Besides being fortified wines and sharing the letter “M,” Madeira and Marsala hardly have all that much in common.
Some compare them to sherry or port, but both are incredibly pleasant to drink as apéritif or digestif. With these wines, you’ll find them long-lived, based on vintages, when you tuck them away and leave them indefinitely.
Somehow, people have considered Madeira vs Marsala identical or interchangeable. Though if you become more informed about these wines, you will undoubtedly see their distinct differences.
That way, you know which one to choose for your preference and enjoy with friends or family.
Madeira vs Marsala
The most significant difference between Marsala vs. Madeira, it’s the grape varieties. Marsala contains only Sicily wines, including Inzolia, Grillo, Damaschino and Catarratto.
Some are red, and some are white grapes. Grillo, a white grape, makes a distinctly lush and balanced dessert wine.
Madeira uses four white grapes: Sercial, Bual, Verdelho and Malmsey. Unlike Marsala, winemakers blend different grapes throughout the fermentation. And Madeira can also be a single-variety wine.
However, Madeira and Marsala differ in origin, though they have the same color and flavor. Madeira is an island on the coast of Portugal, and Marsala is a town near Sicily in Italy.
How are They Made?
Let’s look at Madeira. Off the coast of Portugal, it’s an archipelago that has become well known for burnt-tasting wines.
In the 1400s, barrels of fresh wine had a grape spirit added, such as brandy, ensuring stability during its long voyage. Yet the wine got toasted during its long, hot journey from European trading posts to the East Indies.
Even though it wasn’t what the winemakers had in mind, people began liking the progressive flavor of the modified wine.
The shipping methods evolved, and the happenchance or natural process of fortifying the wine ended. Today, the wineries use heating methods to recreate the long, hot voyages of long ago. So, we still have a sweeter and drier Madeira to enjoy.
Now, Marsala originates from the town far west of Sicily in Italy. Its production started in the 1700s. The wine went through a fortification process similar to Madeira. However, winemakers interrupt the fermentation identical to the solera process performed in Spain — a fractional blending, adding brandy, mistelle, or cooked must.
Mistelle is a mixture of partially or unfermented must and alcohol. Must is an expressed juice of a fruit, in this case, grapes, prior to and during fermentation. It’s also the skins and pulp of crushed grapes.
Today, solera is obsolete. Winemakers replaced the ancient method with the traditional barrel-aging technique.
What are They Made Of?
Because Madeira and Marsala are fortified wines, they have a higher alcohol content level, about 15 to 20 percent ABV, than other table wines.
Fortification adds spirits like brandy as a distillation process to preserve the wines long ago, in the 1400s. The process has become modernized and remains because it influences the style and taste of the wines still cherished today.
Madeira island is less than 35 miles wide, making it an unlikely home for the famous wine, adding to the fact that the island is remote, mountainous, and highly humid.
Madeira’s grapevines have mutated over the years, most markedly after the damage caused by phylloxera and powdery mildew. Phylloxera is a root, sap-sucking insect.
Tinta Negra Mole is the dominant grape used in Madeira winemaking. The name suggests “black soft” and comes from the concept that the variety is a combination of “black” Grenache and “soft” Pinot Noir.
The initial and choice grapes of Madeira are Verdelho, Sercial, Terrantez (now called Folgasao), Bual and Malvasia. Winemakers produced them as varietals and marked each bottle with the name of the related grape variety.
The word “Malvasia” changed in English, developing into “Malmsey,” a coined term for Madeira wines.
In 1969, the production of Marsala concentrated more on growing bumper crops than on growing quality grapes. The change damaged the deeply cherished wine, worsening its flavor base. And the market took a severe slump, destroying its image and making it a high-quality cooking wine.
Since then, quality has improved over the last 30 years, but it’s doubtful it will regain its former glory.
Today, growers and winemakers use ten grape varieties to make Marsala wine. Inzolia and Grillo are still traditional grapes used.
However, the mass-planted grapes, Catarratto Bianco Comune and Catarratto Bianco Lucido, prevail. Other varieties include Sicilian Nerello Mascalese, Pignatello and Damaschino. The only grape grown outside the region is Nero d’ Avola, which provides color in the red-shaded Rubino Marsala wines.
Pignatello and Nerello Mascalese also give the red hue to the Rubino wines.
How are They Similar?
One thing that these two wines have in common is they are fortified, like sherry and port. Additionally, you can classify Madeira and Marsala according to their age and sweetness.
Madeira age classification goes from a reserve, less than five years, to fine vintage, over 20 years. Marsala age classification is fine, from eight to 12 months, superior, two years, superior reserve, four years, virgin or solera, five years, and virgin reserve, ten years.
Sweetness classification for Madeira is extra dry, dry medium, medium sweet, and sweet, whereas Marsala is light-sweet (dry) to very sweet.
You may use both for cooking, though Marsala is more of a cooking wine. However, they both are both apéritif and dessert wines.
Madeira has an amber to tawny color, while Marsala also has an amber color that varies in shades from white amber to deep golden amber.
Price, Size, Color, Alcohol Percentage Comparison
Though there are parallels to Madeira vs Marsala, there are many differences between them:
- Madeira is from Madeira Island near Portugal, while Marsala is from Sicily Island near Italy.
- Winemakers add brandy to Madeira originally to fortify the wine for its long voyage to the East Indies, thus raising its alcohol content and changing its texture.
- Winemakers used to add brandy to Marsala for its long journey by tall ships as well. But today, the brandy disrupts the fermentation process, making it sweeter. But not all Marsala wine is sweet because some winemakers make dry and medium-dry Marsala.
- Winemakers use Sercial, Bual, Malmsey, and Sercial white grapes to make Madeira. Yet, Marsala winemakers use Sicily red grapes: Inzolia, Grillo, Damaschino and Catarratto. However, the Rubino (Ruby) Marsala uses 30 percent white grapes to blend, giving it a light red color.
- Madeira is an amber to tawny color, while Marsala can have a ruby, amber, or gold color.
- Madeira will age longer than Marsala, starting at five years to a fine vintage of 20 years or older. Marsala ages less than a year as a cooking wine, with the virgin reserve at ten years. People do not use the older Marsala as a cooking wine.
- Madeira has an alcohol content (ABV) of 18 to 20 percent, whereas Marsala has 15 to 20 percent.
- People drink Madeira as an apéritif or dessert wine, while Marsala is for cooking with only the premium wines used for an apéritif or dessert wine.
- According to Wine Spectator, the most expensive Madeira is $4,543, and the cheapest is $4.00. While the most expensive Marsala is $189.00, the cheapest is $10.00.
Understanding these two fortified wines takes a concerted effort because both are rich in history. Plus, their production processes have changed based on the cultural shifts where they originated.
How to Drink Madeira and Marsala
Before serving a dry Maderia, chill the wine slightly between 55° and 60° Fahrenheit to help maintain its crispiness. A sweeter Maderia pours well when marginally cooler than at room temperature.
Dry Madeira makes an excellent apéritif, pairing with salads with a tangy dressing, olives, smoked salmon, or sushi. Some cheeses that go well with a dry Madeira are goat cheese or creamy sheep’s milk cheese. Even as a dessert wine, the dryness goes well with fruity pastries like an apple tart.
The sweet Maderia styles are wonderful digestifs and dessert wines. You can serve them with dried fruit, blue cheeses, rich dark chocolate desserts, and sweet pastries with berries, nuts, and honey. If you come across a well-aged Maderia, sip the amber drink on its own.
A dry or sweet Marsala is a good cooking wine, but you want to make sure you buy an inexpensive Marsala. The more expensive sweet Marsala pairs well with fruit-based desserts. A dry Marsala goes well with savory, nutty cheeses.
Serve the sweet and dry Marsala wines at a slightly cool temperature, close to 55° Fahrenheit. Don’t forget at a high-quality Marsala, you’re in for a treat, with nuances of flavors from apple and morello cherry to tobacco, dried fruit, and licorice.
Several kinds of wine are suitable substitutes when looking for an alternative to a Madeira wine. You may want to try a Port wine as most ports have a wonderful aroma and flavor. And Ports fermentation style is like Madeira winemaking. The best option is a dry, white, aged Port or a red, tawny may come close.
Ice wine is another exciting alternative because it’s sweet and makes a lovely dessert wine. Eiswein seems like a more fitting substitute since it’s a sweet yellow Muscat grape wine, but not with a savory dish. Eiswein goes well with desserts when served chilled.
Alternatives for Marsala as an apéritif or dessert wine are Sherry or Port. Sherry is either sweet or dry. A dry Sherry goes well with mushroom-based dishes, sushi, olives, and cured hams.
Port goes well with savory foods, but you can pair the Port with sweet foods. The bright, nutty flavors go well with peanut butter, chocolate, and fruit-based desserts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Came First, Madeira or Marsala?
Since the 1400s, the Portuguese have produced Madeira wine. John Woodhouse, a wealthy British merchant, developed Marsala wine in the 1700s so the wine could endure long voyages at sea. So, Madeira came first.
Which is Stronger, Madeira or Marsala?
Madeira has an alcohol content of 18 to 20 percent ABV, while Marsala has 15 to 20 percent. The Portuguese wine has five levels of sweetness compared to Marsala’s three levels. Madeira has an extra dry level, whereas Marsala only has a dry level.
Which is the most popular, Madeira or Marsala?
Because of the lower quality of Marsala in the late 1960s, Madeira is easily the most popular of the two fortified wines. Though Marsala has made a comeback of sorts, its price range is relatively low compared to a bottle of Madeira wine, which can go as high as $4,543.