Wine is a drink made from ripe grapes or other fruits by means of a process known as fermentation. It has been produced and consumed by Mankind for thousands of years. The earliest archaeological evidence discovered so far dates back to between 6000 BC in the form of wine fermentation jars found at a Neolithic site in Georgia (Europe). More evidence dated between 5400-5000 BC comes from the Iranian Zagros Mountains, Areni in Armenia and other sites across the world.1
Neolithic Wine Jars from Georgia (left) & Iran (right) dating from 6000-5000 BC
Sicily and Malta have always been closely connected, not just in terms of their geographical proximity but when it comes to the peoples and cultures inhabiting both these islands. In 2012 a number of Copper Age storage jars containing wine residue were found in a Sicilian cave at Monte Kronio (l/o Sciacca). This discovery from around 4000BC has been termed as the earliest evidence of wine-making in the entire Italian peninsula.
Copper Age wine storage jars found in a cave at Monte Kronio. The proximity of Sicily to Malta allows Mount Etna to be captured by camera.
Due to the aforesaid connections with Malta, it is very probable that wine was made here too at this time. An extensive archaeological study published in 2022 confirms the possible presence of Vitis Vinifera (Latin name for the grape vine species) from around 4750 BC in Burmarrad, originally an estuary between the town of Mosta & St. Paul's Bay.2
Tentative projection of the original coastline at Salina and Burmarrad from pre-historic to classical times
Vine pollen from the later Neolithic period (3900-3600 BC) has also been detected in Salina, which is adjacent to Burmarrad. While both these discoveries indicate the presence of grape vines in Malta, actual evidence of human cultivation of this plant dates from around 2728-2322 BC. This ties in well to similar ventures in the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean considering that grape cultivation in Ancient Egypt was introduced from the Levant in around 3000 BC. Viticulture in Greece can be traced to around the same period and became widespread by the early Bronze Age.
Minoan winepress in Crete from around 1550 BC & Egyptian Wine Amphorae from the early dynastic period (3150-2686 BC)
Coming back to Malta, the arrival of the Phoenicians in the early 8th century saw the introduction of many commodities and consumables from many different locations and hence wines from other outposts including Egypt, Greece, Sicily & Southern Italy. These traders were proficient wine makers in their own right and are credited as the pioneers of local cultivation and production.3 As a result of the Punic Wars, Malta was taken over by Rome in 218 BC. The Roman Empire is known to have had a huge impact on the development of vine growing (viticulture) and the science of wine making (oenology).
Scale Model showing a typical Roman Wine Press
The islands flourished under Roman rule and several sites have been identified with the cultivation of vines and the production of wine during this period. A large variety of amphorae, mainly recovered from shipwrecks, bear witness to an extensive trade of wine in transit to and from the Maltese islands and other areas around the Mediterranean. The 5th century AD brought the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe leading to a state of general decline. Malta was placed under the jurisdiction of the Byzantine Empire, then taken over by the Arabs in 870 AD. When Count Roger invaded Malta in 1091 AD very little remained from the once proliferous Roman wine industry. Only two grape varieties are known to have survived, Ghirgentina and Gellewza. Both originated from Sicily where they are known as Insolia and Mammolo.4
The only surviving Maltese indigenous grape varieties - White Girgentina & red Gellewza
It appears that the situation in Sicily was not far better. The Normans were followed by the Swabians, French and Aragonese, leading to an influx of new settlers in both islands. A name of relevance stands out, Manfred von Schembri, a vine grower from the Rhine who reportedly supplied wine to the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and bishops within the region. Sometime during the first half of the 14th century, Manfred's sons were commissioned to establish vineyards in Sicily. One of the brothers, Giacomo, after having been made a Knight, moved from Messina to Malta in around 1355, with his family skills. He married into the local nobility and is survived by several descendants across both Sicily and Malta.
Schembri Family Emblem
Schembri's efforts, or those of other vine growers commissioned to this task seem to have been rather successful since in 1434 a complaint was made by Maltese town authorities implying that the importation of wine should be restricted as not to harm the local industry. An odd century later, in 1530 AD, the islands were taken over by the Order of St. John. The Order invested heavily in terms of agriculture and afforestation, including the introduction of new grape varieties from across Europe. Locally made wine remained limited however and more often than not supplemented by foreign imports, mainly from Sicily and Greece. Renewed efforts to revitalise Maltese Viticulture were made in the second half of the 19th century, Malta now being part of the British Empire, though the establishment of several vineyards in both Malta and Gozo.
Viticulture in Gozo
The 20th Century brought about great advancement with much innovation and opportunity. Age-old crafts and traditions such as the planting of vines and wine production were given a new span of life and sustainability. Novel knowledge and technology allowed such practices to evolve and improve considerably, leading to the founding of the first large scale wineries in Malta. This led several entrepreneurs to produce wines for both their own consumption as well as for commercial purposes. The trend of making one's own wine is still a wide-spread pastime to many and home-made wine is readily available on the local market.5 Official statistics for 1928 list 146 manufacturers of natural wine in Malta and another 217 in Gozo. A decade later one finds 115 in Malta and 352 in Gozo. The majority were small-scale enterprises with limited yields and production. Furthermore not all manufacturers were always registered officially as wine producers and are now lost to history. Traces of defunct brands survive however in the form of old adverts, promotional merchandise, bottles and labels.
A defunct Winery at the outskirts of Mgarr
A farmer's co-operative known as Farmers' Wine was founded in the mid-1960s with the establishment of a factory in Burmarrad. This entity was superseded by a new organisation called Vitimalta in 2006.6 The growing of Vines in Malta is controlled by the Wine Regulation Board, which before 2001 was known as the Wine Advisory Council, and is made up of representatives of grape growers, wine makers and the government. There are currently* five major wine producers from a total of 18 licensed vintners in Malta & Gozo, and 900 farmers registered as vine cultivators. (*2022) Malta's accession to the E.U. in 2004 brought about the appellation and classification of Maltese wines in 2007. This enabled a better appreciation and exposure of the many good quality wines produced locally.
To read more about individual producers and brands kindly click on the links below. (Click on image to go to the desired page or the underlying text to do so in a new tab)
Notes & References 1. Evidence of wine-making actually goes back to 7000BC in the form of a grape & rice wine made in China. 2. The sea originally reached far more inland than it does now, and large swathes of the Burmarrad plains eventually constituted marshland. 3. Excavations at the Roman Villa in Zejtun have recently uncovered an older Punic site and traces of wine production remains underlying the Roman ruins. 4. Insolia is still an important grape variety in Sicily, however Mammolo only survives in small quantities and exclusively in Tuscany, Italy. 5. It is estimated that some 43o hectares of land are devoted to vine growing (2022). The total annual output for 2005 was 630 tonnes. 6. The building was sold in 2008 and a new entity was set up 2 years earlier called VitiMalta, comprising members of the Farmer's Co-Operative and the Malta Vines & Wines Association.
Resources A History of Wine - Arenaflowers.com Evidence of the World's earliest Winemaking.. (Feature - Theguardian.com) Traces of 6,000-year-old Wine discovered in Sicilian Cave (ditto) Temple Landscapes (Fragus Publication - Vol.1, Ch.3, Pg.109) Zejtun Local Council (Website) Maltese Wine Pressing in Antiquity - Anthony Bonanno) Schembri surname & origins - Maltageneaology.com Malta Blue Books, 1928 & 1938 - Nso.gov.mt. On Viticulture & Vintners: The Future of Wine growing and Wine making in Malta - Geoffrey Borg Organisation of the Production of (Maltese) Grape Wines - Vitimalta.org Viticulture & Oenology - Agricultural Directorate, Govt of Malta (agrikoltura.gov.mt) General references and wine classification - winesofmalta.gov.mt
Images Place-holder photo showing Marsovin Cellars, Malta Neolithic Wine Jars - geologaritmica.com & Penn.Museum (blog) Sicilian Wine Jars (cropped) - Davide Tanasi via Theconversation.com Mount Etna from Dingli Cliffs, Malta just before dawn - Daniel Cilia via Timesofmalta.com Burmarrad & Salina in Antiquity - It-Tarka.com (HPM Website) Minoan Wine Press - foodincrete.wordpress.com (G.Maltezakis Blogpost) Egyptian Wine Amporae at the Louvre Museum - Vania Teofilo via wikimedia.org Roman Wine Press - Scale Model by Fredericus-rex.eu Girgentina Grapes - Fawwara Grapes Co. via Facebook.com Gellewza Grapes - Georges Meekers via Timesofmalta.com Schembri Crest - Modified image from a lapel pin being sold by Mdina Glass Ltd. Gozitan Wine Plantation - Viewpointgozo.com Mgarr Winery - Pierre Micallef Grimaud via Mapio.net
Some images may have been cropped, resized or altered for better clarity and presentation