When I first visited Marco De Bartoli in Marsala in 2008, I was struck by all the drama surrounding this great figure of Sicilian wine. So much so that I included a chapter on him in my book Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey.
De Bartoli loved – and I mean loved – Sicily and Marsala – a once-great lost cause wine (fortified and fractionally aged like fine sherry) that had developed mainly into a cooking condiment sold in supermarkets for dishes like Chicken Marsala.
But De Bartoli, son of a prominent Marsala-producing family who raced Alfa Romeos on the European Targa circuit as a younger man, didn’t give up.
He revived old sets of Marsala aging barrels (like Sherry’s Solera system, called “In Perpetuum” in Sicily) to carefully craft Marsala. But for one of his wines, he rejected the Marsala definition developed from the tradition of 19th-century British merchants who added alcohol and sweet wine must. For that wine, called Vecchio Samperi, De Bartoli sought to make something purer – a real “pre-British” product without the fortification.
This got him in a lot of trouble. The wine didn’t fit any category of the Italian wine bureaucracy. It wasn’t “Marsala”, but it was too potent to be “table wine”. A magistrate sequestered his stocks for a while.
Still, eventually, Marco was able to release his Vecchio Samperi – a deep, complex wine that smells and tastes of the passage of time and hot, arid Western Sicily by the sea. If you haven’t tried it, find it and do so.
A lot has happened since then. Marco died in 2010. Eldest son Renato (the enologist) went off to work elsewhere for a while. But in the last few years the three De Bartoli offspring have united in carrying on the legacy with Vecchio Samperi (now classified solely as “Vino”) along with a range of Sicilian whites made from their Grillo vineyards, and their prized sweet Passito from Pantelleria called Bukkuram.
A must read (and drink) for those with an interest in Sicily and Southern wines: my latest Robert Camuto Meets… on the De Bartolis at winespectator.com.