What makes two professionals, highly respected in their fields put all their life savings into a project to create a boutique winery in Malta making top quality wines? How do they find the time to manage a wine business despite their professional commitments? That’s the story of Dr Astrid Camilleri, a gynaecologist and Prof. Juanito Camilleri a former University rector and former CEO of a mobile operator who have set up the Ta’ Betta Winery in Malta with the aim of making fine wines with personality that have ageing potential.
“It’s a long story,” Astrid tells me. It is not a problem for me. It is a beautiful albeit windy summer evening at Ta’ Betta winery, a gem of a place the two have created over many years of hard work.
You could call it their life or passion project but it has turned out to be much more than that. “We met in Cambridge while we were studying. I had started working there and Juanito was reading for his PhD. We got to know each other and we got married within 2 years. I wanted to come back to Malta, I already had my practice here, people knew me and I felt close to my family. For Juanito it was different because he had already been away for eight years so he was ready to stay away from Malta.”
“Actually I was ready to move further away from Malta,” he says.
“In fact he was head-hunted to go and work in Canada. He was pulling to go towards Canada. I was pulling to come to Malta and seeing that I was very reluctant to face -40 degree temperatures in Calgary and there was an opportunity to start the computer science department at the University he took it. But there was one condition. It was a little request to do something which we could not do elsewhere. We wanted to buy a plot of land and have a space we could call our own,” Astrid said.
“At first, the idea of that space was a place where we could get away from it all. When we returned to Malta, I started to look around for land to buy. When I came across this, I gave Juanito a quick call and said that I think I found something that was worth considering. He came over fleetingly for two minutes because he was half way through signing a contract for Go Mobile (he was CEO there). We saw the land and we loved the potential but it was not like anything you are seeing today. It was a dump. We bought the first parcel of land,” she told me.
They started to buy more parcels of land around the first parcel till they accumulated four hectares of land but they still had no idea what to do with the land. “Initially we thought we would have an olive grove because we thought a vineyard would be more demanding. Finally we went for the more challenging decision. Lots of people told us we were a bit crazy because the land was not ready to plant vines,” she said.
The first years were spent preparing the land for the vines. That meant cleaning the mess including things that had been dumped along the years but also bringing in tonnes of soil to the site.
“It took us three years. We imported and planted our first vines from France in 2003. We made the first wines in 2006. For the white, we planted the Chardonnay in 2005 and had our first vintage in 2008,” Juanito said.
“It was not like anything you are seeing today. There was one small room where the wine used to be prepared. We used to call it Chateau Garage and now we have moved to Chateau Chic. It is our little joke,” Astrid said.
I am intrigued at how they manage to combine time for a project like this which requires so much time and how they balance things out.
It is so different to what we do on a daily basis that ultimately it is a breath of fresh air
“They say that you can give a job to somebody who is busy to get it done and I think that applies to us. What keeps us sane is that we take different roles in the winery and we are also very lucky to have very good people around us who support us. Juanito gives one form of input, I try to give another and we combine our efforts. While it is very taxing and sometimes a chore, at the same time, it is so different to what we do on a daily basis that ultimately it is a breath of fresh air. It gives us pleasure and it is also something we enjoy particularly when we see others enjoying themselves here which was always our aim,” Astrid said.
Juanito says that the winery has become a very integral part of who they are. “I cannot imagine life without this. I think that this plot of land has galvanised our life. Every Saturday I used to come here and cook. It has become part of our social life, our escapism from the daily routine. Don’t get me wrong. This can be a nightmarishly worrying venture. I would not call it a hobby anymore. It is a very expensive venture as you are always placed in situations where the unexpected happens and you need to fork out more money or take decisions,” he said.
“The answer to how we find the time is that we are both alpha characters, we wake up very early in the morning and stay up till late at night to get things done,” Juanito adds. “Luckily, in my case, I can work from wherever because all I need is my laptop. But is is certainly not easy.”
Today things are looking bright for Ta’ Betta amid great reviews and excellent wines but it was not always like that. “We have had to go against the grain because we have spared no expense to do things. The permits took much longer than we envisaged because we applied for a permit in 2006. We got the permit for half of what we asked for in 2012 but that would have meant we would have had a glorified garage because we would not have space to process the grapes or to store the bottles. In 2013, there was a change in regulations which led to the permit coming through in 2016 but still it took long to finally get the permits to turn the ‘table wine’ into the wine sold today.
Astrid tells me that they were producing wine that they could not sell. Today, that wine forms part of their ‘library’ which enables them to assess the wine’s ageing potential. But it also had a huge impact on their business project because they continued to invest money into the project without any return whatsoever.
“We came to a point where the 2017 vintage was saved by just a couple of weeks. We only got the permits just in time. The whole saga was soul destroying. It tested us, it aged us but it also galvanised our intention of making this work,” Juanito said.
The early days
I visited the estate for the first time around 2007 through a common friend. I knew Juanito already from my time as a journalist. It was a Saturday and can confirm it was nothing like it is today though the welcome was similar. Juanito would be in his ‘garage’ welcoming friends and sharing the wines that he had produced with cheeses, charcuterie and Maltese bread of course. I was immediately intrigued by the quality even in those early days. I recall the Maltese Syrah tasting like no other.
“The truth is that we started with this being more like a place to get away from it all. We decided to go for vines rather than olive trees. Wine drinking was never going to be excluded from here if we had opted for an olive grove,” he jokes. “The decision came after a lot of consideration and even a few rounds of discouragement. It was by chance through Patrick Xerri who came and told us that there was no cheap way of doing this. He had a friend from Sicily called Vincenzo Melia and it is here that our winemaker from back then comes into play.”
“Getting Vincenzo here really clinched it for us because we were not going to do something blindly. We were going to get professional advice. At first there was no mention of a winery. We were going to plant vines and then sell the grapes. We did not initially think we would make wine ourselves. But once we planted the vines we said why not try it out. We worked on the first vintage in 2006 and the results were encouraging. Vincenzo was really enthusiastic but obviously, he could not guarantee that the terroir was going to give us these results. He convinced us that for summer we needed a white wine and he convinced me to experiment with Chardonnay. It was only when the quality of the wine was being remarked upon, that was when the project of the winery started. That is when Astrid came into the picture and completely changed the whole project.”
It was going to be a functional winery. Astrid told me, buddy, if we are going to spend all that money, it has to be something that I am proud of.
Vincenzo Melia is important because he was instrumental in the Sicilian wine revival. Together with Bruno Pastana and Diego Planeta he set up the Istituto Siciliano delle Vite e del Vino. He worked closely with Giacomo Tachis, recognised at the time as one of the best oenologists in Europe. If anyone can claim he apprenticed in the Tachis school of wine making, Vincenzo Melia can. Tachis was the man who masterminded the creation of a new generation of Italian red wines.
“What I had in mind was a functional winery, maybe with the same amount of space but simply to get the job done. Astrid told me, buddy, if we are going to spend all that money, it has to be something that I am proud of. The aesthetic here is all her making. We transformed the whole concept into a boutique winery, a place where we can celebrate with club members and friends.”
“Food and wine get people together. It introduces you to really lovely and amazing people. But we are surprised that we have managed to get to here. Although this is a small venture, the magnitude of it all really surprised us,” Astrid said.
The winery has 15,000 mature vines on its Girgenti estate which they bought in seven different lots. “We have planted four reds and one white here. Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Chardonnay. The white came as an afterthought to be honest. I was not initially in favour of trying a white in Malta. I thought, and I have been proven wrong, that it would be impossible to make a grand white wine in such a hot climate,” Juanito said.
“Let’s say I was partially wrong,” he said. “It is extremely difficult but not impossible. The key is temperature, temperature, temperature. The minute we harvest we put the grapes in refrigerated vans. From the vine to the van we bring the temperature to 5 degrees and we process the white grapes cold,” he tells me.
The result is nothing short of amazing but more about that later. The white wine is called Jean Parisot. The name is inspired by the tenacious grandmaster of the Order of Malta Jean Parison de Valletta who stood victorious after the great siege of Malta in 1565 and lay the foundation stone of the city of Valletta in 1566.
“The white was phenomenal. Quite frankly it has become our calling card. There is so much competition in the red wine arena that is is hard while with white, at least, these type of whites for red white lovers, the competition is less strong. This is a very elite category and it is what clinched it for me to go for the winery. “These whites in blind tasting have given us extremely good results. Blind tastings can take you everywhere and this wine is very difficult to place. Is it old world, is it new world. I think it is this mix that comes through,” Juanito tells me.
Science and winemaking
Both Astrid and Juanito come from a scientific background. I’m curious what they think of winemaking. Is it a science or an art? “There is definitely art at play. There is also God, or if you don’t believe the unknown or nature but clearly this goes beyond science. And then there is a third dimension and this has taught us a lot. “What winemaking has given us is the appreciation that you can do everything by the book and up comes a storm or a heatwave when you are least prepared or even unexpected. You might think that you have done everything perfectly but suddenly it goes haywire and you need to react quickly,” Juanito says.
“There is definitely an element of art and art is in the palate. You judge wine not through the process you go through but ultimately through the palate. Astrid has a very refined palate. You have to learn, as scientists, that you need to be true to what you are feeling. You need to be honest and true to what you are tasting. You need the wine to be good and also you have to like it. There are times when you have to say you don’t like it maybe it is because the year was too hot or less hot. Ideally you do not end up with a defective wine but ultimately we are the custodians of nature here.”
“Our focus is on the vine. I am not going to say that we are biodynamic or organic because there is an exhaustive checklist that you need to tick. I am not sure that we actually tick them all in detail. When we put manure in the field we don’t use a horn. How important the horn is and whether it should be the horn of a cow and not a bull I don’t know. Scientifically, I have my scepticism although I don’t snob anything. But the important thing, in my view is to put natural manure, to ensure the health of the vine, how you actually graft is important.”
“We take care of the vine by trying to read it. Do we follow moon cycles? Possibly we do but not consciously. Does the moon cycle have an impact? Yes, I do believe it impacts us even when tasting the wine. Recently we have been debating this because it is not usual to get the opportunity to drink the same wine again and again and again. Sometimes it is inexplicable. It is either our mood or the wine’s mood. Yesterday the wines could have been awesome and today I am just not getting it. Is it me or the wine? . Maybe the wines are moody, maybe we are.”
“What I am sure is that weather and atmospheric conditions have an impact. What we do is intrinsically organic. We plant broad beans in winter because they help add nitrogen to the soil, we have animals (dogs, a donkey and chickens) to create a living environment but I think it is one thing to say you are organic if you have 40 hectares of land and nothing next to you and another with 4 hectares and people all around you. Malta is so small that if a neighbour starts to spray how can you prevent it from reaching your field,” he tells me.,
“We work on the basis that we do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides. We do use sulphites in the fields because without them the vines can suffer. If it rains, what do you do. If the skin is too thin and there is humidity, it creates rot which spoils the grapes. We work with the least intervention possible as long as the grapes are healthy and as long as the wine is stable. Even during wine making we use as little sulphites as is possible.”
The wines and the future
We are still speaking but Josef Bonello, starts to serve the first wine. It is the 2018 Jean Parisot, 100 per cent Chardonnay. The 2017 is next. It is the first wine of the estate that is not a ‘table wine’. It is the first vintage they have been able to sell. “Each year has its particular nuance even if the undertones of the wine are similar. 2017 was a very hot year following a hot 2016. The harvest came one or two weeks later than he would have opted for but they still did not have the permit in hand so they had to wait to save the vintage.”
We also taste the 2013 which confirms the impressive ageing potential of these whites. Only 4,000 bottles are produced each year.
We go back to discussing the Tachis school of thought which arrived in Malta through Vincenzo Melia. “What are the hallmarks of the Tachis school? He valorised the use of concrete tanks. He was a great supporter of use of concrete. There were many wineries that were replacing their concrete vets with stainless steel and he created a counter movement against that. In Italy there were those who vitrified the concrete which in my opinion is a contradiction because you are fermenting the wine in glass. The beauty of fermenting in natural concrete (cast stone and food safe) is that there is a natural porous that allows micro-biology inside the oxygen. It keeps the wine fresher in my opinion.”
The second thing that Tachis was in favour was the use of barriques and these were not just as a container for storing wine but as an integral part of the wine making. “Every five years we change all our barriques which is a recurrent bill but this makes a huge difference in terms of structure and stability of the wine,” he said.
“The third thing that Tachis inspired was importation of international grapes into the terroir. This was were the renaissance in Italy happened. A Cabernet Sauvignon from Tuscany was something that was undreamt of and blending was also unimaginable.”
It turned out to be a successful experiment and ended up creating the revival of Italian island wines (Sicily, Sardegna and Pantelleria).
The winery does not use indigenous grapes (there are only two in Malta, the Girgentina and the Gellewza). He thinks that they produce too little alcohol though they might add perfume to the wine. “It was not an option at the time because we did not have real stem vines and I thought it was too much of a gamble. I still think it is not an option today,” he said.
The same thing happened with yeasts. “We identified two natural yeasts at the vineyard and registered them but when they carried out tests it did not work. What was remarkable is that we found many commercial yeasts in the terroir that had spread from one field to another. Had we used these natural yeasts, it would not have given us the quality we wanted,” he tells me.
“Our philosophy is to let the terroir speak for itself. Every year, the vintages tell the story of what happened in the field. So each year has its own expression. You can tell from the wines whether the year was hot, whether the vines were stressed for water.”
We move to the reds now. The Antonio Manoel or the Opulent, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon of which 9,000 bottles are produced. Then there is the Philippe Villiers The Robust, an unusual blend of Syrah and Cabernet Franc. The interview is nearly over but we continue to chat into the evening enjoying different vintages of the reds before we return again to the whites.
I know that from now onwards, every vintage we make means I will not be able to taste it at its best because we are creating wines that can last 20 to 30 years. They will be at their best when I am no longer around and that cuts you to size.
Juanito and Astrid have created a gem which is being recognised not just on the island but also outside. They launched just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit which does not necessarily make it easy for export or to welcome visitors to the winery. But when this is all over, they, together with another few who are pushing the boundaries, have started what could be a revolution in Malta.
“I like to think we have created something that shows we have something to say about the story of wine in the world and in the Mediterranean,” Juanito tells me.
Juanito is still not ready yet though. He might add a sweet wine with a twist he tells me. But they also know that the ecosystem is also extremely important. “We need to really highlight what we have as an island. It has to be about passion and pride in what you do. We still need to revive this feeling in Malta. I always tell my daughter that whatever you want to do in life you should do it with passion. Even if it is the most mundane thing you can do in life, you have to believe in it and do it in the right way,” she said.
“This has been the ride of our lifetime,” Juanito tells me. “It has sucked us in and hopefully our daughter, will take over the baton but it is up to her, it is her life. It feels like a relay race. I know that from now onwards, every vintage we make means I will not be able to taste it at its best because we are creating wines that are at their maximum potential is say 20 to 30 years from now. They will be at their best when I am no longer around and that cuts you to size.”
Sometimes the bureaucratic hurdles makes him thing that it might have been better to save the money, travel, visit restaurants and try other people’s wine without the stress. But then he thinks again.
“Knowing our characters, this was the right choice,” Astrid says.
I leave the winery knowing this is a place I will return to often on my visits to Malta. I couldn’t help think what would happen if only the island had more people like Astrid and Juanito?