Gone are the days of guzzling down glasses of cheap table wines with lemonade mixers (well, almost!). A new wave of wine appreciation has spread among the Maltese people, LANA GALEA finds out.
Maltese society has embraced wine culture and entrepreneurs are cashing in on the awakening, as is evident from the wine bar trend sweeping the Maltese entertainment scene, which has brought about a swarm of new wine bar establishments as well as changes in business concepts that have transformed even local football clubs into classy, trendy nightspots.
Wine is no longer seen as the poor man’s drink, and instead refinement and style has been attributed to the art of wine drinking in Malta. The same people who were once downing casks of local table wine for around Lm1 a pop, are now sipping glasses of foreign wines in trendy wine bars at an average of anywhere from Lm5 a bottle, upwards. Supermarkets too are no longer restricting their wine selections to one or two local brands, but rather transforming their wine sections into an atlas of international wine selections for customers to choose from.
But the rising popularity of wine culture among the Maltese has, to some extent, had a counter-effect on the Maltese wine industry since Malta’s membership in the European Union, as Maltese consumers are provided with a vast selection of import-levy free wines from other European countries, some of which are world-renowned for their quality wines.
Marsovin director, Jeremy Cassar, believes that a lack of national pride among the Maltese people is hurting local wine sales. “The Maltese have an inherent attraction towards anything foreign,” Cassar said. “Other European countries are the opposite. The Greeks will only drink Greek wine; the Italians will only drink Italian wine. But the Maltese are so used to being colonised, that they prefer anything foreign. There is definitely a need for more national pride,” he said.
But how can local wines stand up to foreign wines in the Maltese market? According to Cassar, as the situation stands, many Maltese people are going for foreign wines simply for the sake of them being foreign, not necessarily because they are any better than Maltese wines. “There needs to be greater promotion of local wines and more knowledge among consumers,” Cassar said.
A spokesperson for Camilleri Wines agrees that there is a need for greater consumer knowledge regarding locally produced wines. “Although there is a lot more awareness about the local wine sector, we feel that we need to continue working hard to further strengthen the fact that a number of wines produced from locally grown grapes are of a higher quality in comparison to foreign wines having similar price tags or even higher,” he said.
However, it is not a losing battle for the Maltese wine market. According to Camilleri Wines, although their wine sales initially suffered from a decrease over previous years’ sales after Malta’s entry into the EU in May 2004, local wine sales are certainly not caught in a downward spiral. On the contrary, the future looks promising.
“Since May 2004, all the wine producers have stepped up the hard work to make sure the Maltese consumer realises the quality of the Maltese product and this has paid off. I sincerely believe that the interest in local wines has never been higher than what it is now. The wineries have worked very hard to produce a quality wine and an attractive packaging at a good price.”
Likewise, Marsovin is yielding fruitful wine sales. “Although the lower-end of the Maltese wine market has experienced a decrease of approximately 15% since Malta’s entry into the EU, the decrease hasn’t been a drastic one and in fact, the premium end of the market has actually experienced an increase in sales,” Cassar said. Furthermore, Marsovin are also tapping into overseas markets, exporting their wines to the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Germany and, shortly, to the United States.
But critics also claim it’s an unfair match between Maltese and foreign wines, the latter enjoying better quality grapes and better pricing because of lower costs.
In order to make their own contribution to the local wine market, Marsovin have submitted a production protocol to the Wine Regulation Board, which is expected to announce whether it approves the protocol within the coming weeks. This protocol will dictate to wine producers stringent procedures which they must follow in order for their wines to fall into a particular category – DOK (Denomination of Controlled Origin for quality wines produced in a specific region) and IGT (wines produced from a Typical Geographical Indication). Under this system, wines that do not reach these standards (such as all wines bottled in Malta but made from Italian grapes) will be classified as table wines.
“The implementation of this protocol will increase the standard of wine and create a level playing field among Maltese wine producers. If this protocol is approved, any Maltese wine produced from the 2007 harvest (summer 2007) onwards will have gone through the procedures detailed in the protocol. This will mean that whatever is written on the wine’s label will be a statement of what the wine actually is, which has never happened before, and which will be of great benefit to consumers,” Cassar said.
Camilleri Wines shares this view and firmly affirms that the implementation of this protocol will serve as a milestone in the local wine market.
“Without any doubt, 2007 will be one of the most important years for Maltese wines once the DOK protocols of Malta and Gozo and the IGT protocols for the Maltese Islands are approved. The communication of these protocols to the trade and to the consumers will further increase the confidence levels in the local industry.”
But the buck doesn’t stop there. It seems that consumers’ drinking habits too need to be kept in check, according to Camilleri Wines. “Our strategy is to produce quality wines and convince the customer to drink less but drink better wine. Life is too short to drink wines of low quality. By responsibly drinking less and better wine, you are not only raising your standard of living but you are also supporting one of the many Maltese industry that is trying its best to make a difference.”
So, which local wines sell the most? According to Marsovin, “The cheapest always sells the most, but whites sell slightly more than reds.”
And when do they sell the most wines? “During summer and of course during Christmas time, everyone enjoys a good bottle of wine over Christmas time!”