The Malvasia family of grapes is ancient, hearty and prolific. Yet, it is often an overlooked component in blends—even making up a small fraction of bottlings claiming to be “single varietal” wines made from other white grapes. “I’ve been growing Malvasia Bianca for 20 years and pouring it for 16, and we still have to explain how to pronounce it and what it is,” says Victor Poulos, founder and co-owner of Zin Valle Vineyards in southwest Texas.
Oenologist Walter Filiputti of Meneghetti Winery in Istria traces Malvasia to the 13th century, with origins in Asia Minor (now Turkey and Greece). Today, Malvasia Bianca, a white subvariety, is the most frequently vinified, making light, crisp white wines as well as complex sweet wines. Both the longevity and great geographic diversity of Malvasia grape varieties, particularly Malvasia Bianca, hints at its promise and adaptability in an era of climate change.
Malvasia Bianca thrives in hot, dry climates, particularly on sloping terrain and—most especially—in soil with good drainage. Nikhila Narra Davis, co-owner of Narra Vineyards in the west Texas High Plains and Kalasi Cellars in Fredericksburg, Texas, comments that the grape’s versatility has kept it relevant throughout the centuries, and she predicts that the accelerated change in climate will result in increased plantings in various regions.
Malvazija Istarska, or Malvasia Istriana (as it’s known in neighboring Italy), is Istria’s signature dry white wine, aging well as a single varietal. Though genetically distinct from other Mediterranean Malvasia varieties, Malvazija Istarska is complementary with, and often believed to be related to, Malvasia Bianca. Meneghetti Winery’s Mare Nostrum vineyard preserves more than 40 Malvasia varieties to tell a “centuries-old oenological story,” according to the winery. Here in the Upper Adriatic, vines benefit from the region’s Bora winds, which descend from the mountains to the coast and create cool conditions that support the cultivation of the strong-skinned Malvasia grapes. Resulting wines are fragrant with peach, apricot and floral notes, while also offering surprising underpinnings of minerality and slate.
Malvasia is prolific in Italy’s mountainous northern region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, as well as the northeastern Collio and Colli Orientali regions, where hilly terroir, complemented by sandstone soils, offers the drainage that’s key to this variety flourishing in the vineyard. Cooler climes, from both Adriatic Sea breezes and Alpine foothills, ensure even ripening and balanced acidity. Like nearby Croatia, Friulian Malvasias coalesce fruit and floral notes with bright, mild acidity.
The Texas High Plains’ hot, dry climate and sandy loam soils make a fitting home for Malvasia Bianca. Further west of the High Plains in Texas’ Mesilla Valley, along the New Mexico border, Zin Valle is at 4,000 feet of elevation. West Texas Malvasia Bianca is refreshing, expressing tropical fruit flavors like jasmine, guava, lime and citrus peel in white wines that have body, says Narra Davis. Poulos comments he draws no distinction, in taste or structure, between Malvasia Bianca from the southwest desert and northern Fruili. “It doesn’t change so much across region and microclimate. It’s got a lasting characteristic note.”
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!