Marsala vs Vin Santo: an In-Depth Comparison

Massimo Vignaiolo
April 19, 2024

Marsala and Vin Santo are two of Italy's most cherished wines, each boasting a rich history and a unique taste that has delighted wine lovers for centuries. But, which are its main differences?

Originating from different regions of Italy, these wines offer distinct flavors and experiences that show the diverse terroir and winemaking traditions of Italy. 

Marsala vs Vin Santo

This article will delve into the similarities and differences between Marsala and Vin Santo. We will explore their histories, from ancient production methods to their roles in Italian culture and cuisine. By comparing their production processes, from the types of grapes used to the unique aging techniques, we aim to paint a vivid picture of what sets these wines apart and what they share.

Finally, we will provide tasting notes for each wine, suggest food pairings, and discuss how these wines have been embraced by markets both in Italy and around the globe.

History of Marsala and Vin Santo Wines

Marsala and Vin Santo are two of Italy's most iconic wines, each with a rich history that reflects the culture and traditions of their regions. Marsala, hailing from Sicily, and Vin Santo, predominantly from Tuscany, not only embody the heritage of Italian winemaking but also play a significant role in modern history.

History of Marsala Wine

The history of Marsala wine is marked by its evolution under the influence of foreign entrepreneurs. In the late 18th century, English merchant John Woodhouse landed in the port city of Marsala, Sicily, and was impressed by the local wine. Recognizing its similarity to the fortified wines of Spain and Portugal, he began fortifying Sicilian wine using methods from those regions, giving birth to the Marsala wines we all know today. This process involved adding alcohol to the wine, which allowed it to endure long sea trips and increased its popularity in international markets.

By the 19th century, Marsala became very popular around the world, especially in England. Other English and local Italian investors, like Benjamin Ingham and Vincenzo Florio, expanded the production and refined the quality of Marsala, cementing its status as a globally recognized wine. 

Despite the challenges of the 20th century, which saw a decline in its reputation due to overproduction and reduced quality, efforts to revive traditional winemaking techniques are slowly repositioning it as one of the most attractive and versatile wines around the world.

History of Vin Santo

Vin Santo, translating to "holy wine," has a mystique intertwined with Tuscan religious and cultural practices. The name likely originated from its historical use during Mass or from a legend involving Greek scholars in the 15th century who compared it to the renowned Xanthos wine from Greece, subsequently calling it "santo." The traditional method of producing Vin Santo involves drying grapes on straw mats to concentrate their sugars before fermentation, a technique that has remained largely unchanged for centuries.

Production Methods of Marsala and Vin Santo Wines

Both Marsala and Vin Santo have unique production methods that contribute to their distinct characteristics. These methods have been refined over centuries, combining traditional practices with local grapes to create wines deeply rooted in the Italian winemaking culture.

Marsala Wine Production

Marsala wine is known for its fortified style. The production begins with the harvesting of local grape varieties such as Grillo, Catarratto, and Inzolia. After crushing the grapes, the juice undergoes fermentation. Once fermentation reaches a certain point, the wine is fortified with a grape spirit, usually brandy, which increases its alcohol content and helps to preserve the wine. Marsala is then aged in wooden casks using a method similar to the solera system, allowing it to develop a rich complexity. This system involves blending different vintages over several years, ensuring that each bottle has a unique flavor. 

Vin Santo Wine Production

Vin Santo, predominantly produced in Tuscany, is most known for its passito method. This method involves drying selected grapes on straw mats or hanging them up to concentrate their sugars before pressing. The drying process, which can last several months, intensifies the flavors and sweetness of the grapes. The juice extracted from these dried grapes is then fermented in small wooden barrels called "caratelli," often in attics where the wine undergoes natural oxidative aging due to the barrels not being completely filled. This process, combined with the barrels' exposure to seasonal temperature variations, contributes to Vin Santo's distinctive amber hue and rich flavors. Vin Santo is traditionally aged for a minimum of three years, with many producers opting for longer to enhance its complexity​​​​.

Styles of Marsala and Vin Santo Wines

Marsala and Vin Santo are renowned for their unique styles and aging processes. Each wine comes in a great range of styles, influenced by the grapes used, the method of production, and the length of aging. These variations offer a rich palette of flavors, making each style unique.

Marsala Wine Styles

Marsala styles can be divided into two groups. On the one hand, we have the classification according to the color, while on the other hand we have the classification according to the time of aging.

Marsala Wine Styles

Taking into account the color, we can classify Marsala wine into:

  • Oro (Gold): A golden-colored Marsala, typically light and with a dry to semi-sweet profile.
  • Ambra (Amber): Made with white grapes and a touch of mosto cotto (cooked must), giving it a rich amber color and sweeter taste.
  • Rubino (Ruby): A less common type, made primarily from red grapes, offering a deeper color and fruity flavors.

Now, taking into account the aging time, Marsala wines can be classified into:

  • Fine: Aged for at least one year, used mainly for cooking due to its lighter flavor.
  • Superiore: Aged for at least two years, this style is deeper and more complex.
  • Superiore Riserva: With a minimum of four years aging, it offers richer flavors.
  • Vergine: Aged at least five years, known for its purity and complexity.
  • Vergine Stravecchio or Soleras: Aged for ten years or more, these are among the highest quality of Marsala wines​​​​​​​​.

Finally, Marsala wines can also be classified by level of sweetness:

  • Secco: Dry Marsala wine with less than 40 grams of sugar per liter.
  • Semisecco: Semi-dry, with between 41-100 grams of sugar per liter.
  • Dolce: Sweet taste, with over 100 grams of sugar per liter.

Vin Santo Wine Styles

The classification of Vin Santo wines is easier to remember than that of Marsala wines, as it has 4 levels:

Vin Santo Wine Styles
  • Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice: A rarer style using Sangiovese grapes, noted for its rose or light red color.
  • Secco (Dry): Contains less residual sugar, offering a drier taste.
  • Amabile (Medium Sweet): Balances sweetness with noticeable acidity, creating a more nuanced flavor.
  • Dolce (Sweet): The sweetest style, often rich and syrupy, ideal for desserts.

Each style of Marsala and Vin Santo offers a unique tasting experience, from the robust and savory to the sweet and dessert-friendly profile. 

Aromatic and Flavor Profiles of Marsala and Vin Santo Wines

Marsala and Vin Santo wines, both rich in tradition and flavor, offer diverse aromas and flavors, defined by their unique production methods and regional influences.

Flavor Profiles of Marsala and Vin Santo Wines

Marsala Aromatic and Flavor Profile

Marsala has an unique aromatic profile,  shaped by factors like the percentages of grapes used, the fermentation and the aging process:

Primary Aromas (Associated with younger Marsalas):


  • Apricot.
  • Peach

Secondary Aromas (Develop as Marsalas age and evolve):


  • Vanilla
  • Tobacco.

Tertiary Aromas (Associated with well-aged Marsalas):

  • Roasted nuts

In the mouth, Marsala usually shows sweeter notes complemented by more earthy notes, especially in well-aged Marsalas:

Primary Taste Notes (Associated with younger Marsalas):

  • Freshness.
  • Slightly Sweetness.
  • Fruity notes (perceived in the aroma).

Secondary Taste Notes (Develop as Marsala ages and becomes more nuanced):

  • Roasted nuts.
  • Leather.
  • Cocoa.
  • Sweet Versions:
  • Figs.
  • Dates.
  • Caramel notes.

Tertiary Taste Notes (Associated with well-aged Marsalas):

  • These may include further development of secondary flavors, integration of tastes, and additional complexity.

Vin Santo Aromatic and Flavor Profile

Vin Santo has a rich aromatic profile that evolves as the wine ages. Here's a breakdown of the primary, secondary, and tertiary aromas you can expect from Vin Santo:

  • Primary Aromas:
    • Dried fig
    • Raisin
    • Toffee
  • Secondary Aromas:
    • Honey
    • Cream
  • Tertiary Aromas: 
    • Toasted nuts 
    • Hay 
    • Dried or candied fruits
    • Spices

In the mouth, Vin Santo is known for its rich and indulgent flavor notes_

  • Primary Flavors: 
    • Figs
    • Raisins
    • Almond
    • Toffee
  • Secondary Flavors:
    • Caramel
    • Honey
  • Tertiary Flavors:
    • Hazelnut
    • Apricot

Which are the best food pairings for Marsala and Vin Santo wines?

Marsala wine offers versatile pairing options that complement a great range of dishes. Here are some top food pairings for both dry and sweet Marsala wines:

  • Savory Dishes: Dry Marsala is excellent with savory dishes that include earthy flavors like mushroom risotto, veal Marsala, or chicken Marsala. Its nutty and slightly sweet flavor enhances the natural flavors of these dishes, particularly when the sauce is rich and contains mushrooms​​​​.
  • Cheeses: Dry Marsala pairs well with hard, aged cheeses such as Parmesan or Pecorino Romano. The nutty flavors of the wine complement the sharpness and depth of these cheeses, creating a harmonious flavor profile​​.
  • Charcuterie: The wine also matches well with cured meats like prosciutto, salami, and chorizo. Its depth and slight sweetness balance the saltiness of the meats​​.
  • Roasted Nuts: A glass of dry Marsala can go well with roasted nuts such as almonds, hazelnuts, or cashews. The nutty elements in the wine resonate with the roasted flavors of the nuts​​.
  • Dessert: Sweet Marsala, on the other hand, is often served as a dessert wine. It pairs wonderfully with desserts that include chocolate, where its sweetness and rich flavors like apricot and vanilla complement the dessert's richness​​.

Vin Santo, on the other hand, offers a great range of food pairings with different dishes than Marsala:

  • Biscotti and Cantucci: These traditional Italian cookies, known for their dry texture, are perfect for dipping into Vin Santo. This pairing enhances the nutty and sweet flavors, making it a classic choice for enjoying this wine​​​​.
  • Cheesecake and Pumpkin Pie: The creamy texture and spicy elements of these desserts are pleasantly complemented by Vin Santo's sweetness​​​​.
  • Gorgonzola and Other Blue Cheeses: The intense, salty flavors of blue cheeses create a striking contrast with the sweet, velvety Vin Santo, offering a sophisticated taste experience​​​​.
  • Dried Fruits and Nuts: Pairings like almonds, walnuts, and dried fruits such as figs and apricots highlight the nutty and fruity undertones of Vin Santo​​.
  • Honey Baked Ham: The sweet notes of the ham resonate well with the honey-like characteristics of Vin Santo, enhancing the overall flavor profile of the meal​​.


Which wine should I use for cooking: Marsala or Vin Santo?

In this article we have seen some aspects that differentiate Marsala from Vin Santo, such as the aroma and flavor profiles or the history of each wine. But undoubtedly, one of the aspects that differentiates them the most is that one of these wines is often used for cooking. 

We are talking, of course, about Marsala wine, which is used in many recipes because it's slightly more accessible than Vin Santo . Some of the most common recipes with Marsala are:

Which wine should I use for cooking: Marsala or Vin Santo?
  • Chicken Marsala: This classic dish involves chicken breasts cooked in a rich Marsala wine sauce with mushrooms, a staple in Italian-American cuisine. The sauce typically includes garlic, chicken broth, and sometimes cream for a richer texture​​​​​​​​.
  • Veal Marsala: Similar to Chicken Marsala, this dish uses thin slices of veal, lightly floured and sautéed, then cooked in a Marsala wine reduction with mushrooms and herbs​​.
  • Marsala Sausage and Peppers: A hearty dish featuring sausages and bell peppers simmered in a Marsala wine sauce, perfect for an easy weeknight meal​​.
  • Pork Tenderloin with Marsala Sauce: Pork tenderloin served with a creamy and savory Marsala wine sauce, often accompanied by mushrooms and herbs for added flavor​​.
  • Mushroom Marsala Risotto: A creamy risotto enriched with Marsala wine, mushrooms, and often Parmesan cheese, offering a comforting and flavorful dish​​.
  • Marsala Wine Sauce: This versatile sauce can be used over steak, pork, or chicken and is made from Marsala wine, mushrooms, and a thickening agent like cornstarch or flour, sometimes enhanced with garlic and rosemary for extra flavor​​.

Final Thougths

Final Thoughts

Exploring the different arists of Marsala and Vin Santo wines, each of them offers its unique allure to the palate. Marsala, with its robust and versatile profile, spans from dry to sweet, enriching dishes like Chicken Marsala and enhancing savory sauces with its caramel and nutty notes. On the other hand, Vin Santo, traditionally served as a dessert wine, captivates with its sweet, rich flavors of dried fruits and honey, making it a perfect complement to desserts like biscotti and pecan pie. Both wines embody the rich heritage of Italian winemaking, each presenting distinctive qualities that make them not only excellent for drinking but also invaluable in culinary applications. Whether sipped alone or used as a key ingredient in cooking, Marsala and Vin Santo continue to be celebrated for their depth of flavor and cultural significance.