Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Off The Rock: Prague


Welcome to my latest experiment. I have decided to (occasionally) take this blog off the rocks and onto the mainland.Wine, of course, will be paramount to this new column's content, whereas the strict geographic or topographic limitations I have set for Whine On The Rocks (read here) will be temporarily set aside. Kind of like when The Wife, Ph.D., ignores my nightly pleas for a glass of wine with dinner. With that in mind, two weekends ago, The Wife, Ph.D., Double Trouble, My Zolpidem Supplier, Tbilisi Is My Capital and I headed to Prague for some much-needed R&R and a simple mission—tracking down and tasting four bottles of Czech dry wines (two red and two white) that received Silver medals at Decanter's 2011 World Wine Awards. Of course, we decided that we wouldn't go too out of our way in search of the bottles. Here's the list and a daily diary of the hunt:

2008 Habanske Sklepy Cuvee 1614 Zweigeltrebe Pinot Noir
2009 Spielberg Ryzlink Rynsky (Riesling) Austerlitz Pozdni Sber
2007 Vinarstvi Josef Valihrach Merlot Cabernet Franc
2010 Vinarstvi Mikrosvin Mikulov Kerner

Day One: Sleep Deprivation

Charles Bridge, the Prague Castle and Vltava River
We landed in Prague at six a.m. desperate for a shower, a tub of toothpaste and some shuteye. However, when you buy dirt-cheap tourist packages (flight + hotel + breakfast + tours + transportation + a Greek guide who suffers from verbal diarrhea) from The Rock, beggars can't be choosers. So off we went on a way-too-early half-day tour of the Old Town. My mother has this theory that cities near or by water are more beautiful than those like Nicosia that are completely dry. After visiting Oslo and Prague, I must concur. Rivers, lakes, the sea or the ocean lend a je ne sais quoi to a city; a kind of serenity is proffered to visitors by that salty breeze, a touch of humidity, and all those shades of blue and green and brown of the multifaceted waters. Split by the Vltava river, Prague belongs in a high fantasy novel. Besides being sleep deprived, we were in such awe of our surroundings that we did little that day to find our precious foursome. Prague 1 - Whine On The Rocks 0.

Day Two: Absinthe and Allegro

We planned on treating ourselves to one fantastic meal during our short trip. I did some research and found out that the Four Seasons Hotel's Allegro is the only Michelin-rated restaurant (one star) in all of the Czech Republic and year in, year out, is voted Prague's best eatery. After conferring with my sexy harem, I booked a table for five for lunch. I looked for our precious foursome on the wine menu but they were nowhere to be found. So I ordered a Moravian white blend that once savored confirmed to all of us that we were in for a treat. An amuse bouche of guinea-fowl. Tortellini stuffed with fresh herbs and ricotta. Lamb soft like melting butter with a simple parsley potato mash. Grilled salmon filets. Tonka bean gelatto. Cannoli stuffed with clementine compote and Greek yoghurt ice cream. Glasses of Moscato d'Asti and Pinot Noir. Multiple espressos. All quite simple but executed to absolute perfection. We ended that rainy day sequestered in the bohemian Blue Light Bar just below the Prague Castle laughing and chasing shots of St. Antonie absinthe with pints of Kozel dark beer. Even The Wife, Ph.D., partook in the beer drinking. Let's just say I wasn't looking forward to our flight back Monday evening.

2010 Gala Vinarstvi Chardonnay Pinot Noir - Wonderful aromas of lemon peel, grapefruit, melon, rosemary and a hint of guava. Very refreshing, well-balanced wine that hits your palate first with flavors of pineapple followed by good minerality and a tangy, citrus finish. Delicious. 91/100.

Day Three: Close Call

Shopping, specially at Sephora, became my sexy harem's preferred source of relaxation after endless hours walking the cobble-stoned streets of the Old City in high heels. Actually, they wore flats most of the time but I am sure they wished they had worn heels just to measure up to the sculptural Czech women. In any case, during one of those breaks, we stumbled across a small wine shop hidden in the ground floor of the shopping center next to our hotel. "This was it," I thought, "my one chance to find the bloody wines and legitimate the column." I unfolded my list and sauntered in. An older woman, whose English was as good as my command of Swahili, read the list and mumbled unintelligibly. At one point, I surmised she was informing me that one of the bottles was crap because she pointed at it and shook her head in disgust. In a matter of seconds, though, I had before me bottles of the 2010 Spielberg Ryzlink Rynsky and the 2006 Vinarstvi Josef Valihrach Merlot Cabernet Franc. Yes, wrong vintages but my guess was I wouldn't get any closer. Unfortunately, The Wife, Ph.D., put her foot down and said no to the purchase of the €35 Merlot Cabernet Franc blend since it would cut into her funds for cellulite scrubbers, papaya-scented body lotion and perfume atomizers.

2010 Spielberg Ryzlink Rynsky (Riesling) Austerlitz Pozdni Sber - Green apples, lemon peel and peaches to what is not a very aromatic wine. Pear and pineapple to the mouth with a very intriguing aniseed finish. Long lasting and bone-dry. 89/100. 

Day Four: Karlovy Vary

A rainy day in Karlovy Vary and my last chance to score one of the precious foursome. However, no wine shops in sight; only a busload of chattering Cypriots following our hipster Greek guide through the two main streets of the quaint spa resort town. The Rock's tourists, particularly those who move around like herded sheep, stick out like a sore thumb. They speak several decibels louder than any other group nearby and many of them will take their time to buy everything onsite, be it porcelain figurines, handcrafted jewelry, cheapish art and local liqueurs. Above all, after an hour of walking, they need to stop for coffee, many of them settling there for the remainder of the visit and doing nothing too different from what they would do every Saturday morning on The Rock. In a way, they are like us Latino tourists without the drinking problem but with much cooler mustaches. My sexy harem and I pick a restaurant far from the Cypriot commotion. I flip through the wine list and drop my head in shame. Prague 4 - Whine On The Rocks 0.

2009 Arte Vini Moravske Zemske Frankovka - At a first glance, resembles a Pinot Noir. However, it is much fuller with blackberries, dark cherries, plums and plenty of pepper and spice on the nose. Alcohol spikes towards the tail-end. 87/100.

Epilogue: I Will Buy You A Beer

Masterful beers at the Prague Airport
Beer is cheaper than water in the Czech Republic. And traveling with a group leads to all sorts of imbroglios regarding money, particularly when splitting restaurant bills, paying for transportation or bribing a burly police officer after being caught relieving one's bladder on a 14th century wall. Okay, that last one did not happen but you get the point. To avoid any confusion or resentment, we settled our accounts by buying each other pints, bottles and cans of beer. On our way back, Tbilisi Is My Capital, preoccupied by her Prague balance sheet, bought My Zolpidem Supplier and me three Master beers which we happily shared with her for an impromptu airport tasting. A light buzz goes a long way towards appeasing people's wallets.

Master Polotmavy 13° - Light, nutty, chocolaty, low hops.

Master Zlaty 15° - Bitter yet much fruitier, best of the lot. Tbilisi Is My Capital and I brought back four each. No, you are not invited to have one.

Master Tmavy 18° - Coffee, leathery, very smooth yet earthy.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Do The Logo-Motion!

Three days ago was the one-year anniversary (applause!) of this blog and The Wife, Ph.D., couldn't be happier. At first, she doubted my dedication to the project since she's scared to death of my torrid extramarital romance with Princess Procrastination. But, today, after countless drunken nights, thousands of embarrassing words, and one worrying rendezvous with local immigration authorities, she can rest assured that we're here to stay. So there couldn't be a better time to unveil the Whine On The Rocks logo, courtesy of The Graphic Designer who provided me with twelve different options, eleven of which had to be voted off The Rock by the tribal council. Actually, they were all great but this one seemed like the best one to tattoo onto my left pectoral. Branding they call it these days.

On another note, Decanter Magazine (July 2011) issued its "2011 Power List" in the wine world and "the amateur wine blogger" came in at number 16. Obviously, blogs wouldn't exist without readership, so thank you, dear readers, for paying even the slightest of attention to my ramblings. Please keep the comments coming and let us know how we can improve. Just in case you're interested, here's Decanter's text on our club:
"As social media continues its relentless online spread, everyone is now a critic. Or, at least, anyone with basic computer literacy. The ease both of setting up blogs and joining online conversations about wine means that consumers are now able to share information and opinions with each other as never before - all the time diluting the importance of the professional critic. As wine markets such as the US continue to mature, so consumers will come to better trust their own judgment - and that of their peers. Online commentary has empowered consumers in a way that print media struggles to, and the upshot is a world of rapidly evolving views and insights which are increasingly becoming a key reference point - a forum - with which winemakers and producers can engage."

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

On Verticality

In Enrique Vila-Matas' El viaje vertical, the septuagenarian protagonist, Federico Mayol, a self-made insurance company magnate who loves Port wine, goes on a "vertical" journey towards solitude and senility. After being thrown out of his house in Barcelona by his wife, Mayol heads to Portugal and the rock of Madeira. There, he begins the education ("culture without discipline") that was denied to him by the Spanish Civil War and eventually meets his end.

By happenstance, I was reading this novel on the same weekend I held Whine On The Rock's first ever vertical tasting, courtesy of Cousin #5 who needed our assistance emptying his wine fridge to make space for more than 120 bottles soon to be docking on The Rock from France's Southern Rhone. He provided our tasting team with four bottles of Domaine Vlassides Cabernet Sauvignon (2006, 2005, 2004 and 2002 vintages), while Radio Free Cyprus prepared some barbecue ribs, lamb kofte kebab, spicy beef sausages and grilled vegetables as part of his first BBQ seminar on how to handle gas grills without burning one's eyelashes or getting high on propane.

Like Mayol, wine has a lifespan. At an early age, a good bottle can be fresh, vibrant and playful. Sometimes it's naive or shy or just Plain Jane. As time transpires, though, good wine reaches its apogee as a mature, refined and complex creature that is full of nuance and mystery. Then it begins a slow decline in which it is emptied of substance and style and grows sour like vinegar and waits for the day to be put to rest down a kitchen sink. Lucky for us, the Domaine Vlassides Cabernet Sauvignon vintages we tasted that evening performed admirably.

2006 Domaine Vlassides Cabernet Sauvignon - Blackberry, vanilla, spice and smoke on the nose. Very smooth and balanced, medium body. Fruitiest, biggest and jammiest of the night, probably a result of its age. Average Score: 84/100.

2005 Domaine Vlassides Cabernet Sauvignon -Very tight nose. Short and empty. Cousin #5 and I decided this wine was completely closed and set it aside for two hours. When we came back to it, it had opened up quite nicely. Notes of plums, blackberry and vanilla. This vintage definitely requires decanting. Average Score: 77/100.

2004 Domaine Vlassides Cabernet Sauvignon - An explosion of black pepper on the nose with hints of wild forest fruit and chocolate. Much longer and with a better tannic structure than the previous vintages. Average Score: 82/100.

2002 Domaine Vlassides Cabernet Sauvignon -  Red fruit, caramel, smoke and leather on the nose. Best wine of the bunch. Balanced and quite round. Cousin #5 was blown away and awarded it a 93 out of 100. Radio Free Cyprus, guilty of pulling all of the average scores down several notches, gave it an (in my opinion unwarranted) 84. Average score: 89/100.

Our first vertical tasting: Domaine Vlassides Cabernet Sauvignon
"Dejándose llevar por su excepcional capacidad para hundirse, sintió que él era la Atlántida misma y que, en el breve tiempo de una noche,...iniciaba su último descenso y, en una inmersión muy vertical, se hundía en su propio vértigo y llegaba al país donde las cosas no tienen nombre y donde no hay dioses, no hay hombres, no hay mundo, sólo el abismo del fondo."

- Enrique Vila-Matas, El viaje vertical

After the four bottles and officially tipsy, our wine-fridge-emptying services stuttered to an end. We drank a bottle of the 2002 Chateau Les Moines Cru Bourgeois from Medoc, a lovely wine with hints of green beans (fasolaki represent!), green pepper, raspberry, broccoli, chocolate, coffee, licorice and top soil, and then a few shots of ETKO's Centurion Commandaria, a complex fortified dessert wine from Cyprus, that hid in its dark amber color flavors of dried apricots and raisins, butterscotch, coffee, milk chocolate, maple and carob syrup, walnuts and almond paste. Unfortunately, somewhere in between, we had a shot of an Armenian pomegranate wine that stank like cheap Chinese wood and tasted like pomegranate concentrate. Cousin # 5's wife, Our Furniture Fairy, who dedicates her professional life to importing furniture from Italy, wholeheartedly agreed, and then, in our drunken stupor, we all wondered out loud whether or not it would make a good marinade for grilled pork chops. In retrospect, I vote for it to meet its Maker.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Perks, Picard and Chateneauf-du-Pape Vs. The Rock

This blog has been good to me. I've been able to buy plenty of wine and expense it to my boss, The Wife, Ph.D. People invite me over to their homes with the sole purpose of emptying their wine fridges and having me ridicule them in one of my posts. I get to openly whine about island life without being taken too seriously. Most important, thanks to what I've written, I have been somewhat hired as a contributor and restaurant critic for The Financial Mirror's Cyprus Gourmet page and magazine. My qualifications, you ask? This blog, my impartiality as a non-Cypriot, and my weight which renders tribute to my love for food.

As with most jobs, this one has its perks. About two weeks ago, The Wife, Ph.D., and I were invited to the "Cyprus Gourmet" 2011 Wine Awards and Dinner, an annual event held at Londa Hotel in Limassol that celebrates the top 50 wines in Cyprus as nominated by consumers and judged by a panel of local sommeliers. The evening started off with a cocktail in which guests could sample many of the best Cypriot wines and snack on an array of high-end cheese and crackers. Let's just say that The Wife, Ph.D., was a bit concerned; my eyes lit up like a starstruck six-year old walking into Disney World and being immediately high-fived by Pluto. Of course, I opted for those wines I had never tasted: the 2010 Tsalapatis Melapsopodi Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand-like on the nose), the Fikardos Maratheftiko, and the 2007 Ezousa Metharme Maratheftiko, considered by most as the best Maratheftiko on The Rock. With another hour or so left before dinner, I kept going and tasted the 2010 Aes Ambelis Xynisteri (not quite as good as in the past) and then compared the 2010 Ezousa Rose (good) and 2010 Zambartas Rose (better). My usual care for progression suffered but that's exactly what happens when one's goes cross-eyed from severe sensory overload. I ended "Phase One" with the 2007 Agia Mavri Mosxatos, which, for all intent and purposes, is chocolate-covered sex in a glass. The Wife, Ph.D., and I agreed we needed a case or two.

At some point, the awards were handed out by Patrick Skinner, Cyprus Gourmet's editor, with the assistance of Michel Picard, guest-of-honor and renowned Burgundy wine producer, George Kassianos, wine adviser and columnist for Cyprus Gourmet, and Masis der Parthogh, The Financial Mirror's business director. Some shockers included the gold medal awarded to KEO's Thisbe, a €4 tourist favorite that is usually on sale as a basic tavern wine. For the sake of space, only the seventeen gold medals are mentioned below:


2010 Ezousa Ayios Chrysostomos Xynisteri
2009 Kyperounda Chardonnay
2010 Constantinou Ayioklima Xynisteri
KEO "Thisbe" Sultana

2010 Ezousa Eros Rose
2010 Zambartas Rose
2010 Constantinou Levanda Rose
2010 Ktima KEO Rose

2007 Ezousa Metharme Maratheftiko
2008 Domaine Argyrides Maratheftiko
2005 Ktima Kolios Shiraz
2008 Domaine Vlassides Cabernet Sauvignon
2008 Kyperounda Shiraz
2009 Vassilikon Ayios Onoufrios

2006 Ayia Mavri Moschato
1991 ETKO Centurion Commandaria
1984 KEO Saint John Commandaria

"Phase Two" began with a three-course dinner prepared by Londa Hotel's sous-chef and fully inspired in Cypriot products. The first dish was a salad with red mullet, watercress, radishes, spring onions and cherry tomatoes with oven-dried hiromeri (The Rock's answer to prosciutto) and fried halloumi puffs. It was accompanied by a glass of Silver Medal winner 2010 Zambartas Xynisteri. The second course, which was matched with the 2007 Ezousa Metharme Maratheftiko, consisted of whole roasted pork filet with lemon Jerusalem artichokes, sauteed local sorrel and a Commandaria reduction. Finally, for dessert, fresh anari cheese in fyllo nest with walnuts, cinnamon and honey with citron in sugar and carob syrup and a short glass of the 2006 Ayia Mavris Moschato. It's quite challenging to find a truly gourmet meal on The Rock and this one exceeded all of our expectations.

During dessert, for the guests' amusement, Patrick Skinner interviewed Mr. Picard about his relationship to Cyprus. In a choppy English, Mr. Picard mentioned that he first heard about "Chypre" from a telex he received from someone interested in importing his wines to the island. Intrigued, he sent his wife on an exploratory tour of the country and that was that. He referred to Cypriots as "sympathique" but mentioned that they "eat a lot." So much, in fact, that each time he's here he goes cycling to keep his weight in check. Furthermore, considering the island's soil and climate, Mr. Picard saw interesting potential in Cypriot wines during his first visits. Now he also believes Cyprus has the oenologists required to make good-to-great wine. For instance, he ended the interview by saying that the 2007 Ezousa Metharme Maratheftiko served with the second course reminded him of a good Chateneauf-du-Pape, an AOC in southeastern France that primarily works with Grenache, Mourverdre and Syrah. Of course, everyone erupted in applause, I, for one, not sure whether he actually believed his words or whether he was simply playing to the gallery. In any case, this comparison will make for a fascinating post: Cousin #5, the greatest Chateneauf-du-Pape fan I know, has a shipment of nearly 120 bottles arriving soon and I hope he'll have me over to make a dent in his supply and put Picard's words to the test.