Malvasia’s typically heavy, sweet and highly aromatic honey and herbal flavours were much sought-after in antiquity. Grape varieties with this name then fell out of favour until being rediscovered a few years ago.
The diversity of Malvasia
Malvasia is an ancient, widely cultivated grape variety. The name actually covers several varieties, both white and red, and also different flavour styles. Strictly speaking, Malvasia is a wine type rather than an individual grape variety or family of grapes. Especially in Italy, Spain and Portugal, Malvasia is used to describe a range of different grape varieties.
The name is probably derived from the Greek port of Monemvasia in the Peloponnese. The name Malvasia then mutated in many languages. In France, for instance, it became Malvoisie, while in German-speaking countries it was known as Malvasier – but the names actually referred to different variants. There are also a number of spelling variants which can cause confusion about precisely which grape variety is meant.
Wines made from Malvasia – as varied as their names
Malvasia usually yields deeply coloured, high alcohol wines with a great deal of sweetness and bags of character. This high-yielding grape also often possesses a fine acidity. Malvasia wines are prone to oxidation, which is beneficial for producing sweet wines, so they are often also found in Vin Santo. Malvasia was famous as a sweet wine for centuries, but it increasingly fell out of favour because it was used in poor-quality wines. The picture is gradually changing again.
On Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, the Malvasia variety is cultivated using a special technique: the vines are grown in funnel-shaped depressions in a layer of soil comprising volcanic ash and stones. Grown in these dry conditions with many hours of sunshine, the grapes achieve a high sugar content. They are then used to produce a sweet wine called Malvasía which is popular on the Canary Islands.