Wine lovers often stand accused of tasting things that can’t possibly be in their glasses – leather, tobacco, slate, the earth in spring, even cat pee on a gooseberry bush.
But trust me when I tell you that the Malvasia dessert wine at Taverna Agora tastes of an epic story, with notes of a rise to international fame and a tragic disappearance, with hints of a memory that lingered for centuries and a finish that speaks of an elegant New World re-emergence. I’m not just being grandiose. Give this wine a few minutes to unfold, and it has a tale to tell.
You may think you already know this story. The Malvasia family of grape varietals thrives throughout southern Europe and in New World spots with similar climates. The Portuguese have used it to make Madeira Malmsey for generations.
The Monemvasia-Malvasia 2010 bears a resemblance to Madeira with its rich, amber color and a nose full of spices, but it is lighter and smoother on the tongue, with a medium body that avoids being syrupy. It tastes of plum and dried apricots, but the overt sweetness is set off by a hint of acidity. Teams of botanical researchers and wine makers took almost two decades to create this wine, based on a medieval recipe that had gone unused for 300 years. And for now, Taverna Agora in downtown Raleigh is the only place in the United States where you can taste it.
The rise of the Malvasia began in ancient Greece, where its vines found fertile ground in the sun-washed hills surrounding the Byzantine port city of Malvasia (or Monemvasia as the Franks called it), on the southeastern coast of the Peloponnese. The port was a center of cultivation and export for its eponymous wine throughout the Middle Ages. The grape found fertile ground throughout the rest of southern Europe as well, and Malvasia wine, also known as Malmsey, became one of the most popular wines of its day, a favorite of royals and aristocrats, and mentioned by Shakespeare as a medium for drowning George Plantagenet in “Richard III.”
In the 17th century, following the Turkish occupation of the port city of Malvasia, the vineyards were destroyed. For more than 300 years, no Malvasia grapes were grown in the historic spot that gave the grape its name. In 1997, a Greek company founded the Monemvasia Winery, with a goal of reintroducing Malvasia wine to Malvasia. The winemakers worked with agricultural researchers for a dozen years to find the grape varietals that would help them re-create the sweet taste of ancient Malvasia wine.
Once the right Malvasia grapes were grown and harvested, winemakers sun-dried them for a dozen days or so and added a blend of other Greek white wines, including Assyrtiko, Kydonitsa and Asproudes. The wine was then aged for two years in oak barrels. The 2010 vintage yielded a little more than 9,000 bottles.
Lou Moshakos, the Raleigh-based restaurateur who owns Taverna Agora and the Carolina Ale House franchise, has been sampling the wine’s progress for years. The vineyards are near his childhood home in Greece, and the winemakers are old family friends.
“Every summer I go to the winery and I taste the new wines, and every year was better and better and better,” he said.
Among Moshakos’ holdings is Flying Olive Farms import company, which allows him to bring the Malvasia, along with Greek olive oil and Bbalsamic vinegar, to the United States. Pam Skea, managing director of Flying Olive Farms, said the response to the Malvasia at Taverna Agora has been enthusiastic. Eventually the company hopes to move into other markets with the wine, she said.
But for now, it’s a Taverna Agora exclusive, and it makes for the perfect after-dinner drink because it comes with it a story of its own.
Amber Nimocks is a former News & Observer food editor. Reach her at amberwrites.com.