Race cars, ancient wine, next generation: Marco De Bartoli

Marco De Bartoli had the nerve to drive at high speed on a race track for ten years, but fulfilling his dream of making “pre-British” il perpetuum wine in Marsala (Sicily) probably took even more courage and determination. For five years, from 1995-2000, the authorities actually closed his winery down claiming that his Vecchio Samperi could not be sold as “wine” with an alcohol level of 18%, basically declaring a traditional wine going back 2000 years illegal. (This model car was his along with a large collection of antique cars.)

To understand Marco De Bartoli, we have to go back to 1773 when an English captain, John Woodhouse, was thrown off course in a violent storm and pulled into the port of Marsala on the west coast of Sicily. There he discovered the local wine, called “il perpetuum” (from Latin meaning “perpetual”). The wine was made using the soleras method and native Grillo grapes. The oldest wine is in the lowest barrels, and the youngest in the highest. Over time, the wine oxidizes, a portion of it evaporates, and the alcohol concentration increases.

To the British, the wine tasted something like port or sherry. To process it more quickly (making it saleable sooner) as well as to transport it without spoilage, they added liquor to the wine and called it Marsala. Over time, the recipe was distorted even further by adding caramelized, cooked must and/or by using Cataratto or Inzolia grapes instead of the traditional Grillo. Gradually, the processes were industrialized and the wine, devalued to being primarily a cooking wine.

In the seventies, Marco De Bartoli decided to go against the grain and make pre-British traditional wine. He planted Grillo grapes at his family’s baglio They are naturally very high in acidity and their thick skins mean they can be left late on the vine for sugar levels to increase without spoiling. The magic combination of acidity and sugar (which becomes alcohol) is fundamental for making “perpetuum”. These Grillo grapes had just been picked on the morning of my visit.

De Bartoli also drove around asking locals about their “il perpetuum” wine. In Marsala, every family traditionally had their own barrels in the cellar. These were passed down in families so that the next generation could begin adding fresh wine to the ages old “perpetuum”. De Bartoli began collecting “marmellate” (specimens of the thick marmalade-like substance from the bottom of old perpetuum wine barrels that families no longer wanted to deal with). Patiently he restored these to become the base for his perpetuum by adding small amounts of fresh wine over about a ten year period. (Think of the base as sourdough starter.) In this cellar, he kept bottles he had “renovated”.

The first “perpetuum”, called Marco De Bartoli Vecchio Samperi named for the family vineyard at Samperi, came out in 1980. In the mid-eighties, De Bartoli introduced two versions of Marsala [glossary_exclude]Superiore[/glossary_exclude] Oro Semi- [glossary_exclude] Secco [/glossary_exclude] w with only fresh must (not cooked) and acquavite added.

Renato, his son, explains why the “pre-British” Vecchio Samperi wine and De Bartoli’s Marsala is nothing like “cheap” Marsala and why the most expensive element in this traditional wine is time.

A taste of this wine is like finding yourself on a magic carpet ride; everything you thought was impossible turns out to be perfectly real. When I first tasted it, I remember asking myself, “How can bright, fresh acidity co-exist perfectly with complex, velvety sweetness?” then, immediately thinking, “Don’t ask the question, just enjoy.” It is a wine that defies comparison and can not easily be described. It is best “experienced” and can be drunk not only as a vino di meditazione after dinner but also as an aperitivo.


Marco De Bartoli, who had the vision and determination to make this wine, left his three children, Renato, Sebastiano and Giuseppina (at his passing in 2011) with dreams and courage of their own. (Photo of Marco De Bartoli)

Renato primarily manages the vineyards and cellar at Samperi. He produces dry De Bartoli wines: two sparkling wines made from Grillo grapes called Terzavia, a dry Grillo wine, Grappoli di Grillo and a dry red, Il [glossary_exclude]Rosso [/glossary_exclude] di Marco, made with Pignatello grapes. Giuseppina manages most of the administration.

Their brother, Sebastiano, concentrates on the family vineyards on the volcanic island of Pantelleria, both a dry Zibbibo white called Pietranera and passito wines made from Moscato grapes, Bukkuram. They also produce one wine, Sole e Vento, a dry Grillo/Zibbibo combo that melds the minerality of the volcanic Pantelleria vineyards with a different minerality of the white sandy limestone soil filled with ancient shells in Samperi: a study in black and white.

The De Bartoli legacy and continuing innovation is so rich that it’s impossible to cover in one blog post. To read more, check out the De Bartoli website.

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