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While the city's natives sometimes drink "vintage" Marsala, the wine produced for export is universally a fortified wine similar to Port, Madeira and Sherry. Originally, Marsala wine was fortified with alcohol to ensure that it would last long ocean voyages, but now it is made that way because of its popularity in foreign markets.
The most creditable version of the introduction of Marsala fortified wine to a wider range of consumers is attributed to the English trader John Woodhouse. In 1773, Woodhouse landed at the port of Marsala and discovered the local wine produced in the region, which was aged in wooden casks and tasted similar to Spanish and Portuguese fortified wines then popular in England. Fortified Marsala wine was, and is, made using a process called in perpetuum, which is similar to the solera system used to produce Sherry in Jerez, Spain.
Woodhouse recognized that the in perpetuum process raised the alcohol level and alcoholic taste of this wine while also preserving these characteristics during long distance sea travel. Woodhouse further believed that fortified Marsala wine would be popular in England. Marsala wine indeed proved so successful that Woodhouse returned to Sicily and, in 1796, began the mass production and commercialization of Marsala wine.
Marsala contains about 15-20% alcohol by volume. Different Marsala wines are classified according to their color, sweetness and the duration of their aging. The three levels of sweetness are secco (with a maximum 40 grams of residual sugar per liter), semisecco' (41-100 g/l) and sweet (over 100 g/l). The color and aging classifications are as follows:
Marsala wine was traditionally served as an aperitif between the first and second courses of a meal. Contemporary diners will serve it chilled with Parmesan (stravecchio), Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and other spicy cheeses, with fruits or pastries, or at room temperature as a dessert wine. Marsala is sometimes discussed with another Sicilian wine, Passito di Pantelleria (Pantelleria Island's raisin wine).
Marsala wine is frequently used in cooking, and is especially prevalent in Italian restaurants in the United States. A typical Marsala sauce, for example, involves reducing the wine almost to a syrup with onions or shallots, then adding mushrooms and herbs. One of the most popular Marsala recipes is chicken marsala, in which flour-coated pounded chicken breast halves are braised in a mixture of Marsala, butter, olive oil, mushrooms, and spices. Marsala is also used in some risotto recipes, and is used to produce rich Italian desserts such as zabaglione, tiramisu and shortcake.