Thursday, October 14, 2010

Of Grapes, Open Doors and Dwarf Ponies

I will always have a soft spot for Aes Ambelis Winery in Agios Ioannis; The Wife, Ph.D., and I served its lovely white Xynisteri-Semillion blend at our wedding three years ago. To be honest with you, it seems like centuries have passed since that fateful afternoon I foraged down the aisle decked in an Hugo Boss suit that no longer fits my frame. I guess all of the "excitement" provided by The Rock makes time supersonic. In any case, when the Brother-in-Law (who works at an establishment where (purportedly) employees look like blond versions of France's First Lady) mentioned that he knew the winery's head honcho, Giorgos Tripatsas, I jumped at the opportunity of meeting him and learning a bit more about Cyprus wine.

I arrived at the winery around ten-thirty a sunny (when is it ever gloomy on The Rock?) Wednesday morning. Giorgos met me in his tasting room, a modern and tastefully-decorated space flanked on the left by a long bar with stools and on the right by a passageway into the room storing the winery's stainless steel fermentation tanks. The tasting area includes several shelves exhibiting the winery's multiple awards in local and international wine competitions and literature on oenology, and a few white chairs and tables where customers can relax and sample the wines. The highlight, however, is the view of the Pitsilia mountains from the tasting room's glassed entrance. Once you go past the winery's beautiful, meticulously kept gardens, all you see are rolling hills, sparsely covered by trees and plantations, conglomerations of houses like pops of brightness here and there. I could very easily see myself composing this post while sitting on one of those tables, sipping on a glass of white, finding inspiration among all the shapes and shades of color clustered before me.

Giorgos was busy when I first walked in. A local grape farmer who supplies Shiraz to the winery had stopped by for a visit. The men chatted about the skewed wine pricing policy on the island, a practice by which many restaurants quadruple instead of double or triple the wholesale price of basic Cypriot wines to the detriment of the local wine industry. Later, Giorgos told me that the man is also a maitre d' at an important Nicosia hotel and that he greatly admires him for both understanding and enjoying wines and carefully tending for his grapes. "Many times," Giorgos said, "one comes across grape growers who do not care about the wine or, worse yet, winemakers who do not care about the grapes."

Giorgos got into wine while studying in the United States. Through a friend who was studying agronomy, he became interested in the subject, partaking in a wine tasting course and attending other wine-related events. At the same time, thanks to many summers spent working in his father's olive, lemon and orange orchards, he grew an affinity for the land, the plants and harvest season. After returning from America, he began working in investment banking but never forgot about his passion for wine. At the time, Cyprus wine was produced in mass quantities, predominantly for export to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and its quality left a lot to be desired. So along with a buddy and as a pricey hobby, he started a roughshod wine operation that initially produced a basic red blend a la Chateauneuf-du-Pape and a white. As they pumped more money into their enterprise and the bank loans started to pile up, Giorgos realized it was time to turn a profit and gave up his daytime job to dedicate it all to the winery.

Today, Aes Ambelis produces a basic white and red, a Shiraz, a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Rose and Omiros, a single varietal Maratheftiko. It is pretty clear to Giorgos that most future work has to be dedicated to the local varieties, Xynisteri and Maratheftiko. While he is already very pleased with the initial results of Omiros, he sees plenty of room for improvement. He does admit though that Maratheftiko has its problems. The grape, one of the world's only non-hermaphroditic varieties, has to be planted in mixed vineyards for it to pollinate and grow, which leads to bud loss and very thinly clustered bunches. According to Giorgos, Maratheftiko is a stubborn grape with a long harvest season and which requires special picking. By comparison, Shiraz, the grape I believe The Rock has been most successful with thanks to the work done by Sophocles Vlassides, is straight forward and easy to tend to.

During my visit, I also met with his main winemaker, a Moldovan man who moved to The Rock nine years ago as a result of limited work opportunities in his country's wine sector. Unfortunately, I do not recall his name; you see, all I share with an elephant is its size. He gave me a quick tour of the facilities and then handed me a glass of the 2010 Rose (a Maratheftiko/Lefkada blend) poured straight out of the stainless steel barrel. You must understand that this sort of shit does not happen to me when I go visit wineries. I know little about the subject, my nose might be big but it ain't refined or trained to pick up subtle hints of grilled eggplants with undertones of dirty laundry, and my palate is better suited for heavy, rich foods like tiramisu or Neapolitan pizza. In any case, I was thrilled to give it a try; the wine has a lovely fruity bouquet and bursts in your mouth with all sorts of citrus flavors, good acidity and a sensational crisp, tangy finish. When compared to the 2009, the new vintage is much livelier and complete.

Besides making exceptional wines across-the-board, Giorgos believes the only way to survive as a winemaker in Cyprus is to open one's doors to visitors and tourists and actively promote the winery within society. He was very keen on me stopping by whenever I wanted, either to take pictures, hang out, ask naive questions only an Ecuadorian rookie could possibly ask, or taste his wine. If all local winemakers displayed just a fraction of this agreeable and welcoming attitude, the wine industry on The Rock would be booming like Rio de Janeiro on New Years.

As part of this vision, on October 10th Giorgos held his annual wine party, chock full of wine, charcuterie (wine-soaked sausages, smoked ham and Cypriot prosciutto), local sweets made of grapes and nuts, basket-weaving artisans, and entertainment for the children. After gobbling up half a lamb for lunch, The Wife, Ph.D., and I, along with the Parents-in-Law, the Brother-in-Law and Double Trouble (soon to be Sister-in-Law), decided to stop by for a drink and dessert. The winery was crowded with people of all ages meandering around the gardens, tasting all of the delicacies and wines on display. There were also bottles for sale at discounted prices (including Magnums of Omiros) and an organized tour of the property on the hour. We had a brief chat with Giorgos, who took the time to welcome his guests and mingle, and then we stood by an old oak barrel that sat on its side and served as a makeshift high table. I tasted the 2007 Shiraz, 2008 Omiros and the 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon and bought a few bottles to study more carefully chez moi.

Then the dwarf ponies made an appearance, both of them lugging ecstatic boys, and Double Trouble, also ecstatic at the sight of her childhood's dream pet, asked her future husband for one. Keep in mind that they live in a two-bedroom apartment and the Parents-in-Law, who own a house and have enough space to build a small stable, are reluctant to look after a dog or cat, mind you an undersized horse. Obviously, the Brother-in-Law shook his head and barked out that these are times of economic crisis, not times for spendthrifts to engage in unrestrained shopping therapy.

Yet, in my opinion, the solution is quite simple. Instead of purchasing the animal, why not just leave church after the upcoming wedding ceremony on a couple of dwarf ponies rather than in a (...quadruple yawn...) luxury sedan? Sounds to me like a good (and relatively inexpensive) way of feeding the dream...

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