved to be correct. Whitaker’s house still stands on the island today (indeed it is the only building on the whole island) and now houses the museum containing many of the artefacts that Pip Whitaker unearthed.
Pip Whitaker married Tina Scalia, the daughter of one of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s general’s and a personal friend of Richard Wagner, who at the time, was residing in Palermo, writing his opera Parsifal. Like the Florios, the Whitakers also became hosts to much of the elite of Europe and counted among their friends Empress Eugenie (wife of Emperor Napoleon III) and Queen Mary (wife of George V).
The beginning of an end
The good times could not last forever but no one could have foreseen the enormity of the eventual collapse. Misfortune often brings further misfortune, but in the case of the Florio family all the misfortune in the world seemed to come upon them together.
They say it began with Donna Franca’s daughter Giacobina who was stillborn in 1899. Then her eldest daughter Giovanna died aged only nine in 1902, followed the following year by her brother Ignazio aged only five. Friends related how, after these events, Donna Franca was never the same again. She no longer hosted her grand parties and never wore the same smile. Her grace had been eclipsed and she no longer commanded the attention she once had.
Already, the twilight of the tuna canning industry had been predicted. The huge shoals of tuna that every Spring swam into the Mediterranean and straight into the nets of the fishermen at Favignana, had started to deplete.
Marsala wine began to fall from favour and the markets were sourcing alternatives. Sherry, port and Madeira had all become popular. The British Navy had for many years preferred to give their sailors a ration of rum.
At the same time, in America, a new way of mining sulphur was invented which did not involve sending young boys down a mineshaft for twelve hours a day, six days a week (the new method involved pumping boiling water into the ground, liquifying the sulphur which could then be easily extracted). The Sicilian sulphur market collapsed almost overnight.
A short time later the Italian government declared that the monopoly of the shipyards at Palermo be broken up and redistributed to Naples. For the shipyard workers of Palermo this was a disaster and hugely fed the mass emigration to the United States from the city in the years after the first world war. However, for the Florio family, it was the final nail in the coffin.
They sold off everything they had to pay their debtors, until, of the once great Florio family of Palermo, nothing remained.
The Whitakers were spared much of this economic collapse, though in time they were all to leave Sicily. To my knowledge, though the Whitaker foundation in Sicily is very much alive the descendants of the family have all returned to Britain or gone to live in the United States.
Marsala wine today
Marsala wine also seemed to shadow the declining fortunes of the Florio family.
It began to be used as a cooking wine – Chicken Marsala became a popular dish in the United States. And in Sicily, Marsala was mixed with eggs. The twentieth century was not an auspicious chapter in the history of this once grand wine.
However, in the 1990s, several local winemakers began reviving it and most notable of these was the late Marco De Bartoli. He apparently cursed Woodhouse and the English for ever having added brandy to their Marsala and he persisted making Marsala using only the traditional perpetuo method. The story is told that he was producing a wine so strong that it was above the limits of alcohol allowed by Italian law for a wine. He was tipped off by his competitors to the Carabinieri and for a while he was threatened with closure.
Fortunately for us, De Bartoli persisted and his family’s company is now the most respected producers of Marsala wine. His wine Vecchio Sampieri is certainly the finest Marsala wine and possibly also one of the foremost Sicilian wines.
Feel free to join us on one of our Sicily wine tours to taste some of the unique wines of the island.