What’s the difference between Madeira and Marsala?

By / Magazine / May 9th, 2018 / 6

Short of being fortified, the only thing they share is the letter “M.” Overshadowed by their port and sherry cousins, for some reason Madeira and Marsala have gained notoriety as a duo even though they share no geography or production method.

Let’s start with Madeira. It’s an archipelago off the coast of Portugal which became famous for its burnt-tasting wines after barrels of the fresh liquid, which had grape spirit added for stability, got toasted after the long, hot trip from Europe to trading posts in the East Indies.

Though not the outcome winemakers had hoped for, people started to dig the unconventional flavour of the mutated wine and Madeira was now in the unenviable position of having to recreate the uniqueness of their now popular juice as modern shipping methods ended its natural deconstruction. Today, fancy heating methods are employed to recreate what Mother Nature originated, and both drier and sweeter Madeira sits as an eclectic alternative to fortified wine produced on the Portuguese mainland.

Marsala is made around the town of the same name on the Italian island of Sicily. Though nothing like Madeira in taste or fabrication, it also became a fortified wine so that it would survive the long sea voyages to foreign ports in the days of the tall ships. Also available in both dry and sweet versions, it’s most famous as a recipe enhancer especially when it comes to its more sugary persona which is the base of many popular Italian desserts.

Port and sherry may get the headlines, but fine Madeira and Marsala are pleasantly drinkable, and in the case of Madeira, surprisingly long-lasting if you’re looking for a no-brainer cellar selection that you can tuck away and leave for, in the case of vintage varieties, a lifetime.


Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on Alliant.net to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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