This Mediterranean island is one of the smallest wine-growing countries

The smell of lemon trees floated in the silence. Olive groves swept the slopes and giant pear trees loomed like bunny ears above the ground. From under the canopy came the sound of laughter as a woman in a white dress swirled her glass and invited us to inhale. “Only feel it once!” ordered Maria Spiteri. “The more you smell, the less you can smell.” As instructed, I pinched the stem of my glass to avoid transferring body heat to the wine, then sniffed the pale vermentino, smelling the aroma of pear. With the attention of a schoolteacher, Spiteri paced the tables, explaining how visitors should enjoy their wine – under the tongue, with deep breaths and absolutely without swallowing. By Monisha Rajesh

Spiteri recently took over the winery Ta’Mena, on Gozo, the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago. His grandparents, Mena and Francis, started growing fruits and vegetables on this land in the 1960s; in 2002 the family purchased acres of groves and vineyards and expanded into olive oil and wine making.

Here’s what you need to know about the world’s smallest wine country

Image Credit: Ritty Tacsum


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Mena’s original farm shop is still there, run now by Spiteri’s mother, Marnese, which sells bitter orange marmalade, tubs of pickled cheese and kunserva helwa — a dark and sweet concentrate of dried tomatoes. Visitors can also find farm products on the tables of Ta’Philip, a restaurant in the village of Ghajnsielem, also on Gozo. Run by Spiteri’s uncle, Philip, the restaurant specializes in meats cooked overnight in a wood-fired oven.

At just 122 square miles (316 sq km), Malta is one of the smallest wine-growing countries in the world, with just over 1,000 acres available for viticulture. Yet it produces an incredible range of wines, including Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay, as well as two indigenous grape varieties: ġellewża (a red) and Girgentina (a white). And despite a history of winemaking that is believed to date back to around 700BC, it’s only in recent years that the country’s industry has taken off, as small, family-run wineries like Spiteris have started offering tours and lessons. of the kitchen.

After my introduction to Ta’Mena, I was curious to find out more, so I hopped on Malta’s largest island for a wider lesson. I started to Delicate, in the town of Paola, just opposite the large port of the capital, Valletta. When I entered the cellar, located directly on the water, I found a 300-year-old spiral staircase leading to the austere vault. There I met Georges Meekers – a Belgian wine writer and marketing director of Delicata – who had six decanted bottles waiting for me to arrive.

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We started with the ġellewża (pronounced jah-down-za) frizzante, a fresh and sparkling apricot-colored wine. Meekers explained that no one knows for sure where these native varieties came from, who planted them, or where their names come from. “It has been suggested that Girgentina relates to the village of Girgenti in southern Malta,” he said. “Ġellewża probably comes from the Arabic word for hazelnut.”


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Malta is home to 20 varieties of grapes – Delicata itself produces 30 different labels – but Maltese wine is not widely available overseas. “Almost everything Malta produces is consumed locally, so there’s no need to export,” Meekers told me.

Unusually, Delicata does not have a single vineyard: from 1994, the family that owns it invited anyone with a plot of land to start growing vines, encouraging the planting of international and indigenous varieties. What started as a handful of people has grown to over 200 farmers. “Delicata does the research for them,” Meekers said. “The winegrowers of the cellar take soil samples and tell them which grape varieties are suitable for their terroir. We give them start-up capital and guarantee that we will buy their grapes if they are up to standard.

Malta
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Two hours and six wines later, I teetered out of the cool cellar and headed for an early dinner at Ion Harborthe restaurant on the roof of Iniala Port House. I had a panoramic view of the cliffs that surround the port of Valletta, and the limestone had begun to turn golden in the evening light. A chef named Alex Dilling had taken over the kitchen, and having enjoyed his gastronomic approach at the Greenhouse in London, I wanted to see what he was creating in Valletta. On marinated and line-caught prawn loops lampuki – a native mahi-mahi – I sipped a local chardonnay, nudging the 40-page menu of foreign wines. Dishes were playful, from foie gras shaped like shiny black billiard balls to gold leaf dust, caviar pearls and jellies.


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The next day I drove through Malta to the town of Siġġiewi to meet Mark Cassar at his vineyard, Marcasar. I walked into a room that looked like both a science lab and a man’s cave: the tables were filled with hundreds of glasses, bottled olives, unopened cans and piles of crockery. Cassar, who carried tortoiseshell glasses and a pipe, was pouring an amber liquid that looked like beer, smelled of cider and tasted of smoke. “It’s a Chardonnay that macerated for three months with the skins and seeds,” he explains.

wine countries
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Our one-on-one tasting included cheese and charcuterie platters and, rather dangerously, had no wine consumption limit until four. Meanwhile, we discussed Cassar’s Greek grandmother’s high-alcohol trifles and her fondness for wine as a child. He showed me how he ferments his wines in Georgian qvevri (terracotta pots) and revealed that his best-selling natural wine, Sacrum, is made with hemp – which he keeps piled up like hay in a room.


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After leaving Cassar, I returned across the island, passing mile after mile of vineyards. I wondered at which tables the bottles would end up arriving.

This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com

Main and feature image credit: Ritty Tacsum

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