Its little secrets and other news from Savoie Varieties

In recent months, several people asked me about Malvoisie from Savoie. I thought I’d put this little post, although I’m in no way an expert in ampelography. Malvoisie is a variety that is little known, often mixed-up with others and that might change soon, at least in Savoie.

By the book

People often mistake Malvoisie as one variety from the Malvasia family. Let’s get this out of the way: Malvoisie, as it’s been grown and bottled in Savoie, has nothing much to deal with the variations of Malvasia that one can find around the Adriatic and Mediterranean sea.

By the book, Malvoisie should be Fruhroter Veltliner, in French, “Velteliner rouge précoce”, which is a cousin of the Gruner Veltliner. Some analyses suggest that it might be a crossing between Sylvaner and Red Velteliner that happened in northern Italy. The variety has made it in many regions around the Alps: Veneto, South Tyrol, Alto Piedmont, Savoie and also Germany and Alsace. It’s in different places under different names: Früher roter Malvasier (Germany), Frühroter Veltliner (Austria), Korai piros veltelini (Hungary), Veltlínske cervené skoré (Slovaki) and Veltlinské cervenobilé (Tcheck republic)

When I say “by the book”, I mean “by the INAO book”, INAO being this organisation that defines appellations in France, and that says that in the Savoie appellation, you can have “Velteliner rouge précoce”. The INAO doesn’t mention Malvoisie, but it seems accepted as Savoie winemakers, for quite some time, have been bottling and labelling Malvoisie (and never “velteliner rouge précoce”), getting the Savoie appellation for what should be Fruhroter Veltliner.

Malvoisie is also often expected to be something else in other “books”, and around Savoie. Many think it is just Pinot Gris, just like in the Valais in Switzerland, not that far away from Savoie.

Off the book

Now, Fruhroter Veltliner is a red-grey-ish skin grape that looks very similar to Pinot Gris. However Pinot Gris, unlike the Fruhroter Velteliner, is not authorized by the INAO as part of the Savoie appellation (or was not until now… see below). From there, you don’t need a very twisted mind to imagine that many growers in Savoie might be naming Malvoisie things which are effectively Pinot Gris.

I asked Thomas Blard who told me that on his side, his Malvoisie was the real Fruhroter Velteliner and not the Pinot Grigio. Another winemaker told me something about his vineyard, more like “who knows, it looks so similar, I’m not even sure myself”. One thing which is sure, when you ask “officially”, everybody in the appellation should tell you “mine is Fruhroter Velteliner”…

Fruhroter Veletliner and Pinot Grigio

What is changing now

The INAO has decided in 2021 to make some additions to the Savoie appellation and will authorise more varieties for at least ten years. The new varieties are Bia Blanc, Corbeau/Douce Noire, Dousset, Hibou Noir, Mondeuse Grise, Petite Sainte-Marie… and Pinot Gris. Six rare and indigenous varieties… and Pinot Gris (which is nothing rare or native…). this could change the situation when it comes to the grey (the right adjective no?) space Malvoisie is in, hopefully bringing clarity. Producers will be able to officially grow Pinot Gris in the appellation. We still probably will have to wait as the current text for now limits the use to blending as an accessory grape in small proportions (less than 10%).

I am unsure whether the Inao considered enforcing using (or not using) the name “Malvoisie” on labels, when using one or the other of these two varieties. We shall see.

As a side topic, I’m delighted that other real native varieties are finally added to the appellation. I just think it should go faster. This is a bit of a pity it is so small proportions, there’s still a long way to go… but at least it’s going in the good direction. Appellations should not be the exclusivity of a few varieties and should much more try to provide a framework for making sure appellation wines are true wine with a sense of place, more than conveying the typicality of the varieties. I hope this will happen, and in many other appellations too.

And, how does it taste?

That is probably the part that should matter the most. Malvoisie, in the few examples I had myself, were very different from one producer to another and I can’t say that I really have in mind a clear signature. In general however, a fairly aromatic wine, bringing immediately to the nose and the mouth some clear notes of white fruit, quince, maybe pear as well as mirabelle. The acidity is usually quite low; wines are subtle and easy, very versatile, quite generous and wide for an Alpine wine but never big and structured enough for heavy food. I’d say more of an aperitif or hors-d’oeuvre wine. That said for the dry version of it. The grapes can be subject to botrytis and a few winemakers are making sweet wines from it.

We, at Living Wine, do have some examples in our portfolio: the Malvoisie from Julien Viana at the Cellier de la Baraterie, which will be available from the beginning of 2022 in its 2018 vintage (in super tiny quantities), and Monemvasia from Domaine Blard, an exciting and unusual one, for which part of the wine has been made with a short skin maceration. (note on Monemvasia the name of the town that gave birth to Malvasia link). Domaine Blard has also a beautiful sweet “Malvoisie Passerillée” made it tiny tiny quantities.

I hope this post was of interest to some of you and If ever you know more about the alpine Malvoisie, please let me know! Researching this one was not that easy.

Leaving you on a beautiful picture of the city of Monemvasia (the city is actually behind the rock…)