If there is one wine that has fascinated me since I started studying the history of wine, it is the wine that was referred to in Middle Dutch sources as maleveseien, better known as malvasia. One of the oldest mentions I am familiar with is from 1360/61, from the accounts of Jan van Blois, lord of Schoonhoven and Gouda. A ‘boette’ (a barrel) of malevisier was purchased for his court, in addition to a barrel of wine from Crete. His brother Guy succeeded Jan van Blois and had malevesyen purchased to take with him on his travels. And when over 100 years later in a famous Dutch play, the devil lured the protagonist, Mariken van Nimweghen, to Antwerp, he tells her that now bastard and malevesye will become her earthly drinks. In other words: now things are really going to be enjoyable! And I could go on citing examples from medieval sources from the Low Countries such as this one.
I have always wondered exactly where this wine came from, and how it came to the Low Countries. Over the years, I have been able to solve many pieces of the puzzle, because by now it is common knowledge that malvasia was a sweet wine from Greece, originally shipped from Monemvasia, a small town off the southern coast of the Peloponnese. This port town, which can still be visited today, also gave its name to the wine. But still, I had a lot of questions.
Malvasia. The Renowned Wine
Fortunately, in 2021 the English translation of a book by Stavroula Kourakou, one of the best-known wine writers and wine authorities in contemporary Greece, was published. The book, with the title Malvasia. The Renowned Wine Yesterday and Today, was published by Foinikas Publications. Thanks to Elli Tsimbidi, of the well-known malvasia producer Monemvasia Winery, a copy of the book was waiting for me in Athens in August 2021.
Stavroula Kourakou, now over 90, was trained as a chemist, obtained a PhD and became head of the Greek Wine Institute, a division of the Greek Ministry of Agriculture. In addition, she was President of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV) for some time. She has been deeply involved in wine history, and wrote several books, among other one on wine in antiquity (A Crater Full of Good Cheer). Based on presentations and lectures she previously gave at a large symposium on the origins of malvasia in 2006, she has now written a wide-ranging study of that wine. Fortunately, the book was also translated into English.
Malvasia. The Renowned Wine covers successively the wine type, the monemva(s)sia-malvasia grape variety, the various other malvasias, the harvest, the production process, alternative provenance suggestions, the character of the wine and malvasia wines in the West (such as Madeira’s malmsey). Underlying everything is thorough historical research, complemented by a vast knowledge of contemporary Greek wine, production processes and grape varieties.
The oldest mention of a wine from Monemvasia, monemvásios oinos, dates from 1214. It concerns a description of a gathering at the Byzantine court in Constantinople, where several sweet wines were drunk. One of them is the one from Monemvasia. At that time, that town was not owned by Venetians or other Western powers yet, but still in Byzantine hands.
The sweet wines of Monemvasia were shipped west by Venetian traders in the fourteenth century, via Crete, where there was a large Venetian settlement. The sources now mention the western name of the town of Monemvasia, Mal(e)vasia (see also below). Under that name, malvasia, the wines would gain fame in the west. Malvasia was thus originally a geographical appellation of origin, as Kourakou explains at length, but soon came to stand for other sweet wines from the region.
The Monemvasia wines that were exported were sweet, made from dried grapes. This was done partly by spreading the harvested grapes on the ground and letting them dry in the sun, and partly by bending or breaking the stalks of the bunches just before harvesting and removing the leaves around the bunches. In Crete, which also produced malvasia from a very early stage, this technique was increasingly abandoned to be able to export the wines faster. To still get the right sweetness, various treatments were applied. Moreover, such wines were also briefly boiled before shipping, to increase stability. Large kettles were located on the coast for this purpose, especially near the port city of Rethymno.
So at least from the thirteenth century, the wine of Monemvasia had a good reputation. But which grape varieties was it made from? And which grape varieties made the journey to Crete in the fourteenth century, as cuttings to be planted there and produce even more malvasia? At that time, there were already vineyards in Crete planted with a grape variety that was the same or very similar to those in the hinterland of Monemvasia. Cretan sources mention vites monovasie and vitibus monovasiensibus in the fourteenth century; a clear reference to the origin of these vines from Monemvasia. Moreover, there is a sixteenth-century entry from a travelogue by Andrea Cornaro (1547-1616), who reports a wine made in Crete from a grape variety monovasia. Kourakou then traces back the trail of the grape variety that supplied malvasia and concludes that the variety now called Monemva(s)sia, which is still mainly found on Paros, is the original grape variety that supplied malvasia wines. The port town not only gave its name to a wine, but also to the grape variety.
Crete also had its own wines, the vinum cretense (as also evidenced by the accounts of Jan van Blois, quoted above). Winemakers reached for local varieties that could also deliver sweet wines; soon this was often also simply called malvasia, due to high demand. The malvasia that was not malvasia differed in colour, smell, and taste from the pure and true malvasia, according to the aforementioned Andrea Cornaro. In 1540, the Venetians, who had taken over power in Monemvasia in 1464, sold the town to the Ottomans. From then on, the link to its origins was completely severed. Malvasia had then become just another sweet wine from the Mediterranean, sometimes produced from the grape variety Monemva(s)sia, but more often not. And soon, grape varieties in all parts of the wine world were given the name Malvasia ‘something’, just to make the link with the well-known, expensive and sought-after sweet wine originally from Monemvasia.
After this long explanation, Kourakou then describes the historical production methods in both Crete and around Monemvasia: in large tanks in the open air, the grapes were trodden and the must flowed into collection vessels, sometimes buried in the ground. The must for quality wines for export was then transported in wine sacks to towns, where fermentation took place in barrels of 520 to 550 litres.
Wine consumed locally was not treated any further after fermentation. The wealthy upper class on Crete drank only untreated, pure wine. However, the wines that were meant to be exported beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, had to be stabilized first. The French traveller Pierre Belon reported around 1550 that the wines that were shipped to Germany, France or England from Crete were boiled, in open kettles on the beach (an observation we find again 100 years later in the work of physician Johan van Beverwijck from Dordrecht, in his Schat der Gesontheyt). From the sixteenth century onwards, there were two ways of processing malvasia wines.
- Named by Belon: heating the entire quantity of young wine in large kettles on the coast. This was done to kill the micro-organisms. Of course, these organisms were still unknown, but experience from Antiquity onwards had shown that this treatment helped to keep the wines stable. Moreover, it made the wines sweeter and less alcoholic.
- From a testimony of one Zuanne Papadopoli, in the late seventeenth century: in years when the grapes did not ripen as much, and dried less, a dose of boiled down must was added to the fermented wine (which the Romans already did). This extra sugar also acted as a preservative, as it does for jams and syrups. It also prevented the sweet wines from re-fermenting.So, there was a significant difference between malvasia drunk in the area of origin and the malvasia drunk by the Western rich upper class!
Over the years, malvasia faced increasing competition from Muscat wines. This grape variety was also planted in Crete, and, thanks to its distinctive aromas, it could already be drunk much younger than malvasia, which had to rely on ageing to develop aroma and flavour. The last shipment of true malvasia from Crete took place as early as 1581. The disappearance of the grape variety for malvasia from Crete is therefore not due to Ottoman rule (which did not begin in Crete until the late seventeenth century), but to the domination of Muscat wines! According to Kourakou, the final blow to real malvasia from Crete came in the form of two developments: the production of artificial malvasia in the west from boiled-down wine, and the emergence of household recipes using honey. At this point, I don’t find her account very convincing; here she fails to appreciate the enormous popularity of, for example, the wines of the Canary Islands, made from a grape variety that had also come to be called malvasia. That popularity was as much a blow as anything else.
Monemvasia – malvasia – malevesye
Finally, there is an interesting observation at the end of the book. According to Kourouka, the origin of the name ‘malvasia’ for the wine is linked not so much to the Greek name of the town of Monemvasia, but to the name the western Franks gave the town: Malevasia. Note the extra -e! The Franks (a name for the lords from France, Germany, England, and the Low Countries who ruled large parts of the Greek mainland after the fourth crusade in 1204) derived that name for the port town from the name of the mountainous area in Monemvasia’s hinterland. This was called Malevos, and Malevasia was then the name of the port at the foot of this area. And to my mind, this then corresponds very well to how the wine first appears in the sources in the Low Countries: also, with that extra -e! Both in the account of the Counts of Blois and that of the Counts of Holland, both sources from the last decades of the fourteenth century, the wine is called malevesye, maleveseien etcetera. But how did that term, with the extra -e, end up in an area on the other side of Europe, that, after all, had hardly any direct contact with Greece? Is there perhaps a link with a scion of the Avesnes family, Florent (or Floris) of Hainault (c. 1255 – 1297), who from 1289 until his death was prince of Achaia, the name for one of the principalities on the Peloponnese that emerged after 1204? Florent was a son of Jan I of Avesnes, count of Hainaut, and Aleid of Holland. Florent’s older brother Jan not only succeeded his father as count of Hainaut, but also became count of Holland. Moreover, the older brother, Jan II, was the great-grandfather of Jan and Guy of Blois. Could the house of Avesnes and especially Florent and his siblings have introduced this famous Greek wine in the Low Countries?
In any case, the name of the wine in our regions kept the extra -e for a long time. As late as 1427/28, it appears as such in the Utrecht city accounts: the city administrators then drank ’twe stadskannen malevizeien’, two pitchers of malvasia’.
Malvasia. The Renowned Wine Yesterday and Today may not yet be the definitive work on this fascinating historical wine, but it has laid wonderful groundwork, of course also based on the proceedings of the symposium in 2006. It is a great gift to wine history that the results of this symposium are now available to a wider audience in English. What is still missing, in my opinion, is a study into malvasia on its journey west, to find out where exactly it was delivered, by whom, at what point in time, and by whom it was drunk. Actually, a kind of history of the European wine trade through malvasia. There is still work to be done!
Photo credits top of article: Banquet of nobles in Byzantine Constantinople, from a bible illuminated in 1361/62 in Mystras, Peloponesse. Manuscript Parisinus Grec 135, 18v. in Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.