Wine historians and the mystery of the missing Malvasia grape

Today’s column is part of a series dedicated to the wealth of Greek grape varieties. I consulted a tiny book at the Gennadius Library: Histoire nouvelle des anciens ducs de l’Archipel (Paris, 1699), whose author, Robert Sauger, spent time in the Greek islands, which he loved. The following extract from his book refers to local grape varieties. Grape varieties There are more than 20 types of grapes on the islands. The Muscats of Tenedos and Samos are the best of all; the grapes of Tenedos are more amber-like, while those of Samos are more delicate. The other types of grapes are: Aidoni: A small white grape eaten in mid-June. [There is no variety of this name today. There is an aromatic Aidani, mainly on Naxos, but the description of the grape and its ripening season do not match Sauger’s Aidoni.] Samia: A fat white grape which is dried in the sun. [In addition to sweet wine, Samos is also known to have exported currants. Samia is one of many varieties which became known by the name of its place of origin. It is mentioned in ancient Greek texts, such as Polydeuces’ Onomastikon.] Ciriqui, named for its cherry flavor. [This is the Syriki grape, named after Syria, its place of origin, and not for its flavor.] Aetonichi, which is shaped like an eagle’s talon. [Aetonichi does have long, slightly curved grapes, so its name is descriptive.] Muscat violet. [He doesn’t provide any other information enabling us to guess which grape this might be. But colored muscats were as rare then as now.] Corinthe. [This is the well-known Corinthiaki, a black variety with small grapes, used to make black Corinthian currants. It appears that during the time of Venetian rule, grafts were taken from its places of origin in the western Peloponnese and Zakynthos. This was significant, confirming as it does that the Franks wanted to grow in their Aegean duchies those grape varieties whose products (wine and currants) had commercial value, because they had a reputation.] Malvoisie, and many others, whose names escape me. According to other sources, at that time another two grape varieties grown on the islands were known by the name of their place of origin: Fokiano, a black variety with plump grapes, which came from Phocaea in Asia Minor, and which is now grown on Samos, and mainly on Icaria; and Smyrneiko, known to us as Rozaki, which was used in various vine-growing areas in Asia Minor to make large pale currants, known as Smyrna currants, after the port from which they were exported. As we have noted before, in the days when trade was conducted by sea routes from port to port, the name of the vine-growing hinterland had no meaning. A commodity became known by the name of the port where it was loaded. Malvasia Malvasia is grown in many parts of Europe, chiefly Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, Lipari, Madeira, the Canary Islands and mainland Italy, Spain and Portugal, but not in Greece, even though the variety originated here. Has this variety disappeared, or was Malvasia the Frankish name for a variety which has survived under its own Greek name? Jancis Robinson, an expert on grape varieties and the wines made from them in different areas, says Malvoisie is one of the oldest varieties, and probably originated in Asia Minor. It takes its name from the port of Monemvasia in southern Greece. (Le Livre des cépages. Hachette, Paris, 1988). She goes on to describe the other names by which Malvasia is known, including Malvoisie, in French-speaking areas; Malmsey in areas of English influence; Malvasia and Uva Greca in Italy, Malvasia Candida in Madeira and Monemvasia in Greece. The Franks called the Byzantine fortress of Monemvasia by the name Malvasia, and so the wine loaded at that port was called by the same name. And this was the name they gave to the vine grafts they took from the port of Malvasia to plant in the islands of the archipelago and in Crete, which had come under their dominion after the crusaders sacked Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire disintegrated. They wanted to produce a wine like the famous Byzantine Monemvasia wine on their estates. But the Greek population did not know of any fortress town by the name of Malvasia. The fortress was known throughout the Greek-speaking East by the name of Monemvasia or Monovasia, and the wine from the Dorian lands loaded in that port was sold in eastern markets by that name. The Greek villagers who tilled the vineyards in the estates of the Frankish landowners called the grape variety Monemvasia or Monovasia. So the Greek name for the Malvoisie which Sauger describes as being grown on the Aegean islands in the 17th century must be Monemvasia. And, in fact, the white Monemvasia variety – also known as Monovasia or Monemvasitiko – is still grown on some Cycladic islands, chiefly Paros, and in Evia. It is used to make white OPAP-Paros (Appellation of Origin of Superior Quality) wine and, blended with Mandilaria, red OPAP-Paros wine, which will be the subject of a later piece.

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