Thursday, January 3, 2019

Fill Up My Cava - Part II

There are few moments in life when you can confidently say that you are in the presence of greatness. Most of mine, of course, have involved a bottle of wine, molecular gastronomy, live music, a piece of art or a novel that render me speechless and teary-eyed, a fat boy before an overflowing chocolate fountain.

I recently had one of these encounters, an impressive wine tasting hosted by Nicosia's Vinocultura at Aelia Wellness Retreat in Tseri that confirmed Nebbiolo as one of the few chosen varieties to fill up my cava.

Kyprianou, Altare, Karakasis & Barolo
Elio Altare, the legendary Barolo winemaker and grizzled veteran of more than fifty vintages, schlepped his way to The Rock where he guided us through a tasting of eleven of his world-class wines. In his broken English, Elio, a grandfatherly figure with a warm voice and boundless dreams, narrated his story with Nebbiolo and wine-making in northern Italy, assisted by Vinocultura's Andreas Kyprianou and Greece's Master of Wine Yiannis Karakasis.

Elio tells us that everything changed during a 1976 visit to Burgundy alongside Angelo Gaja, arguably the one man responsible for putting Piedmont on the wine map. Historically speaking, Barolos were born as sweet, oxidized wines that were difficult to drink and originally stored on the winery's roof. Precarious conditions didn't help either. Cellars were nary clean and tough to sanitize; Elio recalls potable water only arriving at his family winery in 1962. In Burgundy, after sampling wines that were that much more expensive and different to those being produced in his northern Italian home, Elio shifted gears and following Gaja's lead brought modern wine-making techniques into the region.

At first, everyone opposed him. His parents believed he was soiling Barolo's traditions. Elio, however, stood his ground. "If a son does the same job as the father, the economy takes a step back. The son must do better, that's progress," he tells us. "There's no success without mistakes, without experiments. If you're ambitious, you look for competition with the best."

The Big Boys of the Tasting
With Burgundy clearly on his mind, Elio introduced shorter maceration times and the use of rotary fermenters, which in turn churned out wines with more color, greater stability and nobler tannins. Nowadays, he uses no pesticides (out of respect for his clients), does not filter his wines, and adopts indigenous yeast to maintain the identity of the harvest,  winemaker and terroir.

Elio speaks about wine the same way you or I might speak of the love of our lives. It's that type of love where passion, compromise, disagreement, comfort and doubt come together to create something unique and endless. Elio tells us, "I don't drink a label, I don't drink a name. Wine is a great symphony, it is my job to give it harmony and balance. I make wines for me."

Ultimately, there is this comforting humility that shines through with each one of his words and actions. "I have not created anything, I have just added to the experience of vignerons in Burgundy and California," he affirms.

Here are my thoughts on these wines, which clearly depict what I refer to as the decay of wine tasting notes, i.e., the amount of wine consumed is inversely related to the volume and quality of notes taken.

Amount of Wine Consumed 1/Volume & Quality of Tasting Notes

This is a scientifically proven formula so don't @ me.

2017 Elio Altare Dolcetto d'Alba - Vibrant red fruit, cherries, licorice, mint and some meatiness in this fruit-forward wine. Tannins are really present but the red forest fruit shines through. Quite long and with an intact purity of fruit.

Dolcetto d'Alba & Friends
2017 Elio Altare Barbera d'Alba - Dark cherries, floral elements, notes of pepper. Silky, sweet tannins with cherries that sing. Not as bright as the Dolcetto d'Alba but a lot fuller. This is a wine I am convinced both The Wife Ph.D., and I could enjoy without argument considering her unhealthy obsession with full-bodied Shiraz.

2011 Elio Altare Larigi Langhe DOC - This was absolutely lovely. A remarkable nose with notes of chocolate, overripe yet bright fruit, potpourri and herbal components, spice, hints of oak. I found the big and heavy nose on this wine to be rather deceptive. Once tasted, it's sprightly, full of life, marked by the type of lightness that I fall head over heels for with a wonderful spicy finish and great length.

2011 Elio Altare La Villa Langhe DOC - Plenty of sweet spice, meaty, an appealing stink and rawness, some chocolate. Very smooth and clean and approachable after seven years.

2011 Elio Altare Giàrborina Langhe Rosso DOC -  Funky, meaty, caramel and sweet spice. Tannins are very firm, very present. Plenty of structure to age but not quite approachable at the moment in my opinion.

2014 Elio Altare Barolo DOCG - I love these noses! Stinky, raw, peppery and meaty. Plenty of sour cherries and a great structure.

The Barolo Lineup
2012 Elio Altare Barolo DOCG - A lot more fruit, floral almost, tannins have softened and wine is now a lot rounder and chewier.

2013 Elio Altare Barolo Arborina DOCG - Soy sauce, meaty with a beautiful body marked by sweet cherries and firm tannins.

2008 Elio Altare Barolo Arborina DOCG - More tertiary aromas, plenty of leather, a lot cleaner and elegant. An all-around balanced wine.

2012 Elio Altare Barolo Cerretta DOCG - Sweet spice, tobacco, meaty, smoky, loaded with cherries, a raspberry finish. Elegant as fuck (I actually wrote this on my notepad), clean, round, integrated tannins. Best wine of the night. By far.

2007 Elio Altare Barolo Cerretta DOCG - Bright fruit, floral, meaty, leathery with a finish marked by tar. Quite mineral with a great structure and tannins that are still alive and kicking. A lot less concentrated than the 2012.

For Part I, click HERE.

For an old blog post on the third variety (region) in my Triumvirate of Taste, click HERE.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Fill Up My Cava - Part I

Eight months ago we moved into a new home and my only desire (besides a massive kitchen where I could pretend to be an insultingly poor man's version of Virgilio Martínez) was to own a wine cellar. 

After countless discussions with local experts, The Wife Ph.D., and I settled for a series of wine fridges, pseudo-cavas that are better prepared to withstand the hellish heat The Rock bears down on our rotting souls come June (or mid-February if you're a Scandinavian retiree).

Obviously, with a great cellar comes great responsibility—to stack it to the brim with bottles upon bottles upon more bottles of one's favorite wines.

If you've been following my journey through wine, I've settled on three red varieties that will outshine all others in what I expect to be the rather temperamental build-up of my collection.

18-Year Old Grand Reserve Anyone?
Back in 2017, courtesy of Photos Photiades Distributors Ltd and Boutari Winery in Greece, I was invited to a mini-vertical tasting of Xinomavro, Greece's most acclaimed red variety that has drawn comparisons to Italy's Nebbiolo and has become since my landing on The Rock twelve long years ago one of my all-time favorite varieties. [Editor's Note: This article is a year late because the hirsute chubster behind this blog is a world-class slacker.]

Drinkers beware, though. Xinomavro (literally meaning 'Sour Black') can be a hard swill to swallow. When young, it can be super tannic, highly acidic and seemingly rough or rustic. These traits, however, have afforded Xinomavro ample opportunity to age gracefully for decades. In its best variations, it can be beautifully perfumed, reminiscent of a field of flowers and damp earth cohabiting with tomatoes drying on their vines, fresh black olive paste and a sour cherry orchard. It's truly awe-inspiring.

The tasting, which was held at Nicosia's most sophisticated food-and-wine haunt, Pralina Experience, was led by Boutari's oenologist Vasilis Georgiou. He started off by emphasizing that the winery's heart lies in Naoussa, Northern Greece's PDO where Xinomavro is queen, and that this variety is his favorite of all. What draws him to this difficult variety? Its versatility and dynamism as a grape—it can produce sparklers, light and heavy rosés, fresh reds and fuller reds destined for aging.

Aging Gracefully
Furthermore, Vasilis said, Xinomavro in Naoussa are terroir-driven wines. Each sub-region within Naoussa delivers a unique wine. For instance, two separate vineyards with a mere 150 meters difference in altitude result in different wines.

When it comes to the actual wine-making, a good discussion started on old school versus new school methods. Vasilis said that new school methods might be used to open the market to Xinomavro but ultimately what people want is the old school, more traditional and rustic style. Georgios Hadjistylianou, who runs the excellent Fat Fish restaurant in Limassol, opined that Naoussa leans more towards Burgundy in style and Vasilis concurred; Boutari's intention is to mimic an international wine but give it a local touch.

Before boring you further, here are some of the wines we tasted and, yes, dear readers, many of these will one day fill up my cava.

2014 Boutari Sparkling Rosé - An experimental bubbly made with Xinomavro. Plenty of red fruit, raspberry, brioche and yeasty notes on the nose. The palate was rather delicate with raspberries and strawberries up front and a toasted-bread-like middle.

2016 Xinomavro Rosé - Another experimental bottle, this one is meant to be a food-friendly rosé. According to Vasilis, the original plan was to make a fashionable, lighter Provence-style rosé, but instead they made this one, which is much darker and has enough weight to be accompanied by food. Bright red fruit, caramel, some herbal touches, really creamy. As Maria Massoura of The Wander Notes succinctly put: "Strawberry panna cotta."

A Few of the Wines Sampled
2015 Boutari Naoussa - Vasilis says that Boutari's entry-level Naoussa serves as the barometer to the vintage's success. It is the winery's generic Xinomavro with grapes picked from all of its different regions. The 2015 was quite woody—it spends twelve months in oak barrels—and marked by aromas of red cherries and strawberries and a hint of black olives, characteristic of the variety. This wine was just okay; very short, clean and simple with a nose that outperformed its palate.

2003 Boutari Naoussa - This wine clearly showed Xinomavro's amazing aging potential. On the nose, plenty of violets, mushrooms, dried red fruit and leather. Once tasted, there was plenty of red fruit still present, many herbal components and a wonderful wet earth and dustiness to it on the finish with a decent acidity for its teenage years.

2012 Boutari Grand Reserve Naoussa - According to Vasilis, the Grand Reserve Naoussa, a great value-for-money bottling, is a wine meant to be aged and it is not released for bad vintages. Furthermore, it spends two years in oak barrels and two additional years aging in the bottle and it's generally made from grapes coming from three specific vineyards—Marina, Trilofos and Polla Nera. This specific vintage comes from a vineyard called Trilofos and is marked by red forest fruit, floral elements and a lovely minty touch. Tannins are very chewy as this wine is still in its infant stage.

2011 Boutari Grand Reserve Naoussa - If I read my notes correctly, this was one of my favorite wines of the tasting. An explosion of truffles on the nose, leather, sweet spice and dark cherries working as one. Plenty of strawberries and mint with black olive pattée on the finish. It has great acidity, firm tannins, a really solid structure that will allow it to go for decades. If my limited knowledge of Naoussa vintages is not betraying me, 2011 was supposedly one of the great ones. By the way, this wine screams to be matched with food.

Xinomavro Screams for Food
1999 Boutari Grand Reserve Naoussa - Another excellent example of this variety's aging prowess. Secondary and tertiary notes are now jumping with joy. Butterscotch toffee, coffee, smoke, leather, black pepper on the nose. The palate paired dehydrated strawberries with plenty of wet earth along many of these other elements.

2007 Boutari Legacy Single Vineyard - This wine is made from a single vineyard (Trilofos) only on exceptional years. If the grapes are not allotted to the Legacy, they are then used to make the Grand Reserve Naoussa. Tomato leaf, black olives, thyme and a wonderful meatiness to this wine. On the palate, plenty of ripe red fruit and a heavy dose of vanilla, courtesy of 12 months in French oak barrels.

[Editor's Note: If any of you readers feels the need to contribute a wine or two to his cava, please contact us to arrange for delivery. I think all he deserves is a good kick in the ass.]

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Savatiano Risin'

Savatiano Chillin'
It's survey time here at Whine On The Rocks. 

How many of you have heard of Savatiano

How many of you associate this variety with retsina, Greece's piny, Aquafresh-like wine that tastes like diluted toilet bowl cleaner when poorly made? [Editor's Note: The author is not being judgemental.]

No? Yes? Maybe? Boy, I've got news for you.

A few weeks ago, thanks to an event organized by Vassos Eliades Ltd., at Pralina Experience in Nicosia, I sat at the table with the big boys of Cyprus wine for a comprehensive tasting of Papagiannakos Winery's mad-scientist experimentation with all-things Savatiano.

Vassilis Papagiannakos, who now runs the winery, walked us through his story with Savatiano, a once disfavored variety with a four thousand year history that everyone solely associated with retsina. According to Vassilis, once the winery started experimenting with cold fermentation, Savatiano gave out a range of fruity aromas in the vein of Assyrtiko and Roditis, and its potential as a dry, non-resinated wine began to take shape. Furthermore, the terroir, said Vassilis, if treated like Burgundy and other great wine-making areas of the world, could lead to the production of excellent wines that could age for decades.

Vassilis Papagiannakos (right) Talks Savatiano
Case in point, during a 2014 visit by Wine & Spirits journalist Tara Q. Thomas, Vassilis organized a vertical tasting (2007 to 2014) of his Savatiano Old Vines with Thomas boldly asking for even older vintages. After sampling the 1998 and 2000 Savatiano, she deemed these wines world-class. About the 1998, Thomas writes, "The wine is a rich, golden color and smells of petrol, like old assyrtiko. Caramel flavors gild the fresh almond notes, the acidity mild yet still vibrant."

Vassilis Papagiannakos then led us through a tasting of the five Savatiano wines currently in his portfolio, and the variety's diversity, quality and uniqueness was put on display for all. Here are one amateur's tasting notes.

2017 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Old Vines - Light, fresh nose with hints of green apples, herbaceous notes, lightly peppery and almost soy-like. On the palate, nutty, mature citrus fruits, apples and pears with solid acidity. Very tough to beat at the price point, which is about 6 to 7 Euros in The Rock's major supermarkets.

Savatiano Revealed
2016 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Vientzi Single Vineyard - This wine comes from Vassilis Papagiannakos' father's favourite sixty-year-old vineyard called Vientzi. Very nutty and herbal nose marked predominantly by hazelnuts. Once tasted, the hazelnuts persisted and combined with notes of apples, pears and citrus with a lovely loukoumi-like sweetness running through the mid-palate. Really good length.

2016 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Natural - This was the strangest yet most alluring wine of the tasting. I really couldn't place its nose and picked up notes of mushrooms, green beans, nuts and white pepper. Really strange. One of the Cypriot sommeliers in attendance said it reminded him on salt-and-vinegar crisps. On the palate, though, this wine sang: smooth body with clean lines, bursting with touches of apple and pears. My second favorite of the soiree.

Veal Tenderloin with 2017 Savatiano Bareli
2014 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Ktima - Here Savatiano starts showing off its aging potential as secondary aromas  develop. A very nutty, almond-like nose with hints of smoke and even gaminess. Plenty of orange peel, bitter oranges, lemon zest, apple and pears with a lovely nutty finish. Good length and medium-plus acidity.

2017 Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano Bareli (Barrel Aged) - This was my favorite wine but I can definitely see how it's not for all; its unctuousness might be a bit over the top for some. A beautiful potpourri-like nose, very floral, very fragrant. Once sipped, there's a rush of sweet, overripe pears and baked apples, candied orange peel and loads of sweet spice. Keep in mind this wine is fermented and aged for five months in oak barrels and undergoes no battonage. This wine definitely needs a few years to soften up.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

To New Beginnings

Marcos Zambartas Leading the Way
My first visit to Zambartas Wineries happened maybe eight years ago. We were met by the late Akis Zambartas, who had made the winery's top floor his home. After a quick tour of the winery's small facilities two floors down, Akis, garrulous as ever, sat us in his outdoor dining room and shared a wealth of information and stories over multiple glasses of his red wines. It was a welcoming, cheerful, generous visit, the type you experience when someone happily opens the doors to his home and you stumble out a while later, tipsy and with a big grin stamped across your face. 

Following a summer press trip organized by Vassos Eliades Ltd., Zambartas Wineries' new distributor on The Rock, I can say that this heartfelt hospitality remains as strong as ever. 

The New Tasting Room
Yes, things have changed. The main reason for our visit was to experience Zambartas Wineries' extensive renovation of its top floor, which has now become a classy and modern tasting room with a fully stocked kitchen that can cater to parties and larger groups of visitors. Clean lines, some dark wood, beautiful iron racks for the bottles on sale, and a predominantly black-and-white collage of photos rendering tribute to Akis and the family tradition have transformed the space. Additionally, the mezzanine, which served as the main tasting room, will become the center stage for aging the winery's yet-to-be-released Commandaria.

Part of the trip also included a tour of some of the winery's nearby vineyards. We drove past KEO's Ktima Mallia, Oinou Yi's lavish mountaintop winery in Omodos and Ktima Gerolemo towards Agios Nikolaos and into a higher terroir populated by rows and rows of vineyards. Unfortunately, it rained donkeys and moufflons that day, so we couldn't walk the fields and get a chance to experience wine-making straight from its source.

Fancy Anything?
My favorite part of the visit was Marcos Zambartas telling us about Marcelina, a vineyard that harks back to 1921 and which he proudly purchased on (the Cypriot equivalent of eBay). Marcos believes Marcelina will offer not the best but the truest representation of Cypriot wine. Christodoulos, the winery's vigneron, called this plot a living museum of Cypriot wine as it offers a glimpse into the history of Cypriot wine. You can see how vineyards were planted in the past, one atop each other, crowded, nary a row. Different varieties—Mavro, Xynisteri, Maratheftiko and more—stand side by side, some of them unrecognizable to the trained eye. So much so that Marcos had to ship some of Marcelina's grapes for further review.

Of course, we tasted a few wines too as part of the visit. And here's always where I start to blabber like a hyper infant. Besides the usual suspects, we sampled a few surprises.

The 2017 Single Vineyard Xynisteri (now in screw cap!) is a limited production bottle made with small-bunch grapes and 40 percent of it going through wild yeast fermentation. The vineyard is located at 950 meters above sea level in Mandria and is 29 years old. I have no doubt in my mind that Zambartas' Single Vineyard Xynisteri is the benchmark for Cypriot (indigenous) white wines. Quite mineral with notes of citrus, orange peel, stone fruits and white flowers and hints of mountain herbs and sweet vanilla spice. It's smooth, lean, clean and fresh with great length and good acidity. Plus, it will definitely improve after a couple years.

Boom Goes the Dynamite!
The 2016 Single Vineyard Shiraz, a new addition to the wine roster and also in screw cap, has a limited production of about 600 bottles and spends 15 months in oak barrels with about 80 percent of it in new ones. If you enjoy meaty wines, this one's for you. It's lountza-y, spicy, smoky and loaded with notes of black fruit and berries—it screams steak in the same way I scream for a dalliance with a bottle of DRC. [Editor's note: This will happen one day; never stop believing.]

Finally, we tasted the 2011 Zambartas Commandaria, a 65-35 percent Mavro-Xynisteri blend that should be out in the markets in 2021. This was utterly delicious. A clean nose with touches of dried apricots, figs, dates, some butterscotch, brown sugar and just a hint of smoke or meatiness. On the palate, great acidity, weighty tannins and some remarkable notes of white chocolate, raisins and brioche.

Towards the end of the visit, Marleen, the winery's marketing guru and Marcos' wife, tells me one of their hopes is that Akis is proud of how they've transformed the space he once called home. From all of my visits to Zambartas Wineries, there's no other answer but yes.

For a post on my second or third visit to Zambartas Wineries, click HERE.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Case of Questions with Mike Veseth, Wine Economist

Last year, prior to the annual Cyprus Wine Competition (my invitation was probably stolen by a stray cat), the Ministry of Agriculture's Viticultural Section organized a local wine industry conference with Mike Veseth, a professor emeritus of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound, as one of its guests of honour. Professor Veseth, who's an authority on the global wine economy and has written several books on vinous matters, spent several days on The Rock where he tasted our best, spoke to the winemakers and delivered plenty of insightful thoughts on the state of Cyprus' wine sector. Goes without saying, the blog reached out and here are his answers to our Case of Questions!

Why wine?

Mike Veseth (MV): My new book, Around the World in Eighty Wines: Exploring Wine One Country at a Time, was released in November 2017 and the central question is “Why wine?” Why has wine fascinated us for all these centuries? Why do winemakers go to such extremes to produce wine? Why has wine and the traditions that surround it endured? I think I have found the answer, but I don’t want to spoil my book’s ending. You’ll have to read Around the World in Eighty Wines to find out! 

How did you get started writing about wine and the wine business?

MV: I wrote about this in my 2011 book, Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists. We were visiting Napa Valley years ago and talking with a winemaker. When he learned I was an Economics Professor he became quite intense and asked many questions because what happened to the economy affected his ability to make and sell the best wines. He taught me that wine is a business as well as an art and a science and that the insights that economists may offer can be important. My 2005 book, Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization, explored a number of case studies of how global markets evolve and adapt. One of the chapters examined the global wine market and there was so much interest that I decided to specialize in wine economics. 

Your blog is called The Wine Economist. What do you write about and who are your readers?

MV: Most professors write academic papers that are read by other professors and no one else. I decided that I wanted to reach a broader audience that includes wine industry and trade readers as well as academics and consumers, too. I started The Wine Economist as a way to work out my thoughts about wine market issues in public where I can get feedback from my global wine readership. It has been very successful both in terms of the ideas it has helped generate and in the public reception. The Wine Economist won the 2015 Gourmand International award for best wine blog. Who knew that so many people would want to read about wine business!

You have written four books on wine. What are they about?

MV: Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists (2011) examined wine market dynamics as the interaction of three strong forces: globalization, commodification, and “the revenge of the terroirists,” which is the thirst for authenticity in wine and in life more generally. Each of these forces has grown stronger since I wrote Wine Wars so this analysis remains relevant and continues to shape my thinking about wine. ExtremeWine: Searching the World for the Best, the Worst, the Outrageously Cheap, the Insanely Overpriced, and the Undiscovered (2013) tries to understand where wine is going by looking at the extremes of the market where change is most pronounced. Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated (2015) examined the many ways that money affects wine – what is produced and where, what we buy and even how good (or bad) the wine tastes to us. This book received the 2016 Gourmand International award for best wine writing.

Now, as I said earlier, Around the World in Eighty Wines has been recently released. Taking inspiration from Jules Verne’s famous novel, it circles the globe seeking great wines, great wine stories, and insights into why wine is such an enduring part of life. 

What brought you to Cyprus? 

MV: I was invited by the Cyprus Tourism Organization. Dr. Maria Socratous heard me speak at the First United Nations World Tourism Organization Wine Tourism conference in Tbilisi, Georgia last year and arranged for my wife Sue and I to visit Cyprus to learn about its wine and wine tourism possibilities. While in Paphos, I also spoke at a Cyprus wine industry conference. It was a great experience – I wish I could have visited before I finished Around the World in Eighty Wines because I tasted some wines that I could have included in my book. Next time!

What was your favourite wine-related moment during your visit to Cyprus?

MV: There were many fine moments, but the one I like best was a lunch with journalists, judges from the Cyprus Wine Competition, and members of the Kyriakides family at their fabulous Vouni Panayia Winery. Beautiful view, wonderful food that Mrs. Kyriakides prepared for us, great wine of course, and lively conversation. It was the complete wine experience and a great memory of our short visit to Cyprus.

Anyone up for lunch at Vouni Panayia? Next weekend work?

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

MV: I wrote about this question on The Wine Economist. Cyprus is making the same sort of transition today that New Zealand made in the 1980s and 1990s, when it began to focus intensely on rising quality and broader markets. This is the right strategy for today’s global market, so I am very optimistic about the future of Cypriot wine. 

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

MV: Cyprus has all the important elements needed to move up to the next level in the world of wine – stunning vineyards, talented winemakers, distinctive indigenous grape varieties.  I would like to see the domestic wine market develop a greater focus on quality Cypriot wines (as opposed to less expensive imports) and a rising international profile. This will take teamwork, which is something I talked about at the Cyprus wine industry conference in Paphos. I think everyone knows that this is an area that can be improved and I was glad to see so many people willing to help build a stronger Team Cyprus Wine to achieve these goals.

Should Cyprus focus on Commandaria or is dry wine a better route moving forward?

MV: Why does it have to be either/or? Commandaria tells the story of Cyprus’s great wine history, which will open doors. But the market for wines of this type is relatively small and highly competitive. The contemporary dry wines, especially Xynisteri, could appeal to a broader audience. They are both part of the story of Cypriot wine today. Why not feature them both and use them to tantalize consumers about the range of possibilities that Cyprus and its wines can offer?

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

MV: Our friends think it must be the great food and fine wine we are served, but the best part is that we get to meet such fascinating people! We met many wonderful people during our short stay in Cyprus.

What is your favorite wine? 

MV: People often ask about my favorite wine. While it is true that I am particularly fond of Pinot Noir and Riesling because of their almost infinite variations, it is more generally true that the wines I like best are the ones that tell a good story, especially if the story involves friends.

Of course, your favorite island (and Cyprus) wine? 

MV: There is a chapter in my 2013 book Extreme Wine called “Desert Island Wines.” What wine would you choose as your only beverage if you were going to be stranded on a desert island for several months? The chapter is inspired by the BBC Radio 4 program Desert Island Discs. We tasted many wonderful wines during our visit to Cyprus (and I was able to write about a few of them on The Wine Economist). All the wines would be welcome on a desert island, but I guess my desert island wine from Cyprus would have to be Commandaria. What a treat! 

You can reach Mike Veseth on his website, Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter. He penned the four blog posts on Cyprus wines listed below:

Friday, December 22, 2017

Off The Rock: Ktima Pirgakis

Upon exiting E65 on our drive north from Kalamata to Agiorgitiko's home in the Peloponnese, the small town of Nemea—its main road like that of any sleepy village seemingly decades removed from a major metropolis—slumbered away. 

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the town that lends its name to one of Greece's major wine regions; a few wineries announced by brown signs sit along the side of the road, old men and women lounge on stoops drinking coffee, a mishmash of architectural designs rise above the sidewalks.

View of Asprokabos from Ktima Pirgakis
Once you leave Nemea, however, and trudge along narrow potholed roads to Asprokabos, an up-and-coming sub-region just south of the Corinth, that ingrained idea one has of what wine country should look like reveals itself with each turn. Grapevines—perfectly lined up in a domino rally waiting for father time to tap over—extend uninterrupted towards the sea with nary a sign of concrete to impede their march.

We arrived at Ktima Pirgakis to find Konstantinos Pirgakis, his charming wife and their two daughters waiting for us. Upon arrival we notice that the winery, which sits at 815 meters above sea level, rewards its visitors with an awe-inspiring view of the vineyard-covered hills of Asprokabos.

For those of you not in the know, Asprokabos, which stands between 650 and 850 meters above the Mediterranean, is a distinct Greek terroir equipped to make phenomenal wines. According to Yiannis Karakasis, one of two Greek Masters of Wine (MW), this specific region of Nemea "is one of the coolest mesoclimates in the country" where "there is [a] big diurnal temperature range of about 15 ºC in the winter and even 20 ºC during summertime, which is crucial for the preservation of acidity and for building tannin structure." Considering its relative coolness, says Karakasis, this remote region, which is at present inhabited by only a handful of wineries, is capable of producing "a more exotic version of Nemea, more Old World in style perhaps."

Konstantinos Pirgakis
Obviously, one of those five is Konstantinos Pirgakis' growing operation, which, at the time of our visit in July, was undergoing a significant expansion, one that should facilitate the winery's hosting of wine tourists like The Wife, Ph.D., Little Miss Despot and myself. Rooms for rent, a kitchen for culinary events, and two separate wings for red and white wines are in the works and should be completed, if my memory serves me well, by 2018. Still, among the bricks, bags of cement, naked rooms and rows of grapevines swaying at a distance, Konstantinos, in a mix of broken English and harmonious Greek, played the role of host to perfection.

Today, he told us, Ktima Pirgakis consists of twelve hectares of land. For years, Konstantinos' father owned and cultivated vineyards in his native village with some plantings now only a decade removed from being a half-century old. Upon starting the winery in 2008 and inheriting his father's vineyards, Konstantinos initially dedicated his efforts at producing and selling Agiorgitiko. He quickly realized, however, that with the market saturated by these jammy, velvety wines, it was a better bet to diversify a bit and introduce grape varieties alien to Nemea. Perfectly in line with his penchant for experimentation, Konstantinos planted the unique—by Greek standards—Tannat and Petit Verdot to grow alongside other international and local varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Malagouzia, Assytriko and the region's ubiquitous Agiorgitiko.

The Big, the Bold, the Beautiful
Konstantinos believes that ninety percent of wine quality comes from the grapes and holds Asprokambos' grape growers in high esteem. He praised the sub-region's growers for being trustworthy, organized and professional, churning out high-quality grapes on a yearly basis in a terroir that requires no irrigation. As proof, Konstantinos compared the vineyards in Asprokabos to those down in central Nemea: as evinced from our drive up the hills, the first are symmetrical and evenly laid out, while the latter take on a more haphazard and disorganized pattern. Obviously, Konstantinos recognizes that the ten percent left to the human hand remains important since a loose screw, wrong turn or weak wrist can turn perfect grapes into high-end vinegar.

In addition to the work done by the local growers and winemakers, Asprokabos' unique microclimate helps the sub-region's grapes preserve their acidity, freshness and overall structure. Thanks to its cooler temperatures, harvest happens in September, often several weeks later than what's normal for the rest of Nemea. This sub-region is so much cooler, Pirgakis mentioned, that temperatures during the winter can drop to as low as -15 ºC.

Where the Magic Happens
Konstantinos' wines are not for the faint of heart; they are big, bold and powerful yet retain plenty of sophistication. His dad thought he was crazy making such massive wines. However, Konstantinos, who's somewhat obsessed with experimentation, meaty bodies and high alcohol content, repeatedly told us he makes what he loves to drink.

Several barrel samples of his latest vintages attest to this preference. For example, his Chardonnay, which sits in barrels for two years but still showcases plenty of delicious tropical fruit, is outright opulent and unctuous, an acquired taste for those who might prefer their Chardonnays more Emily Ratajkowski/Ryan Gosling than Kim Kardashian/Gerard Butler. Likewise, the Pirgakis Petit Verdot—we sampled the 2014 and 2015—had robust tannins, were earthy and meaty, and, above all, felt like dabbing your tongue on a black pepper mound. And that's a wonderful thing for a pseudo wine blogger obsessed with hot sauce.

Here are some of the tasting's other highlights:

The 2014 815 alt. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot blend is Pirgakis' flagship wine. Konstantinos told us that this bottle, which retails at about 18 Euros, is in very high demand in places like Santorini, where restaurants sell it to clients in the know for up to 120 Euros. A pretty nose that touches on bright red fruit like raspberries and red currants, some pepper, coffee, dark chocolate and dustiness, and a nice hint of meatiness to it. It's well rounded, silky and refined with well-integrated tannins, great acidity and plenty of freshness. Started off a bit closed (and spicy) but opened up after an hour sitting in our glasses. Personally, I'd recommend decanting this big boy.

The 2016 Ktima Pirgakis Malagouzia is marked by an intense aroma of stone fruits, canned peaches and cream, Turkish delight, orange peel and lemon blossom. To the palate, it has a nice mineral backbone, a sour, almost peppery finish, some salinity, and a lovely hint of apricot and peaches that runs unencumbered through the mid-palate.

Ktima Pirgakis' Lineup
The 2016 Late Harvest Agiorgitiko is highlighted by plenty of light red fruit on the nose, some raspberries and candied strawberries, brown sugar and a lively acidity that makes it enjoyable as a simple yet somewhat enticing dessert wine. I would even dare drinking it with spicy food.

The 2014 Ktima Pirgakis Assyrtiko, which is aged sur lie, has a compelling, slightly oxidized nose marked by sweet spice, orange peel, and a pleasant nutty component. To the tongue, it has a nice breadiness combined with notes of apricots, quince, baked pears and honeysuckle. An interesting mainland Assyrtiko that might have benefited from greater acidity. Then again, maybe I'm dreaming of Santorini.

The 2014 Spilia Agiorgitiko was a revelation. I'm not a big fan of Agiorgitiko as I sometimes find wines made from this variety to be too jammy or like dipping my face in a vat full of cooked red fruit and cloves. This version, however, drank remarkably well, showing a finesse I rarely see from other Agiorgitiko wines. Dark cherries, blackberries, licorice, chocolate, smoke and plenty of meatiness dominate the nose, while the palate is marked by sour cherries, blackberries, a lovely herbal finish and great acidity that screams for this bottling to be consumed with food.

You can get in touch with Konstantinos Pirgakis via his website, Facebook (personal profile & winery page) and Instagram. His wines are usually available on The Rock at Cava Oinon Pnevmata in Nicosia.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Case of Questions with Wine Explorers

During the past couple of years, more and more wine bloggers have started showing up on The Rock. I'm not sure whether the Cyprus Tourism Organisation is doing a better job promoting the Cypriot wine industry or these bloggers are stumbling upon bottles of Cypriot wine that have piqued their interest. In any case, the more the merrier as long as they leave some wine for the locals.

One of the latest blogger's The Rock has welcomed is Jean-Baptiste Ancelot, a wine professional who runs Wine Explorers, an ambitious project that seeks to "highlight the richness of the world’s vineyards and reveal unknown and very original great growths and hidden treasures from far away winegrowing regions." So far, Wine Explorers has spent three years on the road, having visited 92 countries, 250 wine regions and 1500 vineyards and sampled more than 15,000 wines. Cheers to that!

Cyprus finally made in onto the list and, following their visit during the summer of 2017, Wine Explorers had plenty to say about our humble island.

As is generally the case, Whine On The Rocks reached out to exchange a word or two with our visitors.

Why wine?

Wine Explorers (WE): Good question. This is a mystery to me. I will always remember the day the light suddenly clicked in my eyes when tasting wine. I was 22, living in my hometown in the north of France (where no vines grow - ha-ha!) Invited to a live jazz show in a very small wine bar, I fell in love with the special atmosphere of the moment: the wine we enjoyed on this evening (I forget which labels) was the link between people from many horizons and that amazed me. Coming back home late in the night, I literally searched “wine jobs“ on the Internet: I wanted to know more about it and see if I could apply for something. But the list of jobs in wine is infinite! And I get lost. So I decided to apply for wine education in Bordeaux (not very original but super efficient) and then did a Masters degree and an MBA in wine business. It was so interesting! At the time, I did my internships in Switzerland, Hong Kong and New York in order to open my mind to some of the most important wine business places of the world. But I wanted more. My dream was discovering the wine world through my eyes. So I researched for six years and found out that the “real” wine world in the 21st century was made of (almost) 92 wine producing countries and decided that the only way to better understand my passion was to visit all of them. This how the Wine Explorers’ project started: a four-year exploration of the wine planet with a unique question in mind: What if the great wine terroirs had not all been discovered yet? Today, Wine Explorers is the first and only global wine inventory ever made in the history of wine, and we are very happy to share our discoveries each day.

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

WE: As kids, we were not allowed to drink, even a drop. I had to wait until I turned fourteen in order to have my first drops of wines. It was Christmas time and my mother served us her traditional and incomparable foie gras, pouring in my glass some Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives. I still remember the syrupy taste of wine in my mouth. Memorable.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

WE: Such a difficult question. Just for the Wine Explorers’ project, we have already tasted more than 3,200 wines. How could I pick one – ha-ha! I recently discovered in Thailand a cuvée made of Durif (Petite Syrah) from GranMonte estate. This was a shock to me: I was in an extreme climate region of the world, where it is possible to harvest twice a year and the wine was so delicate, dense, precise, full of energy and delicious red fruits. I instantly loved it. Proof that with technique, knowledge, hard work and the best quality grapes, it is possible to make (very) good wines in unexpected parts of the world!  

Favorite wine-producing region? Why?

WE: Again, difficult question – ha-ha! I have to name a few, with your permission, as I loved them equally and for different reasons. The Valle of Guadalupe in Mexico for its super dry wine production area, full of life and energy. The Okanagan Valley in Canada for its wild and lovely wine scene. Or Dalmatia in Croatia for its diversity in terms of autochthone grape varieties. And there are so many more!

Your favorite food-and-wine pairing?

WE: Food-and-wine pairing is a very personal subject. Depending on the moment, the people with whom you are (girlfriend, family, business, etc.,) the place, the weather, changes everything. The best match at the end of the day will always be the one you like, even if not conventional. Also, what is conventional? But this is another debate. Today is summer time, we are enjoying an octopus carpaccio and I deeply love the sur-lies Xarel-lo from Penedès that I’m drinking with it.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

WE: Nothing! Cyprus wine history is 5,000 years old. The island is beautiful with a unique climate and topography, talented winemakers and a delicious local cuisine that goes great with its wines. Look at halloumi: with a glass of Cyprus white wine, it is a little moment of paradise. You also have many super interesting indigenous varieties like Xynisteri, Promara and Morokanella (white) or Maratheftiko and Yiannoudi (red), for example. And, above all, you have Commandaria, this unique and delicious amber-coloured sweet dessert wine made on the foothills of the Troödos mountains, which is the world's oldest named wine still in production. What else? This is what I call a precious and invaluable heritage.

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

WE: To focus on what makes Cypriot wines so special and unique, as mentioned above. What's important nowadays, in a world producing more wine than is consumed and where the competition is harder than ever (good quality wines can be made everywhere), is to market “what makes you different/unique from the rest of the world,” therefore creating a strong identity. It shouldn’t be difficult to look at the potential Cyprus has in its hands.   

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

WE: Every day is a new day! I get up every morning with the same stars in my eyes and a unique question in mind: what’s going to happen today? And the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know anything about the wine world. It is infinite. It can be affraying. I prefer saying to myself that it creates its own beauty. Wine has something magical. 

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

WE: At the moment, we are halfway through the Wine Explorers’ project with 52 countries explored in 2.5 years of travels. (Cyprus was n°50 a few weeks ago!) It should end in October 2018. Then, many projects are planned, which is also very exciting! The “after“ project will result in books, documentaries, the creation of wine bars, an online website with information, videos and the possibility of enjoying wine bottles we discovered. Consulting and conferences are also a big focus in order to share and exchange information about the wine world. Our first important conference will be next year during the Masters of Wine’s Symposium in Spain where I’ll be a speaker. And there are many other ideas; travelling opens your mind all the time! 

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

WE: The people behind the wine are usually my best friends and I respect them a lot. I don’t know if I could be capable of making a great wine one day. I have the easy job: travelling and tasting. The winemakers, the viticulturists, the workers in the vineyards, these are the real “kings“ to me, if I may say it like that. A person like Jean-Claude Berrouet is a good example to me and I admire him a lot: someone talented, discrete, with more knowledge than many people, but always very humble, curious, kind and with a smile on his lips. A mentor to me. 

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

WE: Waiting three days in front of the gates of one of the two Ethiopian wineries was a moment as strange as stressful. After two days of travels in the middle of nowhere, we were so happy to finally arrive at Rift Valley winery. And we didn’t know why it was so complicated to get in. In fact, people were just checking our records and reading everything we already had published in order to see who and how we were. Finally, we were invited to come inside and received the red carpet treatment. One of my favorite memories. 

Of course, your all-time favorite island wine?

WE: Two (small) islands are coming to mind right now. And both deserve to be visited at least once in your life if you are a wine lover: Waiheke Island, near Auckland (New Zealand), and Korčula in Croatia. But there are so many more!

You can contact Wine Explorers via their Website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Monday, May 22, 2017

An (Almost) Case of Questions with Christos Vassiliades, Vassiliades Expressions Winery

Spearheaded by the older guard, the Cypriot wine scene's transformation during the past decade has led to the appearance of new players who have rapidly established themselves and contributed their own creative touches to The Rock's wine.

One of these young 'uns is Christos Vassiliades, mastermind behind Vassiliades Expressions Winery in Chandria. I had the good fortune of paying him a visit on a frigid night back in February and left impressed by the quality of his dry Xynisteri, Sauvignon Blanc and dessert wine made with botrytized Xyn. Besides producing the only (I think) single varietal Cabernet Franc in Cyprus (one I haven't had the chance of sampling), what left me in awe of Christos' gun-ho attitude is that he had the cojones to plant that fickle damsel known as Pinot Noir at a very high altitude in the dear hope that it pans out. Here, Christos talks to us about his passions, plans and personal favourites.

Why wine?

Christos Vassiliades (CV): For me, wine is a cultural symbol and a sign of progress. It forms the path that connects tradition and avant-garde innovation. Wine is also a timeless delectation, the result of a constant flirtation between the earth and the vineyard. Wine cultivation is the interface, which creates mythical stories, traditions and legends.

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

CV: The first wine that captured my attention and is always on my mind because it reminds me of my childhood and my family’s tradition is my grandmother’s wine. She’s both my tutor and inspiration. She has been a winegrower working with traditional urns, and the pleasant scent of her basement during the fermentation period is the most indelible memory of my life. 

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

CV: My all-time favourite bottle of wine is the Antonin Rodet Bourgogne Pinot Noir. An exceptional Pinot Noir produced by an important winegrower in Burgundy. It’s an amazingly balanced objet d’art with the essential elements of elegance of a Pinot Noir. I am grateful because I have the opportunity to not only taste it but also procure it in Cyprus.

Favourite wine-producing region? Why?
CV: My favourite wine-producing region is Sonoma County in California. A polymorphic region, both geologically and climatically, that helps it produce wines with special characteristics: a huge variety of wines in different styles and ideal for every occasion. It is actually quite impressive the way this region produces wines of the highest quality such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.

Your favourite food-and-wine pairing?

CV: If I take into account the variety available in the international culinary and wine scene, there are innumerable ‘pairings’ and, by extension, answers to your question. So I would prefer stating the Cypriot variety called Maratheftiko, which perfectly matches beef liver on the grill or even better on the barbeque. I would not omit to mention the combination of our winery’s dessert wine “HW,”a late harvest botrytized Xynisteri that makes a perfect match with every single traditional Cypriot dessert from fruity spoon sweets to syrupy ones.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

CV: Personally, I am convinced that if local winemakers had the same approach towards issues like our understanding, our cultivation, the vinification and the better promotion of indigenous varieties, even the forgotten ones, it would be a huge step forward for the quality of our wine production at a national level. As a result, Cypriot wines would be better promoted and, as a consequence, they would be treated better abroad.

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

CV: Lately, in Cyprus, interest in the wine industry has increasingly developed, and this is very promising for the future of the local industry. Despite the progress made, there´s still a long way to go to reach our objectives, which is no other than to create a strong vinous education on the island. For a country with such winemaking tradition and historical background, it is almost obligatory for us to get to know wine better and in a less superficial way. We will never achieve our aim if customers, consumers and professionals won’t pay the attention required.

Cyprus’s wine industry improves day by day. It is crucial for rising winemakers to have a plan and a philosophy in order to contribute to and facilitate the resurrection of the Cypriot vineyard. Exporting wine means exporting culture. Therefore, wine is not just a common product of alcoholic consumption but a piece of art that involves vision, knowledge, passion and aesthetics. For a country like Cyprus, because of the limited range of wines, improving the current situation is very difficult and requires so much effort from the wine industry’s professionals.

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

CV: The most enjoyable time of the year is the harvest period. It is the moment you realise that all of your hard work during the year finally pays off, and you come face to face with both the past and the future. That feeling is indescribable. You finally ‘decode,’ smell and taste your own brainchild, a creation you can experience with all of your senses.

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

CV: The philosophy that encloses the establishment of our business is very clear and simple.  Our winery ‘Ekfraseis’ attempts to take advantage of the great geological and morphological conditions of the area as best as possible. The Pitsilia area’s aforementioned conditions and especially the Madari mountain where our winery is primarily located give us the ability to successfully cultivate our indigenous, international and Greek varieties such as Mavro, Maratheftiko, Xynisteri, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Assyrtiko, and expand the local oenophile public’s choices. The future plan for the business is to keep up the hard work and one day expand the amount of the production based on the capacity of the vineyard, but I prefer taking one step at a time.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

CV: My favourite wine personality is Dr. Richard Smart, the Australian viticulturist whose aid has provided a real breakthrough in numerous aspects of modern viticulture at an international level. He is the creator and the inspirer of many modern trellis systems and scientifically proven ways of growth management and quality improvement of the crop. 

Of course, your all-time favourite island wine?

CV: In a Mediterranean island like Cyprus, with high temperatures throughout the year and an extended summer period, I would strongly recommend white and rosé wines with a light and fruity flavour. They can easily replace summer cocktails that are often consumed during the summer. I wouldn’t say no to a light red wine, even if it’s mainly imported to Cyprus because, as we all know, the variety of local red wines is much more intense that the ones imported, but there is always room for exceptions to the rule.

You can reach Christos via Facebook and Instagram.