This week’s rare variety is one that you might have actually heard of before, perhaps even tasted. Originating in the Adriatic Sea basin, Malvasia is a white variety widely cultivated throughout western Europe, the Mediterranean and even the Canary Islands. According to Jancis Robinson, the name of this variety is derived from the Greek port Monemvasia, the port through which the rich Malvasia dessert wines passed on their way to western and northern Europe during the Middle Ages. Yes, this variety is an ancient one.
When I said this is a widely cultivated variety, I meant it. The name actually encompasses a whole family of Malvasia varieties. Though depending on where the variety is grown, the name does tend to change a bit. In Portugal, you’ll find Malvasia Fina throughout the inland northern regions, such as the Duoro, Dão, Beira Interior and through the region of Lisboa. Malvasia is one of four varieties permitted in Boal, a sweet wine produced on the island of Madeira.
In addition to Sardinia, Malvasia is cultivated on the island of Sicily near the northeastern city of Messina for sweet wine production. You’ll find Malvasia in Central Italy and throughout Tuscany, where Malvasia Toscana is often blended with Trebbiano for still white wine production in both sweet and dry styles. Within the region of Lazio, Malvasia Bianca di Candia or Malvasia del Lazio make up at least 70% of the blend of an extremely rare, sweet wine from late harvest, noble rot grapes called Cannellino di Frascati D.O.C.G.
The Croatians have been producing Malvasia for over 400 years. This Istrian Malvasia makes a beautifully aromatic, full-bodied, and harmonious white wine often featuring notes of acacia flower, apple, plum, and apricot. The Croatian expression of this variety is exquisite and definitely a wine I recommend drinking at least once in your life. Additionally, Malvasia is grown in Spain, Greece, Slovenia, and Montenegro.
Now, you might be thinking, “Nikki, if Malvasia is cultivated in so many countries, why are you including this in your rare varieties series?”
And that is a very good question. For which I have a very good answer. Malvasia di Bosa D.O.C
Malvasia di Bosa D.O.C.
Produced in the picturesque region of Bosa, this Sardinian Malvasia is a unique oxidative wine worth exploring. Historically speaking, Malvasia di Bosa was an extremely precious product often given as a gift for significant life events, including births, deaths, marriages, and rituals. Today, there are only a handful of producers making this wine. Even while in Sardinia, I needed to go to numerous wine shops to track down a bottle and it was impossible for me to get my hands on a significantly aged Malvasia ready to be opened.
Malvasia di Bosa is produced from the Malvasia di Sardegna grape. Genetic research has linked this variety to Malvasia di Sitges in Spain and Malvasia di Lipari, from the Italian island off the northern coast of Sicily. While Malvasia di Candida, a sub-variety in Crete, is thought to be an offspring of Malvasia di Sardegna.
The Malvasia di Bosa D.O.C. was established in 1972 in large part due to the efforts of the most world-renowned producer for this wine, Giovanni Battista Columbu. He was a champion for the variety and its particular production methods early on.
This D.O.C. encompasses the white, sparkling, and passito styles. The following are the requirements for each.
- Minimum of 95% Malvasia di Sardegna, maximum 5% other suitable white varieties of Sardinian cultivation
- Includes both a sweet and dry style, plus a Riserva designation
- 13% minimum alcohol
- 3 months minimum aging
- Riserva designation requires a 2 year aging minimum, 1 of which must be in barrel
- Spumante made from a minimum of 95% Malvasia di Sardegna, maximum 5% other suitable white varieties of Sardinian cultivation
- 9.5% minimum alcohol
- Sweetness levels can range from demisec to dolce
- Approximately 1-2 months minimum aging
- Passito style in which the grapes may be dried on or off the vine to achieve a minimum sugar level of 272 g/l
- 14% minimum alcohol
- Approximately 2-4 months minimum aging
Sardinia also has a second geographic indication for this variety called Malvasia di Cagliari D.O.C.
Malvasia In The Vineyard
As you might imagine by the above D.O.C. information, cultivation of the variety within Sardinia is concentrated to the zones of Bosa and Cagliari. The growing season for Malvasia di Sardegna starts with budbreak in the first ten days of March followed by flowering in the second ten days of May. Things start to get exciting with veraison in the first ten days of August and the grapes are usually ready for harvest by mid-September.
What makes Malvasia di Bosa D.O.C. so unique?
Malvasia di Bosa is produced in an oxidative aging process, just like one of my other Sardinian favorites – Vernaccia di Oristano. This unique process would not be possible without the help of the flor yeast strain of saccharomyces cerevisiae, the common yeast that makes alcoholic fermentation possible. So, what’s up with flor?
Flor has both a fermentative and oxidative metabolism. First, the yeast complete alcoholic fermentation. They consume sugars, converting these sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide while releasing heat. The yeast’s environment (the must), which was once rich in fermentable carbon resources (i.e. sugar) is now rich in ethanol. Due to a modified gene expression signaled by the change in environmental resources, the flor yeast transition to oxidative metabolism in a process called the diauxic shift. Now, they can use oxygen and non-fermentable resources (i.e. ethanol or organic acids) to convert energy.
In need of oxygen for survival, the flor must move to the surface of the wine. Flor yeast strains have a higher unsaturated fatty acid content that increases their buoyancy to make this journey. Furthermore, the expression of the flor’s FLO11 gene has been proven to increase the hydrophobicity of the surface of the yeast cells. This essentially means the cells do not interact with water, which causes them to cluster together. The aggregated cells trap carbon dioxide bubbles present from fermentation and this carbon dioxide provides additional buoyancy for the flor to reach the top of the wine.
Then, the flor colonizes and forms a biofilm on the wine’s surface. Over years of aging, the wine undergoes a gradual oxidation under this protective layer, producing wines with oxidative characteristics, such as nutty, savory, or umami aromas and flavors. Chestnut or oak barrels are traditionally used during the aging process and are filled to about 90 percent capacity, leaving some headspace for oxygen. Vernaccia di Oristano also experiences significant evaporation through the aging process, further concentrating the magnificent aromas and flavors of this wine, while also increasing the alcohol and glycerol levels.
Malvasia di Bosa in the Glass
Malvasia often produces high alcohol, intensely colored wines that oxidize easily. Depending on the region of cultivation and winemaking methods implemented, the wine will have fruit aromas like apricot, quince, dried orange peel, or other dried fruits. Nutty characteristics and floral aromas are also quite common.
Malvasia di Bosa is typically a medium intensity deep straw yellow color with amber reflections in the glass. Aromas are intense and persistent, as Malvasia is generally an aromatic variety. Expect oxidative nutty notes like bitter almond and toasted hazelnut. Dry or sweet depending on the style (I prefer dry), but typically rounded and full-bodied with high alcohol content.
Check out the link for tasting notes from the producer.
Malvasia di Bosa is a wine that is meant to be cellared. The longer the better, as these wines can age for up to 50 years. I will be cellaring the Giovanni Battista Columbu Malvasia di Bosa D.O.C. 2014 bottle that I was able to get my hands on for several years to come.
Malvasia di Bosa pairs well with fresh shellfish, like steamed mussels with garlic and parsley or spaghetti with clams and botarga. Salty olives. Proscuitto wrapped Asian pears with fresh thyme and honey would be a delicious pairing. Proscuitto or ham appetizers in general. Seared scallops in a lemon caper sauce would also be divine.
Akinas, Uve di Sardegna, Poliedro, 2017, Ilissio Edizioni, Nuoro