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"That Useful Wine Site"
The Malvasia Grape

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About Malvasia

(Synonyms: extensive: see below)

Background

Malvasia grapes Map showing the Friuli region

Malvasia is not a particular grape, but rather a family of fairly similar white-wine (mostly) grapes, all presumed to be ultimately of Greek origin but now grown all over the wine-making world. Wines from this family (84 internationally recognized varieties exist) have been important in the wine trade since antiquity; as Jancis Robinson points out, in the time of the Venetian Republic, the very word for wine shop was malvasie (and the Friuli region around Venice remains a center of Malvasia winemaking today).

The Malvasia family is remarkably diverse, producing both dry and sweet wines, and both white and (though unusual) red. The best varieties are generally considered to be among the dozen and a half or so of world-class red-wine grapes (those in boldface in the varietals list to the left of the page). All types told, the family is one of the dozen or so most-planted wine grapes in the world.

Probably the chiefest variety for wine-making purposes is the ancestral Malvasia Bianca; most but by no means all of the other members of the Malvasia family generally resemble Bianca in their characteristics (Malvasia di Candia and Malvasia Nera are probably the major exceptions). A reasonably full list of the family members, with comments, can be found at Wikipedia.

Besides Malvasia Bianca, the Malvasia-family wine an American consumer is most likely to encounter for table wines is Malvasia Istriana, from the Friuli region of Italy around Venice, or Malvasia di Candia, which is a type so different in both expression and DNA that many argue it to be a distinct variety. There are also countless dessert wines (and even sparkling wines) made from one or another Malvasia grape (including Malvasia Candida, from which most Madeira is made).

Malvasia is frequently used in blends, to provide a little life to otherwise dead-dull bottlings of inexpensive, highly productive grapes (such as Trebbiano). Monovarietal bottlings of table-wine Malvasia are relatively scarce, at least in the U.S.

Malvasia wines are quite distinctive, and urgently need to be appreciated for what they are, and not looked at as parallels or analogues of other types. Probably the chief distinguishing characteristic of a table wine made from Malvasia Bianca is its profoundly powerful, aromatic (but not cloying) nose—very floral. Many people trying their first dry Malvasia take one sniff and assume it will be some heavily sweetened goop, and are surprised ("shocked" might not be too strong a word) at its dryness. It is a big mistake to expect well-made Malvasias to be "sippers", because they are a lot more than that, and the novice taster who is disappointed that the wine "is too dry" is just plain missing the point.

(Such misjudgements are common to dry table wines made from grapes used heavily to make dessert wines—Semillon, Ehrenfelser, Muscat, Chenin Blanc, Furmint, Gewürztraminer, Petit Mensang, even Riesling; the dry versions put a lot of people off not because there is any lack in them, but because they just aren't what was expected. )

Malvasia (like those others mentioned just above) is a grape that tends to high sugars, which typically translates to either high alcohols or residual sugars, which is why it is so often used for dessert wines. But when vinified dry, with care and respect, it makes one of the most distinctive and significant of all white wines.

Factoid: Malvasia is the grape of the "Malmsey" wine often referred to in Shakespeare's works; today, the term is used to refer to certain types of Madeira.


Some Descriptions of Malvasia Wines

  • Wikipedia

    "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 their 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."

  • Forgotten Grapes

    "Similar to Semillons and Sauvignon Blancs, you'll find many of the same tropical fruit notes on a Malvasia Bianca, but with one noticeable difference: Malvasias have a very distinctive perfumed scent to them. Lots of floral scents such as hibiscus and hyssop, and even some more herbal or vegetal scents, such as green olive. Sniffing a glass of Malvasia Bianca can be equated to walking through a citrus orchard just as the trees are launching into bloom. Lots of fragrant but not overpowering or cloying floral and tropical aromas. The flavor of a Malvasia Bianca will often depend on the amount of residual sugar left in the wine. More sugar left post-fermentation will result in slightly sweeter Malvasias, while little to no residual sugar means, you guessed it, dryer and crisper wines. Flavor-wise, Malvasias will have lots of the same tropical and citrus flavors smelled earlier: papaya, guava, some pineapple, regular apple, maybe some tangerine as well. The wines often have a very soft, sometimes even slightly viscous or oily mouth feel to them, and they can finish very long, sometimes with a bit of rind-like bite on the back end. Either way, these are very easy going wines that drink very smoothly and can flexibly handle lots of different flavors."

  • Vinistra

    "It's [a] specific and discreet aroma which reminds us of acacia flower fragrance especially if the grapes are from the higher and sunny positions. Fruit aromas that usually dominate are apple, plum and apricot. When the wine is mature there's a certain bitter almond taste too."

  • Cal-Italia

    "Whether sweet or dry, Malvasia Bianca offers delightful aromas and flavors of honey and ripe Bosc pears with hints of allspice. Round, lushly fruity flavors and a plush texture lead to a finish that is determined by the degree of residual sugar and the cellar treatment. The lightest versions offer a clean, crisp finish, while those aged in small barrels may display light tannins and a hint of vanilla. Sweeter, more opulent versions linger on the palate. Aging: None on the lighter renditions; two years for the full-bodied dry ones."

  • Wine Making Talk

    "The Malvasia Nera wine smells a bit like chocolate covered dried cherries. On the palate the wine is with medium acidity and medium tannins. There are flavors of cocoa with a touch of dried cherry and black fruit. It is bitter, earthy chocolate and coffee flavors. Even though it has weighty body on it, it tastes soft and austere, because there is practically no fruit flavor to the taste."


Some Malvasias to Try

(About this list.)

If one believes the wine search engines, there is not a lot of dry Malvasia to be found in America. And, whether this is chicken or egg, neither are there a lot of credible (third-party professional) reviews of dry Malvasia table whites. Our own experience suggests that there is a deal more of this wine, both Old World and New World, in shops than the search engines show; when in a wine shop, keep an eye out for any Malvasias, especially Old World samples—they are probably worth a go. Curiously, some of the most available Malvasias were neither Biancas nor Istrianas—the two commonest sorts—but rather Malvasia di Candia (and especially the "Aromatica" clone of di Candia), as noted up-page, a grape sufficiently different from almost all other white Malvasia types that some consider it a distinct varietal. There is also in recent years an uptick of New World Malvasias, a charge initially led by Bonny Doon under their "Ca' del Solo" label; sad to say, that one is no longer made, but there are other good ones.

To make a reasonable set of well-ranked but at least plausibly available Malvasias was thus a task. We give here a spectrum of respectable samples, but more than with most types, we urge you to seek out others and give it a try.

The quotations below are excerpts; we strenuously urge you to click on the green diamond symbol by each quoted review to see the full article.

Old World Wines

  • Alexakis Malvasia Aromatica, $12 - $15.
    (Made from Malvasia di Candia, specifically the "Aromatica" clone.)
         ($12.44 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    This wine is intensely aromatic with sweet notes of honeysuckle, orange, and jasmine. The nose suggests a sweet palate to follow. However, it is fresh, crisp, and citrusy with a beautiful acidity. This is a great food wine, and the contrast between the sweet aromatics and the dry, refreshing palate makes it a fascinating sipping wine.

    I have to honestly say that this wine now surpasses any other Greek wine that I’ve ever had in my life. Essences of lychee, peach, jasmine, was nothing short of a pleasure to enjoy.

    ♣ Greek Wine Award 2013, Silver

    ♣ Wine & Spirits Magazine, 91 points "Best Buy" (2010 vintage)

    [Scroll down-page for English] Pale yellow color, beautiful tears on the glass. Aromas of candied lemon, nectarine and hot rocks. Good acidity on the mouthfeel, flavors of white fruit and spices. Somewhat short in length, however, but its aromatic profile makes it interesting nonetheless. Drink now.

    After tasting this wine, I knew this was a must for the Six for $60-something! I’m hoping it will turn a few customers on to Greek wines, which is always a goal of mine. . . The hallmark of the varietal is its aromatic freshness. It really jumps from the glass with fresh grape aromas hinting at citrus and flowers. Light, fresh and crisp on the palate.

    It feels light and supple on the palate.


  • Bastianich Malvasia Istriana "Adriatico", $13 - $17.

    Some quotations and facts:

    It's finely balanced, the grape's floral, honeyed fragrance restrained and elegant; its texture is full and satiny yet lifted by a steadfast acidity. It lasts long, the flavors clean and precise, with the combination of heft and delicacy to match seafood risotto.

    True to type, pleasantly pungent aromas, mildly floral: rose and jasmine. Still had a bit of fizz when first opened. Contains tropical fruit as well as minerality, with a good amount of acidity. Seems light but holds up to many foods.

    ♣ Wine Advocate (date unknown), 89 points

    The 2009 Malvasia Istriana shows the exotic, floral qualities typical of this indigenous white grape. Clean, mineral notes frame the long, precise finish. This is a beautiful, restrained style of Malvasia that is highly appealing. . . The Malvasia also happens to be an exceptional value.

    Though aromatically subdued, there’s an intensity of tangerine and lime zest flavor in this dry, invigorating Malvasia. The midpalate is marked by elegant white-flower notes that linger on the slightly astringent lime-pith finish. 87 points

    The Adriatico Malvasia is a rich, luscious wine with enough acidity to make your mouth water and a beautiful layer of tropical fruit. Pure indulgence on the palate. The really special part of this wine though, is the nose. At first very mineral-driven with lots of wet earth and sea-breeze. Then the white flowers begin to show through- mystical, perfumed and seductive. As the wine warmed in the glass the aromas began to really come alive with citrus blossoms and pineapple, tea leaves and something vaguely spicy- cardamom maybe?

    The Malvasia was probably my favorite, only because I could not stop smelling it. Hands down, it had the most complex aromatics, very floral, very delicate. I remember all of us commenting at one point or another about it during the evening.

    Big bouquets of jasmine blossoms perfume this pretty white Malvasia from Croatia. It’s a bit soft on entry with persistent florals that verge on the confected, but its an easygoing, medium-bodied wine for casual entertaining. 83 points


  • Domaine Douloufakis Malvasia Femina, $13 - $18.
    (Blend: Malvasia di Candia "Aromatica", 60%; Muscat, 20%; Athiri, 20%.)
         ($14.94 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    Aromatic of rose and orange (thank you, muscat), dry and lean, with great cleansing acidity; gobs of flavor and scent to pair with fuller foods.

    Pale gold. Medium viscosity. Charming bouquet of lime and orange blossom. Generous, round flavors of tropical fruit and some mediterranean herbs. Well balanced and firm structured. Good wholesome finish. A fine glass made from a rather mysterious grape.

    ♣ 2013 Thessaloniki 13rd International Competition (2012 vintage), Gold Medal

    Here is another really good wine from this domaine & the isle of Crete. As one would expect from a Malvasia….yes…it is very aromatic & perfumed/bordering pine needle in nuance. The wine has a wonderful roundness & surprisingly refinement & balance. They apparently do some pre-fermentation skin contact for flavor (at cool temperatures) & some ageing in old oak. One could have alot of fun with this wine & Mediterranean foods.

    [Google-translated from German:] This excellent white wine has a rich and complex as the nose that invites you on a voyage of discovery. The light golden-colored wine with green shimmer convinced by various fruit and spice flavors. the lime refreshes by the non-intrusive but fresh acidity. In the mouth, this treasure of the island of Crete a long finish.

    [D]elicious dirty wool quality at its core, wrapped around a zippy freshness on the front and back end. Fantastic three-act play, fine story. Just kept giving. Unique, yet familiar given our malvasia love, long and rich but never heavy. Buying more.

    Pale gold hue color with glints of green. Rich, complicate nose and freshness of the acidity that gives a long finish in mouth.

    [I]ntensely aromatic and balanced in acidity. Long finish.


  • Tenute Rubino Giancola Malvasia Bianca, $16 - $19.

    Some quotations and facts:

    Vintner Luigi Rubino has crafted a spectacular Malvasia Bianca that bears rich and tangy aromas of peach and citrus, followed by silky smoothness and creamy, exotic fruit. 90 points

    [Google-translated from Italian:] Straw yellow with good intensity, intense nose with notes of citrus, lychee, yellow-fleshed fruit, very rewarding in the mouth is balanced, fruity, balanced, open to wonder in the mid-palate, very intense, back notes of citrus and fruit intercepted at the nose, with a good flavor and minerality that makes us salivary long. The long end of the mouth, this wine to be classified Excellent.

    [Google-translated from Italian:] Colour: straw yellow with bright greenish golden. Smell: is characterized by intact and fragrant scents of broom, iris and acacia, which alternate to happen and generous aromas of pineapple, peach, cantaloupe, vanilla, almond and marine notes. Palate: very elegant and enveloping, a rare and singular sweetness, wins for its roundness, texture and flavor well balanced by a fresh acidity and satisfying.

    [Google-translated from Italian:] Very elegant and enveloping, a rare and singular sweetness, wins for its roundness and structure, well balanced by a fresh acidity and satisfying. Features: high-class wine, fleshy and rich, deep and persistent, enchants for its harmony and complexity and the sharpness of the fruit, a prelude to a major attitude evolution over time.

    Fruity, mineral, with hints of floral.

    [Google-translated from German:] It was only in April 2009 Luigi Rubino came with the 2007 vintage on the market. Reason: the wine is aged a year on the lees! For (southern) Italian standards, an almost revolutionary endeavor ... Wonderfully soft and dense in the mouth, extremely juicy acid. Great white wine!


  • Trapan "Ponente" Malvazija Istarska, $16 - $21.
    (Malvazija Istarska = Malvasia Istriana)
         ($19.54 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).

    Some quotations and facts:

    Crystalline and refined with delicate, tight notes of dusty pear skins, kaffir lime, apricot, marzipan and acacia flowers. Still young and taught, this is the most polished but perhaps most textbook example of the lot – the closest we'll come (for now) to mainstream malvazija.

    [Google-translated from Croatian:] The wine is straw yellow in color with green hues. Fresh and fruity (citrus - grapefruit, lemon + green apple) with a hint of herbal notes. Maturity and a rounded wine reaches 9 / 09th Solid body, fullness and slightly pronounced minerality. In the mouth with a pleasant acidity gives a pleasant freshness. In the aftertaste and a slight bitterness on almonds. Recognizable varietal and smooth.

    [Google-translated from Croatian:] Wine is presented straw color, it is crystal clear, and slow the alloy by the glass suggests that it is a lot of secrets hidden beneath the skin. The smell of the white flowers, green apple and grass clippings, and the most enticing very pleasant mineral notes, not so common in white wines. Imagine that you are at sea in a summer evening and the smell of wet rocks. That's it! Come to taste. In the first attack you refresh acid, and then when you think will prevail and ruin everything, perform on stage higher alcohols return to balance and create almost creamy mouthfeel. Then emerge excellent minerals, which takes seconds, saliva in the mouth can stop and taste harmoniously agree with scents. I just got the minerality thrilled, because this gives recognition Malvasia south of Istria, where the obvious red soil enriched with mineral ingredients than the northern part of the peninsula. Swallowed the wine is no longer in the mouth, but the minerals are still there, salivation stops and mixed with mild gorkošću which leans on green almond. All in all, a very smooth and fresh wine, very good body that can support the most demanding food. Rating 85/100

    [S]traw; minerally, herbaceous; very dry, quite austere and stoney with a bitter almond finish. (86)

    [Google-translated from Croatian:] Too long to quote, these are long-ish reviews of six vintages of this wine; click the diamond to read them all.

    Full bodied with subtle white flowers, green apple and slight tinge of petrol on the nose. Refreshing acidity and lingering minerality on the finish.

    Gently perfumed, touch phenolic, hint of marshmallow. Fine, dry, touch mineral, bit heavier than the others, but the overall sensation of lightness is still very pleasing.

    [A] straw yellow wine, clean and crisp, with slightly fruity bouquet and good minerality.


New World Wines

  • Birichino Malvasia Bianca, $14 - $22.
    (Same vineyard & same winemakers as the old Ca' del Solo MB.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    I can’t look at this wine without thinking about spring. . . It's for the striking aromatics – bracing herbal, crystalline mineral and exotic floral notes. Jasmine, chamomile, lime peel and sweet pear lure you into a dry and crisp palate that harkens hazy images of Greek ruins. Fresh perfumed quince, lemongrass, blossom honey, spice and energetic acidity intrigue with each sip and make for a perfectly roguish bottle. . . Owners and winemakers Alex Krause and John Locke aim to "attain the perfect balance of perfume, poise, and puckishness" and they've aced it here. Both Krause and Locke worked for years with Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard, and the playful precision of Grahm’s engaging empire is echoed here.

    Although it's rich in honey-like flavors, the dry finish makes this more table wine than dessert wine. With extraordinary acidity and flavors of tangerine and vanilla, it’s delicious, but there’s a complexity that sommeliers will find wonderfully challenging to match with food.

    ♣ Wine Enthusiast: December 2012, 89; August, 2013: 90

    Take note of this new label, from Bonny Doon veterans John Locke and Alex Krause. They've found a plot of this aromatic Italian variety near the Santa Lucia range, and with some savvy use of lees they've brought forward a dense texture to rich orange and Anjou pear fruit. It's just the foil for the sappy, floral scents of Malvasia - think nutmeg and rose petal - that burst out of the glass.

    A beautiful evocation of this up-and-coming variety. While it’s dry and crisp in Monterey acidity, it shows tantalizing flavors of orange, honey, cream and vanilla. Birichino is leading the Malvasia comeback, which could and should rival Muscat.

    Malvasia offers the floral charm that has given Moscato a surprise run, and yet this is far more serious stuff, full of aromatic orange blossom and chewy, tangy fruit. Their source in the large San Bernabe Vineyard lets them work artisanally and yet at scale.

    Malvasia bianca grapes tend to be round and have a soft mouthfeel. Common aromas are peaches, apricots and white currants. This wine was watery lemon in colour and had a nice lychee nose. More lychee on the palate along with citrus and a herbal note mid palate. Nice round mouthfeel with slight acidity. I really enjoyed this wine a lot.

    [It] has tantalizing hints of oranges and honey, with a clean, dry finish.

    Malvasia Bianca is quite stunning on its own as well. . . Why do we not hear about this wine more often? . . I recently enjoyed this particular bottle of Birichino's Malvasia Bianca and highly recommend it.


  • Kenneth Volk Malvasia Bianca, $14 - $32.
    (As you will see, reports on its degree of dryness/sweetness vary considerably.)

    Some quotations and facts:

    Clear, bright pale gold wine with pineapple, starfruit, apple, peach, floral and sweet pea on the nose. Palate is dry with a hint of sweet fruit, flower water, green apple peel and creamy texture. This complex and fruity wine has a striking minerality with citrus, peach and floral tones lingering on the long finish.

    It's an off-dry wine with a lot of character, smelling and tasting of lychee and flowers.

    This was off dry with a honeysuckle aroma. It was very pale. Whit thought that this wine was one of his favorites of the tasting.

    This full-bodied, dry white wine has tropical floral aromas yet is refreshingly dry. This reincarnatio of Carmen Miranda in a bottle is fruity, flirtatious and fun.

    If you talk dry, but really like something a little sweeter, this is your ticket. Apricot, peach and stone fruits on the beautiful nose, as well as florals and spices. "Aromatherapy with a libation" is how Mr. Volk describes this potion. Flavors follow the aromatics with the addition of tropical white flowers and lychee fruit.

    The Volk malvasia is an amazing cheese wine with a bouquet of sweet stone fruit, honeysuckle and apricot on the mid-palate and a bone-dry finish.

    "I prefer red wine," she declared until she finally tasted the dry yet luscious Malvasia after dinner. Stopping herself with a sip, "This" she said "is the best white wine I've ever had."

    I loved the 2011 Kenneth Volk Malvasia Bianca from San Bernabe Vineyard in Monterey County. Malvasia is an intensely fragrant grape, and the wines can sometimes be a little overbearing and heavy. But this one is spot on, with a lot of floral character and fresh white peach flavors.


  • Clesi Wines Malvasia Bianca, $18 - $22.

    Some quotations and facts:

    Made mostly in stainless steel with a little neutral oak.Very light color, intensely aromatic, perfumed and floral, moderately rich mouthfeel with good acidity and a fresh, clean finish.

    Heavy enough to make you forget about the work day, but light enough to not knock you out for the next one.

    Their Malvasia Bianca is a light crisp refreshing white wine with a hint of grapefruit and tart apricot.

    We ended up voting it as our favorite. It was a beautiful white, a bit dry, and very good. I don't normally like dry wine, but I enjoyed this.

    It was my first taste of Ferrara’s singular white wine when the 2010 vintage was released last year, and I was quite impressed—after three separate, consistently good tastings I made it pick of the week.


For a Splurge

It's really hard tp pick one out (especially as so few make it to these shores from the Old World), but a plausible candidate is the Castello di Rubbia "Leonard" bottling (about $37).

     ($36.64 at Saratoga Wine Exchange).



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