A Mediterranean Vocation Finally Fulfilled
|Author: Mark Miceli-Farrugia
|Last Edited: 11 months ago
In 1985, Mark Miceli-Farrugia was employed as Export Manager for an Italian wine-maker. In the course of his duties, Mark met French oenologist, Professor Denis Dubourdieu, who persuaded him that Malta’s geographical location permitted the production of excellent wines. And the rest is history ……
We were sitting on the terrace of his beautiful Château Reynon wine estate. The Professor said: “You must produce good wine in Malta”. Since local wine at the time was not particularly good, I scoffed at the idea. The Professor cautioned me: “There are essentially six factors which contribute towards the production of a good wine. Malta either possesses them already or can readily acquire them.”
- “The first is microclimate: You are right in the heart of the Mediterranean wine-zone which produces 65 per cent of the world’s wine. Good wines are made slightly north of you in Sicily, south-west of you in Lampedusa, and west of you in Tunisia.”
- “The second factor is the availability of soil. We’re not talking about particularly rich soil. You may have heard the saying: ‘the more a vine suffers, the better is the fruit.’ Obviously, one should not stress a vine unduly.”
- “The third factor is that you need suitable wine-grape varieties.” The Professor admitted that he did not know Malta. He was nonetheless aware that some North African countries produced wine out of table-grapes. “Table-grapes are eating-grapes and are inappropriate for winemaking. Since table-grapes possess the wrong sugar-acidity ratio, winemakers in these countries tend to adulterate their products by adding sugar and tartaric acid. Sometimes, when they produce a cheap wine, they dispense with grapes altogether.” The Professor surmised: “This might be your problem.” This was Malta’s problem then! The Professor said: “You need wine-grapes – the international wine-grape varieties which grow comfortably in a Mediterranean climate like yours.”
- “Point four: viticultural techniques. You need to husband your vines properly – you need to trellis your vines, pruning them and protecting them from disease.” I replied that, in Malta, we traditionally did not trellis our vines because our islands were too windy. The Professor replied: “Have you ever been to the Rhone Valley? There one finds some of the windiest valleys in the world. All the same, winemakers there trellis their vines systematically – in the direction of the prevailing wind. Although the first rows may suffer, subsequent vines are protected. Owing to your warm and humid Central Mediterranean climate, your vines need aeration. If vines are left sprawled on the ground, they accumulate humidity. This will generate disease.”
- “The fifth factor is temperature-controlled technology. Temperature-control permits one to produce not only good red wines which are traditional to the Mediterranean - but also excellent white wines.” Since I am not technical, I asked the Professor to expound. He explained that “white grapes possess relatively fewer tannins than do red grapes. This makes white grapes more delicate and comparatively more difficult to produce in warmer climates than red grapes.”
- I had to prompt the Professor about the sixth and final point. “The final non-factor in your part of the world,” he said, “is the luck of the year. You will always have a good year! You will never suffer from hail or frost during the two critical development periods of the vine-cycle – your flowering and harvesting periods. You will always have a good year!”
When I returned to Malta, I literally stumbled into a series of coincidences:
- Firstly, I met a Maltese-born, German-trained, oenologist named Roger Aquilina who confirmed the French Professor’s hypothesis.
- Then, I visited a friend who expressed a wish to make fruitful use of the hectare of land which surrounded his new bungalow. With Roger’s good counsel, I planted ten pre-grafted varieties onto three different rootstocks. This experiment was successful.
- Then, in 1989, together with my entrepreneur uncle, Edward Bartoli, we tendered for a beautiful, 19-hectare, plot of agricultural land at Ta’ Qali. This site – a former airfield – lay below the scenic walled-city of Mdina – Malta’s ancient capital. We were awarded the tender but, since we did not garner the required capital till 1993, we used the four intermittent years to first clear the field from two WWII bombs and then cultivated wheat.
- The seed capital was not forthcoming because local banks were sceptical about Malta’s wine-making potential. “Malta has never produced a good wine,” they sneered. Consequently, in early 1993, on the prompting of my wife Josette, Roger and I travelled to the heart of old Florence to meet a scion of the oldest wine-making family in the world – Marchese Piero Antinori. By the end of this fateful encounter, we had secured Antinori’s combined technical and financial support and, consequently, the all-essential local banking support, as well.
- We planted the Ta’ Qali vineyard in 1994 and, using pre-grafted vines, obtained our first fruit one year earlier than originally projected – in 1995.
- We launched our first wines commercially in Christmas 1996, selling-out and receiving popular acclaim. And the rest is history …….