Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: November 12, 2023

What is the Best Substitute For Madeira Wine? [Chef’s Tips]

Madeira wine in bottle and glass

Food and wine go hand in hand. That’s why sometimes, recipes ask for a specific wine able to enhance the flavors of the dish. In many cases, finding the wine is easy. In other cases, the wine is rather unpopular and hard to find.

Some wines have a very particular flavor that enhances a dish in a special way.

This is often the case with Madeira wine. 

But if you want to try such a recipe and you can’t find Madeira (or can't drink it), is there a way to replace it without compromising on the taste? Let’s find it out.  

What is Madeira Wine?

Madeira is a fortified wine produced on the Portugese island of the same name. 

Madeira is obtained through fortification after fermentation. A grape distillate or brandy is added to the base wine when the fermentation is over.

But the unique flavors and aromas of Madeira are the result of the atypical aging process.

Madeira wine is not preserved or aged in cold and dry places but it is exposed to heat and temperature fluctuations.

This rather particular aging process develops characteristic aromas and flavors that are hard, if not impossible, to find elsewhere.

Moreover, not all Madeira wines were created equal.

There is dry and sweet Madeira, and to complicate things even more, there is blended Madeira and single-varietal Madeira.

Blended Madeira wine usually has an average quality and few exceptional characteristics. Single-varietal types are high-quality and usually expensive.

Madeira wine bottle on wall

How to Choose a Madeira Wine for Cooking

When cooking with Madeira, the first thing to check is the type of wine in the recipe.

When the recipe asks for just Madeira, it is safe to assume it refers to an average blended Madeira.

There are dozens of poor-quality blended varieties on the market but if you want to play safe, choose a Finest or Rainwater type.

These wines are typically inexpensive yet hold all the flavors and aromas that make this drink famous.

Reserve and Special Reserve are other two non-vintage Madeira wines to consider.

Vintage blended Madeira includes Colheita, Frasqueira, and Solera, but these wines are usually too expensive to cook with.

Single-varietal Madeira is a high-quality wine that is rarely used for cooking. There are four types of single-varietal Madeira, and there are substantial differences in terms of flavor and aromas between them.

Sercial is the driest variety of Madeira and it has peach, walnut and citrus smoke aromas.

Verdelho is a medium-dry wine with aromas of hay, cucumber, and lemon. This wine is often served chilled as an aperitif or after a meal.

Bual is a medium-sweet wine served as an aperitif or paired with desserts. Its prevalent aromas are cinnamon and vanilla.

Malmsey is the sweetest type of Madeira and it has distinctive aromas of burnt caramel, chili pepper and raisins.

This wine is an excellent dessert wine and is often used in sweet recipes. Sercial and Verdelho are recommended for savory recipes.

madeira wine

Can You Substitute Madeira Wine in a Recipe?

Yes. However, you can’t expect to achieve exactly the same taste.

Because of its complex aromas and unique production process, Madeira has a flavor incomparable with all other wines.

For this reason, if you choose to cook a recipe that asks for Madeira, it is recommended to try and find the specific wine.

I should also say that cooking Madeira is easy to find in grocery shops or wineries.

However, this wine is often of scarce quality and it almost never comes from Portugal. This happens especially in the US, where the federal law allows winemakers to use the regional name on cooking wines.

Flavored with salt and pepper, these wines can easily spoil your recipe rather than adding flavor.

If you’re looking for an inexpensive Madeira for your savory recipes, get a non-vintage Finest or Rainwater Madeira. Wine shops often source these wines and you’ll get the true flavors in your dish.

Madeira wine bottles

Why Use High-Quality Wine For Cooking?

Before getting to the heart of the issue and disclose which is the best substitute for Madeira wine, let’s have a word about using a specific type of wine in a recipe.

The use of specific wines in cooking has divided cooks and chefs into two groups.

One group claims that using a specific, and expensive, type of wine in a recipe is a bit over the top. The other group says that only a high-quality wine can enhance the flavors of a dish.

I stand for the second group.

In my opinion, if a wine is not good enough to drink it, it’s not good enough to cook with it. Because a poor-quality wine won’t be able to add value to a dish.

If you’re thinking that using quality wine for cooking is wasting, remember that those who invented the recipes used a high-quality wine for a reason. And most recipes only ask for few ounces of wine, not for a whole bottle.

For this, I always recommend cooking with the wine specified in the recipe, or with a high-quality wine if the recipe doesn’t tell what wine to use. In the end, even if you’ll only need a few drops for the dish, you’ll be able to sip a glass or two while your meal is cooking. Or just pair the wine with the food.

In the case of Madeira, you can even preserve the open bottle for months. Because of its production process and high alcohol concentration, Madeira will preserve its properties for quite a long time when stored in the fridge or wine cooler.

Two glasses of fortified Madeira wine

What is the Best Substitute For Madeira Wine?

When searching for the best substitute for Madeira wine, your location and purpose play an important role in choosing the substitute.

Best Non-Alcoholic Substitute For Madeira Wine

In some cases, you might want to substitute wine with an alcohol-free alternative.

In savory dishes, the best non-alcoholic substitute for Madeira wine is chicken or beef stock.

For a more flavorful alternative, you can make a reduction of balsamic vinegar and mix it with stock before adding it to the dish.

In sweet recipes, it is easy to substitute Madeira with fruit juice. The best choices are berry, apple or pomegranate juice.

Best Substitute Wine For Madeira

If you can’t find Madeira and need a wine substitute, the safest choices are other fortified wines.

Port and Marsala are probably the best substitutes. When choosing the wine, make sure it is dry or sweet, as the recipe requires.

Other popular substitutes are sherry and vermouth. While you can use them instead of Madeira, their bouquets are often substantially different.

When the recipe asks for a non-vintage wine, you can choose an adequate white or red substitute.

For example, if the recipe asks for Verdelho, you can replace it with a medium-dry Muscat or Moscadello.

Final Thoughts

Finding a substitute for Madeira wine can be hard because it has such a particular taste. It's especially difficult if you need a non-alcoholic replacement.

Keep in mind that the dish will taste differently unless you use the specified wine. 

Yet, since Madeira is sometimes hard to find, replacing it with a high-quality substitute will often do the trick.

In the end, just remember that whatever wine you choose, make sure it’s a high-quality wine.

Only in this way you’ll be able to enhance the flavors and surprise your guests with the heavenly taste of a dish.


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About the Author Tim Edison

Tim started Wine Turtle way back in 2015.
These days he contributes to Wine Turtle (and other renowned wine publications) while continuing his wine education.
Tim's wine of the month is the Coates & Seely Reserve Brut NV (from Hampshire, England).

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