Maltese Wines…an introduction

Malta has two Maltese indigenous grape varieties, which can be found only on the island, they are; Gellewza (red) and Girgentina (white). The origin of these two grapes is a mystery and scientific research seems to indicate that neither variety is likely to be related to any other countries such as Sicily or Europe. Plus no one knows how long they have been in Malta.

The name of the white grapes relates to the village of Girgenti, which is in the southwest of Malta where this variety is widely planted.  While the red grape takes the name from the Maltese word meaning ‘hazelnut’, for the simple reason the grape looked like a hazelnut.

In the late 19th century the phylloxera (pesticide) epidemic destroyed most of the vineyards of their grapes in Europe, most notably in France yet the Girgentina and Gellewza were luckily not affected with it.

The first wine businesses in Malta started in 1907, as did many of the worlds leading family winemaking company’s, in a small private way, by making and selling popular wine to friends and family. Grapes were purchased from farmers and the pressing was carried out with the most rudimentary of crushing machines. The finished wine was then sold from a horse drawn cart (traditionally called – karozzin) around the villages and towns of Malta!

The operation consisted of both making the wine and selling it directly from wooden barrels. Wine shops in the towns and villages were supplied with the barrels, where they then sold the wine on to their customers by either a pinta (pint) or a terz (a third of a pint). Back in the day one pint would cost approximately one and halfpenny.

The bottling of wine in Malta only started after World War II, before that wine was sold ‘loose’ or in bulk.  Even housewives would go to the wine shop with a jug or a bottle to buy the family’s wine.

In the 70’s wine production became more serious and the International grape varieties began to be planted. With a target to produce only “Malta Grown Wines” in 1994 one of Malta’s biggest wine producers embarked on a project called “Vines for Wines”. This was a collaborative project with the farming community to plant more vineyards with the varied grape varieties in able to sustain the high demand from the local community for Maltese wines.

Following the country’s augmentation to the EU in 2004, protective levies were lifted allowing local producers to focus on higher quality wine production. Maltese winemakers invested in their products and started to focus on Maltese DOK wines. DOK is the stamp for where the grapes have originated from, such as Malta or Gozo. The wine will be stamped with DOK if the grapes are only from one of the specific islands. Another stamp used is I.G.T and this is when the grapes are used from both islands of Malta and Gozo together to create a blended wine. Malta’s appellation system (the stamps) was introduced three years later and the first ever D.O.K. and I.G.T. wines were launched in December of 2007.

Another method of wine producing that is practiced is called ‘passito’ dating back to the years of the Romans. It is quite an uncommon process yet the Maltese have been producing this type of wine for years. The method is to dry the grapes out and leave to hang, either still left on the vines or to be left on straw or hanging apparatus. The grapes produce a sweet to very sweet tasting wine that is best served for dessert.

Malta may not be renowned like its larger Mediterranean neighbours for wine production yet Maltese vineyards are more than holding their own at international competition level, winning several awards.

International grape varieties that are grown in Malta include wines such as; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Carignan, Chenin Blanc, Vermentino, Zibibo and Moscato.

With Malta’s climate varying from the south to the north, wineries grow their wine according to the suitable. In the southern part of Malta the climate is more hot and humid and the grapes ripen quicker than what they would in the north of the island. After years of cultivating wines, the Maltese winemakers are experts in the field and know which area is best for the grapes. This being proved as many European supermarkets has been stocking the wine for several decades and deservedly so.

Article submitted by one of our team members and wine guru Matthew Grech

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