Maltese wine: A scene for experiments

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What wine do Maltese people like? – This is what we asked Matthew Delicata, one of the owners of the oldest wine cellar in Malta – Delicata. It is also one of the largest wine producers in the country and there wines are in almost every restaurant. He replied that during most of the year, Malta is a hot place, seafood is the preferred meal and Maltese people usually choose a light dry white wine. One of the most popular blends is between Chardonnay and the local variety Girgentina. When it comes to rose, here they prefer it richer, stronger and sweeter. Indeed, rose wines are not that popular around. But the red wines also have their special place on the Maltese table. The national dish of Malta – Fenkata, is traditionally cooked with red wine and pair perfectly with it on the table, too.

But if you are curious about the food in Malta – we have another article. Here we will be mostly speaking about wine.

So, the wine picture in Malta is colourful, diverse and full of experiments. Maybe because the contemporary wine production in Malta is relatively young. Both the Maltese consumers and the local wine producers are still searching for their best version. During our most recent visit to Malta we visited only two wineries, but two extremely different ones, on the opposite sides of the scope. One is Delicata winery – one of the oldest and largest wine cellars on the island, a family-owned business more than 100 years old. The other one is MARCASAR – a small boutique winery, owned by local winegrower and producer Mark Cassar, who has chosen to grow organic vineyards and make natural wines in Georgian qvevri. After these two visits, we collected so many colourful stories and impressions about Maltese wine that we were eager to share them with you.

Maria on the vineyard with Viognier and Chardonnay, grown for Delicata winery
Maria on the vineyard with Viognier and Chardonnay, grown for Delicata winery

Maltese people and wine

The modern history of Maltese wine starts around the 1970-1980s. A huge part of the present vineyards were planted with EU financing after 2000. Historically, there is evidence for wine production in Malta as early as the Phoenicians’ times. The home-made wine production has always existed in some form. However, Matthew Delicata explained that the modern wine culture is quite young because during the British rule and until the full withdrawal of British troops from Malta, beer was the primary drink. The wine supply was mostly of home-made wines without any regulations or professional standards.

But the most important today is that Maltere people return to wine and the island provides good conditions for vinegrowing. There are 5-6 major wineries, but in the recent years numerous small boutique producers arise.

Irrigation system in one of the vineyards in Malta
Irrigation system in one of the vineyards in Malta

Grapes – the main challenge

One of the main challenges to the Maltese wine production is the grape supply. The island is small and the area for wine growing is limited. Irrigation is also difficult because the island is hot and dry. This is why in Malta there are numerous small vineyards instead of large plantations. Some of the large producers make attempts to buy and consolidate vineyards but this is not always possible. Moreover, it is extremely expensive. Buying land for a vineyard is almost as expensive as buying land for construction of a hotel, said Matthew Delicata.

This is why the Delicata winery does not own any vineyards. Instead, they support a network of almost 250 suppliers across the island, assist in the growing and then buy the grapes. This ensures a large variety of grapes, grown in various terroirs. For this reason, the portfolio of wines of the Delicata winery is quite diverse – almost 30 different wines every year.

Another large winery – Marsovin, has slightly different approach. They both own vineyards and buy grapes from other producers. However, they pay special attention and care for their owner parcels and use them for their premium series.

The small boutique wineries are usually run and owned by single producers with passion to wine – like Mark Cassar. Several years ago he also was a supplier for Delicata. But now he has his own winery where he does his own experiments.

Our team and Mark Cassar, owner of MARCASAR winery
Our team and Mark Cassar, owner of MARCASAR winery in Malta

Maltese grape varieties

There are two local grape varieties in Malta – the white Girgentina and the red Gellewza. Both are thought to be indigenous and grown here for centuries. They are resistant to phylloxera.

The wines from Girgentina are light and fresh, with low alcohol – around 10 %. Quite different from what we would expect from a white wine in such a hot region. They often blend Girgentina with other varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and the Maltese market loves these blends.

The Gellewza plantations are modest and this variety is also added to blends with Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah. But you can also find single-variety Gellewza wines. We tried one from the Medina brand of Delicata winery. It had light to medium body, aromas of cherries and boiled red fruits, tannins tasting like unripened blueberry. The alcohol content was low, about 10,5 %.

Mark Cassar and the Maltese wine in Georgian qvevri

Mark Cassar welcomed us with a glass of amber wine from Chardonnay. It was vintage 2017, fermented and matured for a total of 22 months in Georgian qvevri. If you have the chance to try this wine, do not miss it. You may love it or not like it at all, but several things are for sure. First, you probably won’t recognise the grape variety, although Chardonnay is widely recognisable. Second, you will definitely remember it. In this wine we found aromas of fermented fruits, nectarines and olive oil. Also earthy tastes, green apple. But you can find many more, depending on your personal feelings and attitude. It is definitely different from any other Chardonnay you have ever tasted.

Qvevri

Although we wish to tell this story in chronological order, we have to jump straight to the qvevri because everyone asks about them. Qvevri are traditional Georgian winemaking vessels, egg-shaped, similar to amphorae. There is archaeological evidence that qvevri were used as early as the 6th millennium BC. In winemaking, qvevri are usually buried in the ground or in the sand, but they can also be placed in an overground room. After pressing the grapes, the juice, together with the skins, goes to the qvevri. The content is being sealed and left to ferment. The chardonnay we started with was macerated for 2 months in qvevri.

Mark speaking about the qvevri
Mark speaking about the qvevri

Mark Cassar explained that the qvevri ensure constant circulation of the content inside because of their specific shape. They are not perfectly symmetrical and this helps for the circulation. The tiny particled of the wine remain on the sides of the vessel, which is a natural way of filtration. In Mark’s cellar the qvevri are buried in special sand, brought from Sicily, with high magnetic conductivity.

Holistic wine growing

Mark Cassar owns a relatively small vineyards – 3 hectares, planted with Chardonnay, Merlot and Petit Verdot. They were planted in 2002-2004. These are the highest located vineyards in Malta, at about 235 m altitude. They are grown in a holistic manner, regarding the natural ecosystems and the phases of the Moon, without pesticides and chemicals. In other words, Mark counts on keeping the ecological balance in order to keep its vines and grapes healthy and safe. For example, the grass and flowers are not removed so they attract the insects which otherwise will attack the grapes. According to Mark, this method is also quite cheaper because there are no expenses for chemicals and labour for removing the weeds and other unwanted guests.

Mark Cassar in the Chardonnay vineyard
Mark Cassar in the Chardonnay vineyard

Vinification is also oriented to natural methods. Both the fermentation and maturing occur in qvevri. Mark counts on spontaneous fermentation without adding yeast. In the past few years, Mark experiments with long ageing in qvevri. Currently he has wines matured for 22 months and more vintages are in waiting. The qvevri definitely give some very specific tastes and aromas to wine – mostly earthy and sandy tones. They could be felt both in the Chardonnay we started with and the other wines we tasted – Merlot & Petit Verdot and Sacrum CBD Natural Wine from Merlot.

The cellar with the qvevri buried in the sand
The cellar with the qvevri buried in the sand

Wine with cannabis – what is this?

During our visit to MARCASAR we first heard of CBD wine. In other words – wine with cannabis. Actually, it contains cannabidiol – one of the main ingredients in cannabis, which ensures the positive effects on the nervous system. It is known to work well against anxiety and depression, without any psychotropic effects (another chemical in cannabis – THC, is responsible for them). It still sounds strange to us, but apparently this whole thing is legal in Malta and the wine is sold on the website of the winery. We tried just a little bit and it generally tasted like a nice Merlot with mature body and notes of ripe blueberries. To gain the CBD, the wine has fermented together with hemp seeds.

Wine and focaccia

For wine professionals, wine is a whole universe, living and speaking for itself. However, for us wine is most fulfilling when it is paired with proper food. Sometimes this means a 10-course meal in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Other times the perfect moment comes just from the home-baked bread or home-made cheese. This time the catalyst of the whole experience was the focaccia, prepared by Mark. Simple but amazing, with his home-made olive oil, rosemary, thyme and sea salt. Feeling like this wonderland where the Mediterranean reveals its most colourful and beautiful self. Baked in the furnace together with olive branches for a stronger aroma.

The industrial wine production in Malta – Delicata Winery

Delicata is the oldest existing today wine cellar in Malta and one of the two largest wine producers on the island (Marsovin is the other one). It was established in 1907 by Edoardo Delicata. He used to buy grapes from local farmers, made wine and sold it mostly to relatives and friends. His son Emmanuel Delicata inherited the business in 1936. In those times, wine was being sold in bulk in special shops or on the street. Housewives used to go to the market with their own vessels and buy wine for the table. After WW2 Emmanuel Delicata brought the business to a different level. He introduced more industrial and modern technologies and a market approach in order to make Delicata an industrial wine producer. Nowadays his grandsons run the business. One of them is Matthew Delicata, who is in charge of the production.

Delicata winery, Malta
Delicata winery, Malta

The building of the winery was erected in the mid-1960s on the Maltese Grand Harbour and is constantly being updated and renovated. During our visit, we witnessed the installation of a new bottling line. What immediately impressed us in the fermentation hall were the huge vessels, standing from the floor to the ceiling. They are made of fiberglass and can store up to 120 000 litres. Nowadays they are rarely being used because the various grapes are fermented separately in smaller tanks. And also, the contemporary inox tanks are quite more convenient to use. The yearly production of Delicata winery is about 1 million bottles, divided into about 30 different wines.

The production hall of Delicata winery in Malta. To the left you can see the huge fiberglass tanks
The production hall of Delicata winery in Malta. To the left you can see the huge fiberglass tanks

Lighter wines, easy to drink

The main philosophy of Delicata winery is to produce light, easy-to-drink wines, suitable for friend meetings and for every daily (or a bit more special) occasion. They also have some fuller and more complex wines with oak ageing but in limited series. During our visit we tasted some of the most popular Delicata wines.

Wine tasting at Delicata winery, led by Matthew Delicata
Wine tasting at Delicata winery, led by Matthew Delicata

An absolute bestseller on the local market is the blend from the local variety Girgentina and Chardonnay. We also tasted a fizzy Girgentina which is sold as a non-engaging budget wine and was pretty refreshing. Our favourite became the Grand Vin de Hauteville Viognier, D.O.K. MALTA, vintage 2018, with aromas of flowers, round and full body and scents of citrus and petrol. The Gran Cavalier Chardonnay with partial oak fermentation also won our appreciation for its immense freshness. Gran Cavalier Merlot was full and complex, matured in oak for 1 year. We believe it will be even better a few years from now. But here we definitely felt the producer’s attitude to fresher and lighter wines.

Wine in Malta – prices and market

We found the Maltese wine market a bit limited, in terms of diversity, although this is our own opinion based on personal research during the 2 weeks spent in Malta and not a consequence of any exhaustive study.

The large local producers like Delicata and Marsovin are well-presented in most of the shops and restaurants with their large portfolios. Besides them, the choice in the average shops was not too rich. The wines coming from the small boutique wineries are actually quite expensive, costing 30 EUR and more for a bottle and are produced in very limited quantities. They can only be found from specialised dealers or directly from the producers, as well as in some fine dining restaurants. On the mass market you can find imported wines mostly from Italy and France. Their prices also tend to be a bit high (I realise that shipping to Malta might be expensive so I am not writing this with any negative thoughts).

For a final - sunset over Valletta, Malta
Sunset over Valletta, Malta

Tourist traps

If you are a tourist in Valletta, you will probably see the specialised shops for local delicacies and wine. But be careful with them. We entered one such with the idea to buy a bottle of wine, but the offers from local producers were 30-50% than the usual market prices of these wines. About the overseas wines on the shelf, we noticed many bottles from vintages that had obviously passed their recommended shelf life and consumption time.

In the restaurants the overcharges of wine are relatively high – average 2,5 – 3 times the market price of a bottle. But although we found it expensive to find really good wines, we stood for our principle – drink local wine. You can still find good wines for about 10 EUR a bottle in the shop and 25-30 EUR in the restaurant.

The picture with wines on glass looks like this. In the average restaurants they would offer only one wine by the glass, inexpensive, usually from a bag-in-box or another bulk wine. If you are pickier (like us), in some better restaurants and especially fine dining places you can sometimes find up to 20 high-quality wines by the glass. One of these places we really trust about wine selection is the Tartarun restaurants in Marsaxlokk. It is in the recommended selection of Michelin Guide Malta, a great place for seafood and wine as well. One of the owners is the chef and his brother is a sommelier so we definitely trust their choice and selection.

Generally, Maltese people like to drink wine. The home production is now a rarity, told us Matthew Delicata. Most people do not have the time and will to make home-made wine because the market responds to their needs properly. There are almost no prejudices about professionally produced wine, as there are in Bulgaria.

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