Even the most experienced wine lover will probably never have tasted a wine from the island of Malta. Almost all of the wine produced is consumed locally by the Maltese and the horde of sun-seeking tourists who flock to the island year-round. Only a tiny quantity of the Maltese wine production is destined for export or for a few rich foreign clients. I took advantage of a short stay on the island to discover the wines of Malta and a wine world still unknown !
Geographical situation and climate
Malta consists of an archipelago of 7 islands, of which only 3 are inhabited, about 100 kilometers south of Sicily and about 300 kilometers north of Tunisia. The main island, Malta, and the second island, Gozo, have just over 800 hectares of vineyards. The climate is Mediterranean with very hot and dry summers (the little rainfall is concentrated between September and late March). Irrigation is therefore mandatory to grow vines. The climate of Malta is much more favorable to the production of red wine, but the Maltese prefer to drink white wine, because of the heat.
A bit of History
Wine production on this small Mediterranean island goes back as far as the time of the Phoenicians. The Romans and then the Knights of the Order of St. John continued the tradition. Although wine production dates back more than two millennia, the wine industry has always been very modest due to the size of the island. Malta is a very densely populated island with little agricultural land. It was only in the 1970s that the wine industry was modernized and international grape varieties were gradually planted.
In Malta, more than twenty international grape varieties are cultivated. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay, among others, are favored by winegrowers. Nevertheless, there are two local curiosities, the girgentina in white and the gellewza in red. No one agrees on the origin of these two grape varieties. Girgentina gives very light wines with a lot of acidity. It is often blended with Chardonnay to give it more structure. As for gellewza, it is a very lightly colored variety, often uninteresting when vinified alone. It is usually blended with syrah or cabernet, or used to make cheap, sparkling rosés.
The challenges of the Maltese wine industry
The island’s wine producers face many challenges. First of all, the lack of space. The Maltese archipelago is very small and finding land to plant new vineyards is a headache. There are a lot of winemakers, but very few producers. Therefore, there are many very small plots of land and the winemakers had to be encouraged to produce quality grapes. Oenologists from the main wineries are constantly on the road to make sure the vines are growing well.
The other challenge is the climate. In some places, several months can pass without a single drop of water falling. Because of this drought, the vines must be constantly irrigated so that they do not suffer too much. At harvest time, it is so hot that we have to start at dusk and finish around 10:30 – 11:00 am. At Meridiana Wine Estate, for example, they even rent refrigerated trucks for the harvest to ensure that the grapes arrive at the winery in optimal conditions. It is also not easy to recruit qualified workers to harvest the grapes because the work is so hard.
Finally, the last issue related to the wine industry in Malta is the cost. Here, production costs are high, as everything is imported: machinery, chemicals, bottles, corks, barrels, etc.
Wineries to Visit
In Malta, there are many small winemakers, but only a few producers. Marsovin and Delicata are the two giants of the island, followed by Meridiana Wine Estate, and then some producers, especially on the island of Gozo, such as Ta’ Mena, Tal-Massar and Bacchus.
Founded in 1919, Marsovin is one of the oldest wine producers on the island. The annual production reaches almost two million bottles. Marsovin owns a little over 20 hectares and also buys grapes from about 300 Maltese winemakers, which represent 200 hectares of vineyards. A visit to their cellar in Paola, the port area, is a must. More than 100,000 bottles and 220 oak barrels are stored there. They also produce a sparkling wine using the traditional method, the Cassar of Malta (probably one of the only ones of its kind in the Mediterranean basin!). marsovin.com
Meridiana Wine Estate
In 1989, Mark Miceli-Farrugia bought a former military airport, a 19-hectare plot of land on which he decided to plant many international grape varieties. In 1992, Meridiana Wine Estate joined forces with the famous Italian family Antinori. The estate produces the Isis vintage, a Chardonnay fermented in steel tanks. One of the best white wines of the island. I also liked their vermentino and merlot. meridiana.com.mt
Second largest producer in volume after Marsovin, Delicata has been producing wine since 1907. The company has the particularity of not owning any vineyards. It vinifies the grapes it gets from 380 winegrowers on the island, representing about 130 hectares of vineyards. Their superb cellar is located in Paola, in a building dating from the 17th century, built at the time of the Knights of the Order of St. John. delicata.com