Wednesday, May 20, 2015

White Wine Grapes, Part 1: Malvasia

European dry white wines never cease to amaze me with their quality-to-price ratio.  Just how they do it is something I don't think I will ever fully understand.  Nonetheless, this series beginning right here will attempt to examine wine types by their constituent grape varietals.  We are starting with Malvasia (mahl-vah-Zee-ah) only because we had the Montauto Maremma Toscana Bianca on the tasting table last week and I thought it was exceedingly good.

Malvasia is actually a family of five or more grapes that share a common ancestor more than two thousand years ago, probably in Greece.  Laconia is a region in southern Greece that featured a fortress Italians called Malvasia and that fortress is believed to be the namesake of the grapes grown thereabouts.  Malvasia was extremely popular with the ancient Mediterraneans, so much so that Venetian wine shops became known as "Malvasias", one of the earliest examples of international commercial branding.

Of the many affiliated Malvasia grapes, the Malvasia Bianca is the most widely grown type. It is at home across southern Europe in Spain, France, and Italy, along with Greece.  In all likelihood what the ancients preferred in their white wines would have been a sweeter styled Malvasia.  Today that style is still popular especially in the dried grape dessert wine, Vin Santo of southern Italy, which is a style known as "aromatic passito" in Sardinia and Sicily.

Disease prone in damp conditions, Malvasia vines like hillside vineyards for drainage in hot, dry climates.  Naturally low in acidity, Malvasia wines oxidize easily which explains its place in  Malmsey, the dark, richly textured Madeira dessert wine of Portugal.

The essential character of Malvasia lies its bouquet of honey, bosc pear, and allspice.  In a sweet wine that character is supplemented with lush fruit on the palate in an amply round textured body.  If the wine is made in a drier style it retains the distinctive bouquet and fruit but in a medium body format, which seems to be what Malvasia brings in general to a white wine blend.  In central Italy Malvasia is commonly blended with Trebbiano, a flavorful light white grape.  In Spain, where more experimentation is allowed, the body Malvasia brings fleshes out any other constituent grapes.

Besides the locations already mentioned, Malvasia is now grown successfully in eastern European countries and around the world including California.  The finest examples of dry Malvasia wine, however, still come from Italy, in particular, the DOCs of Collio and Isonzo in Friuli-Venezia-Giuli in northeastern Italy.

This Friday at the After 5 tasting we will have more French and Italian whites on the table, a rose, and a few Italian reds as Robert Jones of Mediterranean Wine Merchants makes his inaugural appearance at the store.  We ask for a ten dollar donation to taste which is refundable on a fifty dollar purchase.  Please join us.

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