Despite producing olive oil since Roman times, it’s only in recent decades that Malta’s olive oil cultivation has been revived. Today, Maltese olive oil is heralded as some of the best in the world, owing to its lively, peppery nature. One of the producers at the forefront of the olive oil revolution is the family-run San Niklaw, in the north of the island. San Niklaw co-founder, Dr John Cauchi, takes us on a tour of his remarkable estate.
You and your family run the San Niklaw Estate. Who undertakes what roles?
The Estate activity is undertaken as a family effort. We all get involved in most aspects of our operation.
What made you want to start producing olive oil?
As a family, we have always had a passion for food and wine. San Niklaw Estate was a project that was born in the family, utilising family fields that were rehabilitated. My late father Thomas had a keen passion for olive oil and was determined to plant an olive grove and produce his own oil. He achieved that goal and the estate now grows 500 olive trees in various stages of maturity.
Can you tell us about the varieties of olives that you grow?
In addition to old indigenous olive trees other cultivars were planted and include Frantoio, Carolea, Coratina, Ascolano and Picholin. Our olive trees are grown organically and no pesticides or herbicides are used.
What taste profile does your oil have?
Our olive oil is a unique harmonious blend of different cultivars, which gives a balanced fresh-fruity extra-virgin olive oil with a distinctive peppery character. Our olives are harvested at full maturity, which makes our oil less bitter with a ripe fruity taste, olive leaf freshness and negligible acidity.
What production methods do you use and why have you found them effective?
We have been utilising the cold extraction method, which has given us a good balance between ensuring a premium product and practicality in the production process. Our product is pure extra virgin oil that is consumed as is from the press with no additives or preservatives.
What properties does the Maltese climate and soil have that makes the island ideal for olive growth?
The olive tree is a hardy plant. It has been grown on the Maltese islands since Roman times. Indeed, San Niklaw Estate lies on the outskirts of the town of Zejtun, which boasted a concentration of olive tree plantations on the island. Zejtun is derived from the Phoenician and Semitic Arab meaning the fruit of the olive tree. It needs plenty of sunshine and grows in different types of soil. Our soils at San Niklaw are calcareous terra rossa soils with plenty of iron oxide.
The San Niklaw Estate produces wine as well as olive oils. What wines do you produce?
At San Niklaw we craft four wines; one white, Kappella San Nikola which is a Mourvedre grape, and three red; Neptunus (Vermentino grape) Contrada ta Fangu (Syrah grape) and Despatch (Sangiovese grape).
The Vermentino is ready for bottling after aging on its lees (yeast deposits) while the reds are bottled after a variable period of aging in French oak barrels.
You also work as a paediatric surgeon. How to you manage to juggle this with the vineyard and olive groves?
DIFFICULT but manageable with a bit of planning!
Could you ever see yourself leaving the medical profession to become a full-time vintner-olive-oil-producer?
Yes, though I’m sure I’d miss it terribly.
Where can people purchase your oil and wine?
We sell our olive oil and wines on site at San Niklaw. Our wines are also available at fine wine shops and top end restaurants in Malta.
What other local gourmet and artisanal products would make the perfect accompaniment to your olive oil?
Goats cheese with sundried or fresh tomatoes and fresh Maltese bread.
Can visitors to Malta tour the San Niklaw Estate?
We organise wine and olive oil tastings, usually accompanied by food by appointment.