The first time I heard about Maltese wine was from a fellow participant during the 8th International Wine Tourism Conference (IWINETC) held in Barcelona in April 2016.
Marco Micallef, a Maltese national and I happened to share a table during lunch and as usual got talking about wine. What else does one talk about during a wine conference ? He was as surprised to hear that India produced wine as much as I was about Malta.
I put that conversation behind me thinking where will I ever get a chance to try out Maltese wine. Unless of course I visited this beautiful Southern European Mediterranean island nation situated approximately 50 miles off the coast of Sicily. Marco mentioned that most of the country’s small production of wines was consumed within and hardly any was exported outside, same as with several smaller wine producing countries in Europe like Slovenia.
Then a few days back I found myself seated on the same table as the High Commissioner of Malta to India, H.E Stephan Borg, at a dinner thrown by the Greek Ambassador where some lovely Greek wines were served.
On hearing that I was a wine writer, the Maltese High Commissioner extended me an invitation to join him for a wine tasting at his High Commission, where a function was organised by Blue Marble Destination Services to promote Malta as a destination for weddings and corporate conferences.
The wines served at this event were from Meridiana, an estate situated in Malta’s agricultural heartland at Ta’Qali. It was founded in 1987 by a local businessman, Mark Miceli-Farrugia, who in 1992 collaborated with the Antinori family of Tuscany (of Tignanello fame) to produce “World class wines of Maltese character”. Now the winery is wholly owned by Antinori.
The High Commissioner informed me that though Malta’s wine making tradition dates back over two thousand years to the time of the Phoenicians, it was only from 1970’s onwards that a serious attempt was made to revive the local wine industry by planting several French and Italian vitis vinifera varieties like Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Trebbiano, Vermentino etc. Vitis Vinifera are grape varieties that are turned into wines.
Earlier wines in Malta were produced mostly from table grapes or from imported grapes or “must” (freshly pressed grape juice that contains the skin, seeds and stem of the fruit).
The two native indigenous vitis vinefera varieties found in Malta and its sister island Gozo, Girgentina (white) and Gellewza (red), I was told make rather decent wines, aromatic and juicy reds, fruity rosé wines and some crisp floral whites. The earliest two wineries established in Malta were Marsovin and Emmanuel Delicata.
With the addition of Meridiana, Camilleri and Montekristo the total number of wineries has gone up to five. Actually four to be precise as Marsovin and Camilleri merged together a few years ago. It may sound like a very small number but please remember that Malta is not a big nation and even though the boom in tourism fuelled the demand for wine, it also limited agricultural land available for planting vineyards. Hence there are only a handful of wineries producing wine.
The biggest push to the domestic wine industry came when Malta joined the EU in 2004. With the lifting of levies on imported wines, Maltese winemakers were forced to improve quality due to increased competition. The EU even funded 1,000 hectares of new vineyards to make the island’s wine industry self-sufficient.
A system of regulation similar to Italy’s came into place in 2007 when Malta introduced its DOK (same as EU’s PDO Protected Designation of Origin where 100% of the grapes have to come from a specified region and IGT same as PGI or Protected Geographical Indication where 85% of the grapes come from a demarcated geographical area and 15% can come from outside areas but within the country).
The three Merdiana Estate wines which I tasted that evening were Astarte Vermentino 2015, Fenici Rose 2015 and Bel Syrah Superior 2013. These boutique style wines were clearly some of the better Maltese wines.
Astarte Vermentino had a nice lemony zest and pronounced floral aftertaste with a hint of saltiness from the sea, very similar to what you find in most Greek white wines.
Fenici Rosé made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah was vibrant with pronounced red berry flavours and a slight spiciness from the Syrah. Both wines were dry with a freshness and finely tuned acidity.
Bel Syrah was a nice fleshy red with spice accents and a touch of oak. The name Bel actually recalls the Phoenician god of fertility.
One could clearly see the Antinori stamp on these wines.
I am hoping that next time I taste Maltese wines will be somewhere on this sun-kissed island watching a spectacular sunset sipping a glass of crisp Girgentina.
By: Lavina Kharkwal
Reference: The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson