One, no one and a hundred thousand. This is how we might start tracing Malvasia in Europe, as it has never failed since the wine was launched into the commercial sphere by the Serenissima Republic of Venice as other delicious goods. The Doge’s city, indeed, following the successful Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century, came into possession of the Peloponnese and, in the area of Laconia, discovered a refreshing nectar that took on the name Malvasia from the small and strategic peninsula of Monemvasia, from the Greek “moni envassis”, which means “port with only one entrance”.
The wine of the European courts
The Venetians understood soon that such a Mediterranean wine, called ultramarine or navigated, sweet and resistant to travel, could become an unfailing source of income. So it did: due to extensive Venetian production even on the island of Crete, Malvasia became one of the most expensive wines of the time and, above all, a means of identity and luxury for those who could afford it. It became the fashionable wine of the wealthy classes and it never missed in the leading European courts. In Venice, the places where superior wine was sold were called Malvasia.
The many varieties of Malvasia wine
In the following centuries, the European Malvasia family has increased and in almost all wine-producing countries we can find vines bearing this name, although we know that the same name is often confused with other varieties. Exploring the “Malvasia” landscape is both challenging and fascinating: every wine called Malvasia belongs to the same epic story and it is good to know that a new local winery in Monemvasia is producing wine.
In Italy there are as many as nineteen grape varieties called Malvasia, both red and white berry, according to the National Register of Varieties. This gives us an idea of the heterogeneous group of the many genotypes that, though with a diverse genesis, refer to the same appellation. We are now going to unveil some of the types cultivated in our peninsula and others that historically grow beyond our borders.
Let’s start in Emilia-Romagna where, especially in the areas of Parma and Piacenza, we can find Malvasia di Candia aromatica, which, according to the latest genetic research, descended from a cross between Moscato bianco and aromatic grapes including the ancient Malvasia Odorosissima (also known as Malvasia Casalini), which is in the process of recovering from inexorable oblivion. Aromatic Candia is best known for its dry sparkling version but there are also noble still and sweet raisin versions.
Oenological Piedmont, among the unquestioned homelands for the most blazoned red wines from indigenous grapes or for the appreciated Moscato d’Asti, in the hills of a circumscribed territory of Basso Monferrato, counts two precious red berry Malvasia grapes: Malvasia di Casorzo and Malvasia di Schierano.
The former takes its name from a town of the same name that falls within the production area along with the towns of Altavilla Monferrato, Grana, Grazzano Badoglio, Olivola, Ottiglio and Vignale Monferrato. This produces a very pleasant, sweet and aromatic red or rosé sparkling, spumante or passito wine.
That of Schierano, also known as “short bunch” Malvasia, gives rise to the DOC Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco, which is the name of one of the six Asti cities producing it. The others are Albugnano, Passerano Marmorito, Pino d’Asti, Berzano and Moncucco.
The wines are, as previously mentioned, red or rosé, equally aromatic and sweet in the sparkling and spumante types. Although they both are little known to most, these expressions of Malvasia are considered the oenological pride of their zone and hold high the Monferrato wine-making name.
Northeastern Italy, specifically Friuli Venezia Giulia, is home to one of the most prestigious white grapes: Istrian Malvasia, also known as Malvasia friulana or Malvasia del Carso.
We could also call it Central European Malvasia because, besides being secularly planted in this region, it is the authentic protagonist of important wines in Slovenia and Croatia as well. From a genetic point of view, moreover, studies emphasize its specific uniqueness compared to others.
In Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the Colli Orientali, Collio and Carso, it finds a symbiotic cradle environment in the hills, often characterized by the presence of ponca, which, geologically speaking, we call flysch: layers of marl and sandstone (clays and limestone) more or less pre-drenched with calcium from fossil deposits dating back to before the lands emerged from the ancient sea. The winemakers’ work here is enhanced by the favorable local climate, due to the breezes coming down from the Julian Alps and those blowing from the Upper Adriatic. Wines from this grape are generally highly prized, whether elegant dry whites from classic white vinification, or sought-after macerated wines obtained by exploiting the more or less long skin-must contact.
The great journey of Italian Malvasias continues in Tuscany, the cradle region of the Renaissance, which has always poured so much beauty into its wines as well. One of these, undoubtedly among the most famous ones, answers to the name of Vino Santo. Ascribable to several Denominations of Origin, it is signed by the Malvasia bianca lunga grape, which is often accompanied, obtaining an oenological masterpiece, by the Tuscan Trebbiano vine. Bianca lunga has several synonyms and, among others, is also called Malvasia del Chianti or di Montegonzi. Although it is widely planted in other Italian viticultural contexts, the Medici Grand Duchy remains its perfect home. After the usual drying of the clusters, it is the unreplaceable ingredient of rare wines that remain in kegs for a few years before bottling, to which it brings creaminess and envelopment to the sip, thus balancing the freshness of its comprimary Trebbiano.
To complete the circle of Italian Malvasias, it is essential to go further into the south of the Boot, where one of the oldest and most intimately Mediterranean grapes can be found in Sicily, Sardinia and Calabria, bearing the names Malvasia delle Lipari, Malvasia di Sardegna and Greco di Bianco. It also exists in Catalonia as Malvasia of Sitges and in Croatia as Malvazija of Dubrovnik abroad. Genetically, they share the same identity but the territory, together with local know-how, will mark the sensory expression of each wine.
Malvasia delle Lipari grows secularly on the dust and volcanic soils of the Aeolian islands, especially on Lipari and even more on Salina, which is still the unquestioned home of this grape variety. In the vineyards between Capo Faro, Malfa and Valdichiesa, grapes are harvested in such way that, in addition to giving the orthodox sweet raisin version, vinified differently, have produced excellent dry white wines in recent years.
In Sardinia, wines belonging to the Malvasia di Cagliari and Malvasia di Bosa DOCs are produced too. The first is located in the vineyards of the countryside of Oristano and especially in Cagliari, with a very limited production both in the still and dry version and in the natural sweet one. The second gives rise to a wine that is more unique than rare and that, although it has risked extinction, is still tenaciously produced in Planargia, in the Bosano hinterland and neighboring localities. Malvasia di Bosa is, indeed, exceptional, and few other wines produced with oxidative iteration achieve its refinement. After standing for a few years in the drained wooden barrels under the film of yeast called “flor”, on the free surface of the wine in contact with the air, it acquires indefinable scents and moods.
Greco Bianco is, as predicted, a Malvasia for all purposes, and its ideal territory is the entire area of Bianco and part of that of Casignana, along the Ionian side of the province of Reggio Calabria, where the vine stocks insist on white marl soils. It seems most likely that this type of vine was anciently planted in other districts of the mare nostrum, as in the Magna Graecia, between Aspromonte National Park and Locride. The production of this sweet raisin wine Greco di Bianco is once again limited and represents historically one of Calabria’s many enological flagships in the traditional bottle known as Pulcianella.
As we can see, there’s a fascinating production continuum concerning countless Malvasia grapes, which still keeps well alive the myth of the wines made from them and invites us to discover them by visiting their original areas or just by pairing them with our menus.
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