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The Difference Between Marsala and Madeira - Your Personal Cheat Sheet

Fri, Dec 02, 22  |  news

Your personal Marsala and Madeira Cheat Sheet

While there are dozens of differences that separate these wines from each other, there is one thing they have in common. Marsala and Madeira are fortified wines. Fortified describes wines that have been stabilized by distilled spirits like brandy at some point in the wine making process. That fortification increases the alcohol content; and can halt fermentation, which leaves some residual sweetness. Port, Madeira, Marsala, and Sherry are all common examples of fortified wines. To learn more about Port and Sherry, click here. So what really is the difference between Marsala and Madeira? Where the wines are made, as well as how the grapes are used and prepared, allow the wines to vary drastically from style to style.


The Grapes: Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey, Tinta Negra 

Where? Madeira Island, Portugal

Flavors: Common flavors include caramel, walnut oil, peach, hazelnut, orange peel, and burnt sugar. Common winemaking faux-pas are actually purposely used to produce Madeira. The wine is heated and cooled dozens of times throughout the aging process. It’s also exposed to oxygen, and often evaporates without being topped off in barrel. It can be made in 2 methods, Estufa (heated tank) or Canteiro (using natural heat.)

How to Enjoy Madeira: Drier style Madeiras pair with light seafood such as scallops or sushi, as well as young sheep or goat cheese. For sweeter and more full bodied Madieras, try stewed meats or dishes with sweet and spicy elements.

Single varietal Madeira (named after their varietal) Include:

Sercial is the brightest, most crisp style of Madeira. These wines have a slight sweetness that is offset by their acidity.
Verdelho is smokier, slightly more concentrated, and richer than Sercial. Verdelho’s dryness and intensity of flavor makes it one of the most flexible Madeira styles for pairing with foods of varying richness.
Boal or Bual is a sweet Madeira that shows incredible complexity and aromatic lift. Malmsey is the richest and sweetest style of Madeira. Just like Boal, Malmsey can live for decades and even centuries in some cases.

Some types Madeira include:

Finest Madeira  Aged 3 Years and blended style with the grape Tinta Negra
Rainwater Madeira is a fruity blend that must ages at least three years before release. This inexpensive style is good for cooking or mixing in cocktails, but isn’t half bad by itself either. The grape Tinta Negra is used for producing rainwater and other young blends.
Reserve wines are between 5-10 years of age, Special Reserve is10-15 years old and undergo a higher quality winemaking process, Extra Reserve is 15-20 years in age.
20 Year Old is a multi-vintage blend that incorporates wines from several different years that are proven by a panel to taste at least 20 years old, and often older. 30 Year Old and 40 Year Old Madeira follow this same pattern.
Colheita is often a single varietal from a single vintage. Aged 5+ Years.
Garrafeira/ Frasqueira a single vintage aged 20+ years aged in the canteiro method.


The Grapes: Grillo, Cattarato, Inzolia, Greciano, Nero D’Avola, Pignatello, Nerello Mascalese

Where? Sicily, Italy

Flavors: Notes of vanilla, brown sugar, stewed apricot tobacco, and tamarind are common. Marsala wine ranges from a nearly dry style to sappy sweet. Marsala can also be solera aged.

How to Enjoy Marsala: 

Marsala wine is frequently used in cooking, but can also be sipped as an aperitif. With drier styles of wine, pair with saltier seafood dishes. Marsala also manages to pair well with difficult foods like asparagus, brussel sprouts and chocolate.

Three Styles of Marsala:

Gold: Made with white grapes
Amber: Made with white grapes and mosto cotto (a sweet syrup created by cooking down the grape must.)
Rosso (Rubino): A rare red marasala may use up to 30% white grapes.

Aging Terms and Styles:

Fine: All styles, aged 1 year, typically used for cooking
Superior: All styles, aged 2 years, typically used for cooking
Superior Reserve: Dry to semi-sweet, aged 4+ years
Virgin/ Virgin Solera: Dry, aged 5+ years

Virgin Stravecchio/ Virgin Reserve: Dry, aged 10+ years


To learn about the other fortified wines, Port and Sherry, click here.

We are happy to answer any questions you may have regarding the difference between Marsala and Madeira, (as well as other fortified wines or their pairings.) Feel free to respond here, or on our facebook page. 

We deliver locally, to East Hampton, Wainscott,  Sagaponack, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor, and Montauk.

Pauline Fink, Park Place Wines

By Timothy Reylek