Italian Wine News


Back to the Roots:
A Quest for Exotic Wines from Ancient Regions – Part 2
Burke Owens, Special to The Chronicle – May 14, 2005

Part 1 - 2

  Maltese Vineyards
  Maltese vineyards sit near the Mediterranean Sea. The heavily populated island is short on farmland, and vineyards tend to be small. Photo by Burke Owens, special to the Chronicle

Malta is in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, east of Tunisia and south of Sicily. This large island is twice the size of San Francisco, and though it's not quite as densely populated, it's not easy to accommodate both farmland and well over 400,000 inhabitants.

Malta has a complex human history stretching back 6,000 years. Since 1964, it has been an independent republic within the British Commonwealth.

Marks of past cultures abound. A mysterious 5,500-year-old stone temple sits underground, beneath a modern pizza parlor amid the streets of a busy town. Majestic battlements built by the Knights of Malta in A.D. 1600 to guard their city of M'dina overlook the National Stadium sports complex.

Tiny vineyards are planted wherever patches of arable land are available around this fairly flat, arid and windy island. Most of the fruit goes to table grapes or to cooperative wineries, where a small percentage is blended with large quantities of Italian and some North African grapes. Only one winery grows and produces wine exclusively from Maltese grapes -- Meridiana.

Meridiana's 47-acre estate vineyard and winery sits not far from the National Stadium in the island's Ta Qali area. Maltese partners Mark Miceli- Farrugia and Roger Aquilina, with a little financial help from Tuscany's Antinori family, have been growing grapes and making wine since 1996. They produce fine examples of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.

"The most difficult thing for us is that the local authorities allow other wineries to blend grapes from other countries into their wine. We believe this is wrong. It is dishonest and it is not legal. How can you call a wine Maltese if it is made from Italian grapes?" says Miceli-Farrugia.

Battles with the Maltese agricultural ministry seem constant for Meridiana but are far from the only challenge.

"Malta has no lakes, no rivers, little groundwater and low rainfall," Aquilina says. "Our reservoir is underground. We pump the water to our drip irrigation system so that our vines can survive. The vineyard soils vary so that some clay sections hold water like a sponge while the sandy soils drain too well. The vineyard requires the most effort, but it is only when the fruit is extraordinary and we make world-class wine of Maltese character that I know we are succeeding."

Most of the 15,000-case production is consumed locally, but some is exported to the United Kingdom and Belgium. The Meridiana wines are well-made. Their only fault, if it is one, is how clean they are. At times they seem to lack Maltese passion, unlike Miceli-Farrugia himself.

The ancient Egyptians loved wine and grew grapes aggressively in the Nile Delta, where wine grapes are still grown today.

We land in Luxor in a small cluttered airport. We drive past villages amid patches of palm and date trees and fields of sugarcane and grazing livestock. Everything exists within a short distance of the Nile; without its water, this desert region would be lifeless.

Our bus passes scenes from a storybook -- people driving donkeys loaded with bags, children playing among ancient stone ruins, cattle wading in the water and dhows, or sailboats, slowly moving down the Nile.

On a visit to tombs in the Valley of the Nobles, our guide, Moufid Mansour, tells of a nearby grave with grapevines in it.

"The Tomb of Sennefer is like a vineyard," he says. As it turns out, this ancient tomb holds the best wine experience of all.

The hill that cradles the Valley of Nobles is moderately steep. A narrow opening in the side of the hill has a flight of stairs leading down to a gated entrance. Through the gateway, I look down a narrow, dark staircase cut into the rock. No sign tells me this is the place, but it seems to match Moufid's directions.

Down I go, slowly at first. The tomb's low ceiling pushes me into a crawling squat as I slowly move into the darkness. Voices float up from the bottom, easing my anxiety about this subterranean adventure. Finally, after what seems like hours, I reach the bottom. Two other explorers are just heading up, leaving me alone with the caretaker of the tomb.

The ceiling and walls are covered with vibrant paintings of grapevines holding clusters of black grapes. This most beautiful of wine cellars originally held jars of wine for the afterlife and was dedicated to Osiris, the god of resurrection and of wine. Sennefer, mayor of ancient Thebes, hoped to live again in the afterlife and his tomb with its wine motif would place him in Osiris' good graces.

Both evenings in Luxor, we tasted Egyptian wines with dinner. Judging from our experience, modern wineries need to learn about cleanliness and keeping wine away from the air, as everything was oxidized, full of nasty yeast infections like Brettanomyces, or both. Ancient Egyptian wine history is fascinating, but when visiting, stick with the beer.

  Jordanian Wine
  This blend of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon was the best wine tasted in Jordan.
Photo by Burke Owens,
special to the Chronicle

Al 'Aqabah, on the Gulf of Aqaba, is a combination of hip urban chic intermingled with a society steeped in tradition.

Served with a lunch of fresh-caught fish at a trendy wharf restaurant is a white Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend wine from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley called Massaya. A winery formed by a Lebanese wine family in partnership with three French winemakers, Massaya is making superlative reds and whites in a clean, delicious style. Carignane, Syrah and Cabernet along with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon grow well in the warm Bekaa Valley. Massaya's fresh-flavored wines could easily hold their own against many from California.

During the tour's visit to the beautiful ancient city of Petra, we come upon a charming red wine from vineyards in northern Jordan. Saint George wines are produced from grapes grown outside the 4,000-year-old town of Madaba. The 2002 Saint George Grands Vins de Jordan Pinot Noir/Cabernet Sauvignon blend is a delicious medium-bodied, juicy red with mild, spicy aromas, though very little Cab or Pinot character.

Unfortunately, the other wines of Jordan we tasted did not live up to the Saint George. They were fairly thin and unpleasant. Or as Heikki Nikkanen, our tour physician, says, "I'll wait on the wine until something better is available. The beer is a safer bet. But the wines here are much better than in Egypt."

Croatia has a serious but small wine industry, with tiny vineyards everywhere along the Dalmatian peninsula. Close to 60,000 acres are planted, some in the Balkan mountains to the east, but most along the Adriatic Sea. Much of the fruit goes to home winemakers and never leaves the town or village where it is grown.

On the Peljesac peninsula, we visited the Grgic Vina winery in the hamlet of Trstenik. Grgic Vina was founded by Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich, a Croatian emigre, in 1958. Grgich, who earned international fame as the winemaker at Calistoga's Chateau Montelena, founded his own Grgich Hills winery in Rutherford in 1971.

While Grgich Hills specializes in Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, Grgic Vina focuses on local grapes like the white Posip and the red Plavac Mali (this grape has the same DNA as California Zinfandel and Italian Primitivo grapes – Note by WineCountry.IT editor), native to Croatia. Winemaker Kresmir Vuckovic believes the Croatian varietals are better than the international ones for Grgic Vina.

"We tried Chardonnay at first but it was not right here," Vuckovic says. "Our own local varieties give us the regional character we are looking for in wine. Many wineries produce Cabernet but not many make Plavac Mali. It makes us unique and shows pride in our heritage."

The Grgic Vina wines are exotic and familiar at the same time, with the white Posip showing a light Sauvignon Blanc freshness and the red Plavac Mali a brambly quality not unlike Zinfandel. That last is not too surprising as Zinfandel, a Croatian native itself, is likely one of Plavac Mali's parents.

By the time we returned home, we learned that the tradition of winemaking is still alive in some of its birthplaces, and that you can get pretty good wines in places further off the beaten path than most people imagine possible.

Part 1 - 2

Originally published in San Francisco Chronicle ©2005
Burke Owens is associate curator of wine at Copia:
the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa.
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