Malta is not exactly a big island that has space for vast expanses of vineyards. To give you an idea, the island has 2000 acres of vineyards... that's not much. However, they do seem to have a plethora of cacti producing prickly pears.
Since I am an avid wine hobbyist, I wanted to talk a little bit about the types of local beverages you can enjoy while in Malta. Then, prickly pear was brought to my attention by my cousin Dave. And finally, I randomly ended up at a research facility called the ViEnergy Project, and I really want to shed some light on that.
In most grocery stores and small corner stores, you will find Maltese and international wines. As a traveler, I strongly believe you should eat and drink local.
I discovered that, in Malta, there are about 3-5 main producers and many small producers. Wherever you are, you will be able to pick something up, but these big producers are quite prevalent. The ones that I noticed were Marsovin, Delicata, and Camilleri. International grape varieties are grown on the island, including some popular ones like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Then there are 2 varieties that are local: Gellewza and Ghirghentina.
Unfortunately, I didn't get to try these 2 native varieties, but I've heard they are reflective of the island that rejoices in seafood and limestone. Girgentina is fruity and delicate, with good acidity. I'd imagine it goes well with all of the wonderful seafood available. Gellewza is a red grape that is like a soft cherry and prune. Most of the popular vineyards blend this grape in with a foreign grape to add complexity.
Throughout Malta, vineyards are spread apart in different patches. It'd be very difficult (and I'm not quite sure if possible) to find a single vineyard vintage. Production of wines under two certifications known as DOK (Denominazzjoni ta' Origini Kontrollata) and IGT (Indikazzjoni Geografika Tipika) which do control wine quality similar to other VQA'a and DOC's, but I never quite figured out if geography was factored into this, or just grape quality.
I did have the opportunity to try two Cabernet Sauvignon's, one from Gozo and one from Malta, as well as a Chardonnay from Malta.
Both of the Cab's were rich, full body wines with intense berries, wet stone, slight pepper, medium acid, and soft tannins.
Next up, during a fried calamari dinner I had in the fishing village Marsaxlokk (pronounced mar-sa-shlock) I had the privilege of tasting a Maltese Chardonnay. Since the Celebration of Cool Climate Chardonnay in Niagara, I have become quite open-minded to Chardonnay. It was not buttery or fat like most of us are used to, but had real tropical fruit tones with a soft edge of vanilla. Truly incredible with my already to die for seafood.
Without risking going on too far talking about Maltese wine, I do encourage you to expand your palette a bit and drink local while you are in Malta. Even the familiar grapes won't taste so familiar, but they are a pleasant surprise!
Prickly Pear (Bajtra) Liqueur
I purchased a small bottle of the famous Zeppi's Bajtra prickly pear liqueur. There's no shortage of prickly pear on the island, and they have definitely won the competition for the best, or at least most well known, prickly pear liqueur.
Generally harvested in August or September, the pulp of the fruit goes through a sieve and is then fermented with yeast, similar to wine. There is a whole story behind it if you want to read, here is a great article from the Malta Times.
I purchased a small bottle with every intention of tasting it, but then a night out turned into a very long morning and a very lazy afternoon before my flight off the island, and I didn't actually get to try it (I apologize to my tastebuds and to Dave!) Good sources say it takes like watermelon. Or aniseed. It's generally drank chilled on ice or added to wine coolers and sparkling wine.
The ViEnergy Project
In case some real wine nerds are reading this, I stumbled upon a research facility during one of my Malta Goes Rural walks that I found very interesting. The ViEnergy Project is doing research on renewable energy in the winemaking process and reusing any waste. Anyone who has worked in a vineyard or winery knows the energy that goes into producing large quantities of wine, as well as the waste (skins, stems, etc) that come out of it. I received a pamphlet after speaking to a very nice Maltese scientist, which states the project:
"Specifically aims at:
- Reducing emissions
- Reducing energy costs for wine production
- Ecological disposal of waste
- Development of alternative income sources
- Maintenance of results after project conclusion"
I think that's pretty awesome. If you're into wine and sustainability, check out The ViEnergy Project.
Meander on to your local store to purchase some Maltese wine!