Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Curl That Nebuchadnezzar, Master!

Master of Wine at Work
If you've seen the movie Somm, you probably know that the exam to become a Master of Wine (MW) is one tough cork to crack. 

The exam for what's considered the highest possible degree awarded to wine professionals consists of three sections: 1) a research paper on a subject of the candidate's choice; 2) a theoretical exam in which candidates might be asked to list the main white grape varieties in Narnia or closest to Hogwarts, and; 3) a blind tasting that requires as training tasting thousands of wines and hoping, come crunch time, your palate remains sharp, your memory lucid and your nerves strong like a bodybuilder's biceps curling a Nebuchadnezzar. During this three-headed monster of a test, I imagine some poor candidate from some distant land like Andorra or Turkmenistan or Ecuador (gasp!) being blindsided by a question on the colour and thread count of the underwear worn by the spouse of a particular Burgundian winemaker during the third day of harvest in 2005. This is no laughing matter.

Only (maybe) a couple hundred people have passed the exam and become MWs. While The Rock still awaits its first conqueror, our neighbours in Greece have produced two: Konstantinos Lazarakis, who obtained this degree back in 2002, and Yiannis Karakasis, a victor just last year.

Honey I Ate the Honey
A couple months ago, Cyprus had the pleasure of meeting Karakasis during a sophisticated event at Annabelle Hotel in Paphos. Organised by Cyprus's own wine celebrity, Thanos Hotels's Manager George Kassianos, the soiree consisted of a cocktail reception with several Cypriot wineries (Kyperounda, Fikardos, Vassilikon, Ktima Mallia, Tsiakkas and Tsalapatis, to name a few) showcasing a few of their bottles, followed by a dinner marking the launch of the hotel's Cypriot-themed buffet, mind you, a buffet that makes all other buffets look third-rate and the best I have *EVER* experienced in Cyprus.

Karakasis, who in a past life flew helicopters for the Greek Navy, stealthily worked his way through the lineup, sipping the wines and jotting down his thoughts on a minuscule note pad. The Wife, Ph.D., and I, joined by our new drinking buddy Sam I Am, made the rounds too, leaving particularly impressed by Tsalapatis's whites, Vouni Panayia's Yiannoudi and a few of the many Maratheftikos in attendance.

Such a Ham
A few weeks following the event, Karakasis commented on his experience in Cyprus on his blog and highlighted several of the bottles that made an impression. He had plenty of praise for Xynisteri ("boasting freshness, zesty acidity and delicacy"), Yiannoudi and Promara, while he thought Maratheftiko, although considered the local star, "is not a forgiving variety" and "can be quite rustic as well."

In terms of whites, he awarded 90-plus points to 2015 Kyperounda Petritis, 2015 Tsiakkas Xynisteri, 2015 Vassiliades Expressions Xynisteri, 2015 Vouni Panayia Alina Xynisteri and Kyperounda Epos Chardonnay, to name a few.  Likewise, he dedicated an entire article to Vouni Panayia's renditions of Promara, a variety with loads of potential, and awarded the highest mark (93 points!) to the winery's 2014 vintage, praising it for its "excellent oak integration," "elegance on the palate," "high concentration, underlying bright acidity and clean finish."

As for the reds, Yiannoudi definitely shone bright for Karakasis. Awarded the highest score for a local red, the 2014 Vouni Panayia Yiannoudi was described as "mineral, extracted tannic with a strong core of fruit" and "serious stuff." KEO Ktima Mallia's 2011 version also stood out, being "very elegant with solid tannins that show good potential for development." This, of course, merits putting Yiannoudi to the test in one of my infamous blind tastings.

Smoked Salmon / Beetroots
What I found particularly curious when looking over his articles was the lack of tasting notes on Commandaria, the one wine that I believe truly leaves a mark internationally. He tasted Agia Mavri's always lovely Mosxatos, but nowhere did I find a trace of the world's oldest recorded wine. I think it'd be an interesting exercise to sit him before a lineup of The Rock's best stickies on a journey culminating with the 1984 KEO Saint John, my new alive and kicking thirty-two year old lover.

During dinner, Karakasis briefly spoke to the attendees and had this to say about Cypriot wine: "In my opinion, the wines from Cyprus show great potential. It is like opening a treasure chest and discovering new things, new gems. So you have your indigenous varieties here. Xynisteri is very interesting, very fresh with bright acidity. Then you have some other varieties, specially red varieties like Maratheftiko. But, for Maratheftiko, I am not so sure because I saw some irregular results. Yiannoudi can also be exciting. There is potential but you need to believe in your treasures and invest in the vineyards first to get the most out of them. If you take a good look at what's happening in Greece with Assyrtiko, with Naoussa, first of all you need good communication and then everything will fall into place."

Congratulations to Mr. Karakasis for defeating the gargantuan MW exam and we hope this was only the first of many trips to sample The Rock's finest!

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Funky Comeback

Orange Explosion
Imagine you're really into porn. Food porn to be more exact. A vereatable pornucopia of food.

You're in Athens one random spring night and your friend tells you there's this playful joint in Keramikos, a rundown yet up-and-coming neighbourhood just a short drive away from the Parthenon, that gets kinky with Greek ingredients and molecular gastronomy. Despite the hefty price tag, it's not tough to convince you to suck it up and dig into the depths of your daughter's waning college fund. In any case, you believe education is best served out on the streets.

Piggy, Duck & Beef
You walk up a tight winding staircase in an old corner two story house and enter a chic and minimalist space devoid of anything that would dare draw attention away from the inventive cuisine and impeccable service. The famous Greek model sitting at a nearby table and the cute brunette waitress that glides past youher arms crossed behind her back, her eyes warm, her smile courteousdistract you for a second until you're seated and the menus land. In black and white, the header reads Funky Gourmet. Nowhere does it say the lauded joint has two Michelin stars.

You select the second tasting menu (120 Euros per person) and a bottle of the 2007 1879 Boutari Legacy, a single vineyard Xinomavro from Naoussa that's decanted and then strips off notes upon notes of red berries, dried fruit, spice, savoury tomatoes, black olives, leather and smoke. You let out your first satisfied hmmmm of the night.

The first of fifteen dishes makes it to your side. Called "Salsify in the Soil," it's a creamy taramas with a few strips of a crispy fried root to use as utensils. It's superior taramas: rich and salty with a perfect hint of fishiness. Shit's about to hit the stratosphere, you think.

Cod & Dill Avgolemono
Then it's a  tartlet topped with Greek bottarga dressed with plenty of lemon zest and herbs and a thin sliver of white chocolate that acts as a sort of cheese; incredibly enough, once it hits your tongue, the ingredients turn into a glorious and balanced mix of sweet and savoury with the chocolate cutting through the fish roe's tangy traits. It makes little sense but somehow it works just like peanut butter and jelly.

A couple of Thessaloniki koulouria are placed before you alongside some Cretan buttermilk. They are the best you've ever had: soft, warm and salty like your lover's sunburnt skin after a mid-afternoon summer swim in the east Mediterranean.

Snails are then served over a grain (you're lost, you're dreaming, details no longer concern you) cooked with fresh herbs and topped with plenty of shaved black truffle. You dig in because you're eating earth at its apogee, a threesome with umami pulling the strings, calling the shots, taking command.

Bacon, Chocolate, Caramel
Cod fricassee with a creamy dill avgolemono hits your table. "This is just wrong, so wrong," you tell your friend. The hearty and buttery fish falls apart and goes for a dip in an unctuous broth of dill and lemon.  In your world, this level of refinement and subtle blending of flavours and textures is as elusive as a bottle of Domaine de la RomanĂ©e-Conti. This is fish soup taken to a whole other level.

Then the house specialty, a Greek salad sorbet. Impossible to have a bowlit hits you like a mixed feelingbut as a palate cleanser it works wonders. You taste the cucumbers, the feta, the tomatoes, the onions, the olives as if they stood whole and slowly slivered down your throat in a single file.

The piggy, duck and beef is a seared piece of filet with foie gras, pancetta jam and bacon broth. It's less inventive yet hearty and comforting, and you wish you could bottle up the chunky pancetta jam, take it home and eat it with toast on a rainy day.

As cheese course, you are handed Roquefort coated in chocolate in the shape of a hazelnut served with a vanilla brioche bun and hazelnut dust. You carefully assemble the sandwich, take a bite and wish you had the largest mic ever known to man to drop and then walk out the door. You tell your friend the chefs—Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nick Roussos—should just close shop and open a simple bakery to sell brioches and koulouria to carb fiends like yourself. 

The Pomegranate
The dessert courses follow a similar pattern. The "Pomegranate of Abundance and Prosperity" is served in an emptied pomegranate and consists of caramelised ginger with cereal topped with a custard and bright red spheres made to resemble the fruit's seeds. You wouldn't mind this for breakfast on a weekend. Then as straight-forward a course as you'll get: a morsel of crispy bacon topped with milk chocolate beads, crunchy caramel and gold foil, once again a satisfying interplay between sweet and savoury. To wrap things up, an explosion: orange juice concealed in a round and golden chocolate shell and dramatically presented over foliage and dry ice to look like wild miniature oranges surrounded by mist. Once the dessert hits your tongue, it bursts open and releases the cleanest citrus liquid the Mediterranean could ever conjure. Call it a minty and fresh finish to what has undoubtedly been one of the greatest meals you've ever had.

You know your words and pictures don't do Funky Gourmet any justice but they spill out of you anyway; you're like a teenage boy who's just shared his first kiss with the curvy girl he'll one day meet at the altar.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: A Lifetime Supply of Sparkling Spatulas.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Thomas Cook Has Featured Us!

Here's a quick hitter for the weekend.

Thomas Cook, the UK-based travel agency, has featured the blog in its own snazzy blog.

Check out their article Romantic Things to Do in Cyprus with a brief mention of Whine on The Rocks as your go-to source for somewhat humorous restaurant and bar reviews.

And, as my New Year's resolution to y'all, I promise to start populating these pages again.

May the wine be with us.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Amateur Number Crunching

Years ago, before I became whatever it is you think I am today, I was a research assistant at an energy consulting firm outside Washington, DC. I crunched numbers and wrote technical proposals; VLOOKUPs, COUNTIFs, pivot tables and TOCs were my teammates, in-depth analysis was the name of the game.

Channeling these enviable powers, I decided to run a quick analysis of the results of the 2015 Thessaloniki Wine Competition and the 8th Cyprus Wine Competition, paying close attention to Cypriot participation in both. Given the proximity and (presumable) lower costs, I believe these are the two wine competitions of greatest interest to Cypriot wineries. Of course, there are severe limitations to my study since I don't know exactly which Cypriot wineries submitted their wines to each of the events.

Here's a table with The Rock's winners in Greece. The last column shows whether or not they were also awarded a medal at the 8th Cyprus Wine Competition.

As we can see, Commandaria shone bright in both competitions. In Cyprus alone, including the three vintages listed above, Commandaria received three Grand Golds (1984 KEO St. John, 2000 ETKO Centurion and 2004 LOEL Alasia) and seven Golds. That's quite an amassment of precious metal. Two additional points pop out from this table. First, Zambartas Rose, a Gold medal winner in Greece and a crowd favourite, did not receive an award in Cyprus. Second, Yiaskouris' wines were among Cyprus' biggest winners in Thessaloniki but failed to garner any medals on the island, my guess being they opted not to participate locally. 

This begs an obvious question: What parameters are Cypriot wineries using when it comes to submitting their products to both local and international competitions? Big winners in Cyprus like Ezousa (Special Recognition & Gold Medals for the 2014 Xynisteri and 2009 Metharme Maratheftiko) did not show in Thessaloniki. I must admit that in the past I asked this same question to Michalis Constantinides, Ezousa's head honcho, and he told me the cost of sending wines to competitions abroad are rather prohibitive. There are entry and transportation fees and, if you receive recognition, you have to purchase stickers and invest time putting one on each of your awarded bottles. Seemingly, excellent wineries like Vlassides, Makkas, Kyperounda, Vouni Panayia and Argyrides, to name a few, did not participate in Thessaloniki as evinced by their lack of hardware there. Likewise, I assume Aes Ambelis, who usually sends its wines to Decanter's World Wine Awards and consistently receives medals, and Hadjiantonas did not join either of the contests. 

In the end, what gives?

For full results of the 8th Cyprus Wine Competition, click #CongratsToAllTheWinners!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Not So Innocent After All

Stools for the Hip!
Secret's out. At least to me who's always late or uninvited to the party.

Walk down Ledras Street at any time of the day and you'll probably find Il Forno and the sidewalks around the restaurant packed with people having pasta and pizza. I rarely go to Il Forno. Even though their pastas are great, privacy is not their forte; there's nowhere to hide from curious onlookers and the hustle and bustle of Nicosia's main pedestrian area. Enter Oinoscent Cava & Wine Bar, Nicosia's latest addition to its growing wine bar scene and home to a solid selection of French and Italian wines.

Oinoscent, latest project of the owner of the now defunct "The French Depot" on Kennedy Avenue, is a stylish, dimly-lit wine bar located diagonally across from Il Fourno and housed in an old shop right on Ledras Street. High tables and a long bar with stools are available for the hip or people with Napoleon complexes, lower tables for those with bad backs and a severe fear of heights. A large dark metallic wine rack sits behind the bar and mirrors cover the opposite wall, opening the space up. The locale's magnificent old tiled floors add a touch of rusticity to what is a chic yet casual establishment. Several cheese, charcuterie and fruit platters are on offer, now standard (and somewhat blah) fare at wine bars across the island.

Wine Anyone?
Here's the kicker, though. As we sat there with Mike Demo, The Wife, Ph.D., and Queen Insurance, patrons around us dug into large salads, bowls of creamy pasta and trays of pepperoni pizza. I flipped through the menu a few times in search of these elusive cooked dishes. Nothing. We then asked the waitress and she told us we could order anything off of Il Forno's menu, which is readily available if you are in on the secret. Here's my question to you—would you rather bump shoulders with other customers on a busy pedestrian thoroughfare or enjoy the same food indoors in a classy, low-key and more private environment? Whatever your choice, this sort of collaboration is a winner for both establishments; Il Forno gets a place where to send their overflow clientele, while Oinoscent builds a customer base and introduces more people to its fine wines.

2009 Asili Barbaresco
Best of all for wine lovers like me, this "partnership" allows you to match your food of choice with a great bottle of wine from the bar's solid selection. From perusing the wine list, it's obvious Oinoscent's strengths are the Old World. New World wines are available but I believe they take second place to their French (Bordeaux) and Italian (Piedmont) wines. Prices range from 20 Euros to the hundreds per bottle so there are plenty of options for all types of pockets. That evening, we sampled the 2012 Luigi Giordano Langhe Nebbiolo, a bright yet tannic red with concentrated dark cherry flavours, and the 2009 Luigi Giordano Asili Barbaresco, a more complex wine marked by notes of forrest berries, spice and cocoa.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: 4 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas

Monday, April 6, 2015

Michelin Man

This review is long overdue. Periklis Roussounides, alongside Martino Speciale of No Reservations, are the best chefs in Nicosia and arguably all of Cyprus. What I most admire of their cooking is their restraint; less is more in both of their carefully thought-out repertoires. Subtlety and refinement with dashes of creativity take centre stage on each one of their plates. Many chefs sometimes try too hard to impress, muddling up flavours and techniques to create disjointed and messy offerings. This is never the case with Roussounides or Speciale. Periklis, of course, is The Rock's only Michelin Man, having received a single star decades ago for his restaurant XO, which (unfortunately) had to give it back upon closing. Let's just assume the island wasn't ready for that type of experience...

Last time we sampled Roussounides' food, Little Miss Despot was doused in olive oil and clad in white like a porcelain doll from seventy years ago. She had just received the Holy Spirit and decided to treat forty-plus guests to dinner at Dia Xeiros, his latest culinary lab. That was almost a year-and-a-half ago and I often felt guilty for not having returned. So a few weeks ago we rectified our oversight and headed there for dinner with The Wife, Ph.D., My Zolpidem Supplier and Cousin #4.

The corner restaurant itself is quite understated with simple chairs and tables in white and natural wood. Beautiful woven pillows made by acclaimed Cypriot designer Joanna Louca add pops of color to an L-shaped bench that anchors the back of the room. A small white bar sits across the longer side of the bench and an ample patio that serves as outdoor seating area surrounds most of the restaurant.

The menu consists of avant-garde interpretations of Greek and Cypriot dishes, all superbly prepared and presented. For Little Miss Despot's baptism, for instance, the appetisers included a creamy orzo risotto with wild mushrooms and truffle foam, chicken livers tossed in Commandaria, fresh mint and pomegranate, and Cretan dakos stuffed with feta and sitting on a rich tomato sauce. On our latest visit, we started off with a crisp and well-balanced romaine lettuce salad with dried figs, anari cheese (the local ricotta), roasted hazelnuts and a semi-sweet vinaigrette. As a main, I had a lamb shank with pickled onions, velvety mashed potatoes and a sweet reduction; the meat, which had already been removed from the bone, fell apart and matched nicely with the creaminess, bite and sweetness supplied in loads by its accoutrements. The Wife, Ph.D., and My Zolpidem Supplier had one of my favourite dishes: pork cheeks with a honey mustard glaze, turnip and sweet potato purees, and fried potatoes, a combination of textures, techniques and flavors that sings. One small issue I did find with the food was it could have been served a bit warmer.

Alas, I do have one major complaint. For a restaurant of this stature, the wine list is rather underwhelming. Most wines are Greek and Cypriot and this is commendable. However, the range is limited as it's dominated by Boutari, Tselepos and Kyperounda, all great producers but whose overwhelming presence takes away from the potential for diversity in the wine catalogue. That night, we sampled the 2012 Tselepos Nemea Driopi Agiorgitiko, an easy drinking, fruity and slightly spicy wine that matched most of our dishes.

In any case, I'm sure we'll be back sooner rather than later. Might be time for me to find a Godfather of my own, strip naked before a cassocked priest and then throw a party chock-full of Hallelujahs. Happy Easter, y'all.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Mystify Me

"Eternally wild with the power
To make every moment come alive
All those stars that shine upon you
And they'll kiss you every night."

- INXS, Mystify

Michael Hutchence and company could have very well been talking about [insert the variety of your choice] hanging on a vine when they penned this song in the mid-1980s. And it couldn't have rung truer as wine is one of life's mystical beings. Just here on The Rock, both budding oenologists and experienced professionals continue their experiments with grapes, many of them taking that scary step towards entrepreneurship and launching brand-spanking new wineries. This week, for instance, I came across Vassiliades Expressions Winery, a small family-owned business located in Chandria that (per a photo on their Facebook page) has gone rogue and will try to grow Pinot Noir (gasp!) on Cypriot soil. Let's just say I'm looking forward to sampling their first bottling of what is one of my top three varieties alongside Nebbiolo and Xinomavro.

Range of Mystys Wines
With this in mind, I would like to introduce you to a new winery whose wines I have had the pleasure of sampling on repeated occasions during the past few months. Mystys, a Paphos-based project, released its first vintage in 2014 consisting of the 2013 Chardonnay, 2013 Shiraz Rose and 2013 Maratheftiko. If I am not mistaken, prices range from 12 to 15 Euros. Little information is available on the winery but you can procure these wines at Vinocultura in Nicosia. Here are my takes on what appears to be a promising enterprise!

2013 Mystys Chardonnay - A nose dominated by oak, smoke and cedar box with light hints of honeysuckle and sweet apples. Definitely over-oaked in my opinion. On the palate, some citrus and pear in the background. Boxy taste, rather short, needs work. Not Rated.

2013 Mystys Shiraz Rose - Muted aromas of red candied fruits. Off-dry feel dominated by sweet strawberries and other red forrest berries. A touch gloppy for my taste but worked quite well with slightly spicy Asian food. 85/100.

2013 Maratheftiko - Their best wine by a mile. I have drank this vintage five or six times and enjoyed it every single time. Beautiful, deep violet hue with lovely aromas of dark berries and fresh-cut flowers. Plummy and herbal with firm tannins and good length. Will soften and improve in a year or two. 87/100.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Lyhnos is for Lovers

You know how much I love agrotourism. All those old (sometimes renovated, sometimes ageing) cottages up in the mountains provide me with a great respite from my discombobulated life in The Rock's capital, The Big Fig. Seemingly, the silence, the emptiness, the fresh air, the close proximity to the island's wineries are rejuvenating.

Weekend Escape Anyone? Part I
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a new bed and breakfast in Askas, a minute and unbeknownst-to-me village entrenched in the steep hills between Palaichori and Alona. Run by My Zolpidem Supplier's good friend, Elena Christou, "Lyhnos" consists of a few small houses belonging to her family that have been transformed into four spacious and sophisticated bedrooms and a contemporary tavern serving traditional Cypriot food with a twist. Each bedroom has its own stylish decor as Elena handpicked unique furniture and decorative items to lend each its own distinct and cozy personality. The "Suite," for instance, is decadent with its plush lime green seating area,  fireplace, flat-screen television, canopied bed frame and modern bathroom with a privacy glass wall that offers its guests a bird's eye view of the village centre while lathering (each other) up. Taking a cue from my favourite state in the Union, Lyhnos is definitely for lovers. Still, many of the sofas convert into beds if you want to spend extra quality time with your nagging children.

The Tavern
The main reason for our visit was to test drive the tavern. Despite this cracker of a blog, my web of contacts does not stretch very far so I'm never invited to soft openings. Given the opportunity, though, we took to our duties like beavers damming the Amazon. Aesthetically speaking, the space combines the clean, light lines of the parquet floors and contemporary furniture with the heavy stone walls and wooden beams that surround it. The two long dining rooms are rather sparse and might benefit from some pops of color on the walls, both to provide added contrast and a bit of sound proofing. A patio lined with potted flowers is available towards the back of the second room for al fresco dining during the summer.

Weekend Escape Anyone? Part II
For the most part, the food consists of meze, but a few a la carte options will be available for overnight guests. Elena explained that the menu will change frequently and focus on seasonal produce and recipes from the Pitsilia region in Cyprus. On our visit, some of the meze's highlights were the cheese and smoked pork tenderloin (lountza) dip; a revelatory halloumi grilled and then cooked with chopped tomatoes, sliced onions and fresh mint; courgette and feta fritters; wine-soaked sausages; grilled pork cutlets; lamb baked in parchment paper, and; an anari and phyllo pastry parfait with a rich Commandaria syrup. A couple of other dishes were not as successful, and we all let Elena know for future reference so I'm certain we'll see improvements on our next visit. Overall, considering Lyhnos was trying things out, the service was of a good standard and the food was tasty and plentiful.

The Cava
Elena is a budding oenologist—she's dying to make wines with Giannoudi, a local and rare red grape variety—and designed the eatery's wine cellar. With its wall-to-wall oak-toned racks, dim lighting and a small table for private tastings, the cava sits to the side of the first dining room and provides guests with a nook where to sample The Rock's finest. Lyhnos's Cyprus-only wine offering is strong. Elena selected a range of bottles from the usual suspects (Zambartas, Aes Ambelis, Makkas, Vlassides, Tsiakkas, Argyrides, Kyperounda and Vouni Panagia) that cover most grape varieties available on The Rock (Xynisteri, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourverdre, Maratheftiko, Merlot, Lefkada, Promara, Spourtiko, etc.) On our visit, we sampled the 2011 Makkas Maratheftiko, a smooth, easy-to-drink red that burst with red fruit and some lingering spice. I was also happy to see the Aes Ambelis Commandaria as the go-to sticky along with Agia Mavri's always enjoyable Mosxatos.

Weekend Escape Anyone? Part III
From our short visit, I believe only a handful of local agrotourism options combine sophistication, comfort, privacy, romance and decent pricing in the way Lyhnos does. A night at Lyhnos (double occupancy and breakfast included) will only set you back 80 to 125 Euros depending on the room/suite selected, while a meal at the tavern runs between 20 and 25 Euros per person, again depending on the wine selected. If you pick Kyperounda's EPOS or the Zambartas Shiraz Lefkada, expect your bill to run closer to 35 Euros. For more information, check out their Facebook page, email them at or call (+357) 99-210688. Lovers, rejoice.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas