One of the most popular cooking wines is Marsala. So much so that it’s a common ingredient in many Italian-American dishes, and spearheading the long list is chicken Marsala. Whether you prefer Marsala wine as a sipping drink or a sauce-making essential, getting to know it on a deeper level is key to appreciating it to the fullest.
Marsala is a fortified wine that can either be red or white and sweet or dry. Made in Sicily via a complex winemaking process, it’s added with brandy or neutral grape spirit. Marsala is commonly used as a cooking wine. However, it’s also a favorite aperitif and dessert wine, especially the sweet variety, of many.
No matter if you have had a bottle of Marsala wine in your kitchen for a while now or are considering getting it for the first time anytime soon, keep reading this post.
I will tell you just about everything you need to know about this well-loved Italian wine!
Is Marsala Red or White Wine?
There is red Marsala wine and there’s also white Marsala wine. Both red and white grapes can be used for making Marsala. All grapes used in its production are native to Sicily. Marsala wines that are not made with Sicilian grapes, let alone not produced in the Italian island Sicily, are not considered genuine Marsala.
Unlike most wines out there, Marsala wine can be made with either red or white grapes.
No matter the case, the importance of using only grapes grown and harvested nowhere else on the planet but in Sicily cannot be overstated. Otherwise, that bottle of Marsala wine is a poser!
Whether Marsala is red or white wine depends on the color of Sicilian grapes used in the winemaking process. It’s not just the resulting wine color that varies with the grape varietals used but also the taste. In a few, I will discuss the different flavors of Marsala wines available — so keep reading.
The following are the different eye-catching hues of Marsala wine:
- Ruby or rubino. Needless to say, ruby Marsala wines are red because they are made from red Sicilian grapes. Some of the most commonly used varietals are Calabrese, Nerello Mascalese, Perricone and Pignatello.
- Amber or ambra. As the name suggests, amber Marsala wines are made from white grapes native to Sicily. The most popular choices by Marsala winemakers include Catarratto, Damaschino, Grillo and Inzolia.
- Gold or oro. The same white Sicilian grapes for making amber Marsala wines are also used for making gold ones. However, the resulting wine has a deep gold color due to a slightly different fermentation process.
Is Marsala Wine Dry or Sweet?
Marsala wine comes in various sweetness levels, ranging from dry, semi-sweet to sweet. While most fortified wines are sweet because the addition of spirits halts the fermentation process, Marsala isn’t always sweet. The resulting dryness or sweetness of Marsala wine depends on when it’s fortified.
One of the nicest things about Marsala is that it’s versatile — there’s one perfect for every wine lover or cook. Not only does it vary in color but it’s also available in different amounts of saccharine.
Establishing the level of dryness or sweetness of Marsala wine is the time when it’s fortified.
As mentioned earlier, either brandy or neutral grape spirit is added to the Sicilian wine during the winemaking process. The process of fortification keeps the wine from fermenting further. As a general rule, the sooner the wine is fortified, the sweeter the end product. And the later the fortification is done, the dryer the resulting wine.
Sweet Marsala wine, needless to say, is the top choice as an aperitif and dessert wine. On the other hand, dry Marsala is commonly used for cooking purposes, although a sweet variety may be employed, too, in many instances.
Here are the different categorizations of Marsala wine according to sweetness:
- Secco. Simply put, secco is the driest or least sweet of all Marsala wines. It has the lowest amount of residual sugar of the bunch, amounting to only 40 grams per liter. Secco is preferred for savory cooking purposes.
- Semi-secco. Also known as semi-sweet or off-dry Marsala, this Sicilian wine contains anywhere from 41 grams to 100 grams of residual sugar per liter. Semi-secco is great as a sipping and cooking Marsala wine.
- Dolce. Marsala wine that has residual sugar amounting to over 100 grams is classified as dolce. It pairs well with an assortment of desserts. Dolce Marsala also makes for a wonderful sweet wine ingredient for baking.
How Long is Marsala Wine Aged?
Marsala can be aged anywhere from as short as less than 1 year to as long as 10 years or even longer. How long Marsala wine is aged affects the amount of alcohol and sugar. The longer Marsala is aged, generally speaking, the higher the alcohol content and the lower the sugar content.
The vast majority of wines are not aged. As a matter of fact, up to 90% of them are meant to be enjoyed by consumers within 1 year from the time of their production.
While some Marsala wines are made to be consumed within just a year, others are meant to be aged longer.
Checking out the label of that Marsala in your hand or on the screen of your computer will tell you just how long the product has been aged. Opting for the right age classification allows you to appreciate Marsala wine even more because the aging process can impact its properties and overall quality, too.
One of the reasons why it’s important to choose the right age is that, as mentioned earlier, it affects how much alcohol is in a given amount of wine — or alcohol by volume or ABV, which is expressed in percentage.
Here are the different age classifications you will encounter on Marsala wine labels:
- Fine. Marsala fine means that the Sicilian wine is aged for 1 year — sometimes less, such as 8 months only. It has an ABV that never falls below 17%. It’s popularly used for cooking purposes.
- Superiore. Marsala superiore is aged for 2 years but less than 3 years. The longer aging time causes the ABV to jump from 17% (Marsala fine) to 18%. Still, it’s preferred by many as a cooking ingredient.
- Superiore riserva. Marsala riserva is aged anywhere between 4 to 6 long years. While it still has approximately 18% ABV like Marsala superiore, it’s slightly dryer or less sweet.
- Soleras or vergine. Marsala soleras or vergine is Marsala wine aged from 5 to 7 years. Sold only bottled, its ABV doesn’t fall below 18%. Many favor this product because of its compounded flavors.
- Stravecchio. Marsala stravecchio, simply put, is the most high-end and rarest of all Marsala wine options. Aged for at least 10 years, it boasts of a nuance of flavors as well as aromas and fragrances.
Marsala Wine vs. Marsala Cooking Wine: What’s the Difference?
Marsala wine can be used for both sipping and cooking purposes. Meanwhile, Marsala cooking wine is specifically made as a cooking ingredient. While it can be technically drunk, it’s not made to take the place of Marsala wine as a beverage. Like other cooking wines, Marsala cooking wine is of poor quality.
A bottle of genuine Marsala wine can be used either for drinking or whipping up chicken Marsala or many other Italian or Italian-American dishes that require the said type of wine.
On the other hand, Marsala cooking wine is made for cooking first and foremost.
Taking a look at the list of ingredients, you will learn that a particular brand or variant of Marsala cooking wine you are holding may or may not contain actual Marsala wine. Something that contains it is usually laden with other spirits or ingredients, which is why Marsala cooking wine isn’t and should not be considered for sipping purposes.
The ABV of the majority of Marsala cooking wines on the market is 14%, which is lower than the ABV of true Marsala, which can range anywhere from 17% to 18% or even higher.
Also, most Marsala cooking wines available, including the popular Holland House Marsala Cooking Wine, are dry for they are considered the more versatile kind in the kitchen. For instance, you can use them for marinating and various cooking methods, especially for savory dishes. Meanwhile, sweet Marsala is usually limited to baking and making desserts.
If you have a bottle of actual Marsala, it’s a much better idea to use it for cooking than Marsala cooking wine.
What Food Pairs With Marsala Wine?
Marsala is commonly enjoyed as an aperitif and dessert wine, which means that it is best sipped before and after a meal. Secco and semi-secco Marsala wines go well with fruits, pastries, cheese and other richly flavored foods. On the other hand, dolce Marsala wines pair with all kinds of chocolate desserts.
Pairing wine with the right food can help not only bring out the best in the wine on hand but also improve the overall dining experience by enhancing flavors, textures and qualities.
While Marsala is popular as a cooking ingredient, taking it the right way also makes it a superb sipping wine!
Dry and semi-dry Marsala is best enjoyed as an aperitif — most fortified wines like Marsala are commonly served as such to whet the appetite before a meal. Both dry and semi-dry Marsala wines also pair well with an assortment of savory dishes. They may be enjoyed, too, after a meal as a digestif for better digestion.
Meanwhile, sweet Marsala wine is often served as a dessert wine. Just about any chocolate-based dessert that you can think of, from truffles to cake, would pair well with dolce Marsala wine.
Pastry and fruity desserts are a better match for secco and semi-secco Marsala wines. The same is true for cheeses such as asiago, blue cheese, cantal, camembert, cheddar, havarti, parmigiano-reggiano and provolone.
What are Substitutes for Marsala?
Some of the best alternatives for Marsala wine are fortified wines like Marsala itself. Popular choices are Madeira, which has pretty much the same taste profile as Marsala wine, and dry sherry, which can mimic the flavor of sweet Marsala. Amontillado, Moscato, Sweet Riesling and Vermouth are other options.
No matter if you can’t find a bottle of Marsala or the one you have in your kitchen is already empty, fret not — you can grab another bottle of wine that has pretty much the same qualities as the well-loved Sicilian wine.
Fortified wines are some of the top replacements for Marsala, which is also fortified.
In order to obtain the best Marsala sipping experience, it’s a good idea to stick to actual Marsala wine, of course. But for cooking purposes, there are various options available.
For making savory dishes, including chicken Marsala, Madeira is superb for the job. And for making desserts or baked treats, dry sherry is the top choice of many.
Concocting Marsala from scratch is also possible if you have a bottle of brandy, which is what Marsala wine is fortified with. Or you may also use cognac instead.
All you have to do is combine 1 part of brandy or cognac and 2 parts of white wine — it’s completely up to you to use dry or sweet white wine, depending on the outcome you want. You may also add a tablespoon of brandy or cognac to every 3/4 cup of white grape juice for homemade Marsala with low ABV.
Read more about the best Marsala substitutes here.
What are Some Good Marsala Wines to Get?
Marsala from Sicily is the best wine to get. Marsala wine that’s made elsewhere on the planet is not real Marsala.
Besides for drinking or sipping purposes, genuine Marsala is also recommended as a cooking ingredient. As a matter of fact, it’s widely considered better than Marsala cooking wine.
There is one very important step to take when shopping for Marsala: check that it’s from Sicily.
You can opt for something that’s produced outside of the Italian island, but it’s very much unlikely for it to be able to yield a full and authentic Marsala experience that’s truly unique.
Here are some highly recommended Marsala wines you can easily get online:
- Pellegrino 1985 Dry Marsala Superiore Riserva. The grapes used for making Pellegrino 1985 Dry Marsala Superiore Riserva come from the company’s nearly 1,000-acre vineyard in western Sicily. Thanks to its notes of carob and apricots as well as black pepper, the product is great for both sipping and cooking savory dishes.
- Pellegrino Sweet Marsala Superiore. With fine and delicate flavors, bright amber-colored Pellegrino Sweet Marsala Superiore is suitable for making desserts and sipping after dinner. Allowed to age in oak barrels, which gives it some persistent oak hints, for 24 months, this Marsala is refreshingly sweet and has 18% ABV.
- Lombardo Ambra Sweet Marsala. It was back in 1881 when the maker of Lombardo Ambra Sweet Marsala established a winery in western Sicily, where he refined new Marsala production techniques. And that is why the product boasts of harmonic sweetness and rich aromas common among sweet Marsala wines.
Just Before You Grab a Bottle of Marsala
Marsala wine can only come from one place, which is one of the many things that make it special. So, before placing a bottle of it in your cart, whether actual or virtual, check that it’s from Sicily and nowhere else.
It can be red or white. It can be dry, off-dry or sweet. It can be anywhere from a year old or 10 years or older. Because of these things, there’s Marsala wine that’s perfect for every taste, mood and dish.
Of course, Marsala is an outstanding cooking wine, too, which is an indispensable ingredient for cooking many Italian and Italian-American dishes.
Read Next: Does Marsala Wine Need to be Refrigerated?