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Gozo rock holds ancient wine presses

One of a series of wine presses, dating back to 500 BC.

One of a series of wine presses, dating back to 500 BC.

Centuries ago, come September, galleys would be rowed into Mġarr ix-Xini harbour and loaded with amphorae filled with wine that had been pressed in the valley.

Winemakers would fill shallow basins with grapes and, once pressed, the juice would flow through holes and channels into a deeper collecting holder, all carved into the rock.

These wine presses, said to date back to 500 BC, can still be seen embedded in the Gozitan valley and are being studied and documented in a project carried out by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the Sannat and Xewkija local councils with the support of Camilleri Wines.

Apart from safeguarding heritage, the project offers an interesting insight into Malta and Gozo's past.

"What is not seen today is that Mġarr ix-Xini valley was functioning as a main artery, as a seaport... It functioned as a huge agro-industrial area," explained Superintendent of Cultural Heritage Anthony Pace, who leads the project together with archaeologist George Azzopardi.

He explained how the presses, dug into the ground, were made of a shallow basin upon which an additional structure was mounted to press the grapes.

The juices would flow into the deeper basin and this motion was aided by the fact that the presses were built on an incline. Similar presses are present in Malta in the Mġarr Valley in and near Mnajdra, in an area known as Misqa tanks.

Such presses have also been identified in various parts of the world such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Palestine, Syria and South Africa.

Mr Pace elaborated that winemakers would have minimised losses through seepage by first filling the basins with water so the rock would soak up the water. Excess water would then be removed shortly before pressing.

He said it was believed that, once pressed, the wine was collected in amphorae and shipped off to Sicily on galleys that came into the harbour.

Since the project started in 2005, 15 presses have been identified, documented and mapped. Pieces of pottery, including drinking glasses, were also found during excavation works that helped date the presses.

Next summer the second excavation will take place, with the help of students and volunteers. The next step, Mr Pace said, would be to publish the data.

On hearing about this project, which has revealed more about the history of local winemaking, Camilleri Wines wanted to support it through its Mystic Araar, vintage 2007.

For each of the 3,333 limited edition bottles produced, Camilleri Wines will donate €1 to the project, Claudio Camilleri, head of sales and marketing, said.

"Each year we would like to pitch our vintage towards corporate social responsibility and, this year, we're supporting cultural heritage," he said.

This is the second time Camilleri wines is producing the Mystic Araar wine.

The brand was launched in 2008 when the first batch of limited edition vintage 2006 wines were handed out to the winery's clients. The aim was to raise awareness about Malta's national tree which is in danger of extinction - the Sandarac gum tree, more commonly known as Is-Siġra tal-Għargħar, from where the brand gets its name.

That year the company had committed itself to plant 50 trees for three years.

Mystic Araar vintage 2007 - a blend of Syrah, Tempranillo and Merlot - can be bought for €25 a bottle and comes in a silver tin with an information leaflet about the Mġarr Ix-Xini project.

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