Wine and culture abound in Malta

Aerial view of Valletta, Malta
Aerial view of Valletta, Malta

Malta isn’t known for its winemaking – but that might be about to change.

I visited the Mediterranean island for a long weekend to find out more about Malta’s emerging wine scene.

Mark Cassar at his vineyard

Mark Cassar at his vineyard

We’re told 40 years ago people wouldn’t consider Maltese wine. It was a cheap alternative to its superior imported Italian and French counterparts, and was made with ‘eating grapes not wine grapes’.

But now there’s a handful of vineyards popping up on the Maltese Archipelago doing a proper job, and I was only too happy to see how their wares compared to the titans of the wine world.

First stop was Meridiana, one of the bigger vineyards with an impressive range of red and white wines.

The vineyard is built on an old British airfield, opening in 1997 after eight-year grape growing project. It was backed by an Italian family, the Antinoris, one of the oldest wine making families in the world .

Wines at Meridiana, Malta SUS-180712-135503001

Wines at Meridiana, Malta SUS-180712-135503001

All of the wines are made with local grapes – if they aren’t grown on site they will be just a stone’s throw away from nearby farms.

We were told how the company bought Mouscato grapes from a local farmer to make a sweet dessert wine, who in the third year decided to instead plant lettuce. Needless to say they now grow their own Mouscato…

Meridiana is one of the larger wine-making outfits in Malta. It produces 140,000 bottles a year, with its Chardonnay Isis - named after the Greek goddess - the most popular. It has a lemony, citrusy taste but is smooth and easy drinking – we’re told that’s because it’s held in stainless steel and not oak like many other Chardonnays.

We also tried Astarte, the Vermentino, which had salty undertones as the grapes were grown by the sea. We’re told it would suit ‘delicate eats’ like oysters or other fish dishes. It’s a sharp wine, but easy drinking.

Try Merdiana's wine in their farmhouse-style headquarters

Try Merdiana's wine in their farmhouse-style headquarters

The reds are equally pleasing. The Melqart, a Cabernet Merlot, is the most popular red. There’s a hint of smokiness which we’re told is because the wine is held in used French barrels. And the Nexus, the more expensive red, is Meridiana’s ‘pride and joy’, and we can see why with its smooth, fruity and intense flavour.

Anyone can drop by the Meridiana vineyard, to the an old farmhouse-style building, where visitors can try the wine with tapas.

We’re told Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, named the vineyard as one of her favourite places in Malta – but more on that later.

We also visited nearby Mar Casa – nowhere in Malta is far – meeting the eccentric Mark Cassar who makes natural wines in clay chambers using Ancient Georgian wine-making techniques. He makes a smaller amount of wine, just 15,000 bottles a year, with a Chardonnay and a Merlot Petit Vernot.

City Breakers exploring the streets of Valletta, Malta SUS-180512-115339001

City Breakers exploring the streets of Valletta, Malta SUS-180512-115339001

His passion for wine shines through as he explains how his wines are vegan, organic and naturally made.

“It’s a message in a bottle,” he tells us. “It helps us to communicate.”

We also spent a day in nearby Gozo, just a 25-minute ferry trip from Malta. The tiny island, which is eight miles long and four miles wide is home to several winemakers including Ta’ Mena which we visited.

We were given a tour of the winery, tried a red, white and rose wine as well as some of the delicious cheese and chutneys made on site. It feels like a small family business but it makes some impressive produce.

We then dined at Ta’ Phillip, clearly a popular spot with celebrities. There’s dozens of pictures on the wall of owner Phillip with the great and the good, including Meghan Markle before she became a Royal.

The Royals are a big talking point during the trip – the Maltese and Gozitans love them, and talk about how the Queen has an attachment to the islands and that Markle was a fan before she joined the Firm.

And I can see why they are such fans of the islands. As well as the friendly locals – they love the Brits – there’s a wealth of history and culture to discover on these islands.

Valletta, the island’s capital city, is well worth a visit. St John’s Cathedral is bursting with treasures in every chapel. Caravaggio’s masterpiece ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ is breath-taking, and you’ll be mesmerised by the intricately-decorated marble tombstones designed by the Knights of Malta.

We had lunch in Noni in Valletta, which showcased the best in Maltese food. I tried the sea bass while my travel companions went for the traditional rabbit dish. Make sure you’re hungry before you visit though – there’s several courses and the portions are generous!

Make sure you visit magical Mdina, the old capital, and a medieval fortress city. And on Gozo, don’t miss the Ggantija Temples in Xaghra, the oldest freestanding structures in the world dating back 7,000 years.

It’s worth visiting Malta and Gozo, not just for the sun, for its history and culture, or the friendly locals, but now for its wine too…

Flights to Malta from London Gatwick start from £132 return with British Airways. Rooms at the Intercontinental Malta in St Julian’s start from £80. For more information about the Maltese archipelago visit: www.maltauk.com