Travelling back in time.jpg

Travelling back in time


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I USUALLY answer emails directly to the sender, but as I feel the two latest ones will be of interest to readers I will answer them in this article.

The first was asking about Portugal’s involvement in wine consumption in early England. In order to answer it with reasonable accuracy, I have to go back into the history of wine drinking in Europe.

We need not go back further than when wine making spread from Persia to Babylon and northwest to the Black Sea. The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar owned vineyards and wine cellars and there is a wine list dating from then still in existence today. The art was brought to Egypt by the Assyrians and then to the Mediterranean shores by the Phoenicians.

The Greeks and Romans brought it further west and on the way each dedicated a god to wine, Dionysus and Bacchus respectively. The Greeks brought wine to the people and were the first to plant vines in southern France, around the Black Sea and in Sicily and North Africa, while the Romans planted vineyards in France, Hungary, Germany and England.

Moving into the 12th century, the Duke of Anjou (King Henry II of England) married Eleanor of Aquitaine and her dowry was Gascony and Bordeaux.

Naturally, the French wines were very popular in England until wars between England and France stopped all imports of French wines. In the 14th century, England signed the Treaty of Windsor making Portugal England’s oldest ally and one of her main wine suppliers. The result was that many English wine merchants moved to Oporto and made up their own courts of law there as well as making Port.

When the wars finished, French wine was imported again as well as wines from Portugal, Spain and Italy. However, due to inferior wines coming from Italy and heavy duty on French wines, there was a big increase in the importation of Portuguese wine into England. The Methuen Treaty was signed, giving Portugal preferential rates of duty and during the 18th century Portugal accounted for two-thirds of all England’s wine imports.


Today Portugal is lying about sixth in the world of wine production and if you look at a map of the world, you will see she lies around 40 degrees latitude in the northern hemisphere, so is ideally situated for wine production. Taking everything into account, it isn’t difficult to see the influence Portugal had on wine drinking in England. I hope this answers the original question. The country produces excellent wines and while the labels look difficult to understand they really are easy. Learning the hundred or more indigenous grapes is harder, but well worth the effort.

Mentioning that excellent fortified wine, ‘Port’, brings me to the second email. The writer, Andy, was enquiring about Marsala, the most prestigious of all Italian fortified wine from Sicily.

Marsala started its life in 1773 when John Woodhouse anchored his ship in Marsala harbour to shelter from a storm. While there, he was taken by the flavour and quality of the local wine. After adding alcohol and sweetening to the barrels, he shipped 52 pipes – 21,840 litres – equivalent to 29,120 bottles to Liverpool.

Sweetening is obtained by boiling down pure grape must which is called vino cotto.

The wine was enthusiastically received in England and, in a very short time, the local wine was acclaimed internationally with a place in the cellars of Buckingham Palace and in the holds of Royal Navy ships. Mr. Woodhouse was soon joined by a Mr. Smith, another British merchant. In 1800 Horatio Nelson ordered Marsala for his whole fleet.

Although the wine dates from the late 18thcentury, it wasn’t until 1984 that Marsala was awarded a D.O.C. – Denomination of Controlled Origin.

Types of Marsala available are white and red. Classification by sugar content is – Dry: less than 40g/litre. Medium-Dry: between 41-99g/litre. Sweet: more than 100g/litre. Alcohol content by volume averages 18 per cent.

’Perpetum’ was the ancient name of Marsala. Legend says it is the medium for contact with Venus the goddess of love, born out of the foam of the sea. There was also a pagan legend telling of Gods bestowing on Sicily the vine as a gift to man, so that wine itself was thus created in this small corner of the world.

Just like port has to be made in the Douro and sherry in Jerez, Marsala has to be made and bottled in the province of Trapani, which is the Production Area. The name Marsala can only apply to classical types of fine, superior and virgin wines guaranteeing a high standard of quality for the consumer.

If you feel inclined to make one of Italy’s most famous desserts, here is the recipe. It is called ‘Zabaglione’ and really is simple to make. You need:

Six large egg yolks,

120 grams – 4/5 ozs of sugar

6 oz – 15cl Marsala.

Beat the egg yolks in a pyrex bowl and heat over a bain-marie.

Add the sugar, stirring continuously. Mix well, then add the Sweet Marsala little by little.

Whisk until smooth then pour into small glass bowls.

Zabaglione can be served as soon as it is prepared or chilled. Personally I prefer it warm.  Chilled Marsala makes a wonderful aperitif as does chilled white port.

For more information, please email [email protected]