Fields of love... and loathe
Gozitan winemakers may be sidelined by the local market, but the foreigners seem to slurp up the slope-top wine-tasting experience they serve. Fiona Galea Debono is one of the rare Maltese to visit Tal-Massar Winery and savour its vineyard tour.
For two decades, Marisa Cauchi Hili never touched a tomato. Her aversion to the fruit stemmed from the fact that she spent her entire childhood picking them from her family’s fields in Għarb.
Never mind that the land is located in the picturesque and ancient area of the Gozitan village, on top of a slope that rolls into the valley; never mind that it is flanked by two solitary chapels from the 1600s and that the lights of cars in Sicily, across the Mediterranean Sea, can be spotted on a clear day.
The unique panorama failed to assuage the young girl’s hatred for tomatoes and she only started to enjoy them when her father stopped their cultivation.
Today, Marisa is back in those loathed fields, having started with her husband Anthony a winemaking business. She is looking at that dry soil – once the source of teenage angst, but now yielding vines – with a fresh pair of entrepreneurial eyes. And she has started eating tomatoes again.
On the other side of the story is the husband, whose family was rooted in the winemaking business between the 1930s and 1970s. Back then, they would produce 500,000 kilos of grapes, but the industry ground to a halt when they decided to throw in the towel due to the introduction of “laws favouring large wineries over smaller ones”. The seven wineries in Xagħra alone withered away and most vineyards were uprooted as grape production was no longer worthwhile.
Fast-forward to 2006... and the marriage of the Għarb vineyards and the new Xagħra winery, three storeys under the Hili’s home, has given birth to Tal-Massar wines. Produced from about 7,000 kilos of grapes a year, it may be a far cry from the 500,000 once grown, but it has not dampened the couple’s spirit to continue struggling up that hill.
What’s interesting is that the Hilis have not stopped at mere production. Faced by barriers from the local market – Tal-Massar claims to be rejected by anything from catering establishments to consumers, the authorities and the tourism industry – it has embarked on the organisation of wine tours, contributing to the agritourism offer Gozo is trying to develop.
On a Saturday at 6 p.m., when the sun is still beating down, Marisa meets about 20 foreigners from the UK, Denmark, Scotland, Norway and Sweden at a meeting point that is easy to reach, and the cars follow her to Tas-Sisien in the limits of Għarb, a settlement that dates back to Arab times.
It is thanks only to the internet and TripAdvisor – their “salvation” – direct bookings and word of mouth that the group of foreigners have ended up on their wine tour. Of the 50 registered Destination Management Companies Marisa has contacted, only one acknowledged her initiative, she says with regret, appealing to the authorities to recognise the “potential” of their agritourism project and their need for facilities on site.
Since they started the twice weekly tours last year, they welcome at least 15 tourists a week, but rarely a Maltese. “The latter readily accept anything foreign, but never anything local,” Anthony laments as he waits for the group in his 1.5 hectares of vineyards. “They look down on our product; it is as hard as selling ice to Eskimos.”
Hunting and agritourism cannot grow hand in hand, they say, pointing to a “fragile” surrounding landscape and the importance of the Eco-Gozo concept.
Tal-Massar wines sell mainly to those who visit. They are often shipped over, and have been available online since the end of last month, thanks to a Gozitan distributor in the UK.
“Catering establishments want a wine for €3 so we have given up on that channel, focusing on the tours,” they admit.
It was a “step in the dark” for Anthony, who rekindled the family business and opted to go “totally unconventional” and against the grain, steering away from mainstream grapes and focusing on Mediterranean varieties.
The soil they grow on may be considered “dust” by agricultural standards, having been worked for thousands of years and being poor. But Anthony sees the benefits in that too: “Vines are like people; if they are pampered, you don’t get good wine, but if they have to fight for survival, face conditions of stress and fear death, they need to work harder and the quality is better.”
Anthony is a hands-on vintner... to his wife’s regret. And he fits his list of prerequisites for the job to a T: “A winemaker should never wear a suit; he shouldn’t be sitting at a desk in an air-conditioned office, dishing out orders. His fingernails should be full of soil, his hands filled with calluses and his footprints need to be embedded in the paths between the vines.”
Eighty per cent of the work is carried out in the vineyards, patiently fighting the elements – and Marisa can vouch for that. It’s a time-consuming, back-breaking job, involving pruning by hand to leave only one bunch of grapes on each branch.
Again Anthony personifies the vines: the difference is between a mother of 10, or just nurturing a single child. Anthony spends every day and every spare minute at the vineyard. “He knows each vine. And they recognise him too. He tells me that when he walks between them, they hug him,” Marisa recounts with a hint of half-joking jealousy.
She too plays a role, and although she is not a lover of alcohol, having fine-tuned taste buds means she is next after the oenologist to “taste and test and taste and test”.
Their pride and joy is the semi-sweet Garb, from the Sirkusian, or Nero d’Avola grape, which they claim other wineries in Gozo have failed to copy. The “meditation” wine is best savoured as an aperitif, with mature cheese, lamb, or as a dessert wine, with its hint of dark chocolate.
The wind on the Għarb heights, even in the middle of August, plays a part in the delicate cultivation of vines too, although nature has also turned its back on Tal-Massar, with an infestation in 2009 that wiped out its 7,000 kilos of grapes. The one chance of the year was gone with the wind, but the couple was undeterred by the initial failure and plans to gradually grow its production.
Their story told, a slope-top wine-tasting session is held for the foreigners, followed by nibbles, including bread with Marisa’s homemade sundried tomato paste. It’s her grandmother’s recipe – the only positive leftover from the detested tomato-picking days – and entails leaving them to age for three whole years in sea salt before being processed into a pesto.
Yes, she has come a long way from stamping her feet in the fields. If there’s going to be any of that, it would be only to crush grapes underfoot.