What will Maltese wine be like in the future? How will Malta, the smallest independent wine-producing country in the world, fare in tomorrow’s wine market? And, what will I be drinking if I’m still around in 2044, 40 years after Malta became a EU member state?
Nobody can tell for sure but surely a long journey full of events and adventures lies before Malta’s wine industry. I know it’s safe to foretell since few people remember the crystal gazing later. Still, I’d like to share five predictions which I have given considerable thought for some time now (see intro).
1. Mecca in the Med
In the next 30 years, the Maltese Islands will become one of the most happening small wine regions in the world of wine.
By 2044 Malta would have earned its reputation as mecca of ‘new heritage’ wines and have set and example for other small wine-producing islands in the Mediterranean. Like, for example, Priorat in Spain at the turn of the century, it will unexpectedly, slowly but surely, rise to fame. The upsurge will coincide with a ‘new dawn’ in Malta on all fronts of society, a modern Malta that is still in the making today, still to be explored.
What will make this possible is new money. Funds will be used to further upgrade operations to make viticulture more sustainable and wines more distinctive. However, only a winery that availed itself of EU subsidies when they were available shall be able to invest enough, compete and deliver. The wines’ popularity will be fuelled by financial freedom of customers who value quality over quantity and an unquenchable curiosity of master sommeliers wanting to hand-sell Malta’s blue-chip wines to them.
2. Crus of Malta
The current appellation system will undergo only minor changes. However, over time a pecking order of wines dubbed as ‘Crus of Malta’ will distinguish the most reputable wines produced on the Maltese Islands.
Any Maltese winery that has managed to survive ruthless competition in the next 10 years ahead will by then have gained a true understanding of which vineyard sites are truly great. In fact, after a period of natural selection by the country’s winemakers, all prime vineyard sites shall be given a rating based on physical characteristics of the vineyard such as its suitability for specific grape varieties.
This classification system is likely to share similarities to the ‘Échelle des Crus’ classification of Champagne and the ‘Benefício’ for Porto’s vineyards in that it ensures that only vineyards producing grapes with the highest quality potential are used in the producing of the country’s crus.
A wine that is labelled as a ‘Cru of Malta’ may be made from grapes coming from one single or more than one vineyard having the appropriate rating.
The vines that are considered of standard for Malta’s crus are selected according to criteria of quality. Thus, of the entire amount of land under vine, only a smaller amount is authorised to deliver grapes for the production of the Islands’ top wines.
Maltese wines made from Merlot shall be amongst the most sought-after reds hailing from the Mediterranean. It will have equity as a mono-varietal and even more so as a blend with Rhône varieties Grenache, Carignan and Syrah, topped up with a dose of Ġellewża for colour, referred to as ‘merlotage’.
Wineries will eschew the use of the barrique for merlotage, preferring instead to age in botti. These larger vessels will impart richness, a softer fuller flavour but preserve the delicate aromas, enhance the character and extend the wine’s longevity.
Despite the possible effects of global warming, Malta’s wines shall remain surprisingly cool-climate in style, a hallmark which is unusual for wine coming from countries this far south. The white wines, too, will keep on marrying old and new world styles and a few terrific examples of sweet wines will rival the best of neighbouring countries.
4. Consistently Small
As niche producers of bijoux wines, the Maltese winemaker shall fetch higher prices for his hand-crafted, terroir-driven labels sold to affluent wine lovers. The amount of agricultural land planted to vines will not change drastically over the years, though. Unless, of course, Maltese winemakers finally get support from Maltese drinkers in which case the land under vine may actually double and surpass today’s 1000 ha limit.
Consistency can still somewhat be an issue in the next decade. The Maltese wine industry’s dichotomous competitive model shall remain challenged by new micro-producers jumping on the bandwagon of success. However, their passion seems bound to remain mixed with amateurism and inexperience, which risks to taint Malta’s fine wine reputation. At first you’ll still find some wines not-ready-for-prime-time and an initial lack of consistency also continues to extend to style for a while. Initially, wines other than merlotage will lack a clear benchmark – should Syrah be an easy-drinking alternative, or serious and savoury like Merlot?
Because of adverse economies of scale, Maltese fine wine will not be for everyone’s pocket, expensive in a market where it will be easier than ever to find equally good wines from elsewhere for less money. Having said that, Malta’s best wines will fit into the well-stocked cellar and become a must-have to connoisseurs.
5. Green for Survival
There will be no organic or biodynamic movement of significance. Although, amongst the most popular of all Maltese wines, look for unique, singular wines made from 100-year old native Girgentina and Ġellewża bush vines, which are ungrafted, grown in small parcels and largely organically farmed by default.
What I have dubbed as the G-force will now count three: Girgentina, Ġellewża and Green. Indeed wineries will go green out of raw, self-interest and future environmentally conscious measurements will be taken out of necessity.
In Malta more than elsewhere, every wine business ought to think about mastering the use of water since it will be a rare and expensive commodity. It’s not inconceivable that precision irrigation systems that also measure the quality of the water shall be introduced to enhance fruit quality and save costs at the same time.
Wind energy in vineyards shall be harvested. Also ground cover crops might be introduced into the larger vineyards together with smart canopy management. Tomorrow’s Maltese winery will be a cathedral of stainless steel tanks flanked by new wooden vessels to make typical wines where green energy management is the rule rather than the exception.
This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of Circle Update, the magazine of the Circle of Wine Writers (UK).