Malvasia (also known as Malvazia) is a group of wine grape varieties grown historically in the Mediterranean region and the island of Madeira, but now grown in many of the winemaking regions of the world. In the past, the names Malvasia, Malvazia, and Malmsey have been used interchangeably for Malvasia-based wines; however, in modern oenology, "Malmsey" is now used almost exclusively for a sweet variety of Madeira wine made from the Malvasia grape. Grape varieties in this family include Malvasia Bianca, Malvasia di Schierano, Malvasia Negra, Malvasia Nera Malvasia Nera di Brindisi and a number of other varieties.
Malvasia wines are produced in Italy (including Lombardia, Sicily, Lipari, and Sardinia), Slovenia, Croatia, Corsica, the Iberian Peninsula, the Canary Islands, the island of Madeira, California, Australia and Brazil. These grapes are used to produce white (and more rarely red) table wines, dessert wines, and fortified wines of the same name, or are sometimes used as part of a blend of grapes, such as in Vin Santo.
Most ampelographers believe that the Malvasia family of grapes are of ancient origin, most likely originating in Greece. The name "Malvasia" is generally thought to derive from Monemvasia, a Venetian fortress on the coast of Laconia, known in Italian as "Malvasia"; this port would have acted as a trading center for wine produced in the eastern Peloponnese and perhaps in some of the Cyclades. During the Middle Ages, the Venetians would become so prolific in the trading of "Malvasia wine" that merchant wine shops in Venice were known as malvasie. A competing theory holds that the name is derived from the district of Malevizi, near the city of Heraklion (known to the Venetians as Candia) on Crete. In any case, Malmsey was one of the three major wines exported from Greece in medieval times. (For other examples, see Rumney wine and Cretan wine).
Both Monemvasia and Candia have lent their names to modern grape varieties. In Greece, there is a variety known as Monemvasia, evidently named after the port, though now grown primarily in the Cyclades. In western Europe, a common variety of Malvasia is known as Malvasia Bianca di Candia (white malmsey of Crete), from its reputed origin in that area. The Monemvasia grape was long thought to be ancestral to the western European Malvasia varieties, but recent DNA analysis does not suggest a close relationship between Monemvasia and any Malvasia varieties. DNA analysis does, however, suggest that the Athiri wine grape (a variety widely planted throughout Greece) is ancestral to Malvasia.
Most varieties of Malvasia are closely related to Malvasia Bianca. One notable exception is the variety known as Malvasia di Candia which is a distinctly different sub-variety of Malvasia. Malvasia Bianca is grown widely throughout the world in places like Italy, the San Joaquin Valley of California, the Greek Islands of Paros and Syros, the Canary Islands, Rioja, Navarra and Croatia in region of Konavle near Dubrovnik where the local producer Niko Karaman won the international award in 2009 for his prosseco. This wine was made out of Malvazija Dubrovacka and was voted the best malvasia in the world for 2009. Throughout central Italy, Malvasia is often blended with Trebbiano to add flavor and texture to the wine. In Rioja, it performs a similar function when blended with Viura.
In the Friuli-Venezia Giulia wine region, Malvasia is known as Malvasia Istriana and used to make varietal wines in the Collio DOC and Isonzo DOC. The vine was introduced to the area by Venetian merchants who brought cuttings from Greece. Malvasia Istrian is also found in the Colli Piacentini region of Emilia where it is used to make sparkling wine known locally as champagnino or "little champagne".
Malvasia di Grottaferrata, Malvasia di Bosa , Malvasia di Planurgia
In the 19th century and early 20th century, sweet passito style dessert wines made from the Malvasia grape were held in high esteem and considered among Italy's finest wines. Following World War II, lack of interest in the consumer market lead to a sharp decline in plantings with many varieties on the verge of extinction. Today only a few dedicated producers are still making these Malvasia dessert wines from local varieties including the Malvasia di Grottaferrata in Lazio, Malvasia di Bosa and Malvasia di Planurgia in Sardinia.
Malvasia delle Lipari
Since the 1980s, dessert wines made from the Malvasia delle Lipari variety has seen a resurgence in interest on the volcanic Aeolian Islands off the north east coast of Sicily. With distinctive orange notes, this Sicilian wine saw its peak of popularity just before the phylloxera epidemic when the more than 2.6 million gallons (100,000 hectoliters) was produced annually.
While most varieties of Malvasia produce white wine, Malvasia Nera is a red wine variety that is used primarily as a blending grape in Italy, being valued for the dark color and aromatic qualities it can add to a wine. The Piedmont region is the only significant produce to make varietal Malvasia Nera with two DOC zones covering less than 250 acres (100 hectares)-Malvasia di Casorzo and Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco. In the Puglia regions of Brindisi and Lecce it is blended with Negroamaro while in the 1970s & 1980s, it was a frequent blending partner of Sangiovese in Tuscany. In recent times, Cabernet Sauvignon has been supplanting Malvasia Nera in Tuscany in both planting and in use as a blending partner with Sangiovese. Other regions growing Malvasia Nera include the Bolzano region of Alto Adige, Sardinia, Basilicata and Calabria. Malvasia Nera wines are often noted for their rich chocolate notes with black plums and floral aromas.
Malvasia di Candia, Malvasia Puntinata, Malvasia di Lazio
The Lazio region of Frascati is the source of the majority of plantings of Malvasia di Candia, a distinct sub-variety of Malvasia that is not part of the Malvasia Bianca branch of the grape family. It is most often used for blending with the related Malvasia Puntinata and Malvasia di Lazio being more highly prized due to their higher acidity and tendency to produce less flabbier wines.
Viticulture and winemaking
While differences among the many sub-varieties of Malvasia exist, there are some common viticultural characteristics of the family. Malvasia tends to prefer dry climates with vineyards planted on sloping terrain of well drained soils. In damp conditions, the vine can be prone to developing various grape diseases such as mildew and rot. The rootstock is moderately vigorous and capable of producing high yields if not kept in check.
Given the broad expanse of the Malvasia family, generalizations about the Malvasia wine are difficult to pin point. Most varieties of Malvasia are derived from Malvasia Bianca which is characterized by its deep color, noted aromas and the presence of some residual sugar. The red varieties of Malvasia tend to make wines with pale, pinkish to light red color. In its youth, Malvasia wines are characterized by their heavy body that is often described as "round" or "fat" and soft texture in the mouth. Common aroma notes associated with Malvasia include peaches, apricots and white currants. Red Malvasia wines are characterized by a richness and chocolate notes. Fortified Malvasia, such as Madeira, are noted for their intense smokey notes and sharp acidity. As Malvasia ages, the wines tend to take on more nutty aromas and flavors though many Malvasia have a short life span of only a few years after vintage.
A bottle of Malmsey MadeiraIn the past, the names "Malvasia" and "Malmsey" have been used interchangeably. Presently, however, "Malvasia" generally refers to unfortified white table or dessert wines produced from this grape, while "Malmsey" refers to a sweet variety of Madeira wine, though the latter are also sometimes called "Malvasia" or "Malvazia". Further confusion resulted from the fact that, in the recent past, the term "Malmsey" referred to any very sweet Madeira wine, regardless of the grape variety from which it was made. This was an outcome of the devastation of Madeiran vineyards by phylloxera in the late 19th century, after which, production of Malvasia and other "noble grape" varieties on Madeira was greatly reduced for the next century. As a result, most non-vintage-dated "Malmsey" was made from the widely grown Tinta Negra Mole or even from fox grape varieties. This changed when Portugal entered the European Union in 1986; EU regulations required that any wine bearing the name "Malmsey" be made with at least 85% Malvasia grapes. Even further confusion results from the fact that vintage-dated Malmseys are often labeled "Malvasia" or "Malvazia", probably because the relatively rare vintage Malvasias were always made with Malvasia grapes even when most non-vintage "Malmsey" was being made from lesser varieties. "Malvasia" or "Malvazia" is occasionally used by some companies for non-vintage Madeiras, especially those primarily marketed to Portuguese-speaking countries.
The various varieties of Malvasia are known under a wide range of synonyms including Malvasier in Germany, Malvazija and Malvazia in Eastern Europe. Despite its similarly sounding name, the French grape varieties (it is a widely used synonym) referred to variously as "Malvoisie" are not related to Malvasia. The one possible exception maybe the Malvoisie of Corsica that ampelographers believe is actually the Vermentino grape that may be related to Malvasia. Other synonyms for the various sub-varieties of Malvasia include Uva Greca, Rojal, Subirat, Blanquirroja, Blancarroga, Tobia, Cagazal and Blanca-Rioja.