Everyday at 16:00 in Malta, a cannon is fired over the ships lining the island’s Grand Harbour. When you hear it, you know that evening has arrived.
It is also a signal that it might be a good time to open a bottle of Maltese wine.
Living in Malta has many advantages. For the wine lover, the ability to taste wines that are rarely found anywhere else on Earth is certainly one of them.
Whether you’re swirling a glass of golden girgentina, or sipping a ġellewża as red as Maltese strawberries, wine is one of the many rewards of moving to Malta.
History of Maltese Wine
Malta has an incredibly rich and diverse wine history dating back possibly 6,000 years. With a variety of rulers and inhabitants over the millennia, the islands have a unique outlook on wine.
One of the earliest traces of human settlement and possible wine consumption on Malta is a mysterious and ancient civilization known as “The Temple Builders.”
These masonry-minded people were busy carving temples out of the islands’ limestone around 4,000 BCE. The temples often had two holes carved into the floor of the entrance that may have been used to collect a ceremonial beverage — possibly even wine.
However, it was the seafaring Phoenicians that launched the history of Maltese wine around 700 BCE. Positioned at the center of the Mediterranean, Malta was a natural logistics hub for the Phoenicians and would have needed a population of permanent settlers. With a long-established history of wine production, the Phoenicians on Malta would probably have planted grape vines.
The Roman Republic gained control of Malta and its wine production after defeating the Phoenician state of Carthage in the first Punic War. Rome valued wine as a strategic resource that could be substituted for fresh water. With Malta’s warm and dry Mediterranean climate, Romans could drink a diluted wine to help conserve water during the summer.
Evidence of wine’s central role in Roman life on Malta can be found at the Roman Villa museum near Mdina. Here you can find clay amphora used for shipping and storing wine around the Mediterranean.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Arabs in 870 CE, wine production shriveled. Only grapes that could be eaten survived this period. As a result, only two types of indigenous grapes remain on Malta: girgentina and ġellewża.
The Knights of Saint John and Beyond
The Knights of Saint John did little to resuscitate wine-making in Malta following their arrival on the islands in 1530 CE. They declared the two local grapes to be good for eating only. Together with the Renaissance underway and more vines being cultivated around Europe, it became easier to import high-quality wine from around the Mediterranean than to develop local varietals.
It wasn’t until the early 21st century that quality began to improve significantly in domestic wine production. Malta’s joining of the European Union in 2004 opened the country’s wine industry up to intense international competition, forcing winemakers to improve their quality.
Today, Malta has less than 2,000 acres of land being cultivated for wine. Yet, despite the country’s small production, some of its most prominent wine-makers are beginning to win gold medals in international competitions. Invariably, their success has something to do with the islands’ climate and soil.
Malta enjoys about 300 days of sunshine each year. While the country is politically united with Europe, it geologically belongs to the African continent. As a result, it is influenced by the hot and dry air masses that hover over the Sahara Desert and occasionally coat Malta in a thin layer of fine, orange sand.
This Saharan influence means that water is in short supply on Malta and forces winemakers to carefully conserve.
“We use drip irrigation from rain water that we collect in winter,” says Joseph Spiteri of Ta’ Mena Estate on the island of Gozo. The controlled watering, together with the dry heat, lowers the chance of fungus attacking the vines.
Minimal rain also enhances what is known as the “island effect.” Since Malta’s wineries are coastal, they receive strong seabreezes, which create a light salt crust on the grapes.
“We find traces of salt in our wines when we do analysis,” says Joseph. This gives Maltese wines a hint of the Mediterranean in each glass.
Calcium Rich and Porous Soil
The soil of the Maltese islands is a product of its limestone geology. Millions of years ago, Malta was submerged underneath the Mediterranean Sea. As a result, layers and layers of fossilized sea life began to accumulate, creating Malta’s unique sedimentary rock foundation.
When the African tectonic plate crashed into Europe, the rock was pushed out of the water to form the Maltese islands. Once exposed to the air, the limestone rock began to erode, creating a soil rich in calcium carbonate.
This limestone soil is ideal for winegrowing since it allows for easy drainage during heavy rainfall. As a result, the wine grapes are kept at an ideal level of stress to concentrate their sugars.
Malta’s indigenous varietals consist of two types of grapes: girgentina and ġellewża. Each grape has its own unique characteristics and flavors.
Girgentina is Malta’s signature white wine. This green grape is grown in bushes close to the ground to protect it from the intense sun and wind.
Native to Malta, girgentina is often blended with other white varietals grown on the island including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, or vermentino — a grape widely planted on the nearby Italian island of Sardinia. Delicata Winery, one of Malta’s largest wine producers, also makes a semi-sparkling wine called Girgentina Frizzante which invariably sells-out on New Year’s Eve.
With flavors reminiscent of the island’s citrus, prickly pear, and honey, girgentina pairs well with crisp salads, vanilla ice cream, and freshly-caught seafood from the coastal village of Marsaxlokk.
Ġellewża is Malta’s indigenous red grape and is ideally suited to the islands’ hot and dry climate. On its own, the grape is usually pressed into refreshingly fruity rosés. However, when blended with a darker syrah or cabernet sauvignon, ġellewża can easily be sipped on cooler Mediterranean evenings and paired with rich, meat dishes.
How each Maltese winemaker chooses to approach ġellewża will produce a decidedly different bottle of wine. Each glass may possess hints of delicate forest berries, or it may take on an essence of dark caramel from the island’s carob trees — originally cultivated by the Arabs over 1,000 years ago.
Wine Tasting in Malta
Tasting Maltese wine is a key advantage of living on the islands. With so little land under cultivation, most of the wine is consumed domestically.
Wine Bars and Restaurants
There are several wine bars in Malta that you can find a bottle of local red, white, or rosé. If you’re also in search of local cuisine, look for a menu with Malta’s prized rabbit stew or a selection of cheese-filled pastries called pastizzi. A good restaurant featuring local delicacies should also have a wine list featuring a few Maltese varietals.
Many wineries also have tasting rooms where you can compare their different offerings side-by-side. Having a dedicated staff to share the story of each wine is a distinct advantage if you’re looking to delve deep into the gold or ruby treasure swirling in your glass.
Safety and Convenience
Driving in Malta can be extremely strenuous. If you’re planning on visiting multiple wineries, hiring a personal driver and car is highly recommended for both safety and convenience.
Or, if you’d like to taste a bottle of Maltese wine from the comfort of your own seaview apartment, perhaps you’d like to have it delivered to you.
The Future of Maltese Wine
Malta will undoubtedly continue to improve its wine industry with higher quality, limited production of locally grown varietals. While most of the country’s wine will be consumed within its borders, the government has created official designations of quality that will help distinguish Maltese wine around the world.
Malta has created Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) labels for its wines in accordance with European Union standards.
A bottle with a PDO label of DOK Malta or DOK Gozo means the grapes were grown entirely on Malta or Gozo, respectively. If it has a PGI label of IĠT Maltese Islands, then it contains grapes from both of the country’s big islands.
While the labels will help to distinguish the quality of Maltese wines abroad, the limited production will mean that those who live in Malta will be the first to get their hands on this cherished commodity. Therefore, Maltese wine is but one more reward for those who choose to relocate to Malta.