Story and photography by Manos Angelakis
In Italy, the volcanic Aeolian Islands are planted, almost exclusively, with Malvasia grapes; a grape that has its roots in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean.
Mycenaean traders cultivated grapes in the Aeolian Islands as early as 2,000 BC. The Venetians, who controlled parts of the Peloponnese and Crete during the Renaissance, liked the sweet wine of Monemvasia so much they not only imported and traded that wine but also took vine cuttings and introduced them to Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Sicily, and Sardinia, where the grape found a compatible climate and terroir.
Malvasia is primarily a white grape, but it has a number of clones, including a red one called Malvasia Nera. Actually, the clone Malvasia delle Lipari is supposed to be the original Malvasia, named after the Peloponnesian fortified island and town of Monemvasia.
Presently, most varieties of Malvasia are closely related to the Italian Malvasia Bianca that grows widely throughout the world in places like central and southern Italy, the San Joaquin Valley of California, the Greek Islands of Rhodes, Paros and Syros, the Canary Islands, Rioja, and Croatia to name but a few major producing areas. In central Italy, Malvasia is often blended with Trebbiano to add texture to the resulting wine and in Rioja it is blended with Macabeo to achieve the same result.
The Malvasia delle Lipari that is planted in the Aeolian Islands produces golden, perfumed, flavorful wines with aromatic notes of apricots, musk, and almonds and flavors of honey and ripe Bosc pears. We tasted samples from a number of producers and they run the gamut from lightweight to full-bodied, off-dry to exceedingly sweet, and low to high alcohol. Most were rich and wonderfully aromatic Passito wines i.e. after picking, the very ripe grapes are dried on reed mats in the shade to increase the concentration and aromatics.
Even though the varietal is called Malvasia delle Lipari (Lipari is the largest of the Aeolian Islands), the wines I liked the most were produced on Salina Island, the second largest island in the Aeolian archipelago, where Malvasia thrives on the rich volcanic soil.
If you like sweet and aromatic wines, you will love these Passitos. They are a wonderful alternative to a French Sauternes.
I liked the 2008 Passito from the Azienta Agricola Salvatore d’ Amico, a blend of 95% Malvasia and 5% Corinto Nero – a red grape introduced by ancient colonists from the city of Corinth. Unfortunately, this wine is not available outside Italy.
But my favorite Passito was the Capofaro Malvasia di Salina. Intense gold in color with aromas of honeysuckle, fresh almonds, apricots and raisins, it is produced in Tenuta Capofaro, a vineyard surrounding the 5-star hotel and resort Capofaro. Before fermentation, the grapes are dried on the flat roofs of the traditional looking farmhouses on the property that are now the hotel suites. The resort belongs to the famous Tasca d’ Almerita and winemaker Laura Orsi is responsible for this exceptional wine. This spectacular wine is now brought to the United States by a New York-based importer. It would pair beautifully with a terrine of foie gras or a fresh farmhouse Stilton.
If you are a wine lover, you owe it to yourself to try this Passito.