What Is Marsala Wine?

Italy, Sicily, Marsala

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Marsala is a fortified wine made in Sicily (near the village of Marsala) and is commonly used for cooking and baking. It's available in varying levels of sweetness and is categorized and priced based on its color and how long it has been aged. Marsala tends to have a nutty, brown sugar flavor with notes of dried fruit and can be lightly sweet (dry) to very sweet. Because it is fortified with brandy, it is higher in alcohol than most wine, especially when aged for a long period of time.

Fast Facts

  • Regions: Sicily
  • Origin: Sicily, Italy
  • Sweetness: Dry to very sweet
  • Color: Gold, amber, or ruby
  • ABV: 15–20%

Marsala vs. Madeira

Marsala and Madeira are often confused thanks to their similar name, flavors, and uses. Madeira is a fortified wine made in Portugal that can be dry or very sweet. The red grape negra mole is often used to make Madeira as well as the white grapes like Malvasia. The winemaking process differs somewhat from Marsala, but the resulting wine is put into similar sweetness and aging classifications. A similarly dry or sweet Madeira can often be used in place of Marsala for cooking or sipping and vice versa.

Taste and Flavor Profile

The flavor and color of a Marsala can vary depending on its color, sweetness, and age classifications. Overall, Marsala wine can exhibit nutty and sugary aromas and flavors of honey and toffee, walnut, vanilla, stewed fruit like apricot as well as dried fruit, licorice, and tobacco. It is typically low in tannins (except for rubino) and low in acidity.

While Marsala is still known and loved as a cooking wine, Italian designations have improved for this historic wine and, as a result, Marsala has increased in quality and is now more commonly served as an aperitif and dessert wine. Marsala is available in three levels of sweetness.

  • Secco: The driest option, with residual sugar content under the 40 grams per liter cut off
  • Semi Secco: Semi-sweet/demi-sec, with typically 50–100 grams of sugar per liter
  • Dolce: Sweet, typically with a residual sugar content of 100+ grams of sugar per liter

Marsala is also classified according to its color. This is largely influenced by what grapes are used.

  • Ambra (Amber): Made with white grapes like Grillo, Cattaroto, Inzolia, Grecanico, Domaschino
  • Oro (Gold): Made with white grapes similar to ambra
  • Rubino (Ruby): Made with red grapes like Pignatello and Nerello Mascalese and up to 30% white grapes; less common that oro and ambra

Finally, Marsala wine is classified according to its age. Younger wines ("fine" and "superiore") are typically used for cooking and baking. "Superiore riserva" and above are better saved for use as an aperitif (dry) or dessert sip (sweet).

  • Fine: Aged for a minimum of one year
  • Superiore: Aged for a minimum of two years or up to three years in wood
  • Superiore Riserva: Aged for a minimum of four or up to six years in oak
  • Vergine or Soleras: Aged for a minimum of five years or up to seven years in oak. Soleras is a blend of multiple vintages.
  • Stravecchio: Aged for a minimum of 10 years in oak; no sugar may be added.

Grapes and Wine Regions

Marsala is crafted from a mix of grapes in the Sicily region like Catarratto, Grillo (the most sought-after grape for Marsala production), and the highly aromatic Inzolia grape. Ruby Marsalas are made from a combination of local red grape varietals like Pignatello. The growing conditions and harvest vary depending on the type of grape.

The fermentation of Marsala is halted by the addition of brandy when the residual sugar content reaches the pre-determined levels according to the sweet/dry style desired. Similar to the solera system of blending various vintages of sherry, Marsala often goes through a perpetual system where a series of vintage blending takes place.

Food Pairings

Well-aged, high-quality dry (secco) Marsala makes a delicious aperitif with appetizers like smoked meats, salty nuts, assorted olives, and soft goat cheese. Opt for chocolate-based desserts and Roquefort cheese for a sweeter Marsala wine pairing. Or just whip up a tasty classic chicken Marsala recipe and serve the same Marsala wine with the dish. When cooking, use dry Marsalas for most savory dishes and sweet Marsala for dessert dishes like zabaglione.

Serve in a port glass or a standard white wine glass. Dry Marsala should be served very lightly chilled while sweet Marsala should be served closer to room temperature.

Key Producers, Brands, and Buying Tips

Marsala is usually available at your local liquor store and can easily be ordered. You can sometimes find it in the liquor section of the grocery store, especially affordable cooking Marsala—a "fine" or "superiore" bottle can often be found for $10 to $20. Because it is a fortified wine, it will last for about a month even after opening. If you can't find Marsala, look for Madeira wine.

When shopping for Marsala, these brands produce good quality options and are widely available:

  • Florio
  • Lombardo
  • Marco De Bartoli
  • Cantine Pellegrino
  • Vita Curatolo Arini