In the heart of Marsala

In the heart of Marsala

“Like a prayer it beckons you, allowing each man melt into its nature and history”

Thus begins the journey into the land of wine: Marsala, a sought after destination for wine tourists and wine lovers from all over the world. As beautiful as a Van Gogh canvas, with brilliant light colours, never dark nor monotonous. The Stagnone lagoon reserve, the salt pans and the windmills offer the eyes a silent and rarefied landscape, becoming a place for the soul, a place of tranquillity and of pure vital energy. Whilst visiting, we are plunged into its culture walking around the streets, and walking along the brown coloured coastline, our eyes are opened to the colours of the sky reflected on the sea.

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Its soul hovers in the amber coloured atmosphere, it smells of ripe bunches of grape, of salt air and of orange blossom. Every year millions of visitors come to visit the town, and Marsala reveals its mixture of influences, born from the styles and cultures of the populations who have dominated it. Like a prayer it beckons you, allowing each man melt into its nature and history. Pebbled streets lead to ancient neighbourhoods, where traces of the Arabic culture still remain, while its sea opens the heart towards a feathered horizon that allows a glimpse of the Egadi islands and nearby Africa.

The tourist vocation of this corner of Sicily amazingly attracts anybody passing by sea or land. A welcoming land, of great humanity, respect, tolerance and hope. A generous Mother Land, that offers a precious nectar to its children. Famous all over the world for the production of marsala wine, discovered by English tradesmen, it has became a Kaleidoscope of excellent wine realities, including Pellegrino, one of the wineries that made Marsala history. Today the winery welcomes wine lovers from all over the world, who visit the vineyards, bewitched by the natural landscape and charmed by the wine that is produced.

Among the barrel cellars: a trip through history

Among the barrel cellars:
a trip through history

“Suddenly, from the present we jump back to the past. We pass into a dream. Lights become soft. The tiniest of noises disappears”

When we reach Marsala, we enter the soul of the Pellegrino family through the modern wine shop named Ouverture, with the sea behind us. Our eyes are drawn towards the modern architecture, surrounded by greenery, in perfect harmony with the environment. Ouverture means opening, recalling the art of welcoming of the family. It is a place of hospitality, a doorway opening onto the history of marsala wine. Here the Pellegrino family welcomes tourists and wine lovers, spreading the culture and the knowledge of Marsala and its wine.

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We enter through a bright, modern wine shop which is full of colour. There is white, the same white of the salt that spreads its glow, illuminated by the sun rays; there are the amber and golden reflections of the labels exposed to evoke the sunsets that it is possible to admire over the opposite landscape. The space is harmonious. But this is only the first stop. A plunge into the past is waiting for the visitor. And the threshold that distinguishes it is near. Walking around we can admire the Punic excavations that surround the old wineries, remains of the ancient civilization that founded one of the most powerful and flourishing colonies of the Mediterranean Basin along Trapani’s coast. The archaeological finds are examples of funerary urns that were used for the sacrifice of first born sons and that were reused by the Romans as containers to dry fish.

Passing through a winding corridor, everything changes. Suddenly, from the present we jump back to the past. We pass into a dream. Lights become soft. The tiniest of noises disappears. We move through history, past rows of big oak barrels, where the marsala wine is maturing. The historical winery, an ex-fiduciary warehouse and even before then a wood deposit and barrel construction site, leads us with its immortal charm through a sensory journey. We walk among hundreds of vats, barrels and casks of various dimensions; memories and feelings surface, sensations of a time that seems to have stopped hundred years ago to wait for us, to tell us that it has been always here and will never go away. Only once inside is it possible to hear the melody, the essence and the meaning of a historical time, woven together with sacrifice and glory.

Marsala is tradition, that the Pellegrino family promotes and protects, producing wines that are the most authentic expression of this. Tasting them along the way is a unique emotion, that must be tried at least once in lifetime. Wrapped in inebriating perfumes, it is possible to taste the essence, finding the nuances through the different types of marsala produced, from catarratto grapes, inzolia and nero d’avola, moving among reserves that take you back in the time, with their full, warm flavour. A return to the past, travelling through the memory of the great marsala wine, whilst observing the private collections that the Sicilian family offers to the visitors.

That glorious past. The Whitaker archive

That glorious past.
The Whitaker archive

“Testimonies that destiny, nature, and human virtues have given to Marsala”

The ancient winery is a shrine protecting traces of a glorious past, that the Pellegrino family passes down and protects turning its attention to the future, so as to raise awareness about it. Bearing witness to this is the Ingham-Whitaker commercial archive, with its 110 volumes containing the business correspondence, that allows us to retrace the routes and the history of trading between Sicily and the rest of the world from 1814 to 1928.

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An important part of it, contains the documents concerning financial investments that Benjamin Ingham made in the USA in the first half of the 1800s which determined a noteworthy financial success for the family thanks to the production and the trade of marsala wine. The information included in the documentation units are a very important source for any kind of historical and economic and social research about Sicily in the 1800s.

Following the friendship of the Pellegrino family with the Ingham family, descendants of Whitaker, the archive is now under the safeguard of the company, kept in a special consultation room, inside the historic Marsala wineries. It is the only one to have been declared of “great historical interest” by a provision drafted by the Superintendence for Sicilian Archival assets in 1985, and it is at the disposal of university students carrying out research for their degree theses. But all those who pass through history whilst walking through the Pellegrino winery, can have access to it in order to admire those testimonies that destiny, nature, and human virtues have given to Marsala.

Treasures brought in from the sea: the casts of the Punic Ship of 300 B.C

Treasures brought in from the sea:
the casts of the Punic Ship of 300 B.C.C

“It was in 1969 when Captain Diego Bonini from Marsala, who was dredging along the coast of Isola lunga, found some pieces of ancient wood in the dredger’s drill…”

Inside the historic wineries, another treasure materializes in front of the visitors’ eyes: the original casts of the Punic Ship from 300 B.C. found in the waters in front of the winery. The Pellegrino family contributed to its excavation and recovery mission. It was in 1969 Captain Diego Bonini from Marsala, who was dredging along the coast of Isola lunga, found some pieces of ancient wood in the dredger’s drill. Those were pieces of the wreckage of a Punic Ship from 300 B.C. It was a Liburna warship, originally thirty-five metres long, which was able to carry a crew of one hundred, and which had remained in a perfect state of conservation among the sand and weeds: a unique exemplary of its kind.

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Maybe by chance or by destiny, during that period the English researcher Miss Honor Frost, an expert in marine archaeology, was in Mothia, therefore she was entrusted with the recovery mission of the wreck. The team of archaeologists involved in this mission did not have enough funds and the Pellegrino family, firmly believing in this initiative, decided to give a monetary and logistic contribution, offering hospitality to the staff and putting rooms and structures for the preservation of the wood in desalination tanks at their disposal. Their support, inspired by their love for culture and for the city, was such that at the end of the restoration works Miss Frost, who later became an honorary citizen of Marsala, gave the company the plaster casts of the ship. These casts still conserve their lively colours and details today, giving the Historical Wineries an old charm.

The findings of animal bones inside the ship suggest that on board, seamen were following a protein rich diet; almond and pistachio shells, olive cherry and apricot stones, and other remains of plant origin were also found. The Punic ship in fact had a big quantity of ballast stones inside which limited the dispersion of the contents of the hold during the shipwreck; among the findings, it was also possible to identify a bag filled with organic materials: probably green plants which, as scientific documentation showed, were used in part to feed the crew, and in part to give to the seamen as an infusion during moments of weariness.

Collection’s treasures. The opulence of carts

Collection’s treasures.
The opulence of carts

“True works of art of rare beauty a triumph of sparkling colours”

Along the rooms inside the Historical Wineries, a present for the visitors is offered by the wonderful view of a collection of Sicilian carts from the 1800s, built and hand-painted in the most famous Sicilian workshops, particularly the schools of Palermo, Alcamo and Bagheria. Currently under the safeguard of the Superintendence for Cultural Assets, they have been collected and preserved by the Pellegrino family since the nineteen-fifties with the aim keeping the memory alive. They are five carts of importance, real works of art of painting and sculpture, representative of the opulent richness of noblemen or Baglio owners, witnesses to the Sicilian agricultural tradition.

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Built with different qualities of wood and destined to cheer festive occasions, they are embellished with carvings representing pastoral scenes, deeds of paladins, Garibaldian episodes, great literary works, and ancient battle achievements. In the Pellegrino family collection, we find the cart decorated by the Ducatos, cart painters who attended the Bagheria school and who were defined by Guttuso as “masters with incomparable skills”.

Extreme chromatic brilliance and a sure cut of the figures are the characteristics that emerge whilst observing its sides; they represent historical scenes, including the conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans after a hard battle and the Persian king receiving Roman ambassadors and the battle of Capua. Other historical scenes are to be found on the cart decorated by the famous Cardinale school of Palermo: on the sides, Charles the Great crossing Alps in 1800, the coronation of Louis of Bavaria in Rome, the crowning of Charles the Great and Hannibal crossing the Alps.

The carts by Manfrè from the Alcamo workshop are also of great charm with the proud battles of Marpisa and Agramante, Charles the Great and Arcorione, Ferragut and Bradamante, Orlandini and Ruggiero. And finally, the cart by Picciurro from the Palermo workshop, which has war and historical scenes on its sides including the battle of Primo. On all five carts of the family’s collection, the sides and the rear doors are true works of art of rare beauty, a triumph of sparkling colours that are what remains of a trade, that of the cart builder, that has now disappeared, and that is representative of Sicilian folk iconography.

It is said that on St. Martin’s day, which sanctioned the transformation of the must in wine, the noblemen put a new wine barrel on the cart to give to those who had participated in the harvest. It was a festivity and for this reason there had to be pomp, abundance and sharing in the joy.

Fire that shapes. The art of coopers

Fire that shapes. The art of coopers

“Iron, fire and wood, powerful arms and human tenacity shaped the material that became a work of art”

In the heart of the Historic Wineries, the commitment of Pellegrino family to revive and pass down history is also demonstrated by a museum exhibiting the tools of the trade of master coopers, artists who were able to forge the wood used to build the barrels in which the wine was aged.


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Beginning in the XVIII century, thanks to the marketing of marsala wine by English tradesmen, Marsala in fact became the fulcrum of the birth of a local crafts trade specialized in the building of barrels to be used in the wineries. Iron, fire and wood, powerful arms and human tenacity shaped the material that became a work of art. They worked by hand with the mannara (chopper) and the sciasso (a type of chisel). Strength and passion were needed to make the wood come alive. In those days, the wineries often used to house the workshops of coopers in their establishments and the word “verra” became not only the unit of measurement for the amount of timber purchased and delivered to the craftsman, but also the same unit that determined the wages of the workers, master coopers, errand boys and the “picciotti” – young boys – of the workshop.

The workshops increased in number. There were about ten in Marsala in the nineteen fifties. This hard and tiring job, gave and offered prestige. “Abballa, abballa a matri chi è mastru di bagghiu” (dance, dance, my daughter, he is a master cooper). This was the saying told by mothers to their daughters during dancing parties. In fact, the position of a cooper was a good one in the society of those times.

Within Marsala, the cooper was the direct witness to work and working life. Today, thanks to the commitment of some old coopers, this ancient job has been passed down, with a passion that challenges the globalisation of markets, renewing tradition. Memories come back to life whilst looking at the agricultural tools of the trade exhibited among the historical Pellegrino winery, together with the iron tools used to work the barrels. And, in their commitment to keep the memory alive, the family maintains the hope of being able to say once more “an ancient trade still exists”, that of the cooper, that of a man who unites his hands and heart to forge the wood. The keeper of good wine.