Written by Tom Innes
First, let’s get the pronunciation right: MAL – VAZ – EE – A, with the stress on the “i”, not on the middle “a”. Malvasia is an ancient variety, much older than, say, Cabernet Sauvignon, and it has travelled widely, being planted throughout Europe, particularly in Italy. It originated in Greece, probably in Crete. The accepted view is that it acquired its name from the Greek port of Monemvasia (pronounced MON – EM – VAZ – EE – A), which is on the mainland, not in Crete, because wine made from this variety was shipped through this port. However, my researches have revealed that there is a region on the north side of Crete called Malevizi, to the west of Heraklion; I wonder whether the grape variety may have taken its name from Malevizi rather than Monemvasia.
Malvasia is commonly a white variety, but in Italy there are also plantings of a black variety in Puglia, Piedmont, Tuscany, Umbria, Alto Adige, Sardinia, Basilicata and Calabria. The white variety produces wine that, like Muscat, smells and tastes of grapes – Jancis Robinson says it “is notably full-bodied, high in extract and strongly scented with an almost musky perfume that can have overtones of almond nuttiness with a twist of acidity at the end.” The variety is not to be confused with Malvoisie in France.
It is also grown in Madeira, where it produces the the richest, sweetest form of Madeira: Malmsey. While it is widely planted all over Europe, it is declining in popularity, so, for instance in Rioja, where it used to make up a large proportion of white Rioja blends, traditionally 50:50 with the less characterful variety Viura, it has disappeared altogether from many white Riojas, and even in the case of the region’s most traditional bodega, Lopez de Heredia, it only contributes 10% to their Reserva, Viña Tondonia. It is also grown in the Canary Islands, California, Arizona, Australia and Brazil.
It is also made into sparkling wine, and in my shop I stock a sparkling Malvasia from Emilia-Romagna in Italy. It is light and grapy, made in the same way as Prosecco, but in my opinion rather more interesting due to its lively, summery fruitiness.