Marsala Wine: Everything You Need to Know About This Sicilian Favorite
While you may never have had a glass of Marsala wine, there's a good chance you've enjoyed a dish of chicken Marsala. This creamy classic of pan-fried chicken and mushrooms bathed in a rich savory-sweet Marsala sauce has long been an Italian favorite in restaurants around the world.
But while Marsala wine is a go-to cooking wine, it's much more than just a splash in the pan. In this guide, we'll share details about this enduringly popular Italian wine, including how and where it's made, the different varieties it comes in, and the best ways to enjoy it.
What Is Marsala Wine?
Marsala wine is a fortified wine produced near the town of Marsala on the island of Sicily, Italy. Marsala wine is made with local white grape varietals including Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino (although it can also be blended with red grapes.) As with all fortified wine, Marsala is supplemented with a distilled spirit — in this case, it's usually brandy.
Despite its popularity as a dry and semi-dry cooking wine, a high-quality Marsala can also be an excellent sweet wine. It's increasingly common to see it served as an aperitif to whet the appetite or as a delicious digestif to sip after a meal.
Unlike other types of wine, Marsala is classified (and priced) based on color and how long it’s aged. Since there is such a range of Marsala styles, the flavors can range from brown sugar and nuts to more complex and pronounced notes of honey, dried fruit, and licorice.
Because it's fortified, Marsala has a higher alcohol content compared to the average glass of wine — it's typically 15-20% ABV as opposed to 12% alcohol, which is the standard in the United States. This high ABV is just one reason why Marsala is most often served in small portions.
The Italian government's Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) regulates the use of the term "Marsala" to wine (and products) that are produced in the Marsala region. That said, it's worth noting that some wines going by the Marsala moniker (especially the cheaper versions available at local grocery stores) are not real Marsala wines. Read the wine label to ensure the bottle you buy has the proper designation and actually comes from Sicily.
How Is Marsala Wine Made?
As with all winemaking, the fermenting begins once the grapes are harvested and crushed. Depending on whether the winemaker wants a sweet or dry Marsala wine, the fermentation process will be disrupted for fortifying (i.e., adding the brandy).
If the wine is fortified before fermentation is complete, there will be more residual sugar, thus producing a sweeter wine. If the winemaker adds the spirits after fermentation has finished, the result will be a drier wine with lower sugar content.
Due to the fortifying process, Marsala wine lasts 4-6 months after opening. Although it won't go bad if you keep it in the cupboard longer than six months after opening, it will start to lose its flavor and fragrance. It's best to store Marsala in a cool, dry place much like you would olive oil.
Different Types of Marsala Wine
As noted, Marsala comes in a variety of sweetness levels and is classified by its color and age. Here's a breakdown of what this all means.
- Secco: This is the driest version of Marsala, with less than 40 grams of sugar per liter.
- Semi-Secco: A semi-sweet style, this wine ranges from 50 grams to 100 grams of residual sugar per liter.
- Dolce: This is a sweet wine with more than 100 grams of sugar per liter. (Not exactly a keto wine.)
When it comes to Marsala wine, color is key. Here's a rundown of the various hues of this Italian favorite along with some tasting notes.
- Amber (Ambra): As its name suggests, this amber-colored Marsala is made with white grapes and tastes of nuts and dried fruit.
- Ruby (Rubino): The lovely ruby hue of this Marsala comes from red grapes such as Pignatello, Perricone, and Nerello Mascalese. It has a fruity flavor and fragrance that contrasts nicely with the higher tannin content from the red grapes.
- Gold (Oro): With its rich golden color, this Marsala is produced with white grapes. Expect flavors of vanilla, hazelnuts, and licorice.
The final classification for Marsala wine is age. While younger wines are almost always used for cooking, older bottles are ideal for sipping before or after a meal.
- Fine: Aged for at least one year
- Superiore: Aged for at least two years but no more than three years
- Superiore Riserva: Aged for 4-6 years
- Soleras or Vergine: Aged for 5-7 years
- Stravecchio: Aged for at least 10 years with no added sugar
How to Enjoy Marsala Wine
Knowing how to enjoy wine might seem like a no-brainer, but there are some nuances that maximize your experience. To that end, here are a few tips on how to savor Marsala wine, including the ideal temperature for serving, best food pairings, and even the kind of glass you may want to use.
When serving Marsala, follow general wine temperature suggestions. Dry Marsala is best slightly chilled around 55-60 degrees to maintain its crisp freshness. However, sweet Marsala is better when poured at room temperature or slightly cooler.
Secco and semi-secco Marsala wines pair perfectly with fruits and pastries as well as richly flavored foods such as blue cheese, Parmesan, olives, and nuts. Dolce Marsala makes for a decadent dessert wine that goes wonderfully with just about any chocolate dessert, including tiramisu, truffles, or cake.
Type of Glass
It might sound silly, but the type of glass you drink wine with makes a difference. Studies have shown the shape of a glass affects how wine vapor rises, thus influencing the taste and fragrance you experience.
For sweeter Marsala wines, use a small port glass or even a snifter you typically use to serve brandy. Either way, the narrow mouth will minimize evaporation and concentrate the aromas.
For drier Marsala wines, standard white wine or sparkling wine glasses will do. Just make sure that whatever you serve it in, you allow yourself enough glass space to swirl. Doing so will allow the wine to breathe and release its fragrance before you take your first sip.
It's Time to Make Merry With Marsala
When it comes to cooking wine, it doesn't get more iconic than Marsala wine. But it's clear this venerable vino from the Italian island of Sicily is much more than a companion to your chicken Marsala recipe. As it turns out, this delicious and versatile wine comes in dry and sweet versions that can be enjoyed before a meal, after dinner, or with (and as) dessert.
Like other fortified wines, Marsala is produced with the addition of a distilled spirit that gives it a higher alcohol content and longer shelf life. It's also a distinctive wine — it's classified by color and age and can be made with white or red grapes.Now that you know more about Marsala wine, broaden your palate and find your favorite. For more ways to experience the wide world of wine, check out the Usual Wines blog.