When I started traveling regularly to Sicily in the 2000s, all the young winemakers revered one weathered Sicilian veteran.
He was Marco De Bartoli, an operatically expressive, colorful and passionate producer from Marsala who loved—and I mean loved—Sicily, wine and western Sicily’s Marsala, the historic, long-aged, fortified, Sherry-like wine that fell out of fashion in modern times. Though he ranted against the current state of the wine industry and many of his contemporaries, De Bartoli believed Sicily had great potential.
Turns out he was right.
De Bartoli was prescient about a few things, including Grillo—Sicily’s most structured, complex and now-fashionable white. He was among the first to use 100 percent Grillo both in fresh, dry varietal wines and in his Marsala.
After De Bartoli died in 2010, Sicilia-philes like myself wondered what would happen to his eponymous winery.
The eldest son, Renato, the family enologist, went off in 2016 to improve the wines at Baglio di Pianetto, some 50 miles to the northeast. His brother, Sebastiano, and sister, Giuseppina, were left to run the Marsala winery, along with the family estate on the island of Pantelleria, between Sicily and Tunisia.
Though Renato still consulted part-time for the winery, he didn’t return home to lead it until 2021.
“The pandemic and the lockdown made me reflect,” says Renato, 49, today. “I understood my priorities and my identity and that I needed to return here.”
The Marco De Bartoli winery sits at the end of a rutted dirt road on the outskirts of Marsala, in Contrada Samperi. Behind it stretch the 45 acres of barely sloping vineyards that Marco and his children converted to all Grillo.
“My father realized Grillo in this territory has great potential,” explains Renato on a bright, warm winter day. “Every parcel has its destination.”
Inside the spotless, labyrinthine winery, Grillo from the different plots is fermented by natural yeasts to produce a variety of wines.
The most emblematic and groundbreaking is Vecchio Samperi—an unfortified version of Marsala that anyone should get to know if they have an interest in Sicily, oxidative whites or the current generation of unfortified wines from the Sherry-producing region of Spain.
Some background: Similar to Sherry, Marsala has been fortified since the late 18th century when British merchants began shipping and popularizing the wines back home, adding alcohol to help them withstand the long trip by sea. Through his mother’s family, the Pellegrinos, De Bartoli was a scion of that practice-turned-tradition. In the 1970s, while working as an enologist at Pellegrino and racing Italian sports cars in Targa road races, he developed another passion: bottles of great, old, complex Marsalas that were very different from the modern, industrial versions.
De Bartoli took over an abandoned family baglio (a Sicilian term used for a walled farm estate or a winery) in Marsala’s Samperi district and resuscitated an old fractional-aging battery of barrels used for Marsala. Similar to the solera system used to produce Sherry in Jerez, in Marsala’s “in perpetuum” system, wine is drawn every year from the barrel(s) containing the the longest-aged blend and replenished with the next oldest wine, and that barrel is in turn replenished with the oldest wine after that, and so on. Finally, the barrel containing the youngest blend is replenished with new wine from the latest harvest.
In 1980, De Bartoli broke the mold in Marsala by forgoing the fortification with alcohol and grape must. The bone-dry, aged, oxidative wine was bottled as it was.
With Vecchio Samperi, De Bartoli proclaimed he had created the historic, “real Marsala”—as it was before British influence.
The wine ran afoul of authorities; at one point, the stocks were confiscated by police because it didn’t fit into any authorized category. It couldn’t be Marsala because it wasn’t fortified. Nor could it be classified as table wine because, at 18 percent alcohol, it exceeded the limit for such wines.
De Bartoli called it table wine anyway. Years of legal troubles followed and were only resolved after Marco’s death, when in 2014, Renato successfully appealed to Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture for an exemption by documenting the history of such wines.
“I showed them that this kind of wine existed before the laws,” Renato says.
In Italy, the De Bartolis must call Vecchio Samperi simply “vino.” (In contrast, in recent years, the Sherry appellation has revised its rules in response to young producers who have been bottling unfortified Palomino-based wines from the area.)
Every year, Renato draws off about 5 percent of the “in perpetuum” wine from the longest-aged barrels to make around 7,000 bottles of Vecchio Samperi. The average age of the blended wine is about 20 years, but the wine is fresh and nutty, with notes of citrus, spice and honey.
Vecchio Samperi is part of De Bartoli’s lineup of niche wines, which also include traditional Marsalas and, under the name Bukkuram, Passito di Pantelleria, sweet wines made from dried Zibibbo (Muscat of Alexandria) grapes.
But says Renato, “Our core business is modern wines.”
Chief among them is Grappoli del Grillo, a bold, savory Grillo aged on its lees in French oak that develops beautifully with years, even decades of aging.
Another take on Grillo is an orange, amphora-fermented version called Integer.
De Bartoli’s farm and winery are full of hidden corners and mysteries. In the labyrinthine cellar are bits of history like a large cask containing 1986 Marsala. (Marsala is dated from the year in which the wines are fortified.)
“Maybe we will bottle it after 50 years [in 2036],” says Renato. Then after a pause, he says, “Or maybe we will never sell it.”
I once described Marco De Bartoli’s winery as an “unfinished poem.” I’m happy to see it remains a compelling work in progress.