Monday, June 8, 2015

The History of Malvasia Istriana (Wine)

Vineyards in the village of Verteneglio, one of the most important
wine-producing areas in Istria, and part of the Italian Association of Wine Cities.

As with all regions of ancient Roman, Latin and Italian heritage, wine is an integral part of Istrian culture, cuisine and gastronomy. There is a popular Italian proverb in Istria: “Il pane per il corpo, il vino per l'anima”, which means “Bread is for the body, wine is for the soul.” Another common Istrian expression is “dalla vite il vino, il latte caprino”, meaning “wine comes from the vine and milk from a goat.” Undoubtedly the most important and most widespread type of wine in Istria for the last several centuries is that which is made from malvasia.

Malvasia is a type of grape used to make wine, especially white wine. Malvasia is indigenous to the Mediterranean and although the exact origins of the plant are disputed, it is commonly believed to have originated 2000 years ago in Greece. Despite the grape existing for a long period of time, its history of being cultivated for wine-making only began about 800 years ago when the malvasia grape arrived in Italy. According to tradition, the malvasia grape was first introduced into Italy in the 13th century by the Venetians, who imported it from the Venetian colonies in the east. The grape quickly spread throughout all of Italy, including Istria, and it was during this period that the world's first malvasia wine was made in Italy from the malvasia grape. The malvasia grape is comprised of several sub-varieties which were used to make many new kinds of Italian wines. One of the most popular among these is a wine known as Malvasia Istriana.

The Malvasia Istriana grape is a local sub-variety of the malvasia grape, cultivated in the Italian regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the Veneto and of course in Istria (hence its name) where Malvasia Istriana wine was first produced. Traditionally, as mentioned above, the original grape is believed to have been introduced by the Venetians from the Italian colonies in Greece, however modern scientific studies now suggest that the Malvasia Istriana grape is unrelated to the Greek malvasian grapes and is in fact indigenous to this area of northeastern Italy, where it has been used to make Malvasia Istriana wine since at least the 13th century. During the second half of the 20th century, in the years following the annexation of Istria to Communist Yugoslavia (previously Istria had belonged to Italy), Malvasia Istriana was translated into Croatian as 'Malvazija Istarska' and into Slovenian as 'Istrska Malvazija'. Prior to this the Slavic names of 'Malvazija Istarska' and 'Istrska Malvazija' were unknown, and Malvasia Istriana was universally acknowledged as an Italian variety of wine.

It should be noted that within Croatia the malvasia grape is cultivated only in Istria and Dalmatia; and within Slovenia the malvasia grape is cultivated only in Istria, around the area of Capodistria. This further demonstrates the connection of this wine to Italy; within modern Croatia and Slovenia the malvasia grape and wine is cultivated and produced only in the former Italian regions of Istria and Dalmatia, while the historical Slavic regions of Croatia and Slovenia have no tradition of cultivating the malvasia grape nor of producing wine from it. To this day those historical Slavic regions are neither cultivators nor producers of malvasia; it remains unique to the regions of Istria and Dalmatia; Malvasia Istriana in particular remains confined to Istria, together with Friuli and the Veneto. This is because Malvasia Istriana is an Italian variety of wine and has no historical link to Croatia or Slovenia, and is not historically part of Croatian or Slovenian culture or vinification; it is yet another product of Italian culture in Istria that has been stolen, exploited and re-branded as “Slavic” by the Croatian and Slovenian occupiers of the region since the end of the Second World War.

Approximately 60% of all wine produced in Istria today is of the malvasia variety. Malvasia Istriana continues to be produced in Istria not only by the Slavic population, but also and especially in the areas of Istria that still have a substantial Italian population, such as Verteneglio, Buie, Umago, Cittanova, Portole and Grisignana, which – despite being occupied by Croatia today – have all voluntarily joined the Italian Association of Wine Cities (Associazione nazionale Città del Vino). Each year in the village of Verteneglio the local community hosts the Festival of Malvasia Istriana (Festa della Malvasia istriana), an annual wine-tasting event in Istria.