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The Malvasia Grape

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About Malvasia

(Synonyms: extensive: see below.)


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 dropdown varietals lists up 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 (that is, dry) 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

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. In the end, we came down to just a couple of specimens that met the tripe tests of quality, price, and reasonable availability. (One is New World, one is Old World.)

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.
Birichino Malvasia Bianca
(Same vineyard & same winemakers as the old Ca' del Solo MB.)

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

Some quotations and facts about this wine:

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.

Trapan "Ponente" Malvazija Istarska
(Malvazija Istarska = Malvasia Istriana)

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

Some quotations and facts about this wine:

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.

For a Splurge

After some agonizing, we decided that a wine that critics only rate, on average, a point or so higher than those listed above is not worth paying roughly twice the price for, so we do not list a "splurge" Malvasia.





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