Guide to Marsala Wine

Kate Miller-Wilson
Reviewed by California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS) Karen Frazier
marsala wine

A fortified Italian wine grown and produced near the Sicilian city of Marsala, Marsala wine has a loyal following around the world. From the late 1700s, Marsala became a popular shipping wine. Due to its fortification, it did not spoil on long sea voyages. Today, it is perfect for cooking as well as drinking, and this accessible wine is versatile and affordable

Colors and Flavors of Marsala Wine

Marsala wine is classified according to its color, which has to do with the grapes used, as well as the sugar content. You'll find Marsala in the following types.

Colors of Marsala wine

Ambra (Amber)

Ambra Marsala is named for its amber tone, which comes from some of the added sweeteners. Its glowing color accompanies a memorable flavor of dried fruit and sometimes almonds or other nuts. Vintners use white grapes to produce ambra Marsala. If you want to sample an ambra variety, give the Antichi Baronati Marsala Fine Ambra Dry a try.

Oro (Gold)

Oro Marsala wine is a rich gold color, and it's also made with white grapes. When you taste this variety, you may notice the flavor of raisins, vanilla, hazelnuts, and licorice. Find these flavors in a bottle of Francesco Intorica Marsala Superiore.

Rubino (Ruby)

Rubino Marsala has a distinctive ruby red color. The beautiful tone comes from the red grapes that are used to produce this wine. Although rubino Marsala also has a fruity flavor and aroma, it has a stronger, tannic taste that comes from the red grapes. See and taste the difference when you try a bottle of Cantine Pellegrino Marsala Superiore Sweet.

Marsala's Sweetness Categorizations

Although it is a fortified wine, Marsala does not always have to be sweet. You'll encounter dry, semi-dry, and sweet varieties of this apéritif and dessert wine favorite. These designations come from the actual sugar content in the wine, rather than simply from the flavor itself.

Secco

Secco is dry Marsala. It contains a maximum of 40 g/l of residual sugar.

Semi-Secco

Semi-secco Marsala is semi-sweet or off-dry. It contains between 41 and 100 g/l of residual sugar.

Dolce

Dolce is sweet Marsala, containing 100 g/l or more of residual sugar.

Age Classifications of Marsala Wine

Marsala wine can be aged from less than one year to more than ten years, and you can determine how much it's been aged from the label. You'll encounter the following age classifications.

  • Fine - Aged for one year and at least 17% alcohol by volume (ABV)
  • Superiore - Aged for two years or more and at least 18% ABV
  • Superiore riserva - Aged for four years or more and at least 18% ABV
  • Vergine/soleros - Aged for five years or more and at least 18% ABV
  • Vergine stravecchio/Vergine riserva/Soleras riserva - Aged for ten years or more and at least 18% ABV

Cooking With Marsala

Typically, cooking Marsala is classified as fine and aged for the shortest period. It's affordable and easy to come by, and it's an essential ingredient in dishes such as chicken Marsala or veal Marsala. These wines are readily available in grocery stores from various brands. If you can't find Marsala for cooking, there are plenty of substitutes for the wine.

Chicken Marsala and potatoes
  • Use dry Marsala for savory dishes.
  • Use sweet Marsala for desserts or sticky sauces.
  • You can substitute dry Marsala for sweet, but not sweet for dry in cooking.

Drinking Marsala

For drinking, many people prefer Marsala that has been aged for a much longer period. However, depending on the flavors and the quality, younger Marsalas can also be very good.

Best Marsala Wines for Drinking

When serving Marsala as a drinking wine, be sure to chill it slightly. This gives it a crisper flavor.

Vito Curatolo Arini Marsala

Readily available in many wine shops and Italian groceries, Vito Curatolo Arini Marsala is an award-winning choice, according to Wine Searcher. This dry wine has been aged for ten years in oak casks, and it has a rich, sharp flavor. You'll notice almonds, fruit, and spices. At about $15 per bottle, it makes an affordable choice.

Florio Sweet Marsala

Although it is classified as a fine Marsala and has been aged for only one year, Florio Sweet Marsala makes a delicious after-dinner wine. It's rich amber color and delectable flavor of dried apricots make it a popular choice as well. You can easily find this wine in most wine shops and grocery stores, and at less than $15 for a half-bottle, it won't break the bank.

How Marsala Is Made

Marsala wine is made differently from other wines. All Marsala wine comes from Sicily, Italy; if a wine is labeled Marsala but isn't from Sicily, then it isn't a true Marsala. Winemakers fortify the wine with neutral spirits either during or after fermentation depending on the wine's level of sweetness. Winemakers add mosto cotto, a cooked wine must, or sifone, a mistelle/mistela (wine to which brandy has been added to stop fermentation) to enhance sweetness and color of the wine. The wines are then aged in perpetuum in wooden casks, which is similar to solera system of aging used to make Sherry wine.

Sherry solera system

Grapes Used in Marsala Wine

All grapes used to make Marsala wine are native to Sicily. The type of Marsala determines the grapes used.

Ambra and Oro

Ambra and Oro Marsala are made from the following white grape varieties:

  • Catarratto
  • Damaschino
  • Grillo
  • Inzolio (Ansonic)

Ambra wines then have mosto cotto added, while Oro is fortified with a mistela, often made from Grillo grapes.

Rubino

Rubino Marsala is made from the following red grape varietals along with up to 30 percent white grapes:

  • Calabrese (Nero d'Avola)
  • Nerello Mascalese
  • Perricone

The wine is then fortified with mistela.

What Does Marsala Taste Like?

Marsala has cooked apricot and brown sugar flavors. It may also display hints of vanilla and hints of savory flavors. In flavor, it is most similar to Madeira wines, and Madeira is often used as a substitute for Marsala in cooking.

Food Pairing for Marsala

If you're drinking a dry Marsala, pair it with salty or strong flavors, such as olives, parmesan cheese, and salted nuts. For a sweet Marsala, nothing beats a chocolate dessert.

Find Your New Favorite

Whether you're buying Marsala wine to complete your favorite recipe or you're planning to sip it before or after dinner, there are plenty of options to choose from. You'll find this variety at most wine shops, and you can try several types to find your new favorite.

Guide to Marsala Wine