AskDefine | Define malmsey

Dictionary Definition

malmsey n : sweet Madeira wine

Extensive Definition

Malvasia (also known as Malvazia) is a group of wine grape varieties grown historically in the Mediterranean region and the island of Madeira, but now grown in many of the winemaking regions of the world. The name also refers to wines produced predominantly from Malvasia grapes. In the past, the names Malvasia, Malvazia, and Malmsey have been used interchangeably for Malvasia-based wines; however, in modern oenology, "Malmsey" is now used exclusively for a sweet variety of Madeira wine made from the Malvasia grape.

Grape varieties

Grape varieties in this family include Malvasia Bianca, Malvasia di Schierano, Malvasia Negra, Malvasia Nera, Malvasia Nera di Brindisi, Argentina's Torrontes and a number of other varieties.


Malvasia wines are produced in Italy (including Lombardia, Sicily, Lipari, and Sardinia), Slovenia, Croatia, Corsica, the Iberian Peninsula, the Canary Islands, the island of Madeira, California, Australia and Brazil. These grapes are used to produce white (and more rarely red) table wines, dessert wines, and fortified wines of the same name, or are sometimes used as part of a blend of grapes, such as in Vin Santo.


The Malvasia grape is of Greek origin, but there is some controversy over exactly where it originated and what grape varieties were its ancestors. In exploring this, it is necessary to consider separately Malvasia as a wine style and Malvasia as a grape variety.
A highly prized wine named Malvasia in Italian, Malvoisie in French, Malmsey in English and Malvasier in German, was produced in Greece (and perhaps Crete) in the 14th to 16th centuries. This early Malmsey wine was carried to Constantinople, Italy, France and northern Europe by the Venetians and other Italian merchants. George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV of England, was said to have been drowned in a butt of Malmsey in the Tower of London in 1478, though this story is probably apocryphal. The name "Malvasia" is generally thought to derive from Monemvasia, a Venetian fortress on the coast of Laconia, known in Italian as "Malvasia"; this port would have acted as a trading centre for wine produced in the eastern Peloponnese and perhaps in some of the Cyclades. A competing theory holds that the name is derived from the district of Malevizi, near the city of Heraklion (known to the Venetians as Candia) on Crete. In any case, Malmsey was one of the three major wines exported from Greece in medieval times. (For other examples, see Rumney wine and Cretan wine).
Both Monemvasia and Candia have lent their names to modern grape varieties. In Greece, there is a variety known as Monemvasia, evidently named after the port, though now grown primarily in the Cyclades. In western Europe, a common variety of Malvasia is known as Malvasia Bianca de Candia, from its reputed origin in that area. The Monemvasia grape was long thought to be ancestral to the western European Malvasia varieties, however, recent DNA analysis does not suggest a close relationship between Monemvasia and any Malvasia varieties. DNA analysis does, however, suggest that the Athiri wine grape (a variety widely planted throughout Greece) is ancestral to Malvasia. Whatever its precise origin, the ancestor to the modern Malvasia varieties must have spread westwards through Mediterranean lands in medieval times, its final leap to Madeira taking place soon after the Portuguese began to settle the island in the fifteenth century.


In the past, the names "Malvasia" and "Malmsey" have been used interchangeably. Presently, however, "Malvasia" generally refers to unfortified white table or dessert wines produced from this grape, while "Malmsey" refers to a sweet variety of Madeira wine, though the latter are also sometimes called "Malvasia" or "Malvazia". Further confusion resulted from the fact that, in the recent past, the term "Malmsey" referred to any very sweet Madeira wine, regardless of the grape variety from which it was made. This was an outcome of the devastation of Madeiran vineyards by phylloxera in the late 19th century, after which, production of Malvasia and other "noble grape" varieties on Madeira was greatly reduced for the next century. As a result, most non-vintage-dated "Malmsey" was made from the widely grown Tinta Negra Mole or even from fox grape varieties. This changed when Portugal entered the European Union in 1986; EU regulations required that any wine bearing the name "Malmsey" be made with at least 85% Malvasia grapes. Even further confusion results from the fact that vintage-dated Malmseys are often labeled "Malvasia" or "Malvazia", probably because the relatively rare vintage Malvasias were always made with Malvasia grapes even when most non-vintage "Malmsey" was being made from lesser varieties. "Malvasia" or "Malvazia" is occasionally used by some companies for non-vintage Madeiras, especially those primarily marketed to Portuguese-speaking countries.


Further reading

  • Jonathan Harris, 'More Malmsey, your grace? The export of Greek wine to England in the Later Middle Ages', in Eat, Drink and be Merry (Luke 12:19 )- Food and Wine in Byzantium: Papers of the 37th Annual Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, in Honour of Professor A.A.M. Bryer, ed. Leslie Brubaker and Kallirroe Linardou, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2007
malmsey in Belarusian: Мальвазія
malmsey in Catalan: Malvasia
malmsey in German: Malvasia
malmsey in Spanish: Uva malvasía
malmsey in French: Malvoisie (cépage)
malmsey in Croatian: Malvazija
malmsey in Italian: Malvasia
malmsey in Dutch: Malvezij
malmsey in Norwegian: Malvasia
malmsey in Portuguese: Malvasia
malmsey in Sicilian: Marvasìa
malmsey in Swedish: Malvasia
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