Welcome to Malta, with its three magnificent islands of a thousand and one faces. Considered to be one of the smallest wine countries in the world (barely 500 hectares of vines), Malta has been producing wine for over 2000 years.
Its viticultural history, eventful – introduced by the Phoenicians, developed by the Greeks and Romans, put to sleep during the Muslim occupation, brought up to date by the knights of the order of Saint John of Jerusalem… then again damaged by the British to replace vines with cotton, has finally stabilized in the last two decades, with Malta joining the European Union in 2004.
Malta, strategic crossroad of the Mediterranean
Governed since the dawn of time by foreign nations, this archipelago with a rich and unique cultural mix, has a crazy charm.
Only fifteen minutes from Italy and thirty minutes from Africa, Malta has always been a strategic crossroad in the Mediterranean, arousing the greatest greed. And although its independence was recognized in 1964, it took ten years (December 13, 1974), for Malta to proclaim the republic and elect a president at its head. Valletta, the capital, where I lived during my stay, is beautiful. A tourist destination par excellence, with boutique-hotels blooming like daisies in the spring. Wine bars are not yet very developed. However, one address is already unmissable : Trabuxu (“corkscrew” in Maltese), to drink some nice local wines and to get a first impression of the Maltese wine industry.
Not forgetting to visit the incredible Saint John’s Cathedral, a building with interior walls covered with gold.
On the wine side, everybody is in agreement that finding a bottle of fine Maltese wine before the end the 1990s was a real challenge. “The protectionism of the 1960s – with zero competition – dropped the quality of wines to the bottom, just like many other products. Even the chocolate came from China and had everything but the taste of chocolate“, Bernard Muscat, from the Marsovin estate, recalls. After joining the EU in 2004, the production of wine has become more serious, focusing mainly on international grape varieties, turning its back on local varieties, considered to be less qualitative.
Finally, three appellations were created in 2007, to continue increasing quality: D.O.K. Malta and D.O.K. Gozo, for both islands, and I.G.T. Maltese Islands, more global.
Delicata and Marsovin, the two major players
Delicata and Marsovin, respectively established in 1907 and 1919, are the two largest and oldest producers in Malta. They are based near Paola, along the port of Melita, just before Valletta.
The Delicata estate, which has been in the hands of the Delicata family since the beginning of its creation, is the second largest producer in Malta with 1.2 million bottles produced per year. The estate works with 300 farmers, established between the islands of Malta (in the south) and Gozo (in the north), with whom they have contracts for the purchase of their grapes. Our visit during the harvest coincided with the visit of Mr Clint Camilleri (Permanent Secretary for Agriculture, Fishing and Animal Protection, in the center of the photo). This presented the opportunity to exchange thoughts on the range of wines from Delicata, consisting of some 50 wines, highlighting autochthonous varietals Girgentina (white) and Gellewza (red).
“It’s good to live here,” according to Alfred, a former retired employee who has worked here for 53 years and still comes to help during the harvest!
The story of Marsovin, located close by, is a very nice success story. This is the story of a man, Mr Cassar, who at the age of 16 was crisscrossing Malta with his cart, pulled by a donkey. He was selling wine in demijohns glass, to make a living. He quickly became interested in the production of wine, understood the trade, and founded Marsovin, which soon became Malta’s largest estate.
Today, with 60% of the country’s grapes bought and 24 hectares of vines of its own, Marsovin continues to flourish. In the cellars of the estate, some treasures are to be found (more than 20 vintages), which can be opened for its members (around 3000), during vertical tastings organized once a month. There are even some magnums and jeroboams.
Water, a major concern
The Mediterranean climate of the island offers hot and dry summers, with temperatures reaching 40°C in July and August. However, rainfall remains low.
Water is a major concern in Malta: twelve water desalination plants were created, to provide drinking water. Here, it is said laughingly that it is cheaper to shower with wine. “Irrigating by pumping water from basements in Malta is very risky for the vines since the water is much too salty and it would change the profile of the wines”. Despite this, new wineries appeared in recent years on the archipelago. Like the Maria Rosa estate, not far from the town of Mdina, which was created in 2006 by Joseph Fenech, who wanted to produce wine as his father had done in his youth. The estate covers 4.2 hectares, planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Sirakuzan (Maltese name of the Italian grape variety Nero d’Avola).
Around the estate, you can also see olive trees on the property, from which a delicious extra virgin olive oil is produced.
Meridiana and San Niklaw, flagships of Maltese viticulture
Not far from the city of Mdina, which can be seen in the background of the vineyard and the national football stadium, is the Meridiana vineyard.
Karl Chetcuti, the director of the premises, explained that the estate was established in 1997… from scratch! And although with only twenty years of existence, they were among the first to make premium wine in Malta. “It was a long and dangerous way to get there.” An ambitious project, which after many refusals from the banks, was partly financed by the famous Italian Antinori family, friends of the owner. Today, with 17.5 hectares of vines planted, the estate is exclusively in the hands of Antinori and benefits from a unique know-how, advanced equipment and advice, to produce some of the best wines in Malta.
With a bias towards ageing wines without new oak : “with 300 days of sunshine a year in Malta and the opportunity to have fresh fish every day, I prefer refreshing and unwooded wines”, Karl said with a big smile.
Some winegrowers discover a passion for wine very late… others combine two jobs at a time… We met with John Cauchi, both a renowned doctor of the island, a very talented winemaker, and a flourished man. This very nice neo-winemaker, together with his brother Thomas (ship captain) created the San Niklaw Estate in 2004.
A crazy job for him. But above all, the feeling of having accomplished something beautiful and being able to share it. Three hectares of vines: Vermentino, Sangiovese, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The production is very small (10,000 bottles) and the wines are very fine and delicate. Notice to the amateurs, you can find their cuvées in some of the most beautiful Maltese restaurants.
Mar Casar, wine as therapy
There are sometimes hopeful stories with such a strong message that we simply have to share them.
This is the story of Mark Casar, born in Valletta, who after working in the hospitality industry in France and Switzerland, returned to settle in Malta in 1991, where he was both a guide and a restorer of houses. Working 7/7, he finally fell into a depression and stayed at home for a year in 2004, to try to heal himself. He once thought of buying fields near the sea. “It was my cure, my therapy.” He planted three hectares with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Chardonnay. “I unconsciously stopped taking my pills”. Mark, sensitive to sulfur, has always suffered from headaches.
He therefore decided to make natural wines, with the minimum amount of sulphite possible to stabilize his wines. Welcome to Mar Casar estate.
“A good wine goes beyond taste and smell. It must bring joy and emotion to the one who drinks it”. And to add: “it is the only product, containing alcohol, able to bring out the joy that recides inside us”. All his wines are fermented and aged in the Qvevri(1) method, in the sand. Mark uses clay amphora “raw”, ie unrefined. Important for the circulation of energy and the good ageing of the wines, it seems. Mark believes very strongly in the magnetism of wine.
“We always talk about terroir, microclimate, but never about the cellar”, he is astonishingly right. “The best wineries are surely highly magnetized places”. To meditate…
Gozo, the wild and preserved side of Malta
The island of Gozo, north of Malta, is full of natural treasures. More rural than the South Island, it is a paradise for hikers, scuba diving, or simply gastronomy and local products…for gourmands like us!
We met Joseph Spiteri, owner of the TaMena estate. Joseph is a lover of his island: he talks about goats, olive trees, tomatoes, with stars in his eyes. Because in addition to taking care of his 15-hectare estate, alone with his wife, Joseph finds the time to make olive oil (1500 olive trees), cheese, jams, as well as many local culinary preparations for the happiness of the tourists of the island.
A character as charming as overexcited, who never stops and who keeps a genuine smile on his lips in all circumstances.
As you can see, the Maltese vineyard is slowly being reborn from its ashes. And although the low production of the country makes it difficult to export wines, and at the same time to promote them abroad, tourism is growing stronger – Valletta will even be the European capital of culture next year – and this is probably the card to play for the recognition of Maltese wine.
Thank you to Delicata, Meridiana, San Niklaw, Marsovin, Maria Rosa, Mar Casar and TaMena for their warm welcome. Thank you to the agency MCA Communication, for its precious help in organizing this trip. Thank you to the team of Visit Malta, for accompanying us so kindly when visiting the wineries. Finally, thank you to Madame Béatrice le Fraper du Hellen, Ambassador of the French Republic in Malta, for her kind invitation.
(1) Qvevri is a large terracotta jar with a capacity of 800 to 3,500 liters, from Georgia. It looks like an amphora without handles; the interior is lined with a layer of beeswax sealing. Often buried below ground level, it is used for fermentation and storage of wine. The oldest date back to around 6,000 BC.
For more information on Malta : http://www.visitmalta.com/fr/