Georges Meekers is a leading writer and expert on the wines of Malta, where he is based, as well as an eminent online educator. Amanda Barnes interviews him and discovers more about his first forays into wine, why native Maltese wines deserve some attention today and his thoughts on why wine appreciation comes much more naturally than we believe.
What is your earliest memory in wine? How did you first become interested in wine?
I grew up in beer country, though not on Trappist, mind you, but on the heel of the best bread in Belgium, my father’s.
As a young boy, I played under barstools in my maternal grandmother’s pub and, on colder days, by the wood oven of the family bakery, places that must have aroused my early curiosity for the smells of ferments and ensuing liking for wine during my university days.
I took up wine writing as a paying hobby and an excuse to buy better, far too expensive bottles of wine. And, by dint of luck, I later in life got the opportunity to capitalise on the outlay professionally.
You are well known for your expertise in Maltese wines. What do people often misunderstand about the country’s wines?
Most people don’t even realise Malta makes wine. That’s understandable since Maltese wines are scarcely available. With less than 450 hectares under vine in Malta and Gozo, the archipelago is probably the smallest and most underrated independent wine-producing country in the world.
What’s astonishing about Malta is that, for the island’s small size, there’s an enormous selection of white, red and rosé wines to choose from.
It’s true you can count Malta’s professional wineries on one hand. But give each one of them over 20 different grape varieties to work with, and you get a wide selection, and a Maltese wine for each occasion.
What are you excited about in Maltese wines today? What do you recommend Members look for at the moment?
In earlier days, I was quick to single out Syrah as Malta’s red signature wine. Local Merlot is perhaps even more intriguing because of its undeniably delicious and special savoury quality. Then again, how about Maltese Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc? Perhaps you could favour Carignan and Grenache, which are often found together in blends.
Another misconception is that the wines are big and bold because of the warm climate and southern location of the Islands. Malta must be better at producing reds than white wines, right?
Think again! Maltese wines are surprisingly very unlike the baggy cut of extravagant examples prevailing in neighbouring regions, and the best whites made from Chardonnay, Viognier, Vermentino and Sauvignon Blanc are delicate and much racier than generally expected.
In any case, Maltese wines are ready for prime time.
I definitely recommend trying the two commercially viable native varieties that have a lot of wow-factor thanks to their individuality.
There’s Girgentina, Malta’s green-skinned grape. The soft sibilance, the internal alliteration, the jovial completion, whether you give it the sharp English pronunciation or slowly ease off the word in Maltese, it’s a sound suggestive of heritage and, of course, delicious local white wine.
The autochthonous variety for reds and rosés is called Ġellewża. It too is fascinating. Both natives are phylloxera-resistant coastal vines, of indeterminate age, probably around 50 years old, and often still dry-farmed and grown in the traditional bush method.
Ġellewża might gain fame as ‘the Pinot Noir of Malta’ one day for its nose of violets and broad palate of plum and cherry fruit, with an intriguing touch of liquorice.
Tell us about your book Cleanskin, what’s the concept behind it? And why do you think it is important to frame wine outside of the usual education genre?
Cleanskin is a collaboration with Malta’s acclaimed photographer Kevin Casha. After having worked together rather frantically on our first publication, namely ‘Wines of Malta’, we just wanted to have fun with wine and photography.
The result is what must be the sexiest book about wine in a long time, humorously but accurately written and brimming over with glamour shots of female beauty yet free from tortuous wine jargon.
It shows that wine definitively has lost its elitist veneer and I’m all for that.
To many people wine is just an exciting drink and they don’t think much else of it. So, the question really is not if we need to ‘popularise’ but if wine appreciation actually needs teaching?
You are also a wine educator and offer online wine courses through Wine Campus. How have you seen the demand for online learning change since you started? And what are the greatest challenges still faced by online education?
Online education has entered mainstream: more organisations offer internet distance learning courses which attract more following than ever before.
However, when it comes to subjects like wine appreciation, which are social and casual by nature, people aren’t inclined to pay a fee for expert knowledge, especially not now that similar material appears to be readily and freely googleable.
But that virtual world is also more than before flooded with all kinds of credulous, often dubious bits and bites coming from social media and cohorts of Trump-true-like influencers. And that’s precisely the raison d’être of critical wine education – and proper journalism, of course – that helps fact-checking and myth-busting so people can make well-informed choices.
The biggest challenge is that many online tuition providers often fail their customers: most learners give up before they get to the end of the e-learning course; high dropout rates are a perennial problem faced by people that study alone.
I feel that making e-classes more tutor-led, providing students direct access to a mentor, getting them as it were to apprentice online with an expert, who gives personal attention like in a small, old-fashioned classroom, is what adds value to internet wine education.
What will be the first thing you do when Malta and the world is out of lock down?
Staying home has made me realise that you don’t need to go far to enjoy life, and likewise your next wine destination hasn’t got to be a far-flung place. Some of the best journeys are merely a new way of seeing home.
I won’t be popping any trophy bottles, I guess. But a glass of home-grown sparkling Girgentina will be in order for that big happy moment when my wife Stefie, our son Ike and I can hug our daughter Leah again, who by then will have been in self-isolation for far too long and an awful lonely time. Saħħa!