What is Marsala Wine?

Have you ever indulged in the savory comfort dish known as chicken marsala

A classic Italian dish, this meal would be nothing without its main ingredient; Marsala wine. 

You might not have sipped this particular wine, but like sherry, it’s often used for cooking or enjoyed as an aperitif. 

So grab your aprons and join us in the kitchen. We’ve got the 411 on the uniquely versatile Marsala wine. 

What is Marsala Wine?

What Kind of Wine is Marsala?

Very much like Port wines, Marsala is a fortified wine. It is produced initially in Italy and ranges from dry to sweet dessert wine. Marsala is often used as a cooking wine in savory dishes like French onion soup as well as a sweet reduction sauce. It can also be enjoyed as an aperitif or dessert wine. 

Marsala is higher in alcohol and contains 15-20% alcohol per volume, so make sure you have a heavy meal or dessert with this one. Marsala is fortified with brandy and sometimes has sugars added to it by winemakers. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg with this fine Sicilian wine. To further explain, we need to delve into the layers of Marsala wine. We’ll be looking at its array of colors, sugar content, and age classification. 

Marsala Flavor Profile

On the palate, a true Marsala will have flavors of dried apricot, honey, nuts, tobacco, brown sugar, vanilla, and tamarind. Like other red wines, Marsala ranges from very low in tannins like Pinot Noir to having more robust tannins that will make your mouth pucker. It also comes in a variety of sweetness levels.

But Marsala’s flavors further expand when you introduce the three types of Ruby, Amber, and Gold. 

Let’s see what these jewel-toned Marsalas have to offer. 

Ruby (Rubino)

Like its name, this type of Marsala looks like rubies shining through glass. Compared to the other two types, Ruby Marsala is extremely rare. It is made with the red grapes Pignatello, Nerello, Mascalese, and up to 30% of white grapes. This wine is very tannic yet fruit-forward, so its sweet taste balances the puckering flavor well. 

We don’t know about you, but we think this exquisite Marsala is worth treasure-hunting for!

Amber (Ambra)

Amber Marsala might be why this wine is often mistaken for Madeira wine, which comes from the Madeira Islands off the coast of South Africa. With a similar deep golden hue, the main difference between these wines’ tastes is that Madeira comes in extra dry forms. Amber Marsala only goes as far as dry. 

Amber Marsala is often made with the white grapes Grillo, Cattaroto, Inzolia, Grecanico, and Domaschino. With honey-like textures, this delightfully savory night carries toasty notes of dried fruit and nuts. 

What is Amber Marsala?

Gold (Oro)

Like Amber Marsala, Gold Marsala is made with white grapes, although its hue is unmistakably gold. With this Marsala, you can expect a pleasantly sweet and savory mix of licorice, hazelnut, and vanilla. Not only is it delicious, but sipping Gold or Oro Marsala will make you feel like you’ve got the Midas touch! 

Marsala Sweetness Levels

Marsala is most commonly classified by color, age, and sweetness levels. Naturally, we couldn’t go without mentioning all three. You wouldn’t want to mistake a sweet Marsala for a dry one and have your chicken taste like candy, right?

Here’s what to look for regarding Marsala’s sweetness levels. 


If your Marsala has this label, you have the driest version of the wine available. Under 40 grams per liter, this is the type you’ll want to reach for when cooking something savory. Semi Secco

The next level up in sweetness, Semi Secco (or demi-sec), usually contains around 50-100 grams of sugar per liter. If you have sweeter Marsala, you can use this as a pork marinade, in a tiramisu recipe, or simmer in the pot for a sweet reduction sauce. 


Here’s where things get sweet, as Dolce Marsala has a residual sugar content of 100 grams of sugar per liter or more! We hope you have your dentist on speed dial. Remember that tiramisu we mentioned? You can pair this dessert Marsala with a sweet baked good or have it for dessert by itself. 

Now that we’ve had our daily dose of glucose let’s move on to Marsala’s age classification. 

Marsala Age Classification 

Knowing the age of Marsala is one of the most important factors, as it will determine whether you should use it in a recipe or sip it as an aperitif. In general, younger Marsala wines are almost always used for cooking, while older Marsalas are known to be more favorable for sipping. 

Here are the five classifications for determining Marsala’s age: 

1. Fine

A young Marsala aged for at least one year.

2. Superiore

Marsala that has been aged for at least two years but no more than three.

3. Superiore Riserva

A Marsala that’s been aged for around 4-6 years.

4. Vergine or Soleras

This means the Marsala is around 5-7 years old.

5. Stravecchio

Aged for up to ten years. 

aged marsala wine

Marsala Wine Substitute

Now that we’ve got sugar and age out of the way, it’s time to dive deeper into the topic of cooking with Marsala. Because it comes in such a variety, Marsala can be used in a range of recipes. 

But what if you don’t have Marsala in the kitchen when it’s time to cook? Not to worry, we’ve listed all the perfect substitutes for Marsala. Odds are, you have at least one or two of these items right now. 

Madeira Wine

We’re starting with the best substitute for Marsala, which is Madeira wine. Because it is also a fortified wine with similar flavors (and often sweetness, depending on the type), Madeira is the most accessible one-to-one substitute when Marsala isn’t available. 

Dry Sherry

Another one-to-one substitute, dry sherry, is ideal as a Marsala substitute. Even if you have Marsala, sherry is an excellent “healthier option” as it contains much less sodium. Just make sure to use sherry wine instead of cooking sherry, as this will be optimal for bringing out the flavors in your dish.

Sweet Vermouth

A rich and herbaceous fortified wine, sweet vermouth is also a no-brainer as a Marsala replacement. These two wines are quite similar in flavor profile. 

Balsamic Vinegar

Need a sweet Marsala substitute in a pinch? With flavors of fig, cherry, molasses, and a light sugar taste, balsamic vinegar is a close cousin to Marsala when it comes to cooking. However, some recipes might call for making the balsamic into a reduction sauce first. 

Cranberry Juice

If you’re baking or cooking a sweet poultry dish, cranberry juice is the unlikely match for a Marsala replacement. We like to think it’s because cranberry juice is incredibly fruity but has a slightly dry taste for a perfect balance. Up for cranberry oatmeal cookies, anyone? 

Dry White Wine

Last but not least, dry white wine is a quick replacement when your grocery store doesn’t have Marsala. Adding a splash of Pinot Noir or brandy is a bonus for bringing out a sweeter, fruity taste in your recipe. 

We’ve talked a lot about cooking with Marsala. You might have thought we neglected it as a food pairing. 

Bear with us for a little longer, and keep reading if you’re wondering what the best foods are to eat when sipping Marsala. 

Marsala Food Pairings

Since Marsala is so versatile, it can be confusing when it comes to knowing what to pair with the wine. For more savory Marsalas, appetizers like olives, nuts, and goat cheese will taste delightfully decadent. Rich, smoked, and batter fish are perfect if you want something a bit saltier. 

If you have a sweet tooth, pair a sweet Marsala with chocolate cake, dried apricots, or chicken marsala made with a sweet sauce. 

Marsala is perfect for satisfying all the sweet and sugary cravings your heart desires.

Best Marsala Food Pairings

Cook Your Heart Out With Marsala

We hope we’ve given you a new wine to consider when expanding your culinary ventures and palate. 

Whether using it as an ingredient or sipping, remember the sugar labels, age, and color to get the ideal pairing for your dish. 

Other than that, nothing is off-limits, so don’t be afraid to get creative. 

Check out our red wine and white wine selections if you’re interested in a Marsala alternative.

See our Macy’s Wine Shop blog for other recipes, wine deep dives, and more!