Madeira vs. Marsala: History, Grape, Classification

Madeira and Marsala are often confused because of their similar name, flavors, and usages. They were all related to small islands located in the south of the European continent.

As a fortified wine, they usually have higher alcohol content than most wine (15%-20 ABV) and the style can vary from dry to sweet. There are similar flavors such as nuts, brown sugar, honey, and dried fruit.

Although Madeira and Marsala are so similar, there are still many differences between them. Let’s talk about the differences from the following aspects.

Summary of the Key Difference Between Madeira and Marsala

  Madeira Marsala
Origin Madeira island (Portugal) Sicily island (Italy)
Oxidating and heating the wine after fortifying Adding brandy to disrupt fermentation process for fortifying
Grape Varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey Sicily local grape varieties: Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, ,Damaschino. Ruby Marsala can use up to 30% white grapes to blend.
Classification Color Amber or tawny color Amber Lightest color, made from white grapes
Ruby Blend white and red grapes
Gold Deeper than amber Marsala, made from white grapes
Sweetness Extra dry <49 g/L RS Dry <40 g/L RS
Dry <59 g/L RS Medium-Dry 50-100 g/L RS
Medium-Dry 54-78 g/L RS Sweet >100 g/L RS
Medium Sweet 78-100 g/L RS
Sweet >100 g/L RS
Age Reserve >5 yrs aging Fine 1 yrs aging(at least 8 months in barrel)
Special Reserve 5-10 yrs aging Superior 2 yrs aging
Extra Reserve 15-20 yrs aging Superior Reserve 4 yrs aging
Fine Vintage >20 yrs aging Virgin or Solera 5 yrs aging, using solera system
Virgin Reserve 10 yrs aging
The main usage Drinking (aperitif or dessert wine) Cooking (only the premium Marsala can be aperitif or dessert wine)
*RS: residual sugar

Difference Between Madeira and Marsala

1. Location and History


Sicily, a dream island, the Godfather’s stories happened here, and Marsala wine also originated from this island. Even though people use the same winemaking method at other places, only those produced on Sicily island can be called Marsala wine.

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For a long time, Marsala wine is used for cooking. In recent decades, people started to drink premium Marsala as an aperitif or dessert wine. Compared with Madeira, the winemaking process of Marsala is more simple.

Winemakers disrupt the fermentation process by adding brandy, this method can improve the alcohol content to above 18 degrees and produce different styles of Marsala.

Different types of Marsala
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If the winemaker adds brandy at the early stage in the fermentation process, there is much sugar left over. If they add brandy after the fermentation complete, once all the sugars have been transformed by the yeasts, it will be a dry-style Marsala.


Madeira wine came from the same name island found by the Portuguese in 1949, the winemaking history can be dated back to the age of discovery.

At that time, Madeira island was located in the Atlantic shipping lanes. Many ships from the United Kingdom, America, and Portugal harbored in Funchal, the island’s capital, which often took on numerous Madeira wines.

Madeira island
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When people shipped the Madeira for long-distance, the wine’s exposure to oxygen and heat makes it easy to spoil. To solve this problem, sailors try to add grape-distilled spirits (such as brandy) to fortify the wine. Using this method, Madeira wine can develop more complex flavors and last for centuries.

From the 16th century to today,Madeira’s unique winemaking process has been passed down for hundreds of years, the wine has to be oxidated and heated after fortifying. Considering the deep historical roots of Madeira, to sip a fine Madeira feel like the taste of a spoon of charming history.

2. Grape Variety

The biggest difference between Madeira and Marsala is the grape varieties.


Ruby Marsala
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Marsala can only be produced by Sicily local grape varieties, such as Grillo, Inzolia, Catarratto, and Damaschino. They are all red grape varieties, but Ruby Marsala can use up to 30% white grape varieties to blend.


Different types of Madeira
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People usually use Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey four kinds of white grape to produce Madeira. Different from Marsala, which blends different grapes during fermentation, Madeira can also be single-variety wines.

From the picture below, we can see that the Madeira made from different grape varieties have obvious color variation, they also have many sweetness and flavor differences.

Madeira made by Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malmsey grapes
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  • Sercial: Sercial grape grows at high elevation and retains more acidity. They produce the driest and crispiest style Madeira, which is pale, dry with peach and walnut flavors, people often drink it before the meal.
  • Verdelho: Verdelho grapes often produce more concentrated Madeira with aromatic lemon and honey flavor. This is the most flexible Madeira style, which can easily match different cuisine.
  • Bual: Bual grapes can produce a medium sweet Madeira with caramel, raisin, and vanilla flavors, it’s a perfect pairing with dessert or cheese.
  • Malmsey: The Madeira made by Malmsey grapes are the sweetest and richest wine version, with burnt sugar and chocolate notes.

3. Classification

Madeira and Marsala are classified according to several designations, including color, sweetness, and age.


It’s easier for customers to distinguish different types by color. Generally speaking, if the wine is produced by white grapes, the color of old wine usually deeper than young wine.

If the wine is made of red grapes, the old wine color often lighter than young wine, you can also find orange hues in old wines. Besides, they usually show pink color for those wine blend the white and red grapes during fermentation.


marsala color
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  • Amber (Ambra): This kind of Marsala is made from white grapes, the color is the lightest, with dried fruit and nuts flavors.
  • Ruby (Rubino): Just like the Rosé wine, ruby Marsala blends red and white grapes during the winemaking process. The pretty ruby hue comes from red grapes like Perricone, Pignatello, and Nerello Mascalese. Compared with the other two types, it has more fruit flavors and higher tannin content.
  • Gold (Oro): Gold Marsala has a deeper color than Amber Marsala, it is also made from white grapes, with hazelnuts, vanilla, and licorice flavors.


The color classification of Madeira is similar to Marsala, the biggest difference is that Madeira is made with 100% white grapes, so there isn’t ruby style Madeira.


Different amounts of residual sugar in wine influence flavor, taste, and food pairing. As a result, Marsala and Madeira both have specific requirements for sweetness.


marsala sweetness
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Even the driest Marsala is still much sweeter than normal wine. As a comparison, the sugar level of normal wine is less than 4g/liter, but dry-style Marsala wine contains more than 40g sugar per liter.

  • Dry (Secco): This is the driest style Marsala, which has less than 40 grams residual sugar per liter.
  • Medium-Dry (Semi-Secco): The semi-sweet type is the most common Marsala style, it has 50 grams to 100 grams residual sugar per liter.
  • Sweet (Dolce): The sweetest style Marsala, the residual sugar content usually higher than 100 grams per liter.


Madeira wine has 5 sweetness levels, including Extra dry, Dry, Medium-Dry, Medium Sweet, and Sweet, the classification standard is more detailed than Marsala wine.

  • Extra Dry (Extra Seco): Found mostly in Sercial Madeira and having less than 49 g/L residual sugar.
  • Dry (Seco): Wines have less than 59 g/L residual sugar.
  • Medium-Dry (Meio Seco): Wines have between 54–78 g/L residual sugar.
  • Medium Sweet (Meio Doce): Wines have between 78–100 g/L residual sugar.
  • Sweet (Doce): Wines have more than 100 g/L residual sugar.


Age is also a crucial classification factor, the longer aging time can bring more complex flavors and rounded texture to Marsala and Madeira. Generally speaking, Madeira has a higher aging requirement than Marsala.


As for Marsala, there are Fine, Superior, Superior Reserve, Virgin or Solera, and Virgin Reserve 5 different levels.

  • Fine: aged for one year of which 8 months in barrels. Minimum alcohol content 17° and available as Gold, Amber, and Ruby Marsala.
  • Superior: aged for 2 years in barrels and with a minimum alcohol content of 18°.
  • Superior Reserve: aged for 4 years in barrels and with a minimum alcohol content of 18°.
  • Virgin or Solera: aged for 5 years in barrels and with a minimum alcohol content of 18°.
  • Virgin Reserve: this is the best and rarest Marsala, and it is aged for 10 years.
Fine Marsala is the most common category
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Fine Marsala is the most common category.


Madeira uses 5 years as the standard, the top-level Madeira can age more than one century.

  • Reserve: Reserve level Madeira requires aging at least 5 years.
  • Special Reserve: This kind of Madeira usually aging 10 to 15 years.
  • Extra Reserve: Madeira has to spend 15 to 20 years in the barrel.

The best Madeira is blended by different ages Madeira, but the minimum level is 20 years.

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Final Words

In conclusion, Madeira and Marsala are similar in many aspects, but Madeira has deeper historical roots, more strict requirements, and more detailed classifications.

If you want to find a cheaper substitute for Madeira wine, Marsala will be an ideal choice.

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