Malvasia is practically an “heirloom” variety in California, but in Italy it is the most widely planted white wine grape. Scholars believe it is likely the wine given highest accolades by the world’s first authority, Pliny the Elder (who coined the the immortal phrase “In wine there is truth”). In his 79 A.D. encyclopedia Naturalis Historia Pliny particularly lauded the sweet, aromatic wine of southern Italy, where what we today call Malvasia was the predominant variety (although he did not call it “Malvasia”, grape varieties having not yet been distinguished).
Malvasia is an unusually versatile grape, made into a variety of dry, sweet, sparkling and fortified wines. It is known for its golden hue, perfumy aroma, and flavors of apricots, citrus, musk, and almonds. Malvasia takes on many forms including the light, fruity Frascati in Fruili, the legendary Vin Santo in Tuscany, and the fortified Madeira in Portugal.
It is primarily a white grape, the most widely planted subspecies being Malvasia Bianca (there are also red and blush Malvasias planted in Italy). It prefers dry climates with vineyards planted on sloping terrain of well drained, gravelly soils because in damp conditions the vine is susceptible to various mildew and rot. Malvasia is not an extremely high-yielding vine and so is sadly being replaced by better-producing but less-flavorful grapes such as Trebbiano in Italy and Viura (Macabeo) in Spain.
In California, Malvasia is limited to just 2,500 planted acres (less than one percent of Chardonnay, for example). The few vintners that have discovered it most often employ Malvasia as their “secret weapon” blending grape, its perfumy, flavorful character adding complexity and texture to other white wines.