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Madeira vs Marsala Wine: What’s the Difference? (2023)

Madeira vs Marsala 

Last Updated on November 5, 2023 by Lydia Martin

If you’re looking for a new wine bottle to enjoy, you may have come across Madeira and Marsala wine during your search. While these distilled spirits are fortified wines, how do they differ? 

Some drinkers use Marsala and Madeira wines interchangeably, but these two wines have more distinct characteristics than their similarities.  

So today, let’s compare Madeira vs Marsala wine and see their differences overall from their origin to alcohol content to price point and everything in between.   

Comparing Madeira & Marsala Wines

Pouring Madeira Wine on a Glass

Marsala and Madeira wines are crafted from two distinct regions: Italy and Portugal, respectively.

They both undergo fortification and fermentation, then bottled at a relatively higher proof than standard table wines (around 15-20% ABV). 

Madeira wine and Marsala wine are made using different grape varieties.

Marsala uses wine grapes only from Sicily, while Madeira uses four different grapes, white grapes in particular. 

Marsala’s overall profile and character make it a good cooking wine, especially for fish, veal, chicken, and any savory dishes, while Madeira is preferably used as an aperitif and dessert wine.   

How Do They Differ? 

Origin

Madeira wines originated from Madeira Island– a Portuguese island known for burnt-tasting wines. Meanwhile, Marsala came from a town on Sicily Island in Italy. 

Grape Varieties

grape picking

As mentioned, both are made from different grape varieties. 

Marsala uses white and red grapes from Sicily Island, such as: 

  • Grillo grapes
  • Inzolia grapes
  • Catarratto grapes 
  • Damaschino grapes

While wines from Ruby Marsala can use white grapes, it should only be 30% of the overall blend. 

On the one hand, Madeira wine also uses red and white grapes. But usually, it uses four types of white grapes, named:

  • Verdelho grapes
  • Sercial 
  • Bual 
  • Malmsey 

Madeira wine also uses the red grape Negra mole (a combo of Pinot Noir & Grenache) with a combination of 15% different white grapes.  

Winemaking Method

Winemaking Process

The traditional method of making wines use fresh wine barrels with grape spirit added to ensure stability while aging. 

Nowadays, wineries implement heating methods Madeira wines use to imitate the classic fortification method.

So we get to enjoy the dry and sweet varieties of Madeira wines. 

Marsala wine also undergoes the same fortification process.

However, winemakers interfere with the fermentation process, which uses fractional blending, or blending evaporated wines, including adding brandy, cooked must, and mistelle— similar to the Solera system. 

Read: Ruby Port & Tawny Compared

Classification

The classification Madeira and Marsala implements are based on the following factors: 

Sweetness Level

Dry Marsala contains more residual sugar than typical wines, with 40g sugar/liter. This fortified wine has three sweetness levels: Dry, Medium Dry, and Sweet [1]. 

On the contrary, Madeira wine offers five sweetness levels with varying residual sugar content: Extra-Dry, Dry, Medium-Sweet, Sweet, and Medium-Dry. 

Taste & Color

Marsala wine, an Italian fortified wine, tastes stewed fruit, vanilla, tamarind, and brown sugar.

Its color range from gold to red, depending on the grape variety used and its age. Colors are:

  • Amber: This wine is crafted from white grapes; the color is the lightest, with nuts and flavors of dried fruits.
  • Ruby: Ruby Marsala blends white and red grapes during the winemaking process. This is more fruity with a higher tannin content.
  • Gold: This wine has the deepest hue, made from white grape, with hazelnuts, licorice, and vanilla flavors.

As for Madeira, a fortified wine produced on Madeira Island features an attractive amber color.

It is almost the same as Marsala wine, except for the fact that you can’t find Madeira in red color.    

Age Statement

Marsala’s age statement has five levels, categorized: 

  • Fine Marsala– aged for a year
  • Virgin Reserve– aged for 10 years 
  • Superior– aged for two years 
  • Solera– aged for 5 years 
  • Superior Reserve– aged for four years 

Unlike Port wines, Madeira has the standard 5-year aging process with three age categories, such as:

  • Extra Reserve– aged for 15-20 years
  • Special Reserve– aged for 10-15 years
  • Reserve– aged for a minimum of 5 years 

Alcohol Content

Glass of Madeira Wine

The proof of these fortified wines is within the same range— 15% to 20% ABV.

However, fine Madeira wine tends to be on the higher side, with an average ABV of 18% to 20%, compared to the proof of Marsala, which starts from 15% ABV. 

Usage

Marsala wine is often used as an ingredient for cooking. But that’s different for high-quality Marsala nowadays, which are staple drinks in fine dining or elegant setups.

On the other hand, Madeira is often used as an aperitif or dessert wine. The dry Madeira and sweet Madeira are used interchangeably as after-dinner drinks for their rich flavor.

Food Pairings & How They Are Served

You can drink dry Madeira best with salad and tangy dressings, sushi, smoked salmon, milk, and goat cheese, while the sweet Madeira pairs well with apple tart and fruity pastries.

But if you like to savor its full flavor, you can drink Madeira on its own.  

As for dry and sweet Marsala, it pairs well with fruit-based desserts, apart from using it as a cooking ingredient. Dry Marsala tastes great with nutty cheeses. 

“The logical pairing for mushrooms, in my head, was Marsala.”

— Angie Rito, Chef-Owner at Centrolina, WA

Additionally, dry or sweet Marsala is best served chilled on its own. But better to drink Marsala wine straight along with its food pairings for an excellent experience. 

Price Point & Value

Woman Holding Glasses of Marsala Wines

The average price of Madeira ranges from $4 to over $349, while Marsala ranges from $3 to $80 per bottle, based on Drizly. 

In Madeira vs Marsala, regarding the price point, Marsala is more affordable. But note that price may vary per store, and premium Marsala costs more. 

Do Marsala & Madeira Wines Have Something In Common?

Marsala and Madeira are both fortified wines, similar to dry sherry and Port wine. In addition, both can be classified according to age, color, and sweetness level. 

FAQs 

Can you substitute Madeira for Marsala in a sauce?

Yes, you can substitute Madeira for Marsala when making sauce. Madeira is extremely versatile, so it also pairs well with sauces. 

Are Madeira and Marsala great for sipping?

Yes. Both Madeira and Marsala are great at sipping white and red wine expressions. The complex flavors are well-rounded and not overwhelmingly—perfect for sipping on their own.  

Which is better for cooking, Madeira or Marsala?

Marsala is better for cooking [2]. You can prep chicken Marsala, using Marsala wine as an alternative to chicken stock or beef stock for better flavor. But you can prepare chicken Madeira, too. 

Final Say

While Madeira and Marsala have similarities, they’re unique in their own way. But weighing them overall, we can see Madeira has the edge over Marsala. 

Madeira follows stricter requirements and is more detailed and classified.

It’s an excellent dessert wine, which competes with new wines and other famous wine types like Port wine. 

References:

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/food/2022/dec/29/delicious-dishes-to-make-with-marsala 
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/23/dining/marsala-wine.html 
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