Even if you’re not familiar with drinking Marsala wine by the glass, you may well have tried it in the form of chicken Marsala, a staple of restaurants the world over.
With chicken Marsala, you get pan-friend chicken and mushrooms swimming in a rich Marsala sauce that combined sweet and savory flavors in one mesmerizing mouthful.
There’s no doubt that Marsala wine is a sound bet when you’re cooking with wine, but you can get much more out of this vino than simply splashing some in a pan when you’re rustling up some Italian classics.
This wine comes in many different types, as we’ll outline fully below, and you might be surprised at the drinkability of Marsala if you decide to try some of this intriguing fortified wine.
Let’s kick off with some basics.
Read our related List of Sweet Italian Wines to try!
I. Marsala Wine 101
Genuine Marsala wine is a fortified wine hailing from Marsala, a small town in Sicily, Italy.
Marsala wine is made from the following white grape varietals found locally:
Occasionally, Marsala wine is blended with red grapes.
Like all fortified wines, Marsala also contains distilled liquor, typically in the form of brandy.
Not sure what the difference is between Sherry and Brandy? Check out our Sherry vs Brandy comparison.
Marsala is extremely popular as a semi-dry or dry cooking wine, but top-notch Marsala can also come in the guise of a superb sweet or semi-sweet wine. More and more often, Marsala is now being served as an aperitif or digestif to bookend a meal.
The fortified nature of Marsala gives it a higher alcohol content than the average glass of vino. Where regular wine is usually 12% ABV, most Marsala falls in the 15% to 20% ABV range. This is one reason why most Marsala often comes in small servings.
See our related article, Marsala Versus Madeira, for a complete comparison and overview of these two age-old wines!
II. What Are The Different Types of Marsala Wine?
Unlike other wines, you classify Marsala based on:
With so many different styles of Marsala, flavors vary dramatically from nuts and brown sugar through to licorice and honey. This is just part of what makes this wine such an intriguing option.
Here are the most common color options with Marsala wine:
- Gold (oro): This type of Marsala is produced using white grapes. You’ll get flavors of licorice, hazelnuts, and vanilla with gold Marsala
- Ruby (rubino): Ruby Marsala is made from red grapes like Nerello Mascalese, Perricone, and Pignatello. With a fruity fragrance and flavor, this serves as a great contrast with the elevated tannin content of the red grapes
- Amber (ambra): Made from white grapes, this style of Marsala tastes of dried fruit and nuts
While younger wines are almost always used for cooking, older bottles are ideal for sipping before or after a meal.
As far as aging classifications go, Marsala wine is broken down as follows:
- Fine: Aged for 1 year minimum
- Superiore: Aged for between 2 and 3 years
- Superiore riserva: Aged for 4 to 6 years
- Soleras and Vergine: Aged for 5 to 7 years
- Stravecchio: Aged 10 years minimum, but with no added sugar
Younger Marsala wines are used almost exclusively for cooking. Older bottles, though, are perfect for sipping either before or after a meal in the form of an aperitif or digestif.
Beyond the classification by color and aging, Marsala also comes in a variety of sweetness levels, as follows:
- Dry (secco): The driest variant of this wine, secco contains less than 40g of sugar per liter
- Semi-dry (semi-secco): The semi-dry/semi-sweet variant of Marsala has between 50g and 100g of sugar per liter
- Sweet (dolce): The sweet Marsala contains more than 100g of sugar per liter
You should now have a clear understanding of the many forms this wine takes.
How is Marsala wine made, then?
Read More: Is Lamarca Prosecco Vegan? If you’re vegan, you may be having trouble finding a vegan wine. Here’s what to know!
III. Making Marsala Wine
Just like with any type of wine making, the fermentation process begins as soon as the grapes are picked and crushed.
With Marsala, the fermentation process can be interrupted to fortify the wine. This depends on whether the end result will be a sweet or dry Marsala.
If Marsala is fortified before the completion of the fermentation process, more sugar remains, resulting in a sweeter wine. When liquor like brandy is added after the completion of the fermentation process, the resulting wine will be sweeter and it will have a lower sugar content.
The fortifying process means Marsala wine will last for up to 6 months after opening. It won’t spoil after this point, but the flavor and aroma will start diminishing.
Store Marsala wine in a cool dry place. You do not need to put it in a wine cooler.
Read our related article, How to Make Fortified Wine. If you’re familiar with wine-making, consider making your own fortified wine at home!
IV. The Best Type of Glass for Drinking Marsala Wine
As with all wine, the type of wine glass you use will impact the taste and aroma of the wine, as well as your overall experience.
With sweet Marsala wines, try using a port glass or brandy snifter. The narrow mouth will help reduce evaporation, while at the same time concentrating the aroma wonderfully.
If you have a drier Marsala wine, use standard sparkling wine or white wine glasses. All you need is a little room in the glass to swirl your wine. This will allow the Marsala to breathe while also releasing its full fragrance.
V. The Right Food Pairings for Marsala Wine
If you have a well-aged Marsala secco – a dry Marsala – this will work as an aperitif with appetizers like olives, goat cheese, or smoked meats.
Sweet Marsala, by contrast, works as a digestif with Roquefort cheese or chocolate desserts and cheesecakes.
You could always stick to the classic chicken Marsala served with the same wine.
When you’re cooking with Marsala, use dry wines for savory dishes and sweet wines for desserts. Entry level wines costing around ten bucks should last you for some time if you’re using the wine for cooking. Fine or superiore Marsala that’s either gold or amber make great choices for cooking. Although some recipes require ruby Marsala, these are in the minority.
Serve dry Marsala very lightly chilled and sweet Marsala at near room temperature.
If you are unable to locate Marsala, Madeira makes a reasonable substitute. This wine has a similar flavor profile and taste.
Speaking of substitutes, read our related article on Sauternes Wine Substitutes where we share our favorite selections when your Sauternes has gone dry.
For anyone who arrived here today at Barnacle Bar uncertain about Marsala wine, you should now have a thorough understanding of this alluring Sicilian wine.
While we wouldn’t discourage you from continuing to cook with this fortified wine, we would also urge you to break out a bottle and try drinking Marsala by the glass. If you find it to your liking, you can then start exploring different types of this wine armed with the knowledge from today’s guide.
Don’t forget, if you are looking around for Marsala and you come up short, you could always use some Madeira instead. Speaking of Madeira, check out these Madeira Substitutes you’re bound to love!
Our advice is to stick with Marsala, though. The indigenous Sicilian grapes and the complex wine making process make this fortified gem stand out.
Bookmark our blog before you head off today and be sure to pop back soon for more informative guides and reviews of all the best kit for your home bar and wine collection. See you soon!