Malvasia is a name for a group of wine grape varieties that has been grown historically in the Mediterranean region and the island of Madeira, but today is cultivated in many winemaking regions of the world. The Malvasia grape is of Greek origin, but there is some controversy over exactly where it originated and what grape varieties were its ancestors. This important family, named Malvasia in Italian, Malvoisie in French, Malmsey in English and Malvasier in German, was produced in Greece and the island of Crete in the 14th to 16th centuries. This early Malmsey wine was carried to Italy, France, and northern Europe by the Venetians and other Italian merchants. In Greece, there is a variety known as Monemvasia. The current Monemvasia grape was long thought to be the common ancestor to the western European Malvasia representations. However, recent DNA analysis does not support a close link between Monemvasia and any modern Malvasia varieties.
While most varieties of Malvasia produce white wine, Malvasia Nera is a red variant that is used primarily as a blending grape in Italy, being valued for the dark color and aromatic qualities it can add to a wine. The Piemonte region is one important locale that produces a varietal example of Malvasia Nera with two DOC zones covering only around 250 acres (100 hectares), however, it is planted certainly in many other wine growing districts. In the southern regions of Puglia, Brindisi and Lecce, it is blended with Negroamaro, while in the 1970s & 1980s, it was a frequent blending partner of Sangiovese in the Toscana region, especially to make Chianti. However, from the 2005 vintage onward, Malvasia (along with Trebbiano), have been officially excluded as compulsory blending partners in DOCG designated Chianti wine. Throughout the Toscana region, Sangiovese is now often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, whether for Chianti (where Cabernet Sauvignon must not exceed 15%) or Vino da Tavola (table wine). This trend is most certainly attributed to the huge success of the IGT Super Tuscans for the past quarter century, which are Italian “Bordeaux style” blends that have taken the world by storm since the mid ‘70’s. Other regions growing Malvasia Nera include the Alto Adige, Sardegna, Basilicata and Calabria. Malvasia Nera wines are often noted to have rich chocolate notes with dark stone fruit and lingering floral aromas and have rosé to delicately hued red colors.
The Malvasia family is quite broad, thus generalizations about Malvasia wine are difficult to come by. The majority of Malvasia wines are derived from Malvasia Bianca which is the white grape characterized by its straw color, clarity and a faint greenish hue. These wines are very aromatic and floral, with distinctive aromas and the presence of some residual sugar. I find them very similar to a Semillon, or complex Sauvignon Blanc. The very young Malvasia Bianca wines are described as full bodied but finishing with a soft texture in the mouth. Common aroma notes associated with Malvasia Bianca include peaches, apricots, golden raspberries and Rainier cherries. The fortified Malvasia wines, such as Madeira, are noted for their intense smoky notes and sharp acidity. As Malvasia ages, the wines tend to take on more nutty aromas and flavors though many of these wines have a short life span of only a few years after vinification.
Since the Malvasia family of wines are best utilized as “blending partners” to other varietals, it is only fitting that I talk about important wines that are made using this family of grapes for enhancement.
In a locale somewhere between Firenze and Pisa (in San Miniato), there exists a family winery steeped in tradition, passion, and true commitment to the winemaking trade. For the past 50 years, three generations of the Beconcini family have carefully tended the Pietro Beconcini Agricola vineyards, and crafted some very special wines from some unique grape varieties, including the aforementioned Malvasias. I recently hosted a proper tasting of some great Beconcini wines, generously provided by the Beconcini Agricola themselves… and I must say, it was a treat to sample the vast array of juice being produced in that wine house today. The six Beconcini wines we sampled were:
2007 Chianti Toscana DOCG (Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo, Canaiolo, and Malvasia Nera)
2004 Maurleo Toscana IGT (Sangiovese and Malvasia Nera)
2003 Reciso Toscana IGT (100% Sangiovese)
2007 IXE Toscana IGT (Tempranillo- origined Italian vines)
2005 Vigna Alle Nicchie Toscana IGT (Tempranillo- origined Italian vines)
1999 Caratello Vin Santo del Chianti DOC (Malvasia Bianca, Trebbiano Toscano, San Colombano) – a dessert wine
The absolute surprise here is that the Beconcini family discovered some very ancient vines on their property and have taken careful steps to genetically identify their origin. The result was some great plantings of grapes derived from the Spanish Tempranillo grape variety. Not only is this winery growing these grapes in Italy, but they are vinifying these grapes into some very competitive Tempranillo wines that rival some of the better Spanish examples. They creatively use a mix of French and American barriques, and seem to have honed the handling of the Tempranillo varietal from their property. Personally, from the list above, I was a fan of the DOCG Chianti, a classic blending of the old-style recipe from ages past. All the wines have a very polished and distinctly old-world personality, to be sure. A name to be reckoned with, you would be well served to keep an eye out for Beconcini wines during your next Italian wine hunt, you will not be disappointed with their creativity and attention to detail.
Mike Mollica is an independent food & wine journalist for the "Italian American Community News", author and publisher of the blog "Mike's Mostly Food and Wine Blog", and is a blog contributor to VinVillage.com.