Welcome to the New World perspective on Old World varieties. Seems to be a familiar theme over the years of producing this column. Just about every Old World variety we have covered has a unique story to be told. That is not to say the New World varieties, notably the hybrids, don’t have their own stories, but in many cases, their stories are rooted in how they came to be from Old World varieties. The New World perspective focuses on the science of how any variety came to be, and how the science contradicts the traditional knowledge passed down through generations of viticulturists and winemakers.
When tradition contradicts science I liken that to the old game of “telephone,” where something, fact or fiction, is written on a piece of paper. The paper is then sequestered, and the originator whispers into the ear of the person sitting to one side of them and the story moves around the circle. The last person reveals what they heard and the original statement is revealed, to the laughs and giggles of everyone involved. The similarity here is that traditional documentation is hard to follow and sometimes the science is quite different. We’ll focus on Malvasia Bianca this time around, a variety with many aliases.
Malvasia Bianca History
Malvasia, by itself, is a generic name for a wide range of white, pink, grey, and black-skinned grapes. Tradition derives its origins from the Greek port of Monemvasia, on the east coast of Peloponnese. From there, the various Malvasia grapes supposedly went out to populate other regions around the Mediterranean. The spelling of Monemvasia morphed to Malfasia, and then to Malvasia in Italy and Portugal. Malvagia (Spain), Malvasier (Germany), Malmsey (England), Malvasijie (Croatia), and Malvoisie (France) were names also reported by Pierre Galet, the famous French ampelographer, in 2000.
However, the science-side shows that all these grapes that contain the name Malvasia are in fact at least 19 genetically distinct varietals, and they do not usually have a common origin. Therefore, when it is reported that something belongs to the Malvasia family, that statement is not correct and I found several references to the “Malvasia family” that, prior to researching this further, were some of my trusted sources for varietal information.
Putting that whole train wreck of a story aside, let’s hone in on the grape Malvasia Bianca. It’s an Old World varietal that is mentioned in literature as early as 1606 near Torino, Italy. It was widely cultivated in Italy’s Piemonte where it is known as Malvasia Bianca di Piemonte until the vineyards there were devastated by powdery mildew towards the end of the 19th century. Today, there is a small amount of it planted in the Italian provinces of Alessandria, Asti, Cuneo, and Torino.
Viticulturally, it is a vigorous varietal, with early- to mid-budding, making it somewhat susceptible to late spring frosts. The berries are medium sized and found in large but compact bunches. The varietal is susceptible to powdery mildew but less so to Botrytis.
Beyond Italy, the only other place in the world where it is grown with any significance is California, where the name was shortened to simply Malvasia Bianca. It was brought to the state by immigrants from the Piemonte. The California Department of Food and Agriculture reports that there were 1,384 acres planted in 2009, and that fell to 988 acres in 2012 where it has pretty much held steady since then. It is mostly grown in the San Joaquin Valley, where it yields approximately four tons to the acre. Given the rich soils of this region, it is certainly not the cash crop growers would hope for, fetching only about $700 per ton ($772 per tonne) in an area that can produce other varieties for more money by weight, and higher tonnage to the acre, like Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio.
What I personally liked about working with Malvasia Bianca when I was the Winery Manager at UC-Davis, was the flavors our climate at the UC-Davis vineyards produced. It is a warmer climate with rich, deep, and loamy soils. We always noted a subtle Muscat character from year-to-year, but depending on the harvest timing it was more floral during the early harvest period, moving to tropical given more time on the vine. This also translated into somewhat higher viscosity in the resulting wines. My favorite was bringing in the fruit early at lower sugar levels — around 21 °Brix typically. As I reviewed the crush data, it turns out this is the typical Brix for the aforementioned regions. If only I had known that I was onto something! Depending on the variety, harvesting on flavor profile is more important than the actual sugar levels, especially with aromatic white varietals like Malvasia Bianca.
Malvasia Bianca is typically made into a dry style, but there are some off-dry examples as well. My personal favorite is the lower alcohol, fruit-forward version with those hints of Muscat. I am not sure where the Muscat characters come from. Curiously, I looked back though its lineage a few generations and there is no mention of it.
I experimented a little those first few years at UC-Davis making the wine a couple of ways.
In one vintage, I minimized the skin contact because the equipment we were using did enough damage to the skins through the crusher/destemmer. I affectionately referred to that piece of equipment as the “master of maceration.” As a result, I would only process what I could press within a very short amount of time and collecting mostly free-run juice. I took the remaining must, still quite wet, and let that sit on the skins for several hours more. Then pressed it fairly dry. I took this advice from one of our German students who told me that up to 24 hours of skin contact is acceptable for aromatic whites, since the aroma compounds are located in the skins. The resulting wines were quite different, with the latter having significantly more bitterness and astringency than the former. In hindsight, perhaps some use of enzyme to reduce the skin contact time would have been helpful, but my experience with enzymes is somewhat limited.
The mostly free-run versions were crisp, aromatic, and very refreshing on the palate. They were well-balanced with respect to acidity and flavors. One of the challenges with making wine in California is the natural tendency for the grape berry acidity to decrease during maturation. This acidity reduction can be minimized with an earlier harvest, albeit once those flavors you desire have been achieved. There is generally the subsequent need to supplement the acidity prior to fermentation. This is a challenge to many home winemakers without the proper testing equipment. For those that can’t test, sending a sample to a commercial lab will lead you to a plethora of pre-fermentation steps to properly adjust your juice and must for acidity and nutritional status. This is money well spent.
In order to preserve the acidity that I work hard to start out with I monitor my primary fermentation very closely, and when the Brix goes negative for a couple of days in a row I add sulfur dioxide and chill the wine to inhibit malolactic bacteria. The amount of sulfur dioxide depends on the pH. Refer to winemakermag.com/sulfitecalculator for the optimum amount. Ideally, you want to achieve 0.8 ppm molecular, which will assure a cessation of the malolactic fermentation, but you have to be careful if your wine pH is too high. In this case, 0.5 ppm and keeping your temperatures low (<45 °F/7 °C) should be sufficient. Once the wine is sufficiently stable, taste the wine. If the acidity is too high by taste, I will consider backsweetening to the off-dry style. Backsweetening can be achieved by setting aside and freezing some of your juice when you pressed it or with the use of white juice concentrates available at your local winemaking supply stores.
The scientific side of Malvasia is not intended to be a buzz-kill about the traditional lore of the “Malvasia family.” But what it boils down to is your reference source material should be sound and based on fact. With such a long historical account of all the Malvasia-named grape varietals there is bound to be confusion. In this case, the scientists have set it straight. That said, when traveling the Old World, I still love to hear the traditionalists tell their stories too. Enjoy!
Malvasia Bianca Recipe
Yield 5 gallons (19 L)
- 100 lbs. (45 kg) Malvasia Bianca fruit
- Distilled water
- 10% potassium metabisulfite (KMBS) solution (Weigh 10 grams of KMBS, dissolve into about 75 mL of distilled water. When completely dissolved, make up to 100 mL total with distilled water.)
- 5 g Lalvin QA23 yeast (Premier Cuvee can also be used as a substitute)
- 5 g Fermaid K (or equivalent yeast nutrient)
- 5 g Diammonium phosphate (DAP)
- 5-gallon (19-L) carboy
- 6-gallon (23-L) carboy
- 6-gallon (23-L) plastic bucket
- Racking hoses
- Equipment cleaning and sanitizing agents (Bio-Clean, Bio-San)
- Inert gas (nitrogen, argon, or carbon dioxide)
- Refrigerator (~45 °F/7 °C) to cold settle the juice
- Ability to maintain a fermentation temperature of 55 °F (13 °C) TIP: Use a 33-gallon (125-L) plastic can as a water bath. Place ice blocks in the water to maintain a relatively constant temperature. This will be your refrigeration system for peak fermentation. If you have other means to keep things cool, of course use that. TIP: You may have a need to keep it warm, in this case wrapping the bucket/carboy with an electric carboy wrap (available at most home winemaking outlets) works well.
- Thermometer capable of measuring between 40–110 °F (4–43 °C) in one degree increments
- Pipettes with the ability to add in increments of 1 milliliter
- Ability to test or have testing performed for sulfur dioxide
Step by Step
- Crush and press the grapes. Do not delay between crushing and pressing. Move the must directly to the press and press lightly to avoid extended contact with the skins and seeds.
- Transfer the juice to a 6-gallon (23-L) bucket. During the transfer, add 16 milliliters of 10% KMBS solution (This addition is the equivalent of 40 mg/L SO2). Move the juice to the refrigerator.
- Let the juice settle at least overnight. Layer the headspace with inert gas and keep covered.
- Measure the Brix.
- When sufficiently settled, rack the juice off of the solids into the 6-gallon (23-L) carboy.
- Prepare yeast. Heat about 50 mL distilled water to 108 °F (42 °C). Measure the temperature. Pitch the yeast when the suspension is 104 °F (40 °C). Sprinkle the yeast on the surface and gently mix so that no clumps exist. Let sit for 15 minutes undisturbed. Measure the temperature of the yeast suspension. Measure the temperature of the juice. You do not want to add the yeast to your cool juice if the temperature of the yeast and the must temperature difference exceeds 15 °F (8 °C). To avoid temperature shock, acclimate your yeast by taking about 10 mL of the juice and adding it to the yeast suspension. Wait 15 minutes and measure the temperature again. Do this until you are within the specified temperature range. Do not let the yeast sit in the original water suspension for longer than 20 minutes. When the yeast is ready, add it to the fermenter.
- Add Fermaid K or equivalent yeast nutrient.
- Initiate the fermentation at room temperature ~(65–68 °F/18–20 °C) and once fermentation is noticed, (~24 hours) move to a location where the temperature can be maintained at 55 °F (13 °C).
- Two days after fermentation starts, dissolve the DAP in as little distilled water required to completely go into solution (usually ~ 20 mL). Add the solution directly to the carboy.
- Normally you would monitor the progress of the fermentation by measuring Brix. One of the biggest problems with making white wine at home is maintaining a clean fermentation. Entering the carboy to measure the sugar is a prime way to infect the fermentation with undesirable microbes. So at this point, the presence of noticeable fermentation is good enough. If your airlock becomes dirty by foaming over, remove it, clean it, and replace as quickly and cleanly as possible. Sanitize anything that will come in contact with the juice.
- Leave alone until bubbles in the airlock are about one bubble per minute. Usually about two to three weeks. Measure the Brix every 2–3 days.
- The wine is considered dry, or nearly dry when the Brix reaches -1.5 Brix or less. Taste the wine, to get a sense of dryness and acidity. Consider a malolactic fermentation (MLF) if acidity is too high.
- If not opting for an MLF, then add 3 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon (3.8 L) of wine at this point to suppress the bacteria. If opting for MLF, wait until MLF is complete then add 3 mL of fresh KMBS (10%) solution per gallon (3.8 L) of wine. This is the equivalent to ~40 ppm addition. Transfer the wine to the five-gallon (19-L) carboy and lower the temperature to 38–40 °F (3–4 °C).
- After two weeks, test for pH and SO2. Adjust sulfite as necessary to attain 0.8 ppm molecular SO2. (There is a SO2 calculator available at www.winemakermag.com/sulfitecalculator). Check the SO2 in another two weeks, prior to the next racking and adjust while racking. HINT: Rack to another sanitized five-gallon (19-L) carboy or your bucket. In the case of the latter, clean the original carboy and transfer the wine back to it. This is done at about 4–6 weeks after the first SO2 addition. Once the free SO2 is adjusted, maintain at the target level by monitoring every 3–4 weeks.
- Consult winemakermag.com for tips on fining and filtration.
- At about three months you are ready to bottle. Be sure to maintain sanitary conditions while bottling. Once bottled, you’ll need to periodically check your work by opening a bottle to enjoy with friends.