Written by: Tim Edison

Updated: July 26, 2023

What is Marsala Wine? [Understanding Sicily’s Finest Export]

Eager to learn about Marsala wine? Good, you're in the right place! I explain all things Marsala in the latest Wine Turtle wine guide.

marsala wine and glass

Marsala wine is a unique fortified wine produced in the small town of Marsala, in the province of Trapani in Sicily. 

But understanding Marsala as a single wine is reductive.

It is obtained from different types of grapes and through different processes that determine the color, aroma, and flavor.

In this guide, I explain the history of Marsala, before explaining how it's made, and the different varieties that exist.

A Brief History of Sicilian Marsala Wine

According to legend, Marsala wine finds its origins in 1773 when merchant John Woodhouse docked in Marsala and tasted the local wine for the first time.

He found its taste to be surprisingly different to the majority of Italian wines, and had more in common with Spanish or Portuguese wines.

Marsala is made using a particular aging technique called the Solera method (translates to “in perpetuity”). This involves continuously adding newly produced wine to the oak barrels that contain already aged wine, to keep the flavors and aromas.

It is said that for Woodhouse, Marsala was love at first sip, so he decided to load barrels of wine on his boat to export the beverage to back England.

But for the wine to resist the long and harsh voyage on the sea, Woodhouse decided to enrich (fortify) the wine with spirit.

Related: Learn how to fortify wine in our guide.

This fortified Marsala had such a great success in the England’s market that Woodhouse decided to return to Sicily and start the production and merchandising of the wine, using the Solera method for refining.

Marsala wine color

Starting Marsala Wine Production in Italy

Marsala is one of the few Italian wines produced according to an imported method. That’s why local producers only became interested in Marsala wine about a century after its first creation when Vincenzo Florio started to compete with the English companies in 1833.

Vincenzo founded the Florio Winery and in only two decades, Florio Marsala surpassed (in terms of quality and credibility) the wine produced by Woodhouse.

The next step was the incorporation of the Woodhouse winery into Florio, and the local success of this wine inspired many local producers, such as Don Diego Rallo, Carlo Pellegrino, and Vito Curatolo Arini, to get involved in the production of Marsala wine.

In 1920, the famous Cinzano acquired Florio and several other factories, unifying the production of Marsala wine under the Florio brand.

Sadly, due to the war, Marsala and its wine went through a rough time. Counterfeits started to discredit the prestigious brand shortly after the First World War, that’s why in 1931, the wineries in the region took the first legal steps to protect Marsala wine from imitations.

The government agreed on the need to protect this beverage and set rules that established what could and what couldn’t be named Marsala.

In 1969, Marsala wine became the first Controlled Denomination of Origin (DOC) wine in Italy’s history.

What are the Different Types of Marsala Wine?

Whether you're a novice or a seasoned oenophile, embarking on the journey of understanding Marsala's styles is akin to uncovering layers of Sicilian heritage, piece by piece.

  • Marsala Fine: Aged for at least one year, is the youngest of the clan. Its energetic vibrancy, coupled with a lower alcohol content (about 17-18%), renders it a delightful introduction to Marsala wines. You can find this style in both dry (Secco) and sweet (Dolce) expressions, offering a versatile palate from savory aperitifs to post-meal sweet sips.
  • Marsala Superiore: The Superiore designation requires a minimum of two years' maturation, culminating in a wine that gracefully balances youthfulness and depth. Like Marsala Fine, Superiore wines also come in dry and sweet varieties, each encapsulating a spectrum of sensory experiences from rich dried fruit to fragrant vanilla.
  • Marsala Superiore Riserva: With a longer aging process of at least four years, Superiore Riserva wines push the boundaries of complexity. The orchestration of time and Sicilian terroir shines through in these wines, painting a tapestry of flavors that span from dark chocolate to spiced honey, appealing to those with a penchant for deep, brooding character.
  • Marsala Vergine: Marsala Vergine, or Virgin Marsala, is a testament to minimal intervention and maximum patience. Aged for a minimum of five years and often crafted solely from the Grillo grape variety, these wines are always dry and carry an alluring depth of nutty, savoury, and sometimes smoky notes, evoking the timeless allure of Sicily.
  • Marsala Vergine Stravecchio or Riserva: Reserved for the most patient connoisseurs, Marsala Vergine Stravecchio, also known as Riserva, has a lengthy aging requirement of at least ten years. This exquisite elixir captivates with a profound richness and complexity, often bearing a striking resemblance to the nutty profundity of an old Amontillado Sherry or the oxidative depth of a vintage Madeira.

Each of these styles, offering different shades of Marsala's charm, is a distinct chapter in the story of this Sicilian marvel.

Whether you're uncorking a bottle of youthful Fine or savouring a mature Vergine Stravecchio, you're not merely sipping a wine, but experiencing the true spirit of Sicily.

Marsala DOC Production Rules

As we delve into the captivating world of Marsala, it's crucial to grasp the stringent production rules that this Sicilian masterpiece adheres to.

Each regulation contributes to the quintessential characteristics and quality that Marsala wines are celebrated for.

Geographical Restriction

Marsala wine must be produced within the territory of Marsala, located in the province of Trapani in western Sicily. This includes the island of Pantelleria and the Egadi Islands.

This region, blessed with abundant sunshine, coastal breezes, and fertile soils, provides an ideal setting for the grapes used in Marsala production. 

This geographical stipulation ensures that the wine reflects the unique terroir of this region.

Map of Sicily

Grape Varieties

Specific indigenous Sicilian grape varieties are approved for the production of Marsala DOC. White grape varieties such as Grillo, Catarratto, and Inzolia are most commonly used.

However, for the production of ruby Marsala, red varieties like Pignatello (also known as Perricone), Nero d'Avola, and Nerello Mascalese are employed.


Marsala is a fortified wine, meaning that grape spirit (usually a neutral grape brandy) is added during the winemaking process to increase the alcohol content.

This process also helps preserve the wine and gives Marsala its distinctive robust character.

Oxidation & Aging

One of the defining features of Marsala wine is the oxidative aging process.

Depending on the style of Marsala being produced, the aging period can range from a minimum of one year for Marsala Fine, up to ten years for Marsala Vergine Stravecchio or Riserva.

This aging contributes to the complexity and depth of flavors in Marsala wine.

According to the production method, we can distinguish between the various types:

  • Fine - tanned (description below) and aged for at least one year (8 months in a barrel)
  • Superiore - tanned and aged for at least two years (20 months in a barrel)
  • Superiore Riserva - tanned and aged for at least four years (44 months in a barrel)
  • Virgin or Soleras - non-tanned and aged for at least five years (56 months in a barrel)
  • Virgin Riserva or Soleras Stravecchio - non-tanned and aged for at least ten years (116 months in a barrel)

Tanned Marsala (Conciato in Italian) is wine that has had cooked grape must (Catarratto grapes) added to it to increase the level of tannin. This improves the aroma and adds sweetness to the final product.

Mistelle (Mistella) can also be added when tanning. This is obtained from late harvest Grillo grapes.

These grapes are crushed in barrels that contain alcohol, usually brandy, which prevents fermentation. The addition of mistella gives a strong, sweet taste to the beverage.

Color & Sweetness

The color of Marsala wine can be Oro (gold), Ambra (amber), or Rubino (ruby), depending on the grape varieties used, the different processing methods, and the aging duration.

The level of sweetness, determined by residual sugar, is categorized as Secco (dry), Semisecco (semi-dry), or Dolce (sweet).

These classifications allow for a broad range of styles to suit different palates and occasions.

  • Dolce (sweet): with a sugar concentration higher than 100 grams/liter (10%)
  • Semisecco (semi-dry): with a sugar concentration between 40 and 100 grams per liter (4-10%)
  • Secco (dry): with a sugar concentration of fewer than 40 grams per liter (4%) 

What is the Solera Method?

Solera is an aging process for wine used most commonly in Portugal and Spain. It is mainly used for the production of Port and Sherry.

It's basically a blending process where already filled wine barrels are periodically added to with more wine. This fractional blending technique means the finished wine is composed of wines of many different ages.

Marsala also benefits from this aging and fortifying method in which the oak barrels are placed on overlapping rows.

There are five different rows or layers; the first batch of wine is poured in the highest barrels and aged for a year. In the following year, a third of the content of the barrels is poured in the barrels on the level below and the new batch is poured in the highest barrels.

In the third year, a third of the wine in the second layer is poured in the barrels below, a third of the content of the first layer from the top is poured in the second layer, and the new wine is added on the top layer. The process continues for five years until the wine finally reaches the lowest level.

After a year of aging in the lowest level, this wine is bottled, while the process continues in the same way for the remaining barrels.

Before bottling, fortification is conducted by adding spirit or brandy to the aged wine.

Marsala Wine Tasting Notes

Marsala wines are a sensory delight, offering a broad spectrum of flavors and aromas.

Each style presents its unique palette of tasting notes, with the diversity spanning from vibrant fruit to nuanced nutty profiles. 

Let's explore the different styles of Marsala and their signature tasting notes.

  • Marsala Fine: Being the youngest expression of Marsala, Fine wines typically exhibit a vibrant and fresh character. Marsala Fine Oro, made from white grape varieties, features notes of fresh apple, pear, and citrus. Fine Ambra, thanks to the inclusion of cooked must, adds hints of dried fruits, caramel, and honey. Marsala Fine Rubino, made with red grapes, introduces fresh red fruit nuances such as cherry and raspberry.
  • Marsala Superiore: With an extended aging period, Superiore wines begin to showcase a deeper flavor profile. Alongside the fruit, you'll start noticing elements of vanilla, toasted nuts, and a hint of sweet spices, particularly in Superiore Oro and Ambra. Superiore Rubino extends the red fruit profile to include notes of plum and dried figs, often with a hint of cocoa or leather.
  • Marsala Superiore Riserva: This style, with at least four years of aging, presents an intriguing mix of the vibrancy of fruit and the complexity of oxidative aging. Expect to find layers of dried fruits, honey, tobacco, dark chocolate, and hints of oak, especially in the Oro and Ambra versions. Superiore Riserva Rubino often carries a deeper, more complex red fruit profile with elements of spice, cocoa, and dried herbs.
  • Marsala Vergine: With a minimum of five years aging and made predominantly from the Grillo grape variety, Vergine Marsala unfolds a complex bouquet of aromas. Expect to find notes of toasted almonds, dried citrus peel, caramel, and an underlying salinity, which is characteristic of this style.
  • Marsala Vergine Stravecchio or Riserva: Aged for at least ten years, Vergine Stravecchio is the epitome of Marsala’s complexity. This style presents an intricate array of flavors, from dried figs and prunes to toasted hazelnuts, tobacco, leather, and coffee, all wrapped in a balanced, oxidative character.

How to Serve Marsala Wine

Serving Marsala wine in the right manner can dramatically enhance your tasting experience.

Here's how you can serve this Sicilian specialty at its best.

  • Ideal Serving Temperature: The correct temperature is key when serving any wine, and Marsala is no exception. Dry Marsala wines are best served slightly chilled, between 10-12°C (50-54°F), while sweet Marsala wines and those that are aged (like Marsala Vergine and Marsala Vergine Stravecchio) express themselves best at a warmer temperature of around 14-16°C (57-61°F).
  • Choice of Glass: Marsala can be served in a traditional white wine glass, but for an enhanced sensory experience, consider using a smaller dessert wine glass or a sherry glass. These glasses, with their tapered shape, concentrate Marsala's complex aromas to the nose, enriching the tasting experience.
  • Decanting Marsala: Young Marsala wines don't typically require decanting. However, if you're serving an aged Marsala, like Marsala Vergine Stravecchio, you might want to decant the wine to allow it to breathe and fully express its complex array of aromas and flavors.
  • Serving Order: If Marsala is part of a wine tasting event or being served with multiple courses, remember to follow the standard serving order of wines: from dry to sweet, and from light-bodied to full-bodied. This helps to preserve the palate's sensitivity, allowing you to fully appreciate each wine's unique qualities.
  • Storing After Opening: Thanks to the fortification process, Marsala wine can last longer than regular still wines once opened. To maintain its freshness and flavors, reseal the bottle and store it in the refrigerator. It should remain enjoyable for several weeks. You can extend this by using a good wine preserver.

Pairing Food with Marsala Wine

Marsala wine with Sicilian snacks

Marsala wine with Sicilian snacks

The versatility of Marsala wine, spanning a range of styles and sweetness levels, makes it an exceptional partner for a variety of dishes.

Whether you're enjoying a glass as an aperitif, alongside the main course, or with dessert, there's a Marsala to suit every meal.

  • Marsala Fine and Superiore (Secco/Dry): Dry Marsala wines, especially the Oro and Ambra styles, can work wonderfully as an aperitif, pairing well with olives, hard cheeses like Pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and charcuterie. In terms of main dishes, these Marsalas can complement roasted poultry, mushroom risotto, and dishes with creamy sauces.
  • Marsala Fine and Superiore (Dolce/Sweet): Sweet Marsala wines are a bit more robust and can pair perfectly with dishes that have a hint of sweetness or richness. Think along the lines of blue cheese, foie gras, or pâté. In addition, sweet Marsala is often used in cooking to create rich, sweet sauces for dishes like veal Marsala or chicken Marsala.
  • Marsala Superiore Riserva: With its enhanced complexity, Superiore Riserva can be paired with robust and savory dishes. Try it with roasted meats, game, or dishes with truffle. Hard, aged cheeses would also make a delightful pairing.
  • Marsala Vergine: Marsala Vergine, due to its dry, nutty, and complex profile, can pair beautifully with matured cheeses, smoked meats, and dishes with a depth of umami flavors. It can also be an exceptional partner to shellfish and rich fish dishes.
  • Marsala Vergine Stravecchio or Riserva: This aged Marsala's intricate and profound profile is often best appreciated on its own, after a meal, akin to a digestif. However, it can also be paired with matured, flavorful cheeses or dark chocolate, where its complex, oxidative character will shine.
  • Marsala Rubino (Fine, Superiore, and Superiore Riserva): Ruby Marsala wines, being made with red grapes, can handle heartier dishes. Consider pairing these with rich pasta dishes, lamb, or even dark chocolate desserts.

Cooking with Marsala Wine

Marsala wine, with its rich and distinctive flavor profile, is an excellent ingredient for cooking.

It lends depth, complexity, and a certain elegance to a variety of dishes. From savory meat recipes to decadent desserts, Marsala wine is a versatile kitchen companion.

Choosing a Marsala for Cooking

When selecting a Marsala wine for cooking, consider the flavor profile you want to impart to your dish.

Dry Marsala wines are typically used in savory dishes such as veal Marsala or risottos, while sweet Marsala wines are often used in desserts like tiramisu or zabaglione.

Remember, Marsala wines come in different styles, each with its unique character. For cooking purposes, Marsala Fine (both Oro and Ambra) is often a good choice given its balanced flavor profile and affordability.

How Much to Spend?

As a rule of thumb, it's advisable to cook with a wine that you would enjoy drinking.

That being said, you don't need to break the bank for a bottle of Marsala for cooking.

A bottle in the range of $15 to $20 should suffice for most recipes.

While you may not want to cook with a high-end Marsala Superiore Riserva, investing in a decent quality Marsala Fine can elevate your dish significantly compared to a "cooking wine" that may contain additives and extra salt.

Tips for Cooking with Marsala Wine

  1. 1
    Marsala is commonly used to deglaze a pan, drawing out the rich flavors from the cooked meat or vegetables.
  2. 2
    When creating a Marsala sauce, remember to allow the wine to simmer for a bit after adding it to your dish, which helps in reducing the alcohol content and concentrating the flavors.
  3. 3
    If a recipe calls for sweet Marsala and you only have dry Marsala on hand (or vice versa), you can make adjustments by adding a bit of sugar for sweetness or broth for savoriness.
  4. 4
    While Marsala is best known for its role in Italian dishes, don't hesitate to experiment. It can provide an interesting twist to various cuisines.

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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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