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The Malvasia Grape


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About Malvasia

(Synonyms: extensive: see below.)

Background

Map showing the Friuli region

“Malvasia” is one of those problem designations, because—like “Refosco” and “Muscat” (among others)—it is a blanket term, and that blanket lies over quite a few definitely distinct grape types. We will try here to clarify the Malvasias a bit.

Malvasia, as we just said, is not a particular grape, but rather a set or group of somewhat similar white-wine (mostly white) grapes—all long but (probably) erroneously thought to be ultimately of Greek origin—now grown all over the wine-making world. We call them a “set” not a “family” because they are not by any means all related. Some Malvasias, a sub-set of the whole shebang, are related, and could be called a family, but that is not terribly helpful unless you are a wine professional keeping score. Wines from this set—84 internationally recognized varieties exist; in her encyclopedic book Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson covers 18 of them, and she just focuses on the more significant ones—have been important in the wine trade since antiquity; as 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). A reasonably full list of the family members, with comments, can be found at Wikipedia. Take especial note that there are several grape types whose names begin Malvasia Bianca, so not all wines labelled “Malvasia Bianca” are necessarily from the same grape: pay attention to the “sub-type” (if it is given).

The Malvasia set, or group, is remarkably diverse, producing both dry and sweet wines, and both white and (though unusual) red. The best Malvasia varieties are generally considered to be among the dozen and a half or so of world-class grapes. The group is also, all types told, one of the dozen or so most-planted wine grapes in the world. 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 a Malvasia 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 most dry table wines made from grapes more often used 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. Such grapes all tend to high sugars, which typically translates to either high alcohols or residual sugars, which is why they are so often used for dessert wines. But when vinified dry, with care and respect, they each make some of the most distinctive and significant of all white wines.)

Owing to the rampant mis-identification of Malcasia types, it is hard for consumers to know what particular Malvasia they may be getting when they buy a bottle, no matter how it is labelled. That said, the two likeliest types to look for are Malvasia Istriana and Malvasia Moscata. Each wants a bit of commentary.

Malvasia Istriana is the name that grape goes under in Italy, but it is as or more likely to be found labelled Malvazija Istarka, its name in Croatia where a lot of it is bottled. Malvasia Istriana grapes are mostly grown on the Istrian peninsula, the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, located at the head of the Adriatic and shared among three nations: Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia. The Italian portion and the Croatian portion do not adjoin, but they are not far apart (maybe 10 miles at most). Istria’s ownership has, as is too common in that part of the world, bounced around a lot over the last couple of centuries; it was part of Italy from the end of World War I to the end of World War II, then a part of the artificial “nation” of Yugoslavia, then (after 1991) was carved up between Slovenia and Croatia (with a border still not exactly agreed to by those nations). But the wine-making culture is area-wide, and Malvasia Istriana and Malvazija Istarka are the same grape, and the wines are made equally well in both nations (and, in both, in a huge variety of styles from big and strong to light and elegant).

Malvasia Moscata, meanwhile, is a relatively new name for the grape long known as (among many other things!) Malvasia Bianca di Piemonte (Robinson) or Malvasia Bianca del Piemonte (D’Agata). In Italy, this grape was virtually extinguished by the phylloxera plague that so devastated all European vineyards in the mid-nineteenth century; re-plantings substituted grape types then thought more commercially useful. That might have ended the type, but as it happened Piemontese immigrants to America, and specifically to California, had brought along cuttings, and the grape, though not a star, continued its existence. To this day, virtually any American-made wine labelled “Malvasia Bianca” is in fact Malvasia Moscato. And some quite fine specimens are made.

And though for simplicity we pass over that horde of other Malvasia-Something grapes, don’t hesitate to try any bottle you come across, because most Malvasias can make excellent wine. (Of course, that doesn’t mean every wine labelled Malvasia-Something is great: just that the various grapes are mostly—though not entirely—capable of excellence.) But do have a care about the sweetness of any unfamiliar bottle of Malvasia-Something, lest you get, one way or the other, an unwanted surprise.

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 (that is, dry) Malvasia—from any of the “Malvasia Somethings” are relatively scarce, at least in the U.S.

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.

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Some Descriptions of Malvasia Wines

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Some Malvasias to Try

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 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.

To make a reasonable set of well-ranked but at least plausibly available Malvasias was thus a task. In the end, we came down to just a few specimens that met the triple tests of quality, price, and reasonable availability. One is a California wine, while the others are all Croatian Malvazija Istarkas.


Birichino Malvasia Bianca
(More exactly “Malvasia Moscato”.
 Same vineyard & same winemakers as the old Ca’ del Solo Malvasia Bianca.))

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Kozlović Malvazija
(In full, “Malvazija Istarka”.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Benvenuti Vina Malvazija Istarska
(This is their basic Malvazija Istarska, not any of their sub-named bottlings.)

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks



Trapan “Ponente” Malvazija Istarska

• This wine’s Wine Searcher “Tasting Notes” page.
• This wine’s CellarTracker review pages.
• Retail offers of this wine listed by Wine Searcher
• Retail offers of this wine listed by 1000 Corks

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For a Splurge

We found no Malvasias better enough than those listed above as to justify a “splurge” price.

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This page was last modified on Monday, 23 March 2020, at 3:52 pm Pacific Time.