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The sweet red Malvasia wine gets its aroma from oxidation process

Several questions arise from my previous article about the Malvasia or Monemvasia grape variety, the best-known wine of Byzantine Monemvasia and of Crete in the time of Venetian rule. Today’s article will deal with the first question, with reference to Galen, the great second-century AD physician. Sweet wines Malvasia was a sweet aromatic wine, said to be black or red. How could it have been made from the white Malvasia grape? Writing about the strength of food, Galen says wines that are watery and of thin composition move the urine and provide the body with little nourishment. But he says that those he describes as fat provide considerable nourishment. This fatness is what we would call density today, and it differs from one sweet wine to another according to their sugar content. Wines made from sun-dried grapes are high in density. Referring to the sweet wines of Asia Minor and their places of origin, Galen adds that they are all dark in color. This was because until the 18th century sweet wines were made solely from over- ripe grapes that had been left to lie in the sun. The technique of making liqueur wines by the addition of alcohol was not widespread and was certainly unknown in the time of Galen. As we know, none of the contemporary wines made from sun-dried grapes is white. The longer the grapes have been left in the sun, the darker and sweeter the wine. Grape juice syrup When the weather during the grape harvest did not permit the grapes to acquire the requisite sweetness, some of the pulp was heated over an open flame. And this grape-juice syrup was added to the pulp. As the syrup of even the whitest grapes was dark in color, the wine made from it was chestnut-brown. The more syrup was added, the sweeter the wine. These color changes are due to the fact that high temperatures speed up oxidation. Malvasia In the middle of the 16th century, the French naturalist Pierre Belon visited Crete and recorded some valuable information about how Cretan Malvasia wine was kept in his book Les Observations de Plusieurs Singularités (Paris 1588): Malvoisie wine which is transported long distances, to Germany, France and England, is first cooked. The ships that come to Crete to take Malvoisie abroad, want to load at Rethymnon because they know well that the wine will keep longer in better condition, and that the more it has been cooked the finer is. This is why, in the city of Rethymnon, there are large cauldrons along the shore which are used during the grape harvest to heat their wines. Not all Malvoisies are cooked, of course. Those from the city and region of Handaka, which are only taken to Italy and are in no danger of turning to vinegar, are not cooked. There is also a Malvoisie which is not at all sweet, which the Italians call ‘garbe’ or what the French call ‘verd’ (bitter) or ‘rude’ (rough). They don’t bring us that at all because it is not cooked like the sweet wine and it doesn’t keep as long. According to Galen, unheated sweet Malvasia was honey-colored, yellow, and amber-ocher, which made it look like it was a red wine, while cooked wine was chestnut-brown, which became darker the more it was heated. Madeira One of the best-known Malvasia wines in the West, ever since the 18th century, has been Malmsey from Madeira, made from the white grapes of the Malvasia candida variety which, tradition has it, the Portuguese brought from Crete. But this is not a white wine. It is dark, almost black, which is why most people think it is a red wine. But it is a white wine with the intense color and aromas that come from the oxidation that occurs when the wine is kept at temperatures of 45 and 60 Celsius for six and four months, respectively. Dark wines made from white grapes, like dark Malvasia from white Monemvasia, have clearly been around for a very long time.