Malvasia is an aromatic grape with numerous clones both red and white. In Italy, both white-grape and red-grape subvarieties of Malvasia are cultivated yielding table or sweet wines. Some of the whites are Malvasia Bianca di Candia (Malvasia Rossa), Malvasia del Lazio (Malvasia Puntinata) and Malvoisie in Valle d’Aosta. They are known as Malvoisie and Malvoiser in the EEC. This varietal may have originated in Asia Minor where it took the name of the Greek city of Monemvasia, later to become Malvasia in Italian. This Greek identity is not supported by the latest DNA.
Some believe that it is related to the Muscat which were known to the Romans as Apianae. Malvasia ranges in color from light green to deep ruby and the wines produced may be anything from dry to sweet.
This widely grown varietal is said to have originated in the vicinity of Monembasia, a fortified city situated on the southernmost tip of the Peloponnisos. The Venetians discovered the wine made from these grapes when they conquered the city in the 13th century. They were so enthused by the wine that they transplanted the vine, first on Crete and afterward in the Veneto. It was soon to be found in numerous other Mediterranean areas.
The name Malvasia is attributed to an ancient Christian legend still retold on the Lipari islands in Sicily. It refers to the period of the Arab domination of Sicily. According to the tale, a young local farmer wanted to take an amphora of Moscato wine to his father and the priest. Along the road, he met the tyrannical Arab governor of the island, who demanded to see what he had under his cloak. The farmer replied that he was only carrying a jug of mallow juice and prayed to God to transform it into mallow juice, saying “malva sia” (let it be mallow juice), and it became mallow juice, to the disgust of the governor who had insisted on tasting the contents of the jug.
Malvasia, once widely known in English as Malmsey, is sweet and appealing and probably the wine of Madeira is most famous. Marsilio Ficino, the greatest exponent of Platoism of the Renaissance, argued that a good glass of Malvasia was clearly the best remedy for the plague.