Earlier this year I was invited on a fascinating wine trip. It was entitled Wines Without Borders and was a study tour of vineyards around the Italian-Slovenian border areas. The premise was that the frontier is entirely artificial and manmade and that many of the same traditions of winemaking straddle that post World War Two border.
Both sides of the border tend to use the same grape varieties, Ribolla, Refosco, Pinot Gris / Pinot Grigio and Friulano (formerly known as Tokaj) as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. However, it was the Malvasia that especially drew my attention on the Italian side of the frontier.
I am often drawn to white wines made from the Malvasia grape. However you spell it Malvasia, Malvazia, Malvazija or even Malmsey the wines can often be very exciting indeed. Spain produces some lovely examples, especially whites from Toro and Arribes in Castilla y León as well as from the Canary Islands. Malvasia can often ad more complexity and depth to Rioja’s Viura grape to make a finer style of white Rioja – try this stunning example made from 100% Malvasia.
Actually there are many different types of Malvasia and not all grape varieties that are called Malvasia are actually related – indeed Malvoisie in France’s Loire Valley is actually Pinot Gris. In many ways Malvasia can be seen as a sort of portmanteau word allowing early merchants to lump together good quality white grapes of the Mediterranean world – a bit like Pineau (which then possibly became Pinot) was for good quality grapes in Mediaeval France.
On this trip the particular strain that we encountered was Malvasia Istriana or Istrska Malvazija in Slovenian – the same grape is used in Istrian Croatia as well, where it is called Malvazija Istarska.
Tenuta di Blasig was founded by Domenico Blasig in 1788 with the aim of making fine Malvasia wine. Although they grow other grapes and make one of my favourite Refocus, Malvasia remains the focus. The charming Elisabetta Bortolotto Sarcinelli is the eighth generation of the family to manage the estate and she seems to do a vey good job, producing wines of elegance and depth. They farm 18 hectares, but the vineyards are spread out and often found surrounded by suburban buildings – Trieste Airport is very close indeed and the winery is right next to the town hall. The region is basically an alluvial plain with the mountains to the north and east, beyond Goriza and Trieste. It is warm and sunny, but tempered by the winds and ocean breezes and the effects of the Isonzo River (Soča in Slovene).
I was always drawn to the town name, Ronchi dei Legionari, assuming that it harked back to Roman times. Sadly this is not the case. In fact the name was originally Ronchi Monfalcone and was only changed in 1925 to commemorate the fact that nationalist, war hero, poet and proto fascist, Gabriele D’Annunzio‘s legionnaires set off from here in 1919 to seize the port of Fiume / Rijeka (now in Croatia) from the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, soon to be called Yugoslavia. D’Annunzio wanted Fiume to be part of Italy, as was the rest of Istria at the time. His occupation of the city lasted for 16 months and made him a national hero. D’Annunzio was a friend of the Blasig family and actually stayed in the house before sailing to Fiume and a whole wall near the kitchen is covered in amazing photographs of D’Annunzio and his men.
The house is utterly beautiful and I can quite see why D’Annunzio stayed there. It is an old Palazzo with wonderful wall paintings, decorative tiles and stunning gardens. We tasted and dined in the newer part attached to the winery, but saw some of the old house after dinner.
All the wines were excellent, including a deliciously rich and savoury Refosco and their Elisabetta Brut, a lithe, refreshing tank method sparkling wine made from Malvasia and Pinot Bianco, but the standout was this dry, still Malvasia which is a single vineyard wine from the nearby village of Vermegliano. It is cold fermented in stainless steel and aged on the lees for 6 months.
That orange comes back, giving a soft, citric twist, while the weight and the salty minerality dominate the finish, which is pretty long.
This is a very complex wine that shows just how good Malvasia can be – 91/100 points.