[WATCH] The new wine, dying on the vine... | Jeremy Cassar

Malta’s wine industry faces unprecedented demand, but its indigenous grape varieties are also under severe threat from drought and other factors. Marsovin CEO Jeremy Cassar argues that the time to save our local vines is now...

Jeremy Cassar
Jeremy Cassar

These are challenging times for the local wine industry. On the one hand, Maltese wines appear to be enjoying a revival. The demand is at an all-time high; and it is universally acknowledged that the wines themselves have improved in quality by leaps and bounds in recent years.

But wine producers are struggling to meet this new demand: Marsovin, Malta’s largest winery, recently  held a press conference to raise the alarm on an existential threat to Malta’s two indigenous grape varieties: the Girgentina (white) and Gellewza (red), which between them form the base ingredient for any truly endemic Maltese wine. At present, it seems that nowhere near enough of either is being produced.

Before going onto other factors affecting the industry right now... what is the nature of this threat, and how serious is it? Jeremy Cassar points towards a combination of factors: some within our control, others very clearly not.

“The threat was serious last year, and even more serious this year. Last year we had a drought: 230-odd mm of rain, which is terrible: Malta was classified as a desert.  We prayed and hoped for a decent year of at least 500mm of rain; we got around 300-360mm. It’s not enough. And it fell mostly in the non-vegetative season, prior to February. That’s fine; the land needs it anyway. But we need it much more. And this is a matter not just of concern to vine-growers in Malta, but to anyone who is concerned with the level of water in Malta’s water-table. It’s a much bigger problem affecting the entire country. But when it comes down to what concerns us directly... unfortunately, the timing couldn’t be worse. About 10 years ago, when there was a surplus of grapes in Malta, the market was down – it was just after EU accession, and the wineries were adapting to the changes. So unfortunately, the surplus didn’t match the existing demand. Now, it is the other way round...”

But is the lack of annual rainfall the only reason?

“There are a number of reasons that production is down. The first and foremost is the lack of rain. The second is that many vines are getting old. It is a natural process, all over the world, that after a certain time, vines need to be replanted.  In very hot climates, like southern Italy, Greece, North Africa and Malta, the heat is stressful on the vine; so it needs to be replanted earlier. In colder climates, vines tend to last longer, depending on the variety. In Malta, we also have the problem of extra heat stress due to the recent heat-wave, coupled with two years of insufficient rain.

“This has caused a lot of damage to the Girgentina and Gellewza. We are down by around 50% of the figures of 2014, when we had approximately 350 tonnes – as Marsovin. We buy most of it in Malta; by my estimate, around 70-75% of the crop comes to us. Now, it’s taken a nosedive... last year because of lack of rain, this year, also because of the negative phase the market went through. There were some farmers who lost interest and dropped out. As a rule, these were not the dedicated farmers who come from a long-standing culture through the generations; they were the ones who were trying it out for the first time; or perhaps not entirely doing it for the right reasons. Possibly they were doing it for EU funds. So unfortunately, some grubbed up their vines, and stopped producing.  Until 2015, it wasn’t a problem. It’s something that has crept up on us...”

As for simply ‘watering them more’, the situation turns out to be more complex than it seems. There is a limit to how much groundwater can be extracted without salinating the water-table; and traditional agricultural practices also come into the equation.

“The nice thing about Girgentina and Gellewza – as is always the case with an indigenous variety – is that they have acclimatised, over a period of time, to the local micro-climate. In most cases, the vines aren’t even irrigated. They live off what the land gives them: the available water, the available nutrients in the soil, the surrounding conditions. In some cases, some farmers might irrigate here and there.

“Many do not. This factor, I would say, is out of anybody’s control. However, because of the current situation, it is not good enough to just not do anything. We have to take stock of the situation: all the stakeholders concerned – the farmers, the producers, and the government – should all put their heads together, and see what can be done. Doing nothing is not a solution. We desperately need the Girgentina and the Gellewza, because we believe that any successful wine culture around the world, that has its own indigenous varieties, needs to protect them. It’s in the interest of Malta’s cultural profile to have its own indigenous grapes. I don’t think it’s right to let go of them...”

Presumably, ‘letting go of them’ means forever... in the sense that these varieties will otherwise become extinct. If so, does the entire wine industry become extinct with it?

“We could lose the varieties, yes. There used to be other grape varieties that were indigenous to Malta: these are the last two we have. And they should be protected. Before around 10 or 15 years ago, all wineries – including ourselves – never really gave the variety itself enough importance to create a DOC or IGT certified wine with it. This is an EU certification process that has been around for a very long time; in Malta, it was only introduced 10 years ago.

“So we, as Marsovin, decided to start looking at these varieties and trying to produce wines of added quality and value. We produced a number of them; in some cases we’re drying the grapes on the winery roof, where it produces highly concentrated wines, which are typical of the Mediterranean. We use our indigenous varieties to produce a wine of a very local character. And these are the ones that are picking up, and gaining a certain popularity. So I believe there’s a strong future for the industry as well: there is a sustainable product that can be made from those grapes. So I don’t think any initiatives put into place to safeguard those vines will be a waste of time for anyone. We’re seeing, now that the market is settling, that even local wine consumers are turning to Maltese wine. This is very positive. Unfortunately, however, they’re turning to Maltese wine when there isn’t very much of it...”

And also at a time when the market is flooded with (often very affordable) foreign wines, which is something else that has changed in recent years. Has the increased competition also affected the current situation?

“It affected us initially. Obviously, foreign wines are still a very big, important market. But I don’t see it as a problem. It was a problem to us many years ago; but today, I think it has played a role in educating people. From a country that has historically always been governed by others for very long periods of time – 100, 200 years – we suddenly became exposed to a huge selection of foreign imported wines that were never available before.

“There is a process at work: people taste, drink, and learn. They educate themselves, understand what they like and don’t like... and how to recognise quality. Just because it’s foreign it doesn’t mean it is good. There has been this process; I’ve seen it happen. People who, in the past, would reason that any foreign wine is good... now, it’s ‘this’ foreign wine, or ‘that’ local wine. They are able to make better decisions. It’s a natural process that takes time. But people can now say: ‘I’ve educated myself, I’m an experienced drinker; and I can see, from all the wines I’ve tasted, that... yes, that local wine is actually pretty good’. And there’s take-up. I can see it. It’s not happening at a very fast pace, but it’s happening. Especially at the premium end of the market. I think that is something that can continue to grow.”

This brings us to the issue of what can be done. How does one actually save an indigenous grape variety from extinction?

“There were some good ideas we discussed with the government last year. Obviously there’s since been an election, so there was a little disturbance. But I really feel that we have to accelerate this. Basically, the process involves having a nursery, in which you grow new vines from cuttings taken from existing ones... I don’t think it is that difficult: there may even be European funds to help this. I do believe that where there’s a will, there’s a way. And I know that other countries go very far to try and help their local indigenous varieties.”

Marsovin has been trying to raise awareness about this issue for some time now: what has the response been like?

“From people in general, I must say the response has been very positive. I’ve had a lot of people contacting me, asking me questions. There is clearly an interest. And this is a sign that, as I was saying before: Maltese people are giving these wines a chance. They want to continue drinking them. And foreigners, too, like what’s being produced locally. Why? Because we are producing wines to a DOK-IGT standard: it’s an EU certification, a protocol which has been approved by Brussels... it is the backbone for offering a standard. We led this process, together with the farmers and other wineries, around 10 years ago. I think that all Maltese wine consumers really want is to see that there is a quality product; and the wineries are showing how credible they can be.”

Another issue highlighted in previous reports is the lack of people willing to work on the production side of the equation. Agriculture is an ageing sector; could it also simply be unattractive to young workers? Not profitable enough? And are there other ways to service this demand... one hears, for instance, of agri-tourism industries based on grape-picking in famous wine regions such as Bordeaux...

“I would say it is profitable for the farmer... though it depends how much land they have.   The price of grapes is going up every single year. This year, the price went up by 6.7%: and that is quite a lot. I think there was that feeling around five years ago. In fact I’d say there definitely was. But things have turned around in the last three years, with demand and prices going up. It’s also a case that not everyone who works as a farmer does it for the same reason. There are those who do it because it is their passion: they want to do it. For others, the money aspect may be more important.

“But to answer your question, I would say that, yes, it is viable to produce vines... the difficult part is that it is hard work. You mentioned grape-picking in Bordeaux, for instance. I’ve done it.  It’s very tiring... but in Bordeaux, it’s not 40 degrees in the summer. I’ve done it in 40 degrees, and it’s exhausting... and I was very fit at the time. All the same, thankfully we still find foreigners living in Malta who are willing to do it. But even that is becoming a bit difficult...”

Labour shortages can, however, be addressed by the right approach. “I think if we continue to invest in this sector... I think there are so many beautiful aspects to it that make such a huge difference, even to the environment. It is a sustainable method of protecting the environment. There are many unused fields; and the vine, in itself, does not utilise as much water as other fruits and vegetables. It uses much less, because you generally only irrigate when you need to ‘adjust’...”

All the same, water is needed: and there is now talk of a possible national water crisis.  At present, borehole extraction for agricultural purposes is carried out for free... which some argue places a strain on the water table. Doesn’t this create a dilemma?

“If you charge the farming sector for water, you will destroy it. But there are solutions. There is second-grade water which is unfit for human consumption: if the network of this second-grade water is made more available to farmers across the island, the issue can be mitigated. It doesn’t stop there: history also shows that if the government invests in a water efficiency system, the payback is great. There are experts in the field who can obviously talk about this much more than I. But there are certainly things that can be done. We have to try and find solutions. Because doing nothing is not going to improve the situation. We have to do something; we don’t have a choice.”