Friday, February 22, 2013

A Case of Questions With Marcos Zambartas, Zambartas Winery

As most of you know, Marcos Zambartas is the younger half of the father-son oenology tag-team at Zambartas Winery, one of The Rock's most distinguished wineries and Little Miss Despot's first (vinous) love. Following a visit to the winery last weekend (yes, I will write about it!), I had a chance to introduce the Zambartas family to the blog's Case of Questions. Marcos was kind enough to participate, and here are his thought-provoking answers. Salud!

The Zambartas lineup (minus Xynisteri)

Why wine?

MZ: Wine satisfies my need to create in an exciting world full of passionate people. It is inspiring and relaxing since I come [in] contact with nature and I have the opportunity to add value to the brand 'Cyprus.' It requires a lot of effort, thinking, constant (r)evolution, which are traits that I want to have in my life.

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

MZ: Not easy to isolate the one. Satisfaction from a bottle of wine depends on your surroundings, the people who made it and the people that you enjoy it with.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

MZ: Different bottles for different occasions.

Favorite wine-producing region? Why?

MZ: Still exploring.

Favorite wine-and-food pairing?

MZ: I recently had Zambartas Rosé with kefalotiri (hard cheese) and fig jam. It was phenomenal!

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

MZ:  Professional vineyard growers.

What do you foresee for Cyprus's wine industry?

MZ: Better and less wine.

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

MZ: Tasting wine from barrels to decide which origin of oak, toasting and grain size is best for the wine.

What is your "Five Year Plan" for your business?

MZ: Enhance the quality of the wine by primarily growing our own grapes and increase the export business.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

MZ: Cannot say really. Everyone is special in a good or bad way.

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

MZ: Too many. [Smiley face]

Of course, your all-time favorite ISLAND wine?

MZ: It has to be Zambartas Rosé on a warm afternoon with good friends and a designated driver.

For more information, you can reach Marcos at Zambartas Wineries.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sunday Morning With The Asparaguru

A version of this article appeared in The Financial Mirror issue of February 22-28, 2012. Since it's currently wild asparagus season, I thought I'd share it with you.

Therein hides the wild asparagus...
Evading thorny situations are not my specialty. That obviously came to the fore one random overcast and cold Sunday morning in the fields near the village of Agrokipia, only twenty-five minutes outside of Nicosia and right off the single-lane road that meanders into the Pitsilia region immediately east of Mount Olympus. Decked in black sweatpants, a warm fleece jacket and running shoes, my hands protected by cushiony and expensive goalkeeping gloves, I repeatedly dug a strong tree branch into the bundle of spines that provides shelter to agrelia, the island’s wild asparagus. The goal seemed simple—to create enough room through the prickly brush to handpick the few asparagus shoots that might be tucked in the ground. In reality, though, wild asparagus picking is a grueling game that requires a combination of patience, good eyesight, dexterity, tolerance for pain and a willingness to get down and dirty. It is somewhat like going to protracted war with nature.

In retrospect, it was quite wise to bring along my friend Marios’s mother-in-law and her years of picking experience to show us the ropes. First off, Marios and I had to dispel any preconceived notion we had regarding what a wild asparagus plant looks like. The grayish-green bush is a labyrinth of branches, each jutting out dozens of small and very sharp thorns, that hides the vegetable from plain eyesight. Without proper assistance, neophytes would be hard-pressed to recognize the correct plant. Furthermore, the only way to reach the asparagus—if in fact there are any visible ones under that particular plant—is to push aside the protrusions with any sort of robust stick-like instrument and open a gap large enough to move in with your arm and carefully pull the shoots out. On the way in, it is likewise prudent to mind the spines (heavy-duty gardening gloves help) and either dig one’s feet deep into the ground for added stability or kneel down for greater extension. To make things even trickier, the vegetable is often hard to spot since it is so well camouflaged by all the other branches nearby. Given all these complications, it is not surprising to find wild asparagus at local supermarkets selling for about six Euros for a rather meager bunch.

Once we were done searching under one bush, we would move on to the next, each time praying to hit the mother lode, quickly fill up our white bucket and shorten our somewhat fatiguing outing. Little by little, our collection of wild asparagus—some short like a thimble, others as long as a grown man’s arm—became a semi-respectable batch. I must admit that most of it was tracked down by our astute aspara-guru, Marios and I adding only a handful of shoots to the gatherings. After a couple hours scavenging through the soggy fields, our feet and pants’ hemlines crusted with mud courtesy of the rainiest Cypriot winter in years, we called it a day and sped back to Nicosia to cut, wash and divide our spoils. 

Cleaning wild asparagus is a relatively simple task when compared to the arduous gathering process. However, what is most frustrating is realizing that only about forty percent of the batch is actually edible. To clean, snap the stem into roughly four centimeter pieces as you work your way down from the pointy tip, discarding whatever is left once it simply bends or no longer breaks off cleanly. Then, run the salvaged asparagus under cold water and pat dry.  After all that work, we had only collected enough to serve as a side dish for four, making me doubt whether it was worth our time to hit the trenches and scour the fields in search of the vegetable in the first place. 

The yummy end product
Cypriot preparation methods usually consist of tossing the asparagus with a few lightly beaten eggs and some olive oil in a sizzling pan. To soften its natural bitterness, my mother-in-law suggested briefly blanching the vegetable before sautéing for a few minutes and then adding the eggs, salt and ground black pepper. Other people prefer coating the pieces in olive oil before jacking up the heat on the stove-top, stirring until the asparagus turn a bright green and then mixing in the remaining ingredients. Once at home, I tried both techniques and the results were rather similar, the latter being just a bit oilier than the former probably as a result of my unsteady hand when pouring the oil. In my position as daily apron-wearer of the household, I believe the key is to not overcook the shoots so that they remain crunchy and hold back on the number of eggs to allow the umami-packed vegetable to shine through. A good rule of thumb is to use two eggs for each cup of asparagus.  

Overall, my experiment cooking the asparagus was quite successful. The pieces turned a beautiful vibrant green and remained firm to the bite. They also kept their tanginess and just a hint of bitterness that was softened nicely by the eggs’ creaminess. If matching with wine, I believe it would have been perfect alongside a chilled glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Santorini Assyrtiko (unoaked) or one of Cyprus’s wonderful rosés. 

In the end, did it make sense to hit the countryside early on a gloomy Sunday morning to learn how to pick wild asparagus? I would say yes since there is always something quite satisfying about harvesting your own vegetables, fruits and herbs. If in trained hands, the food usually tastes better as each bite serves as a well-earned reward for standing up to all kinds of hardships—pricks, sludge, itchy eyes and the eventual sore back. So rest assured, we will be back next month to comb the wet land for bladder campion, thyme and any other wild edible greens available to foolish local adventurers like ourselves.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Mapping Cyprus Wine

Here's, a cool little gadget developed by Elena Sophocleous Toth and designed by Robert Toth. Basically, the website maps out all Cyprus wineries, includes contact information for each, and allows users to rate and comment on their favorite ones. I believe it's a handy tool to visually locate wineries across The Rock and could be very helpful when organizing wine tasting excursions. Kudos to the Toth Team!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Barreling Down The Falls

As of yesterday, I am the proud owner of a French oak barrel. My original plan was to go over Troodos' Caledonia Falls stashed inside it as a daring publicity stunt for the blog, but Little Miss Despot and The Wife, Ph.D., forced me to reconsider. Any other brilliant ideas, dear readers?

Whomever first guesses the winery that sold me the barrel will receive a Whine On The Rocks' kitchen towel. One answer per participant, and family (Radio Free Cyprus and Cousin #2, hush-hush!) and close friends aren't eligible.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

One For The Environment

This post was inspired by a good friend of mine who's working as a consultant for Greentizen, a South American start-up that seeks "to leverage the power of Social Networks to promote and coordinate environmentally friendly actions." Check it out!

As a wine blogger, father and husband, it is quite challenging to strike a balance between the tasting of hundreds of high-quality wines and a lifelong duty to my daughter and wife to keep our household’s carbon footprint at a minimal level. Brace yourself because an average bottle of wine, according to Mike Berners-Lee’s How Bad Are Bananas?: The Carbon Footprint of Everything, contributes approximately 1040 grams of CO2e to the environment with about 70 percent of it being produced during the grapes’ harvest, vinification and bottling. If, like my wife and me, you consume two bottles a week, your yearly carbon footprint from tickling your palate with Dionysus’ drink of choice translates to a 225 kilometer drive in a run-of-the-mill car. Of course, this begs the question, what can you do to reduce your carbon footprint from uncorking a bottle of wine? 

Mike Berners-Lee, an expert in carbon foot-printing, and Tyler Colman (aka Dr. Vino), a noted wine blogger and university professor, offer several suggestions, some better suited than others for the environmentally-conscious oenophile. 

In my opinion, Berners-Lee’s best proposal is to consume locally-produced wine, a habit that “could cut the footprint by 25 per cent” by reducing ground, air and maritime transportation. For example, if you live in Uruguay, instead of picking up a bottle of Argentine Malbec or Chilean Carmenere, selections that probably made it to your local cava via land, choose the local Tannat, a variety originally from southwestern France that has become Uruguay’s national grape. For one, I’ve embraced this practice as I tend to prefer Cypriot wines over flashier options that have racked up long distances to make it to our island.  Besides, in times of financial difficulties, local industry—be it here in Nicosia or in Montevideo—needs our support. 

Another good suggestion is to opt for organic and “natural” wines over conventional ones. Both organic and natural wines avoid the use of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers and other artificial chemical additives, and many of them rely on hand-picked grapes instead of mechanically harvested ones. Per Dr. Colman, “organic farming has lower greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity than conventional farming,” even though the difference is not as drastic as one would expect. 

On the downside, buying boxed or Tetra Pak wines, which according to Berners-Lee cuts carbon emissions “by a factor of five,” limits your choices and leaves a lot to be desired in terms of quality. Non-discerning consumers who are looking for simple and affordable everyday wines could very well switch to these environment-friendly recipients, but I don’t envision myself or many aficionados giving up elegant and complex bottled wines and the fanfare that involve their opening. Albeit, as more producers adopt these containers and start packaging higher quality wines, I could adapt for the sake of my daughter’s future. For now, though, it’s best to consume a Magnum (1.5L) or Jeroboam (3L) rather than the standard 750ml bottle given the lower glass-to-wine ratio, or wines by companies like, for example, Palo Alto and Emiliana in Chile that have switched to eco-friendly lightweight bottles. 

Of course, at the end of the day, the most obvious contribution to Mother Earth would be to curtail your overall wine consumption, but where is the fun in that?