Cooks, campers, and preppers alike can benefit from knowing how to properly store fortified wines for the best shelf life. Fortified wines are unique because they have a higher alcohol content than traditional table wines due to the addition of brandy or other spirits during production. This makes helps them maintain flavor and quality even after the bottle is opened, making them ideal for cooking meals several days or weeks apart. In this article, we’ll discuss how to store Marsala, Sherry, and Madeira so you can enjoy these delicious treats wherever you are.

The history of fortified wine

It all started in the Mediterranean in the 16th century when people began to import and export wines from other countries and islands. Unfortunately, wooden casks weren’t as airtight as today’s modern wine bottles, and the storage conditions in ship holds were harsh. So often, the wines would spoil and turn to vinegar on long sea voyages. This prompted people to find creative ways to preserve the wines, such as adding brandy or another distilled spirit to the wine. The result is sweeter or more robust and the higher alcohol content acts as a preservative.

vintage wine storage barrell
Vintage fortified wine cellar with old oak barrels

Why add fortified wines to your pantry?

Fortified wines are a versatile and flavorful addition to many recipes, making them great for cooking. In addition to the long shelf life after opening, the extra alcohol content adds depth of flavor to dishes. The most common fortified wines used for cooking today are Marsala, Sherry, and Madeira, and these are some of the best wines to add to your pantry staple. Each has its unique flavor and is often used to add depth and complexity to various dishes.

Drinking vs “cooking” wine

When you buy fortified wines, expect to find two different “types” in different parts of the grocery store. In the food section, typically near the vinegar, you will find varieties of cooking wine with additives such as salt and preservatives. These are fine for cooking, but I don’t recommend trying to drink them (the stores won’t check your age when buying them either!). The preservatives also increase the shelf life.

On the other hand, liquor stores or large grocery stores with a wine section sell fortified wines which you can either drink or use in cooking. These are higher quality and typically include a better selection with different varieties of each (like sweet and dry Marsala). So get out your wine glass and enjoy sipping some fine Marsala while you cook. Each type of fortified wine has a different life and storage needs so we will cover them separately.

General storage guidelines

Generally speaking, the best way to store unopened bottles of wine is in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight with a consistent temperature. It’s similar to the way you store olive oil. If possible, choose a dark room as this will provide better long-term storage conditions.

  • Marsala: Marsala will last years unopened, it’s usually best within 2-6 years. It lasts 4-6 months after opening. Refrigeration may help extend shelf life, but it’s not necessary.
  • Sherry: Most versions for cooking will also last several years unopened. High-quality drinking varieties are more unstable and have fairly a fairly short shelf life. Sherry typically includes a use-by or expiration date. Opened bottles are best within 2 days to a few weeks. See the details below for the life of different varieties.
  • Madeira: Madeira bottles have the longest shelf life. Unopened bottles are good indefinitely, and opened bottles can maintain quality for 3 years.

For more details on each wine and some meal ideas keep reading!

Marsala wine

Originating in Sicily, Marsala wine is a blend of wines of different ages with brandy added for fortification. The fortification process varies to produce varying levels of sweetness. Marsala is categorized by sweetness, color, and age with several different flavor varieties to create several types of wine.

Types of Marsala wine

Marsala sweetness is categorized as Secco (dry), Semi-Secco (semi-sweet), or Dolce (sweet)

  • Secco is the driest version, containing less than 40 grams of sugar per liter.
  • Semi-Secco is semi-sweet, ranging between 50 and 100 grams per liter.
  • Dolce, the sweetest type, holds more than 100 grams of sugar per liter – not a great choice if you’re on a ketogenic diet.

The color of Marsala wine determines its flavor characteristics.

  • Amber-hued Ambra Marsala is a sweet treat made with white grapes, delivering a nutty and dried-fruit flavor.
  • Rubino Marsala captivates with its ruby hue, achieved by red grapes like Pignatello, Perricone, and Nerello Mascalese. It has a delightful fruity flavor and aroma, complemented by the tannins of the red grapes.
  •   Lastly, with its golden tone, Oro Marsala is crafted with white grapes, imparting flavors of vanilla, hazelnuts, and licorice.

To add a further layer of complexity, Marsala wines are also classified by age and production method. The Fine classification has the least aging (1 year) and is typically used for cooking. For more information on the other varieties, see this great guide or check Wikipedia.

Magnificent Marsala meals

Marsala wine is an excellent ingredient for adding flavor and complexity to various dishes. It’s a sweet, nutty, and smoky flavor that can enhance the flavor of both sweet and savory dishes. Some of the best dishes to make with this Sicilian wine include:

  • Veal or Chicken Marsala: This classic Italian dish consists of sliced chicken or veal sautéed with mushrooms and onions in a Marsala wine sauce. The sauce is usually thickened with cornstarch or flour and served over pasta or rice.
  • Shrimp Scampi: This dish is made with shrimp, garlic, and butter cooked in white wine and Marsala wine sauce. It’s usually served with linguine or other long pasta.
  • Risotto: Risotto is an Italian dish made with Arborio rice simmered in a flavorful broth, such as chicken or vegetable broth with Marsala wine.
  • Coq au Vin: Coq au vin is a French dish with chicken braised in red wine, brandy, and bacon sauce. Marsala wine is often added for extra flavor.
a dish of chicken marsala with pasta
Chicken Marsala with mushrooms and pasta

How to store Marsala

Unopened bottles: Ideal storage conditions are at temperatures of 53-57˚F, with 60-70% humidity, away from light, and laid flat in a wine fridge or cellar. An unopened bottle of Marsala wine is best within 2-6 years. Of course, the longer the Marsala has been aged, the higher the alcohol content which extends its life.

Open Marsala bottles: One of the qualities that makes Marsala ideal cooking wine is that it can last for months without refrigeration. Store your opened bottle of Marsala in a cool place away from direct light; its flavor will remain delicious for 4-6 months. If you’d like to keep the bottle for longer, the taste may diminish slightly over time, but it will still be safe to drink. Discard if the taste or smell becomes unpleasant.


Sherry is a fortified wine from Spain that has been around since the Middle Ages. It is believed that the name “sherry” comes from the Arabic phrase “sherish” which means “dry.” Sherry offers a wide selection of styles – each providing its unique flavor profile, alcohol content, and more – plus the variety of each type of wine changes the shelf life dramatically.

3 glasses of Sherry wine
Sherry wine tasting, three varieties of the fortified wine

Types of Sherry

  • Fino sherry, Sherry’s lightest and driest style, has a distinct straw-like hue and a delightful almond aroma. Its crisp, salty taste makes it the perfect choice for an instant tipple, with an alcohol content of 15-16%.
  • Manzanilla, a similarly dry type of Sherry, is also light-bodied, with a fresh taste, making it an ideal choice for short-term consumption.
  • Amontillado is a semi-dry variety of Sherry with a deeper brown shade and a nutty flavor that hints of hazelnut and umami. At 18% alcohol, it’s a deliciously indulgent treat.
  • Oloroso exudes notes of walnut and caramel. This dark and rich variety of Sherry can be sweet or dry. With an exquisite flavor and an alcohol content of 18-19%, Oloroso is a delightfully rich indulgence.
  • Cream Sherry: An enthralling mahogany, Cream Sherry is a decadent sweet sherry created from either Amontillado or Oloroso and sweetened for an extra kick.

Sumptuous Sherry Servings

Sherry is a delicious ingredient for your meals, and is frequently used in Spanish dishes and desserts. Here are some ideas for inspiration:

  • The classic Spanish dish paella is one of the most popular dishes to make with Sherry. The Sherry adds a depth of flavor to the traditional dish.
  • Sherry is also great for creating flavorful reductions and marinades.
  • For sweet dishes, Sherry makes a delicious flan or a classic Spanish crema catalana.
  • You can also use Sherry to make desserts like cakes, tarts, ice cream, and custards.
  • Use Sherry to make a variety of drinks, such as sangria or even mixed cocktails.

How to store Sherry

Unopened bottles: Sherry’s shelf life is a little more complicated than Marsala. To get the most out of Sherry, store it in a wine refrigerator or cellar that maintains consistent temperatures of 53–57˚F, with 60-70% humidity, and in complete darkness, laying flat. Unopened, it can last up to a year. Still, for optimal flavor, consume it soon after bottling. Be sure to check the dates on the bottle.

Opened Sherry bottles: It ultimately comes down to the type of Sherry. Manzanilla Sherry should be consumed within 1-2 days, as the biologically-aged flor layer makes it unstable. Fino Sherry should also be enjoyed within a day or two. However, the delicate flavors of an opened Amontillado will last up to 1-2 months. And you can enjoy the robust taste of Palo Cortado for up to 2-3 months after opening.

Madeira Wine

The exquisite taste of Madeira originates from its namesake: the volcanic island of Madeira, located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The unique flavor of this particular wine is attributed to its unusual heating method and the resulting chemical reactions. The result of the fortifying process is distinct flavors of roasted nuts, stewed fruit, caramel, and toffee. It makes a wonderful dessert wine.

Madeira wine bottle and glass
Madeira wine aged 5 years. photo credit: Wikimedia

Madeira varieties

Madeira wine is classified based on the type of grapes used in its production. Expect to find wines made with one type of grape, or blends of wine from various grapes.

Single-grape Madeira wine varieties

  • Sercial, dry wine with an almond flavor.
  • Verdelho, with a smoky aroma and high acidity.
  • Bual, with a medium sweetness and a raisin flavor.
  • Malvasia, with distinct caramel notes.

Blended Madeira Wine

Blended Madeira wines must contain at least 85% of any of these four white grape varieties – Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, and Malvasia – often combined with red grape varieties such as Tinta Negra.

For a truly exceptional Madeira experience, there are Reserve wines aged for a minimum of 5 years. Special Reserve requires at least 10 years of aging, and Extra Reserve needs to be aged for over 15 years.

Mouth-watering Madeira Morsels

Some of the best dishes to make with Madeira include:

  • Madeira-Braised Short Ribs – Slow-cook short ribs in a flavorful mixture of Madeira, onions, garlic, carrots, and herbs.
  • Madeira Chicken – Make a savory sauce with Madeira, mushrooms, shallots, and parsley, then pour it over chicken breasts or thighs.
  • Chocolate Madeira Cake – Make a classic chocolate cake with Madeira as an ingredient in the cake and the frosting.
  • Madeira Glazed Salmon – Brush salmon fillets with melted butter and Madeira, then bake for a sweet and savory dish.
  • Madeira Pot Roast – Slow-cook a beef pot roast in a Madeira-based sauce with vegetables and herbs.
Locked shelves of rare madeira wine bottles
Storing rate bottles of Madeira wine. Photo credit: Richard Gray

How to store Madeira

Unopened bottles of Madiera: Madiera has the longest shelf life among fortified wines, with examples of sealed bottles lasting 200 years. It’s more forgiving of storage conditions, especially warmer temperatures. Store it in a cool, dark place at a consistent temperature if possible.

Opened bottles of Madeira: Thanks to the unique properties of Madeira, it can last for years after opening. Ideally, you should store your opened Madeira in a cool, dark area. Keep the bottle tightly closed when not in use to enjoy the longer shelf life of this amazing wine.

More Food Storage

Interested in stocking you pantry, storing foods for off grid adventure, or prepping for emergencies: Check out our other food storage articles.

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