What is Marsala Wine: An Unexpected Sicilian Wine

August 8, 2014 Blog » Learn About Wine » What is Marsala Wine: An Unexpected Sicilian Wine

What is Marsala Wine?

Marsala wine is a fortified wine from Sicily. It’s commonly used for cooking to create rich caramelized sauces. There are two styles of Marsala to know for cooking and they are dry vs. sweet, but Marsala is so much more than a cooking wine! It can be made dry and fine enough for sipping, like Sherry or Madeira.

Right now Marsala is undervalued. We hope to bring you up to speed on this unique wine that has some striking taste similarities to Madeira wine.

True Marsala can only be made in Sicily.

What does Marsala Taste Like?

Taste of Marsala Flavors
The most common flavors are vanilla, brown sugar, stewed apricot and tamarind. Marsala wine ranges from a nearly dry style to sappy sweet and are served slightly cool around 55° F. If you get the opportunity to try a high-end Marsala, you will experience a larger range of nuanced flavors including morello cherry, apple, dried fruits, honey, tobacco, walnut and licorice.

FOOD PAIRING: Marsala wine pairs wonderfully with some hard-to-match foods such as asparagus, brussel sprouts and chocolate.

What Makes Marsala Unique

Marsala wine has a unique taste for two reasons: the use of only Sicilian indigenous grapes and a complex winemaking process. Making Marsala wine is complex:

  • Marsala is fortified with brandy or neutral grape spirit usually made with regional grapes.
  • A cooked grape must called ‘Mosto Cotto’ gives Amber Marsala its deep brown color.
  • A sweetened fortified wine called ‘Mistella’ is often blended, made from Grillo grapes.
  • High-end Marsala wines employ a special aging system called Soleras.
Mosto Cotto - The cooked wine portion of Marsala

Must is cooked for 36 hours to create “Mosto Cotto”. Image provided by Colombo Wines

The Common Styles of Marsala Wine

Marsala wine is split up into different styles based on the type of grapes used (white or mostly red) and the winemaking method. You’ll discover that most Marsala made for cooking is Fino or Fine Marsala which is actually the lowest quality level of the wine.

Different Kinds of Marsala

Easy to Embed Copy/Paste the code.

Marsala Wine and Cooking

Here are a couple of things to know about Marsala wine in cooking:


Chicken Marsala. Brenda Benoît

Sweet vs. Dry Marsala Wine For Cooking

  • Dry Marsala is typically used for savory entrées where it adds a nutty flavor and caramelization to beef tenderloin, mushrooms, turkey and veal.
  • Sweet Marsala is typically used to make very sweet and viscous sauces. You’ll commonly find it used in desserts such as zabaglione and main dishes with chicken or pork loin.

You can substitute Dry Marsala for Sweet Marsala ingredients, but generally not the other way around. Keep a dry Marsala on hand if you’d like more versatility.

A bottle of dry Fine Marsala wine

Dry Marsala.

MARSALA FOR COOKING: Typically, the entry-level quality Marsala wines are best for cooking –a $10 bottle will last you quite a while. Use a ‘Fine’ or ‘Superiore’ Marsala in either the Gold (oro) or Amber (ambra) styles. Some recipes call for Ruby (rubino) Marsala, but this is rare.

MARSALA SUBSTITUTE: The best substitute for Marsala wine is Madeira because of the similar taste profile. If you can’t find Madeira either, you might try simmering 1 part brandy with 2 parts white wine, brown sugar and a touch of salt.

HOW LONG DOES MARSALA LAST OPEN? Marsala wine will stay fresh open for about a month. If you’d like to keep it longer, put it in a cool dark place and remove the oxygen before putting on the lid by using a can of wine preserver.

A few interesting links for further exploration:
Detailed history of Marsala on diwinetaste
An interesting article from FSR magazine

Do you like this post?

By Madeline Puckette
I'm a certified sommelier and creator of the NYT Bestseller, Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine. Find me out there in the wine world @WineFolly