Malvasia is one of the grape varieties extensively planted in most of the countries bordering the Mediterranean. There are numerous clones of the basic malvasia that was introduced to the Eastern Mediterranean shores by Phoenician traders and propagated west by colonizing Greeks.
Depending on the terroir of a growing area and the climatic conditions, the vines had to adapt to that particular environment to survive. These adaptations were eventually recognized by Italian ampelographers as distinct clones.
A few years ago I visited the Fontana Candida winery in Frascati, near Rome. Traditionally, a Frascati is a dry wine, a blend of malvasia grapes—50 percent of malvasia di Candia is required for the DOC designation—and grechetto or bombino bianco, plus trebbiano, trebbiano giallo, or trebbiano toscano.
The wine they produce that I liked is called Luna Mater, a premium Frascati that is a blend of 70 percent malvasia di Candia, 10 percent trebiano, 10 percent uvo greco, and 10 percent bombino. The volume of the blend components is adjusted annually depending on the harvest.
It is a serious, complex wine created to enhance the floral bouquet. There is a very mineral nose with herbal and dried fruit notes from the volcanic soil on which the vines are planted. On the palate, it is full-bodied, well-balanced, shows a pleasant lemony acidity, and has some viscosity. It has interesting citrus (grapefruit and bergamot) and honey aromas on the finish.
Malvasia in Tuscany
Another local malvasia clone, malvasia del Chianti, is used in Tuscany—especially in the Chianti Classico zone—to create vin santo wines, sweet gold-hued wines usually as a 50-50 blend with trebbiano.
To make vin santo, very ripe grapes are dried on straw mats in a ventilated loft for a two-month period and then crushed and fermented slowly, and aged for at least five years in small old-oak barrels.
A wonderfully sweet malvasia is produced in the Aeolian Islands, a small volcanic archipelago off the northeast coast of Sicily. The clone malvasia delle Lipari is supposed to be the original malvasia brought to the islands by Greek traders. Mycenaean sailors cultivated grapes in the Aeolian Islands as early as 1,500 B.C.
The Venetians, who controlled parts of the Peloponnese, Crete, and Rhodes during the Renaissance and later to the early 17th century, liked the wines of Monemvasia so much they not only imported and traded that wine to mainland Italy, but also took cuttings and introduced them to Crete and the Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, and Sardinia wine regions, where the grape found a compatible climate and terroir.
The malvasia delle Lipari that is planted in the Aeolian Islands produces golden, perfumed, flavorful wines with hints of apricots, musk, and almonds, and flavors of honey and ripe Bosc pears.
Others are aromatic with hints of ginger, almonds, and white pepper. We tasted samples from a number of producers and they actually run the gamut from lightweight to full-bodied, off-dry to very sweet, and low to high alcohol. Most were rich and wonderfully aromatic passito-styled wines, where the grapes, after full ripening, are dried on reed mats prior to being made into wine.
My favorite passito was the Capofaro Malvasia di Salina. Intense gold in color with aromas of honeysuckle, fresh almonds, apricots, and raisins, it is produced on Salinas island in Tanuta Capofaro, a vineyard surrounding the five-star hotel and resort Capofaro.
Before fermentation, the grapes are dried in the shade, on the flat roofs of the hotel suites to concentrate the flavors and aromas.
The property belongs to the famous winery Tasca d’Almerita, and winemaker Laura Orsi is currently responsible for this exceptional wine. They produce it from 30-year-old vines planted on five hectares.
This marvelous wine is now imported to the United States by a New York-based wine importer. It would pair beautifully with a terrine or torchon of foie gras or a fresh farmhouse Stilton. If you like Sauternes wines, you owe it to yourself to try this passito.
Manos Angelakis is a well-known wine and food critic based in the New York City area. He has been certified as a Tuscan wine master, by the Tuscan Wine Masters Academy, as well as being an expert on Greek, Chilean, and Catalan wines. He judges numerous wine competitions each year and is the senior Food & Wine writer for LuxuryWeb Magazine, www.luxuryweb.com, and The Oenophile Blog.