Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Case of Questions with Exotic Wine Travel

Exotic Wine Travel is the brainchild of Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan, two authors, speakers, marketers, travellers and wine lovers who left Singapore two years ago in search of good wine and interesting stories to tell. Following an unexpected meeting with a representative of the Cyprus Tourism Organisation in Tbilisi, Georgia, Matthew and Charine landed on The Rock and visited more than twenty wineries and bars as part of a wine itinerary set up by Cyprus Sommelier Association's George Kassianos. So far, they have written about their first impressions of our island, a cheat sheet on Cyprus wines, and a glowing review of the work being done by the Kyriakides boys at Vouni Panayia Winery. Since us here at the blog are a nosy bunch, we got in touch and had them join our distinguished "Case of Questions" family. ¡Salud!

Why wine? 

Exotic Wine Travel (EWT): Wine is a wondrous port of entry into various topics like sociology, philosophy, geography, history, and science. As full-time travelers, wine makes us feel at home and connects us to people wherever we go, because wine lovers from all over the world speak the same language. Wine is like a steroid in communication and friendship. Meet a wine lover and the next moment, you'll be spending the night with his or her family and friends.

First wine that really captured your attention? How old were you?  

Charine Tan (CT): My first sip of wine was at an indecently young age. I believe it was a Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny Port, or 10 Year Old. But the one that really captured my heart was a red Burgundy. I had no clue about the producer, appellation, or region. It was my 18th birthday and I was treated to dinner at a French fine-dining restaurant in Singapore.

Matthew Horkey (MH): The first time I tasted wine that was distinctly different was a house red wine in Lucca, Italy. I was a broke graduate student, backpacking across Europe with some friends. We ordered a liter of house red wine that was completely different from the supermarket plonk I was drinking in America. As I drank it, there was an "ah hah" moment where I finally understood that wine could taste good and have fine nuances to it. 

All-time favorite bottle of wine? 

CT: Château d'Yquem 1986. It's not about the sensory merits per se; that wine showed me a new realm of possibilities for wine. I was never partial to sweet wine, so it was a surprise that I ended up loving that wine.

MH: Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 2002 (red). I love Syrah but this wine had so much leather, earthy, and meaty nuances to it that were brand new to me.  It blew my mind that Syrah could taste like that. It was actually a present for Charine's birthday but I kept returning to her glass, sniffing away in wonder.

Favorite wine-producing region? Why? 

EWT: This took a bit of debating to get to a consensus. It'll be Piedmont. We spent two weeks in Piedmont in June 2015. We were just starting our long-term travel then and Piedmont was the first wine region where we engaged in some serious wine tourism activities. Piedmont has it all as a wine region—the views, people, food, wine, culture, entertainment, and to a decent extent the infrastructure.

Your favorite food-and-wine pairing?

EWT: We are very experimental with wine, food, and actually pretty much everything. So there's never a safe or default choice for us when it comes to pairing. But if we're put in charge of the food at a pairing session, we'd suggest a table full of different cheeses, bread, cold cuts, olive oil, nut oil, and dips.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine? 

EWT: Just like most wine countries that are rebuilding their modern wine culture, Cyprus is still finding its brand identity and brand story. A geographical name and history are not enough to characterize and brand a wine country. Other salient points need to be considered. Cyprus needs to first identify the cues or attributes that are already strongly linked to the country: the legendary Commandaria sweet wine, the omnipresent Mount Olympus, the surprise of meze, the refreshing Xinisteri, the intense tasting reds made from old bush vines, etc. Then build the rest of the offerings upon that. The offerings will need to cover the entertainment, education, aesthetic, and participation aspects of wine tourism. A brand name is strengthened by a positive experience at every touch point—from the winery to the hotel, airport, and social media. 

The increased international awareness and global demand for Cypriot wine will also offer wiggle room for wine producers to experiment with new styles of wine. Based on our conversations with a few winemakers, it seems like Cypriot wine producers are very reactive to what the local market demands and sometimes feel obliged to make wine in a certain way that they don't necessarily believe is the best step forward.

EWT Loved Vasilikon Winery's Agios Onoufrios as a Bargain Red

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry? 

EWT: More focus on indigenous varieties and clonal selection to improve the quality of wine. More collaboration among producers and between the private and public sectors. 

What do you enjoy most about your work in the food & wine world?  

EWT: The people we meet and the stories of their countries told to us in various narratives and through different lenses.

What is your “Five Year Plan” for your business? 

EWT: We've decided on this since the very beginning of Exotic Wine Travel. We want Exotic Wine Travel to be an indispensable resource for wine travelers in the same way as how Lonely Planet was to independent travelers. But maybe with a touch of "Eat Pray Love" sort of inspiration thrown into it.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why? 

EWT: Karen MacNeil. Her style of wine writing is something that we hope to emulate. The Wine Bible does a wonderful job of taking the readers through the world of wine. It is informative and entertaining. There is a perfect balance between facts, wine recommendations, and humor to keep drinkers of all level engaged. 

Any embarrassing episodes involving spilled wine, corkscrews, sommeliers or drunken behavior? 

MH: I'm so clumsy and knock over wine glasses all the time. Once I was at dinner with a group of friends. I got so excited and moved my hands so violently that I knocked over my glass and spilled red wine all over a guy's white dress shirt. It was the first time I met the guy and he was pretty upset (understandably so). And of course, I've spilled wine over Charine at tastings and events too.

Of course, your all-time favorite island wine?

EWT: The Vlassides Opus Artis 2011 was the best wine that we discovered during our two-week press trip in Cyprus.

You can reach Exotic Wine Travel via their website, Facebook, Twitter, Vivino and Instagram.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

White on White

Domaine Papagiannakos on Display
Greek wine has come a long way since those ignoble days when retsina, the pine-tinged beverage that reminds me of a freshly cleaned boy's toilet, defined the country's wine industry. During the past ten years, Greece's exciting work with a myriad of endemic varieties have left a conspicuous mark on global wine lovers' palates; demand for these wines is rapidly increasing and, unfortunately, prices are soon to follow with Paris Sigalas' earth-shattering whites, for instance, already asking fans to cough up an additional ten Euros per bottle. On average.

Besides Xinomavro, a red I would love Axe to bottle up as deodorant, two of my favourite Greek varieties are whites. Santorini's flagship Assyrtiko, of course, which breathes in the island's volcanic rock and brackish breeze and creates a wine that makes you lick your lips and pucker up. The second one is Malagousia, a dwindling variety that was rediscovered by Vangelis Gerovassiliou, and reminds me of the peaches, mango and cream body lotion The Wife, Ph.D., rubs on her tummy whenever she's trying to seduce me.

Vassilis Papagiannakos at A.G. Leventis
Besides these, however, I've recently re-discovered two other Greek whites that have further accentuated the country's unbridled potential as a world-class wine producer: Savatiano and Moschofilero.

During recent industry events in Nicosia, I had the privilege of tasting two of these varieties' incarnations and, while they do not belt out Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On in the same way Assyrtiko and Malagousia do, they've done enough to tickle my fancy.

Savatiano was originally known as the main grape behind retsina, a status that unfortunately blemished its reputation as a variety capable of delivering bigger and better wines. However, thanks to the work of Domaine Papagiannakos just a stone's throw away from Athens' airport, Savatiano has gathered steam during the past two decades and started showing plenty of potential as a grape capable of shining on its lonesome. As mentioned in a 2014 article by Tara Q. Thomas in Wine & Spirits magazine, Vassilis Papagiannakos' "young savatianos have caused waves all over Greece for their fruitiness and clarity—characteristics not often associated with the variety." In an event hosted by importer Vassos Eliades Ltd., at the A.G. Leventis Gallery, Vassilis mentioned that this variety is his pride and joy, one that has been worked on for decades and has firmly put his winery on Greece's wine map. His 2015 rendition delivered as evinced by my review below.

2015 Boutari Oropedio Moschofilero
As for Moschofilero, I have always loved the versions put out by both Skouras and Tselepos. It came as a pleasant surprise, however, to enjoy Boutari Winery's latest experiment with the variety—the barrel-aged Oropedio from Mantineia—during a soiree organised at Caraffa Bastione by its importer Photos Photiades Group. I've always associated Moschofilero—with its pinkish hue, citrus undertones and oh-so-sweet spice—to a more subtle understudy to Gewürztraminer, and Boutari's latest experiment didn't change my mind. And before you get all uppity about my description for this variety, please take it as a compliment: Gewürztraminers are sometimes like a once pretty woman who's iced her face with one dollop too many of turquoise-toned makeup.

2015 Papagiannakos Savatiano - Vibrant aroma of orange peel, stone fruit, apples, white flowers and sweet spice. On the palate, there's plenty of apple, melon, some honeysuckle and beeswax, and (maybe, just maybe) a piney element, which could be my brain telling me we're edging closer and closer to retsina. Full-ish to the mouth with good length, quite waxy and a bitter finish, which can be confounding. 86/100.

2015 Boutari Oropedio Moschofilero - Somewhat tropical on the nose, reminiscent of pineapple doused in sweet spices and a touch of white flowers. The palate is dominated by notes of baked apples with cinnamon, some pear and a delicious citrus finish. Medium bodied, quite fruit forward yet short, and overall well received thanks to its loukoumi-like qualities. 87/100. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Five Ages of Halloumi

Kitchen & Bar
After spending a few days last year binge watching Chef's Table on Netflix, I thought it'd be a great idea to open a high-end restaurant on The Rock that would allow me to channel my inner Bottura and wow affluent Russians with my inventive use of Cypriot ingredients. Five ages of halloumi anyone? That fantasy, however, ended up being rather ephemeral; I eventually woke up from my delusional slumber and recalled the shallow depths of both my wallet and culinary technique. Plus, I'm still not sure Cyprus is ready for thirty miniature courses chockfull of microgreens, fermented roots, trahana broth, spherified brandy sours, sous vide afelia and deconstructed pastitsio. Yeah, that last one sounds gross.

What has been great during the past few years is the upsurge in the number of taverns that have made it a point to serve creative Cypriot cuisine. Working within The Rock's preferred meze model, chefs at various eateries (Peiragmena in Lympia, for instance) have begun experimenting with local and seasonal ingredients, slapping bright tattoos, patches of facial hair and a black leather jacket on tradition.

Ribs & Commandaria
Last weekend, we headed to To Patrikon, a newish establishment in Tersefanou (near Larnaca airport) that markets itself as a modern and creative Cypriot tavern. Housed in an old house on the village's main road, the tavern is  sparsely decorated, sits about forty patrons and opens only on weekends. As soon as we sat, the manager/owner stopped by to make sure we understood this wasn't your typical Cypriot village tavern and let us know that everything was homemade except for the pastourmas. We nodded and food then arrived in waves with each dish being carefully described by our waiter.

Overall, the food was excellent and the level of inventiveness quite high. There was a fava bean puree topped with black olive powder, spring onions and a red pepper sauce, which was creamy and balanced. Fresh, warm halloumi—not grilled for once—was topped with a fig puree and fresh mint if I recall correctly. A wild mallow shakshouka with red peppercorns and runny egg yolks was a welcome and utterly comforting variation on the usual (and monotonous) scrambled eggs dish served at most taverns. Besides the standard Greek salad, our waiter also brought us a refreshing salad with wild bladder campion, broad beans, mustard greens and black sesame seeds. Finally, for dessert, a touch of playfulness with a deconstructed pumpkin turnover (kolokoti) served as a bed of sweet bulgur wheat with raisins topped by a fluffy, not-too-cloying pumpkin mousse and crumbled vanilla cookies.

Cauliflower & Tahini
As for the meats, there were thin slivers of wine-soaked bacon; spareribs slow cooked in Commandaria wine, which fell off the bone and were deliciously sweet; citrus marinated chicken legs and thighs grilled over charcoal like the good ol' souvla we all love and adore matched with roasted potatoes, taro root and beets, and; beef livers topped with wild greens. Thanks to The Wife Ph.D's penchant for vegetarianism, I was perfectly satisfied by the butcher's selection, but I can envision a traditional Cypriot caveman asking mommy to grill him a pork chop upon his return.

Deconstructed Kolokoti
However, three dishes shone above all others. The roasted cauliflower with chopped onions and tossed in a tahini and parsley dressing worked wonderfully well, with the usually bland vegetable a deserving conduit for the savoury, thick and nutty dressing. The trahana fritters elevated the fermented grain-and-dairy mix that's typically eaten as a soup and remains to this day an acquired taste. To Patrikon's interpretation of this Cypriot delicacy was crunchy on the outside, gooey in the inside and ate like a tangier Italian arancini. Finally, the bread was—hands down—the best I have ever had on the island. Piping hot, it had a hard crust covered in sesame and poppy seeds but a soft and cloud-like interior, almost melted-cheese-like in texture. Honestly, management should hire one of those roadside girls that dazzle men with iced coffee, have her sell them buns by the dozen and laugh all the way to the bank.

Chicken & Roots
If I had one complaint, albeit minor, it's that the wines on offer were overpriced with selections from both Vlassides and Argyrides running a good 5 to 10 Euros above standard restaurant prices. I do believe it's best industry practice for restaurants to charge two-and-a-half times the retail price and in this instance it was significantly more. Besides that surcharge, the wine menu was varied enough with a good selection of red and whites from Cypriot producers including Tsiakkas, Ktima Christoudia, Vouni Panagia, Vlassides and Argyrides, among others.

On the way out, I stopped to read a sign handwritten in chalk by the kitchen. It said in Cypriot: "Once you try this meze at To Patrikon, you'll remember it for the rest of your life." In this day and age, as Donald tries to tells us that McDonald's trumps Noma or Central or D.O.M. or Alinea, diversity, inventiveness and spontaneity become, to paraphrase James C. Scott, everyday forms of resistance. Yes, the meal was memorable but, better yet, that spirit to battle stagnation and the status quo shone through their food.

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

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Case of Questions with Konstantinos Lazarakis MW

2017 is here and what better way to get the blog's year started than with a Case of Questions involving Greece's first Master of Wine? Konstantinos Lazarakis, who calls Piraeus home, studied Mechanical Engineering and Jazz before making the brave leap into the magnificent world of wine. In 2002, he became the first Greek Master of Wine and two years later founded the local branch of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust of London, one of the most influential educational organisations in wines and spirits in the world. Konstantinos recently signed a book deal with Infinite Ideas in Oxford to update and republish his landmark book Wines of Greece, which was first published in 2005. Here's to a fantastic 2017 full of great wine and a dearth of whine.

Why wine?

Konstantinos Lazarakis MW (KL): Because it is an amazing product. It encapsulates great living, great people, great complexity, tradition, sensations, history, culture, travelling and many more things in the most imaginative way. It is so difficult not to be absorbed by wine once you realise how amazing it is.

First wine that really captured your attention? How old were you?

KL: It was a Megas Oinos 1996 by Skouras at the window of a Piraeus (my home town) cava shop. It seemed to me so expensive that I went in to ask whether there was by mistake an extra zero on the price tag. The price was okay and the owner of that shop invited me to his opening party to which George Skouras was invited. I went there, had a chat about wine with him for 30 minutes and I went away totally captivated. That was the point of no return for me. I was 21 years old. This is why I felt the wine was so expensive (while it was actually a great value for money given its quality). At that age, even drinking cheap bottled wine was a luxury.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

KL: Had too many great bottles to separate one. Possibly that very first bottle I saw on that cava window that got me into wine.

Favorite wine-producing region? Why?

KL: Every single wine region in Greece and Cyprus. Wine has to do with feelings. It has to do with what is close to your heart. And these two countries are where my heart beats.

Your favorite food-and-wine pairing?

KL: Actually, I pay no attention to food and wine pairing! I choose the food I feel like eating and then a wine I feel like having… I even had gorgeous dinners when, while having grilled fish, I was craving for a dense, big red. If you have an appetite for a wine, the food will never stop you from enjoying it.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

KL: I think the lack of proper marketing is important, especially on a generic level. Also, there is a lack of international perspective – where its wine stands in general on a global level. Since the wine market is nowadays a worldwide battlefield, you have to compete with everyone even when you deal with your own national market. It is interesting also to see that the international perspective in Cyprus is growing mainly from the consumer side – from educated consumers who understand what wine is in a much broader context. On both matters things get better by the minute, however, and the important element is there – Cypriot is, in terms of quality, style and value, a world-class offering.

Konstantinos unwinds on holidays with a chilled beer on a Greek island.

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

KL: I think that, in ten years time, Cyprus wine will be a lot more important and well known in the international wine scene than what it is at the moment.

What do you enjoy most about your work in the food & wine world?

KL: Meeting glorious people and visiting glorious places.

What is your “Five Year Plan” for your business?

KL: There is no business plan for me, other than “Do what you know well, get more knowledgeable on that, and focus more on and understand the market better.”

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

KL: Michael Broadbent MW. He's done everything, tasted everything, been everywhere (and keeps doing all these things at an old age) but continues to be one of the most accessible, humane and down-to-earth people in our business.

Any embarrassing episodes involving spilled wine, corkscrews, sommeliers or drunken behavior?

KL: Too many to say – and I am sure I do not remember the best of them!

Of course, your all-time favorite wine to sip on an island?

KL: To be honest, when I am on holidays I like to decompress from the world of wine. So you will often find me on a Greek island with a nice beer in hand!

You can reach Konstantinos Lazarakis MW on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or WSPC Greece.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

[Said Subject]

Imagine spending two and a half hours over a fancy steak dinner talking about one of your favourite subjects with friendly and garrulous people who share your passion and (better yet) have barrels of knowledge on said subject that effortlessly make up for your amateuresque delusions of grandeur. 

In Cyprus, for example, said subject (I've come to reckon) could be how your football team is being robbed every weekend, German cars, French and Italian handbags, the struggling economy, grilling pig to succulent perfection, real estate horror stories, and erasing that stubborn line penciled  in years ago in green that separates the panhandle from the wok. Here, everyone is an expert on any or all of said subjects; no matter who you speak to, they will always know more than you do and let you know in screams.

I was fortunate enough to spend the evening of November 3rd chatting with Carob Mill Restaurants' sommelier Panayiotis Daniel and consultant, WSET instructor and Greek wine blogger Gregory Michailos during Laiko Cosmos Trading's private dinner to promote Costas Lazarides wines in Cyprus. The event, held at Fogo & Brasa Churrascaria in Nicosia, gathered journalists, chefs and other wine personalities to sample latest vintages as matched with tasty food by the Brazilian eatery's chefs and receive ample information from Gregory and Chariton Maronikolakis, Costas Lazarides' PR & Marketing Manager, on the winery, its history and wine portfolio. 

Gregory Addressing the Crowd
Following this dinner, I gained a newfound appreciation for Costas Lazarides' wines. I hadn't tasted them in ages given my current infatuation with Cyprus, Naoussa and Santorini, and came out impressed. What really struck a chord with my palate was the high level of consistency; across the board, all wines were well-made, balanced, refined and quite tasty.

Starting with the highly aromatic, tropical-ish and thirst-quenching 2015 Amethystos White (a 85% Sauvignon Blanc & 15% Assyrtiko blend), the wines that evening shone bright. In my opinion, some of the highlights included the 2015 Assyrtiko from Drama, a less mineral, less acidic yet fuller expression of Greece's darling variety with lovely hints of stone fruit and white flowers, and the 2013 Amethystos Red, a Cabernet Sauvignon (70%), Merlot (20%) and Agiorgitiko (10%) blend, a wine still in its infancy with notes of black forrest fruit, plums, sweet spice, coffee and green peppers that showed plenty of unbridled potential.

Veggie Risotto with Assyrtiko
All this segued into the star of the night and the winery's pride and joy: the 2008 Cava Amethystos, a 100% Cabernet Franc that is well structured and round and carries with it aromas of red berries, herbs and sweet spice. In the past, this wine used to be primarily made with Cabernet Sauvignon; however, as shared that night by Gregory, once acclaimed Bordeaux oenologist Michel Rolland laid eyes on Costas Lazarides' Cabernet Franc vineyards ("...some of the best in all of Europe..."), he motivated the winery in his position as consultant to scrap the Sauvignon in favour of the Franc.

One item is left pending from my night with the Costas Lazarides crew. Chariton mentioned in passing that one of his favourite wines in the company's portfolio is the Chateau Julia Refosco Agiorgitiko blend, a bottling that is not currently imported by Laiko Cosmos and that sounds awfully intriguing given the distinct combination of Greek and Italian varieties. Maybe that merits a trip to Northern Greece to pay them a visit, share another steak dinner and fill up the tank with yet more lengthy and entertaining conversations on my favourite said subject.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Case of Questions with Caroline Gilby MW

During the past few months, there has been an upsurge in the number of international wine connoisseurs who've opted to share their thoughts on Cyprus' rapidly improving wine scene. One of the more vocal ones has been Caroline Gilby, a former Plant Sciences PhD who turned to wine and became an MW back in 1992. Despite specialising in Central and Eastern Europe, Caroline has a close affinity for Cyprus, a country she believes has reinvented its wine sector in recent years.

On October 31st, as part of a Cyprus wine tasting organised in London by Cyprus' High Commission and the Ministry of Energy, Commerce, Industry & Tourism, Caroline delivered a Master Class, which she later expanded on in a lengthy and quite insightful piece in Tom Cannavan's While this blog wasn't at Vintners' Hall due to a desk job that brings home the bacon to pair with the w(h)ine, several other bloggers (Please Bring Me My Wine & Justin Keay for The Buyer) were there and shared many of Caroline's sentiments regarding our nation's finest. Here's Caroline telling us more about her career in wine and her forecast for the local wine industry via our now trending Case of Questions. 

Why wine?

Caroline Gilby MW (CG): I discovered wine properly when I went to Bath University to study for a doctorate and joined the Wine Society there. I knew I enjoyed wine but my knowledge was limited to being able to tell red from white with my eyes open. It didn't take long for me to catch the wine bug though.  My real "road to Damascus" moment was when I won a trip to stay at Quinta do Noval and realised that a career in wine might be possible.  It looked so much more exciting than being stuck behind a microscope. I finished my research, and was lucky enough to get a job as a wine trainee and never looked back.

First wine that really captured your attention? How old were you?

CG: Being allowed a sip of "Italian Champagne" on holiday with my parents when I was about 8 or 9.  It would have been Asti Spumante I am sure but seemed so glamorous and grown up. Still have a soft spot for Moscato today.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

CG: Hard to pick a single favourite; I've been lucky enough to taste so many wonderful wines from all over the wine world.

Favourite wine-producing region? Why?

CG: Again so hard to choose just one. Tokaj is beautiful - a landscape of extinct volcanoes and superb views producing some gorgeous wines, both sweet and dry. Slovenia has some wonderful regions - Vipava Valley is surrounded by stunning mountains, dotted with wild flowers and produces some great wines. Slovenia's Brda region is also fantastic - beautiful vineyards straddling the border with Italy and some world-class wines. Croatia's Istria is wonderful - stunning sea views, forest-topped hills and a fantastic variety of Malvazija in all forms, plus some amazing truffles and olive oil.  And northwest Bulgaria is a little known jewel of the wine world where a friend has a small winery nestled among the rocks of the stunning Belogradchik national park. And I could go on; vineyards are usually in beautiful places.

Your favourite food-and-wine pairing?

CG: Great sweet wine (especially Tokaji) and blue cheese is a match made in heaven. Champagne and fish and chips as a treat on a Friday night.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

CG: Marketing and communications could be a lot better. Working together to raise awareness of Cyprus is vital (though I was pleased that 14 wineries came together at the recent tasting in the UK that I helped to organise). Fingers crossed that this will be the start of something positive.

I think producers need to think ahead about where and how to sell their wine earlier in the process, rather than making it and then hoping to find a customer. Realism about pricing is missing too, when it comes to high duty markets like the UK.  Something that is a not unreasonable at 5 or 6 euros locally ends up on the shelf in the UK at around £15 or higher, which makes it seriously niche and up against a lot of better known competition.

At the production end, much of the winemaking is now good, though there are still producers who clearly don't understand hygiene, pH, oxygen management and temperature control. This means there is also still an issue with consistency of product, which risks undermining the efforts of the best, as it is important that any consumer buying and drinking Cypriot wine has a positive experience. There's really no excuse for faulty wine nowadays. However, getting to grips with viticulture is still in its infancy (as most of the good producers would agree). Producers still need to overcome challenges like fragmented vineyards, lack of direct control over viticulture, lack of mature deliberate plantings of native varieties (at least other than Xynisteri), lack of research into how to get the best out of these (and these will be Cyprus' calling card), and so much more. Being phylloxera-free has left Cyprus with a fantastic legacy of truly ancient vines and unique varieties but still needs to realise the full potential of what it can offer (and needs to stop subsidizing growers to pull out ancient vines in favour of international varieties too).

Vineyards Outside Vlassides Winery in Kilani

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

CG: Some challenging times ahead - undoubtedly the all-inclusive package holiday market is a problem as Cyprus struggles to produce wines at the price level to supply this sector. The best Cyprus wines are not cheap and therefore the market is more limited but I believe there is a place for them, though hand-selling is the only way forward.

What do you enjoy most about your work in the food & wine world?

CG: The people definitely.  Wine people are always incredibly welcoming, hospitable (sometimes a little too generous with the food) and passionate about what they do.

What is your “Five Year Plan” for your career/business?

CG: Really to keep doing what I do, but always a little better. One day maybe I should write a book of my own rather than bits of other people's books.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

CG: It has to be Jancis Robinson; she has done so much for wine knowledge in writing so many essential wine books, and she is always polite, totally professional and generous with her praise too. Declaration of interest here: I contributed to the last two editions of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

Any embarrassing episodes involving spilled wine, corkscrews, sommeliers or drunken behavior?

CG: Midnight swimming in Lake Balaton many years ago.  No swim gear of course and too many glasses of Hungarian wine all made it seem like a great idea.  There were some BIG creatures in there.

Of course, your all-time favourite island wine?

CG: Well, there are a number of Cyprus wines that I love, but I'm going to pick Petritis as my overall Cyprus star for several reasons.  It was the first wine that showed me that Xynisteri could be more than just another white wine, the first wine that showed me Xynisteri could keep (2008 was still looking stunning earlier this year) and a wine that is fairly priced for the quality it offers and, above all, a wine that I enjoy drinking.

You can reach Caroline Gilby MW via her personal website.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A New Lease on Life

Vlassides Winery's New Facade
I first visited Vlassides Winery eight years ago. My gringo buddies Just Like Staples and Policarpa were in tow and I had promised them a flashy visit to one of The Rock's up-and-coming wineries. We made our way up to picturesque Kilani where we found US-trained Sophocles Vlassides' rudimentary operation sheltered in his parents' home and the village's former market. There wasn't much of a tour—one of the rooms packed in the steel fermentation tanks, the other the barrels that served as temporary vessels for his award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. The closest thing to a tasting area was his parents' patio where under an old tree we were treated to homemade cheese pies, glasses of Cabernet and plenty of stories from Sophocles' garrulous, charismatic father. I fondly recall the hour or so we spent at the winery; it was a distinct throwback to a not-so-distant era in which random visitors arrived unannounced and were treated with that same warmth afforded to family.

Let me be honest: Vlassides is probably my favourite Cypriot winery. The memories I've made in which his wines have played a prominent role—both in Cyprus and abroad—have piled up and earned multiple stars in my own personal walk of fame. For one, his Shiraz made it all the way across the Atlantic the first time The Wife, Ph.D., visited me during my self-imposed exile from employment in Ecuador. It was also the red wine of choice (Aes Ambelis Xynisteri was the white) during our drunken, table-dancing nuptials in Cyprus not long thereafter. Plus, I admire Sophocles for the work he's done both as an oenologist and consultant to other wineries, helping raise the industry's standards and paving the way for Cypriot wine's bright future.

View from Vlassides Winery
In the spirit of this moment, Vlassides Winery has been the latest to go through a metamorphosis, introducing a new, modern and more sophisticated range of labels, logos and titles for its already excellent wines. This makes perfect sense given all the work that was put into building Vlassides' new home, a futuristic wonder just south of Kilani, chockfull of vertices, protruding boxes and smooth planes that stands alongside Argyrides Winery in Vasa Kilaniou as my favourites design-wise. Given both of these wineries' obvious architectural dissimilarities, that says plenty about my fickle persona.

Designed by architects Eraclis Papachristou and Yiannos Tsiolis and brought to life in 2014, the winery features two distinct areas—one where all the arduous grape-related work happens, another dedicated to hosting visitors, throwing parties and lecturing amateurs on the wonderful world of wine. Albeit, what's worth noting is that guests don't need to leave this second area to see all that's going on at the winery; an elevated corridor that extends from the tasting area, as described in Arch Daily, "create[s] panoramic the winemaking and storage rooms equally, benefiting the visitor with a general experience of the winemaking process."

New Labels Revealed
While the latest labels and logo do not take a patriotic stand and represent all that is great about The Rock, they establish a new direction and identity for Vlassides' eighteen-year-old operation. These abstract and modern labels—developed with thought, art and geometry in mind—harmonize with the winery's architecture; squares and rectangles, straight lines, sharp angles and 3-D optical illusions combine with the same sense of fluidity offered by walking through Vlassides' premises to give the winery's image a new lease on life.

This new life was on full display at an event hosted several weeks back in Kilani to announce and celebrate the launch of the winery's renewed face and offer revellers a taste of several current and older vintages. The 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, easily one of the best on the island year in and year out, shone with its lovely tropical, citrus aromas, while the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, an older and rarer vintage, drank remarkably fresh for a seven-year-old Cypriot red. Personally, I found Sophocles' current experiments to be the evening's highlights; he offered guests a 2015 Yiannoudi that, despite its vines' youth, showed plenty of fruit and promise, and a 2015 dessert wine made of Sauvignon Blanc that had decent balance and matched nicely with the variety of cheeses on offer. I believe both would be nice additions to what's already an excellent wine portfolio anchored by his Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Private Label—the Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot blend that has been re-baptized as Opus Artis.

For a closer look at the launch, here's a snazzy promotional video released by Vlassides. PS: Keep an eye out for The Wife, Ph.D., who makes a sneakily sexy two-second cameo appearance mingling with The Rock's wine celebrities.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

On Commandaria and Camaraderie

George Kassianos in Action!
Competition can sometimes suck the life out of a room. Drop a dozen egotistical, competitive Alpha males  in a six-by-six meter caged ring and you end up with ripped designer suits, bloody and bruised noses and a prohibitively expensive visit to both a dentist and personal injury lawyer. Case in point, the US's pathetic Republican Party, which is sinking faster than it takes me to spell out Gewürztraminer. [Editor's Note on 11/9/16: Oops?]

Nowadays, competition is absolutely necessary. It weeds out the weak, strokes the strong and motivates the mediocre (like myself) to try harder to break through. If it were up to me, though, I'd pack competition's heavy baggage and book it a one-way ticket to Taft and the lower bunk in Rudy Kurniawan's cell where they could both braid each others locks and get drunk on Faux-Brion. Unfortunately, I'm as afraid of competition as I'm of Burgundy, Naoussa and Barolo being set ablaze by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Half of the Team Behind Ayia Mavri
My usual diatribe brings me to a private reception and dinner hosted back in May by the Cyprus Wineries Association at The Powerhouse in Old Nicosia. Many of the island's winemakers were in attendance alongside journalists, bloggers, sommeliers and other wine personalities, to present little known varieties and break bread together.

I made my rounds, tasting and chatting the night away, making a mental note of those somewhat rare wines that left an impression and deserve a repeat visit. KEO's 2011 Yiannoudi, a recent release by the Cypriot wine giant, and Tsiakkas' selection were both promising renditions of The Rock's new darling of the local red varieties. KEO also introduced an off-dry 2015 Altesse, a French variety who some experts claim originated in Cyprus and I found interesting as a digestif. Zambartas was there with his now sophisticated Single Vineyard Xynisteri, a wine that does a good job showcasing the variety's potential. Finally, Aphrodite Constanti of Vassilikon Winery poured samples of their recent work with Maratheftiko, a wine that if I recall correctly (take notes next time, moron!) had a noticeable and lovely herbal character.

Birds on a Wire
As the night slipped away in a haze of laughter and wine, I was amazed at the camaraderie on display by the winemakers present. They all cherished each other's company, talking and exchanging tastes of their wines, without any competitive urges springing forth and souring the soiree. I'm clueless as to whether or not this is generally the case, but for an outsider like myself it was refreshing to see such high levels of respect and support shown by individuals with similar products competing in a rather minuscule market. Then again, since The Rock is like a small neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone (and everything about everyone), it is only natural for camaraderie to develop as a healthier and more sustainable option to strengthening an industry than playing hardball and always going for the jugular.

Nothing struck me as a greater show of camaraderie than when one of Cyprus' most talented oenologists announced to our table that KEO had brought along a 1984 Saint John Commandaria and a few minutes later showed up with the open bottle and served the forty-plus invitees. This is the only way forward, Cyprus wine, and I certainly hope this spirit stays strong.

2000 Etko Centurion Commandaria - Deep enveloping aromas of brown sugar, coffee, toffee, cinnamon, vanilla, dried prunes, apricots and dates. A really interesting white chocolate note running throughout. 92/100.

1984 KEO Saint John Commandaria - Fully developed, complex, great interplay between sweet and savoury. Dark chocolate, coffee beans, smoke, raisins and other dried fruit, leather and good gaminess on the palate.  My new thirty-two year-old mistress. 95/100.