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Going in search of the Malvasia of Frankish times

No accounts survive of how Byzantine Monemvasios wine, marketed as Malvasia by the Venetians and Genoans, was made. By using two basic principles, however, we can reconstruct the method. 1. Winemaking, like other agricultural techniques, changes slowly. Since the time of Homer, sweet wines – but not liqueur wines – have been made in the same fashion. And wines grown in the same area naturally are made in a similar way. The Venetians and Genoans marketed three Greek wines from the East: Malvasia (from Monemvasia, the Aegean islands and Crete), Vin Santo from Santorini and Commandaria from Cyprus. Oddly, while there is no description of the winemaking technique or organoleptic features of Malvasia, not only have detailed descriptions of the other two sweet wines survived, but they are both still marketed on the same islands and made in the same traditional way that is described in the sources. 2. When we want to imitate a wine that is in fashion, we naturally employ the same technique. Champagne is an obvious example. Those who wished to imitate the style of wine from the Champagne area in France, used the champenoise method, and then labeled their wine Champagne. The same thing applied to many wines which became fashionable, such as Port, Madeira, Sherry, Malaga and Marsala. Fashionable wine Writing in Flemish in 1688 about a wine that was then in fashion, Dapper explains: They say that the wine was called Malvoisie or Malvasia, according to the variations in the Italian spelling of the town called Malvasia or, Malvazia, otherwise known as Napoli di Malvazia, on the shore of the Morea. It seems that the wine from Crete – being equally as good and pleasant-tasting as that produced in the environs of that city, that it could easily compete with it in terms of price – was named after the city because of its similarity to the wine grown there. In the same way some people call the best wine in the Canary Islands Malvoisie des Canaries, because it is sweet and has a pleasing taste like Malvoisie, and there is not much difference to be observed between the two wines. (1) On the basis of all this evidence, I have reconstructed both the technique of making and preserving Malvasia and its organoleptic features, but first let us look at how wines of that period were made. Have a look at the figures in the table. The first column shows the grade of must, the second the sugar content, and the third the percentage of alcohol if all the sugar ferments. It is immediately apparent that the more sugar contained in the must, the higher its grade and the higher the percentage of alcohol in the wine produced, because yeast requires around 17 grams of sugar per liter of must to produce one degree of alcohol. Consequently, if we divide the sugar in the must by 17 we can approximate the amount of alcohol in the wine produced. Avoiding calculations To avoid complicated calculations, I have drawn up a table allowing us to calculate the alcohol content of a wine, simply by counting the grade of the must. The table shows that the higher the grade of the must, the more sugar it contains, hence the stronger it is. So a must containing 170 grams of sugar produces a low alcohol content (10 percent) wine which comes from low-sugar grapes. However, when the juice is from grapes containing 230 grams of sugar, the dry wine that is produced from it will be about 13.5 percent alcohol. However, when a certain amount of alcohol accumulates, it has a toxic effect on the very yeast cells that produce it. So when the must has a high sugar content, the yeast dies before breaking up all the sugar, and when fermentation stops, the wine is not dry because it contains grape sugar that did not ferment. But even the ripest grapes cannot produce juice containing more than 280-290 grams of sugar per liter. The yeast breaks up as much sugar as it can, usually enough to make a 14-15 percent alcohol content wine. This wine has a sweetish taste because it contains unfermented sugars, but it is not a sweet wine because it contains little sugar. This is how the chemistry and physiology of yeast functions. A later article will explain how the Phoenicians, Ancient Egyptians, Greek, Carthaginians, Romans and people of the Byzantine era made wines so sweet they were described as honey-sweet; wines that kept and traveled without spoiling. 1. From the French edition of his work, Description exacte des iles de l’Archipel, translated by the author and published in 1703. And as ATHOC President Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, who remains concerned and anxious about venue progress, insisted, the last minute is right now. That’s not exactly an admonition for everyone to take an extended holiday.