Just say ‘Girgentina’. 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, wine.
Nobody knows for sure where the name of Malta’s very own green-skinned grape variety comes from. It has, however, been suggested that it relates to the village of Girgenti in southwest Malta where it was once planted in abundance.
The old vines’ origin is also shrouded in mystery. In any case, we can safely say that the Girgentina grape, alongside Malta’s red wine variety called Ġellewża, has been around for several centuries. Still traditionally trained in the sprawling bush method and well-accustomed to the local conditions invariably like the world’s best local varieties, Girgentina also ripens late, irrespective of the climate, towards the end of September.
For long I’ve struggled to find a way to convey its unique message which is not always obvious to people uninitiated to the only native white wine variety that has done well to survive in hot and dry Malta.
Expecting it to taste similar to white wines made from grapes grown in a warm wine-making country, full-flavoured, fleshy and, at times, heady, fat and brimming over with very ripe and luscious upfront fruit, novices are often surprised by their first sip of Girgentina.
Malta’s prominent white wine grape could not be more different. Pure, unoaked but steely and never very alcoholic, today’s modern wines start life in the bottle shy and terse. The texture is not thick and heavy like wool broadcloth and brocade. It’s an ultra-refreshing style which is, for that matter, non-conforming to the grapes’ southern origin and atypical for dry white wine coming from a warm-climate wine region.
To me, Girgentina has an intricate appeal. It’s there for everyone to discover but you need to pause and taste beyond the way your grasping self supposes it ought to do. At the risk of being overly-lyrical, I’d say its attractiveness brings to mind the beauty of wonderfully crafted fragile lacework, the ornamental fabric patterned by tangible threads and precise spaces leaving as much to the imagination as is spelled out.
Today’s modern-styled wines are straw-pale in colour, definitely very lively and frivol with a fresh prickle that carries a delicate flowery arrangement of lemon blossom and other subtle citrus perfumes and relishes interlaced with fruity tangs of green Granny Smith apple and crunchy Bambinella pear.
When you finally weigh up your feather light wine it will be in vain, finding the beams of your vinous weighing scale unwavering, never tipping upwards or downwards but unvaryingly in balance, leaving your palate ready for more.
If you have not tried Girgentina in ages, you will be pleasantly surprised by its new appeal. Top labels bear no resemblance to rustic bottles of yesteryear or Italian wines that go by names that have transcended to generic shorthand referring to little more than the vague suggestion of dry and white.
I recommend you do not delay your vinous discovery. Both the Medina Girgentina Chardonnay, produced by Emmanuel Delicata Winemaker as well as the semi-sparkling Girgentina Frizzante label by the same award-winning winery, are popular and affordable favourites.
Either one is as delicious as an aperitif and are a perfect match with shellfish, lightly-cooked fish dishes, sushi or sashimi, spring vegetables and summer salads.
Try Malta’s native white grape and you might just see that your wine destination is not a far-flung place but a new way of seeing home through a matchless glass of Maltese Girgentina.
This article first appeared in The Times of Malta, Friday 22 July 2016