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Malvasia de Sitges: A grape born from mercenaries and knights

Malvasia de SitgesHundreds of years before Catalunya became part of Spain, the land was under the control of the Crown of Aragon; a kingdom that stretched from the Iberian peninsula through southern France, modern-day Italy, and as even as far as Greece. Without a standing army, conquests and vengeance were exacted in the name of The Crown (our whoever had the gold) by troops of ruthless, long-haired, fast-moving Catalan mercenaries called almogavars.

In 1303, led by the infamous Roger de Flor—an Italian-born Templar Knight, commander of the feared “Catalan Company”, and namesake of my first (temporary) address here in Barcelona—a troop of almogavar foot soldiers set sail for Constantinople to protect the city from the invading Ottoman Turks. They were under the pay of the Byzantine Empire, hired to bring their blood lust and special brand of guerrilla warfare to the aid of Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus.

Clothed in nothing but animal pelts, these seasoned soldiers would strike the ground forcefully with sword and lance until sparks would fly from the stones, chanting their spine-tingling war-cry, “Awake Iron!”, before charging headlong and wild-eyed into battle. As fate would have it, among the ranks of these feared soldiers-for-hire was Jofre de les Escales; the man responsible for bringing grape vine trimming all the way from the vineyards of the Greek city of Monemvasia home to the town of Sitges, just south of Barcelona, where the varietal was planted in the low, coastal soil of what is now known as Garraf (D.O Penedès). The grape was called Malvasia de Sitges.

J. Robert Malvasia de SitgesThe word ‘Malvasia’ is an evolution of Monemvasia (the city of its origin). Historically known as Malvazia and Malmsey, it’s grown throughout the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Greece and Croatia. Though Malmsey was at one point a general term for the Malvasia grape, it is now reserved exclusively for the fortified wine of Madeira, Portugal of the same name. And despite the fact that Malvasia de Sitges shares family ties with the other Malvasia varietals of the Mediterranean, oenologists often site the chalky soil composition, loose cluster formation, high acidity and proximity to the ocean as reason for Malvasia de Sitges’ distinct flavor profile.

Though best known as a dessert wine, Malvasia de Sitges is also vinified into dry and sparkling wines with much success. The production is small, but because of the grape’s historic journey, and subsequent fight for survival, these wines of Sitges—from just a handful of producers—have slowly gained respect and (regional) fame.

From the time that the vines arrived in Catalunya until the end of the 19th century, the production of Malvasia de Sitges continued to increase, thanks to growing recognition and considerable international interest (at one time the most successfully exported Catalan wine). However, around 1880 things took a turn for the worse. Due in part to the arrival of phylloxera in Penedès, and the recent invention of Cava (1872), the acres of Malvasia de Sitges began to steadily decline.

Interestingly, before phylloxera hit Penedès, some 80% of all plantings were of red varietals, but as diseased rootstocks began to be replanted, the new popularity of Cava prompted winemakers to look forward into the potential success of the champagne-style wine on a larger scale. In the end, most vineyard were replanted with the indigenous white varietals that now make up 70% of Penedès’ production (and are their undisputed claim to fame).

By the 1930s, Malvasia de Sitges was nearly extinct and would have surely been forgotten if it was not for one man; the diplomat and Sitges-resident Manuel Llopis i de Casdes. Señor Manuel Llopis owned some 2.5 hectares of vineyard land in the Aiguadolç of Sitges, right along the coastal roadway that flanks the iconic beach for sun-searchers of nearby Barcelona. Before his death in 1935, Manuel Llopis donated all of his land to the local foundation of the Hospital of Saint John the Baptist under the condition that they would continue to cultivate the vines, and they did. The small vineyards are still visible today, though are now bisected in by homes and businesses; a result of the tourism development of Sitges that still shows no signs of submission.

In 2006, The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity (Turin, Italy) awarded Malvasia de Sitges their Presidia Award; “…intended to protect high-quality and traditionally produced foods for future generations in the face of industrialized agriculture and big business.” This is the first and only grape to receive this recognition.

CarquinyolisThe wine of Malvasia de Sitges is most famous for its sweeter iterations. Typically a ‘late harvest’ style wine, the sweet Malvasia de Sitges is allowed to ripen an extra two-to-three weeks on the vine past the time of normal harvest. This particular varied is exceptionally suited for this purposeful “over-ripening”, as the grape clusters are especially loose, allowing uniform maturation without spoilage.

Once the grapes have achieved this extra level of sweetness through excessive sugar development they are gently pressed, the must then either fermented and fortified with aguardiente (neutral grape brandy from the Spanish agua – water – and ardiente – fiery or burning), or chilled to stop fermentation, both resulting in higher levels of residual sugar in the final product . After fermentation, Malvasia de Sitges is most often aged in chestnut barrels; a wood that doesn’t lend excessive oak character to the wine, allowing slight oxidation for that nutty, golden character. Chestnut tends to be more porous than American and French oak, not to mention considerably more affordable for small-scale producers. Malvasia de Sitges dessert wine can be from 10% to 16% alcohol with a residual sugar of some 200 grams per liter, making it quite sweet and in need of an appropriate food pairing.

As Malvasia de Sitges is a Catalan wine, the best choice of pairing would for all intents and purposes be something… Catalan (of course). Carquinyolis, a catalan-style biscotti, is a crunchy, mildly sweet, cookie that pairs beautifully with this grape. Always small and with whole almonds, it contains just enough sugar that it doesn’t kill the wine, and the sensation of the biscuit dissolving in your mouth with a swig of this golden elixir is deeply warming; a rich-yet-appropriate indulgence.

Another great pairing is Fruites seques (literally ‘dried fruits’); a mix of roasted almonds, pine nuts, raisins, dried apricots, prunes, and more. This dessert, often called postres de músic (“musician’s dessert”—something musicians and performers could eat quickly and easily that wouldn’t melt while they were playing), is traditionally served with a glass of muscatel, but works wonderfully with the Malvasia de Sitges too.

With a annual production of less than 5,000 bottles, this wine is not as costly as you may imagine. A 750ml bottle set me back a grand total of €6.00, so even though you may not find this at your neighborhood wine merchant, stop by Lafuente or some of the other bodegas of the city next time you are in Barcelona and pick up a bottle!


Sam Zucker

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