Sunday, December 25, 2016

[Said Subject]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Case of Questions with Caroline Gilby MW

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

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

Why wine?

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

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

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

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

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

Favourite wine-producing region? Why?

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

Your favourite food-and-wine pairing?

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

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

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

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

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

Vineyards Outside Vlassides Winery in Kilani

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

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

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

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

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

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

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

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

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

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

Of course, your all-time favourite island wine?

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

You can reach Caroline Gilby MW via her personal website.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A New Lease on Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

On Commandaria and Camaraderie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Case of Questions with Yiannis Karakasis MW

During the past few months, Yiannis Karakasis, one of two Masters of Wine in South Eastern Europe, has been quite outspoken about Cyprus' wine. Following a visit to The Rock (which I've already written about), Karakasis penned a series of articles praising the work being done by Cypriot winemakers. He covered his initial impressions of the island's wines, his visit to Vouni Panayia to sample the Kyriakides clan's promising Promara, and an exclusive tasting of some of Zambartas' best. Karakasis even took the time to send Elizabeth Gabay, an MW who resides in Provence, several bottles of Cypriot rosé to review. Karakasis, who consults, writes and teaches about wine and also works as a judge for Decanter and wine consultant for the Greek TV wine show "Taste and Wine," sat down with the blog and tackled its dirty dozen.

Why wine?

Yiannis Karakasis (YK): I guess no other proper question was put on the table.

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

YK: I think it was a big Greek brand (maybe a white or could be a rosé but I will not admit it openly for the latter), and this was back in the late 80s, good rock n' roll times.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

YK: A Naoussa 69, very much like a Barolo from the 60's. In an international context, it has to be Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino.

Favourite wine-producing region? Why?

YK: There are many. In Greece, Santorini and Naoussa. Worldwide, Barolo. California is very exciting, Yarra Valley too. I also love Tokaj and many Spanish regions. Finally, Burgundy and Champagne!

Your favourite food-and-wine pairing?

YK: One minute grilled fresh tuna with lightly chilled Mavrotragano, which is a Greek red up-and-coming variety with a savoury character.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

YK: The big picture perhaps but you will get there for sure.

Karakasis Left Impressed by Vouni Panayia's Promara...
And Yiannoudi.



What do you foresee for Cyprus's wine industry?

YK: I am very optimistic about the wines, the producers and the future. Like I say in such cases where things are at a crossroads, it depends on you.

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

YK: People, food and wine! Please don't ask me what I dislike...

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

YK: I have no idea at the moment. I try to think about the near future, which is now.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

YK: Superwineman Gerard Basset! For what he has achieved (MW, MS and best Sommelier in the world), of course.

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

YK: Spilling some wine on a couple of Masters of Wine during an IMW trip in Santorini. At that point, I was just entering the programme...

Of course, your all-time favourite island wine?

YK: Bordeaux’s Pichon Longueville, a wine that has given me tremendous feelings as this is the wine I first enjoyed with Elli.

You can reach Yiannis on TwitterFacebook or his personal website.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When (Somewhat) Funny Writing Pays

Several months back, Interval International, a leading global provider of membership and leisure services to the vacation industry, somehow came across this cracker of a blog and commissioned me to write an article on Paphos wineries for its UK-based members. Here's the result, snazzy photos and all.

By the way, plenty of thanks to the kind folks at Vouni Panayia, Ezousa, Fikardos, Vassilikon and Tsalapatis for taking the time to meet with me, talk shop and add oodles of bottles to my wine collection.
 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Case of Questions with Demetri Walters MW

I've gone Trump on you, dear readers. I've lied. A few months back when I covered Yiannis Karakasis' visit to The Rock, I said that Cyprus is still waiting for its first Master of Wine. Well, there's one MW who's actually half-Cypriot and I had no clue. Introducing Demetri Walters, Wine Educator and Presenter for Berry Bros. & Rudd, the UK's oldest wine and spirits merchant having opened its doors back in 1698. Demetri, who's somewhat obsessed with fortified wines, received his MW in 2013 and talks to us here about plenty of his other passions.

Why wine?

Demetri Walters (DW): It was my interest for a long time before I got into the trade. I deluded myself that I wanted to do something else until life showed me that I didn’t have a choice.

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

DW: Commandaria. I remember my parents (my mother is from Cyprus) introducing it to me when I was very little. I used to drink small amounts of it in my early teens and found the flavour (and slight intoxication) thrilling!

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

DW: I once tasted and enjoyed a 1780 Bual Madeira. The wine was exceptionally complex and the associated story quite unbelievable. Oceans of time had elapsed since that harvest.

Favourite wine-producing region? Why?

DW: I don’t really have favourite wines. I am a champion of wines of the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. I am extremely partial to fortified wines. Ultimately though, I have great affection for any great wine region.

Your favourite food-and-wine pairing?

DW: Bual or Malvasia Madeira and dark chocolate…Oh yes!

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

DW: A continuous, little disturbed history of making great wine. However, that’s the past. The future looks very rosy indeed.

Commandaria is one of Demetri's Favourite Wines.

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

DW: That it will only succeed with great collaboration amongst the various stakeholders. That’s already taking effect. Optimising quality is the way forward and Cyprus is on the right track. Patience is the name of the game here and I see it paying-off each time I open a bottle of Cypriot wine.

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

DW: Getting to eat food and drink wine that has been made with passion, commitment and a fascinating story.

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

DW: To build up Berry Bros. & Rudd’s wine education profile amongst all channels: on-trade and off-trade, and to develop my own position as a person who strives to knock down the blinkers of wine prejudice.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

DW: I have a number of them, and they are mostly my friends in the wine trade and in the production of wine around the world. Wine people are amongst the friendliest, kindest and most interesting people I know. I love our network.

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

DW: Drunken behaviour? You think I’d tell everyone? Yes, many…sadly. But that was a long time ago…well, maybe not so long ago. Many years ago, whilst living in the Australian bush, I attended a spectacular booze-fuelled Bachelor and Spinsters party. I woke up the next day in the middle of nowhere and cannot, to this day, remember how I got there. I do remember being laid out in the back of a pick-up truck and having a tarpaulin pulled over me so that the local policeman wouldn’t arrest me. As for embarrassing episodes with spilled wine, sommeliers etc., yes, plenty, and I’m sure there’ll be many more!

Of course, your all-time favourite island wine?

DW: Deserted Island wine: would have to be Madeira as it’s the only wine capable of surviving on a deserted island!

Otherwise, Island wine: Commandaria. It’s regaining its deserved reputation as one of the great sweet wines of the world.

You can reach Demetri on Twitter and the Berry Bros. & Rudd Website.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Introducing the Cyprus International Food Festival

The culinary scene in Cyprus has improved by leaps and bounds since I moved here ten years ago. The quality and diversity of the cuisine on offer is remarkable considering where the island was upon my arrival. Case in point, my first meal here—a rubbery, overcooked steak sandwich at Le Cafe, one of the better eateries at the time. As more Cypriots travel abroad and cheat on souvla, pastitsio and koupepia with exotic foods, local restaurateurs and chefs become emboldened to open new establishments that push the envelope for The Rock's (still somewhat) uncomplicated standards.

The latest in this group of—let's call them mavericks—is Saskia Constantinou, the woman behind Apollon Connections, a local organiser of international concerts and festivals. In collaboration with other like-minded individuals, Saskia will host the first Cyprus International Food Festival (CIFF) later this year and she took some time off her organizational duties to talk to us about the event and other issues in Cyprus' wine and food scene.

What led you to develop the 2016 Cyprus International Food Festival? How has this effort been received by people in the food and beverage sector?

Saskia Constantinou (SC): I’ve been involved in classical music most of my life, firstly as an orchestral musician in the National Symphony Orchestra of South Africa and in subsequent years as an organiser of international concerts and festivals. I wanted to diversify and realised that food and eating is something everyone does many times a day! So it wouldn’t ever lose its universal appeal and the scope and potential was huge. 

The Festival has been well received by those in the industry, although I can say that those in the international arena have responded with far greater enthusiasm and excitement by the prospect than some of the locals. I think it’s very much a matter of having to prove oneself the first time.

What types of activities have been planned for the two-day event? Any specific ones you are really excited to host?

SC: The festival will include chefs preparing foods that represent their national cuisine. This year we have representation from India, South Africa, Hungary, France and Cyprus. Next year, we will expand and offer an even greater selection. Local and international wineries will offer free wine tastings and we also have a cava area. Children, future generations and sustainability play an important role in our focus and mission, so we have the Cookery School of Cyprus giving organised classes for children throughout the two days. There will be of course lots of vendors with items to both sample and buy in larger quantities.

During the past five years, Cyprus has been exposed to a greater number of cuisines from regions beyond the Mediterranean. Which particular cuisines will be highlighted at the festival? In what ways?

SC: As above – We have had great interest from chefs around the world to participate in the 2017 event and will develop this section extensively next year.

High-end chefs throughout the world have made names for themselves and their countries by showcasing strictly local ingredients in an avant-garde manner. Alex Atala, Gastón Acurio, Magnus Nilsson and René Redzepi all come to mind. Is Cyprus ready for this sort of experience? Are there local chefs who could spearhead such a movement?

SC: There is absolutely no reason for local chefs not to take up this direction. Is Cyprus ready? Difficult question – we are always lagging behind because of small issues, which are made big and complicated. I am trying to collaborate with all those who are forward thinking and innovative – I believe that greater strides can be made when working in a team. After all, a restaurant doesn’t operate without a team! Everyone has a role to play. 

The Cypriot wine industry has taken off during the past ten years with better and better vintages being released each year. In your opinion, what is at the root of this improvement and what needs to be done to better compete in the local market?

SC: This is a difficult question for me to answer as I’m not an expert in that industry specifically. However, generally, I believe that competition is very healthy and forces higher standards. I believe that it is not a matter of competition in the local market that is important, but rather in the international arena. There’s no reason that Cyprus should not have a greater global impact with its products. This is something which needs long term planning, goals and a clearly defined strategy. I do not believe or accept the excuse that we are a small country. 

What is your Five-Year Plan for the Cyprus International Food Festival?

SC: Big plans and dreams which I don’t want to reveal at the moment. I would love this one to be a success, and then build on that, and improve all those areas which may not run as smoothly on the first one! 

One Cypriot dish matched with one local wine. What, where and with whom?

SC: I don’t like large meals, so my ideal would be grilled calamari or octopus, a fresh village salad (no onions) with a 2011 Levanda Rosé on a beach, served with full cutlery and starched, crisp white table cloths with a man who shall remain un-named.

Hope to see y'all at CIFF 2016 to be held on the weekend of November 5th and 6th at STOA Nicosia from 11 am to 7 pm!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Case of Questions with Elizabeth Gabay MW

Besides Commandaria, many people I speak to claim Cyprus' best collection of wines are its rosés. I even wrote about it years ago, back when these pages were my main moneymakers yet my pockets remained as empty as a Houston street corner without a taco truck. So it came as a pleasant surprise when I found out via Twitter that Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay, who lives in Provence and dedicates most of her work to that region (plus Hungary, Greece, Israel and Italy), had come across several bottles of Cyprus' finest (courtesy of Yiannis Karakasis MW) and written an excellent, in-depth piece on the selection. A while after, I reached out to Liz who was kind enough to answer the blog's "Case of Questions." À vôtre santé!

Why wine?

Elizabeth Gabay (Liz): I don’t know. I grew up in a family which enjoyed good food, we spent holidays travelling around France, exploring and going to nice restaurants. This was in the 60s and 70s when there were excellent restaurants in every village – or at least that is how I remember it. My grandfather was a fruit buyer and my mother has always said visiting vineyards was the same – so maybe it was just always there as an interest. I was 16 when I got my first book on wine.

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

Liz: The first time I really sat up and thought about wine – I was 21, going on an interrail holiday down the Loire valley, camping. At every campsite we arrived with food from the local traiteur and bottles of the local wine. I started a wine diary. My first wine tasting note said ‘Good.’ I still have the book. The next wine that caught my attention was at a trade tasting when I was 27. All I remember was that it was a Corton Charlemagne and it was WOW!

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

Liz: No – I don’t have an all-time favourite.

Favourite wine-producing region? Why?

Liz: Difficult one. Provence because I know it so well and it was the first region I worked with. Italy is lovely – landscape, culture, people, the sheer artistry in their approach. Hungary – lovely variety. The enormous variety around the Mediterranean…. Mmmm, can I just say I love the Mediterranean region? It must be the most diverse wine producing region with no pretension.

Your favourite food-and-wine pairing?

Liz: The most intriguing, Chateau Gasqui, Cotes de Provence. Their dry white wine with lemon cake is a perfect match.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

Liz: I have never been to Cyprus and have to admit that my main knowledge of the wines has been Cyprus dry sherry (from years ago) and Commandaria. Recently, tasting a range of Cypus rosés was interesting – different styles, varieties, etc. Living in France, the thing that is missing for me is the availability of the wines to taste.

Lineup of Cyprus Rosés Sampled by Liz 

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

Liz: The interest in local varieties, the ability to use altitude to counter heat so a unique style of different tastes, ripe fruit with freshness.

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

Liz: Meeting people, travel, exploring. Wine is such an ancient essential part of our culture and learning about wine – not just in a technical sense, but in exploring the cultural context of every region – I love it – there's always something new.

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

Liz: I have a book on the wines of Provence in the planning and a book on the history of the drink Punch which is nearly finished and a new project – creating a vineyard near my home at 1000m altitude – I am fascinated by altitude vineyards.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

Liz: The late Christopher Tatham MW – witty, intelligent, real old school wine trade – he could quote poetry and literature throughout a tasting, write naughty limericks and was an excellent distance spitter!

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

Liz: I use my hands a lot when talking – I was holding a glass of red wine and the lady next to me was in a white trouser suit…

Of course, your all-time favourite island wine?

Liz: One wine?!? A real cliché – I think I would go with Krug… and I could just relax on my hammock…

You can reach Liz on Twitter, Facebook or her personal website.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Hips Don't Lie

I love my labels. 

I don't mean those multisyllabic Italian names that dress wafer-thin models in clunky, mismatched fabrics, ghoulish make-up and heels that could be used to maim a disgruntled lover. Me trying designer clothing is akin to forcing a Fiat 500's chassis onto a naked Hummer; hips don't lie, people. Plus, those labels are for the cool kids, and cool kids don't cry watching Massimo Bottura talk about his wife and Parmesan cheese.

I love my wine labels. Whether we like it or not, plenty of consumers out there partially base their wine purchases on the label; it catches a corner of their eye with its modern design, its comedic undertones, its bravado, its refinement, you name it. I've been guilty of this plenty of times, specially when my phone's roaming and I'm looking at a region of the world that's as obscure to me as deep-fried pork belly is to a supermodel.

Since moving to Cyprus ten-plus years ago, the evolution of the Cypriot wine label has been interesting to follow. It's only during the past three-to-five years that some of the wineries on The Rock have embraced labels that have become something to write home about. Still, many remain stuck in the past with old fashioned, unimaginative and dull labels that fail to capture the consumer's imagination.

Rocky Ledge Above Vouni Panayia Winery
For me, it all starts with Vouni Panayia, whose labels experienced a massive transformation, and are the coolest on the island. After spending a sunset with the Kyriakides family on a steep rocky ledge one-thousand-plus meters above sea levelsharing stories and laughs, sampling their Promara and Spourtiko, taking in the myriad of colours scattering into blackthese labels make perfect sense: a mouflon, Cyprus' national animal, leaning over a large V that mimics said cliff.

Tsiakkas winery has also done a good job, adopting a series of drawn Cypriot motifs to embellish their bottles, and Zambartas, from the get-go, designed a sophisticated label that stands out for its finesse. However, as has come up in discussions with the team behind Evoinos, another Cypriot wine blog, it's not enough to just modernise one's labels without having a coherent, interesting and informative story behind the effort. Maybe this is a marketing or branding issue that has failed to take hold of the Cypriot wine industry, but it is one where there's tons of potential.

The Unveiling
The latest to adopt a new image was Kyperounda Winery, and I was honoured to have been invited to the launch for the rebranding of its entry level wines—Petritis, Andessitis and Rosé—which was held at Nicosia's Municipal Gardens.

The sophisticated affair perfectly complemented Kyperounda Winery's new labels, which consist of a series of pine cones coloured in gold, blue and fuchsia, one for each bottle. The design's lines are simple yet classy and are in touch with the winery's history and its geographic location in the Pitsilia region of the Troodos mountains.

According to the winery, "The new labels in the main series of wines by Kyperounta Winery exude refinement, highlighting the dynamic character and quality of the wines. The symbol is the pine cone, characteristic of the Pitsilia area. It is worth noting that Pitsilia took its name from the ancient 'Pitis,' which means pine."

Kyperounda's New Label Art
From my brief conversation with the Kyperounda Winery crew hosting the event, the winery is also looking into revamping the labels for their mid-range wines, which include the Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and always enjoyable Chardonnay. It will be interesting to see whether they will stick to the pine cone theme or come up with something altogether new.

In any case, it's about time Cypriot wine labels do justice to the vastly improved libation that's now found in the bottle and adds kilos around our waists. 

By the way, if any local winery is up for it, we can organise a label design competition and see what comes of it. Plenty of talented artists on The Rock and I'm sure plenty of them would be thrilled to design something for a case of your finest Maratheftiko, bragging rights and a shoutout/nickname on my third-rate wine blog.

Who's got next?

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Curl That Nebuchadnezzar, Master!

Master of Wine at Work
If you've seen the movie Somm, you probably know that the exam to become a Master of Wine (MW) is one tough cork to crack. 

The exam for what's considered the highest possible degree awarded to wine professionals consists of three sections: 1) a research paper on a subject of the candidate's choice; 2) a theoretical exam in which candidates might be asked to list the main white grape varieties in Narnia or closest to Hogwarts, and; 3) a blind tasting that requires as training tasting thousands of wines and hoping, come crunch time, your palate remains sharp, your memory lucid and your nerves strong like a bodybuilder's biceps curling a Nebuchadnezzar. During this three-headed monster of a test, I imagine some poor candidate from some distant land like Andorra or Turkmenistan or Ecuador (gasp!) being blindsided by a question on the colour and thread count of the underwear worn by the spouse of a particular Burgundian winemaker during the third day of harvest in 2005. This is no laughing matter.

Only (maybe) a couple hundred people have passed the exam and become MWs. While The Rock still awaits its first conqueror, our neighbours in Greece have produced two: Konstantinos Lazarakis, who obtained this degree back in 2002, and Yiannis Karakasis, a victor just last year.

Honey I Ate the Honey
A couple months ago, Cyprus had the pleasure of meeting Karakasis during a sophisticated event at Annabelle Hotel in Paphos. Organised by Cyprus's own wine celebrity, Thanos Hotels's Manager George Kassianos, the soiree consisted of a cocktail reception with several Cypriot wineries (Kyperounda, Fikardos, Vassilikon, Ktima Mallia, Tsiakkas and Tsalapatis, to name a few) showcasing a few of their bottles, followed by a dinner marking the launch of the hotel's Cypriot-themed buffet, mind you, a buffet that makes all other buffets look third-rate and the best I have *EVER* experienced in Cyprus.

Karakasis, who in a past life flew helicopters for the Greek Navy, stealthily worked his way through the lineup, sipping the wines and jotting down his thoughts on a minuscule note pad. The Wife, Ph.D., and I, joined by our new drinking buddy Sam I Am, made the rounds too, leaving particularly impressed by Tsalapatis's whites, Vouni Panayia's Yiannoudi and a few of the many Maratheftikos in attendance.

Such a Ham
A few weeks following the event, Karakasis commented on his experience in Cyprus on his blog and highlighted several of the bottles that made an impression. He had plenty of praise for Xynisteri ("boasting freshness, zesty acidity and delicacy"), Yiannoudi and Promara, while he thought Maratheftiko, although considered the local star, "is not a forgiving variety" and "can be quite rustic as well."

In terms of whites, he awarded 90-plus points to 2015 Kyperounda Petritis, 2015 Tsiakkas Xynisteri, 2015 Vassiliades Expressions Xynisteri, 2015 Vouni Panayia Alina Xynisteri and Kyperounda Epos Chardonnay, to name a few.  Likewise, he dedicated an entire article to Vouni Panayia's renditions of Promara, a variety with loads of potential, and awarded the highest mark (93 points!) to the winery's 2014 vintage, praising it for its "excellent oak integration," "elegance on the palate," "high concentration, underlying bright acidity and clean finish."

As for the reds, Yiannoudi definitely shone bright for Karakasis. Awarded the highest score for a local red, the 2014 Vouni Panayia Yiannoudi was described as "mineral, extracted tannic with a strong core of fruit" and "serious stuff." KEO Ktima Mallia's 2011 version also stood out, being "very elegant with solid tannins that show good potential for development." This, of course, merits putting Yiannoudi to the test in one of my infamous blind tastings.

Smoked Salmon / Beetroots
What I found particularly curious when looking over his articles was the lack of tasting notes on Commandaria, the one wine that I believe truly leaves a mark internationally. He tasted Agia Mavri's always lovely Mosxatos, but nowhere did I find a trace of the world's oldest recorded wine. I think it'd be an interesting exercise to sit him before a lineup of The Rock's best stickies on a journey culminating with the 1984 KEO Saint John, my new alive and kicking thirty-two year old lover.

During dinner, Karakasis briefly spoke to the attendees and had this to say about Cypriot wine: "In my opinion, the wines from Cyprus show great potential. It is like opening a treasure chest and discovering new things, new gems. So you have your indigenous varieties here. Xynisteri is very interesting, very fresh with bright acidity. Then you have some other varieties, specially red varieties like Maratheftiko. But, for Maratheftiko, I am not so sure because I saw some irregular results. Yiannoudi can also be exciting. There is potential but you need to believe in your treasures and invest in the vineyards first to get the most out of them. If you take a good look at what's happening in Greece with Assyrtiko, with Naoussa, first of all you need good communication and then everything will fall into place."

Congratulations to Mr. Karakasis for defeating the gargantuan MW exam and we hope this was only the first of many trips to sample The Rock's finest!

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Funky Comeback

Orange Explosion
Imagine you're really into porn. Food porn to be more exact. A vereatable pornucopia of food.

You're in Athens one random spring night and your friend tells you there's this playful joint in Keramikos, a rundown yet up-and-coming neighbourhood just a short drive away from the Parthenon, that gets kinky with Greek ingredients and molecular gastronomy. Despite the hefty price tag, it's not tough to convince you to suck it up and dig into the depths of your daughter's waning college fund. In any case, you believe education is best served out on the streets.

Piggy, Duck & Beef
You walk up a tight winding staircase in an old corner two story house and enter a chic and minimalist space devoid of anything that would dare draw attention away from the inventive cuisine and impeccable service. The famous Greek model sitting at a nearby table and the cute brunette waitress that glides past youher arms crossed behind her back, her eyes warm, her smile courteousdistract you for a second until you're seated and the menus land. In black and white, the header reads Funky Gourmet. Nowhere does it say the lauded joint has two Michelin stars.

You select the second tasting menu (120 Euros per person) and a bottle of the 2007 1879 Boutari Legacy, a single vineyard Xinomavro from Naoussa that's decanted and then strips off notes upon notes of red berries, dried fruit, spice, savoury tomatoes, black olives, leather and smoke. You let out your first satisfied hmmmm of the night.

The first of fifteen dishes makes it to your side. Called "Salsify in the Soil," it's a creamy taramas with a few strips of a crispy fried root to use as utensils. It's superior taramas: rich and salty with a perfect hint of fishiness. Shit's about to hit the stratosphere, you think.

Cod & Dill Avgolemono
Then it's a  tartlet topped with Greek bottarga dressed with plenty of lemon zest and herbs and a thin sliver of white chocolate that acts as a sort of cheese; incredibly enough, once it hits your tongue, the ingredients turn into a glorious and balanced mix of sweet and savoury with the chocolate cutting through the fish roe's tangy traits. It makes little sense but somehow it works just like peanut butter and jelly.

A couple of Thessaloniki koulouria are placed before you alongside some Cretan buttermilk. They are the best you've ever had: soft, warm and salty like your lover's sunburnt skin after a mid-afternoon summer swim in the east Mediterranean.

Snails are then served over a grain (you're lost, you're dreaming, details no longer concern you) cooked with fresh herbs and topped with plenty of shaved black truffle. You dig in because you're eating earth at its apogee, a threesome with umami pulling the strings, calling the shots, taking command.

Bacon, Chocolate, Caramel
Cod fricassee with a creamy dill avgolemono hits your table. "This is just wrong, so wrong," you tell your friend. The hearty and buttery fish falls apart and goes for a dip in an unctuous broth of dill and lemon.  In your world, this level of refinement and subtle blending of flavours and textures is as elusive as a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. This is fish soup taken to a whole other level.

Then the house specialty, a Greek salad sorbet. Impossible to have a bowlit hits you like a mixed feelingbut as a palate cleanser it works wonders. You taste the cucumbers, the feta, the tomatoes, the onions, the olives as if they stood whole and slowly slivered down your throat in a single file.

The piggy, duck and beef is a seared piece of filet with foie gras, pancetta jam and bacon broth. It's less inventive yet hearty and comforting, and you wish you could bottle up the chunky pancetta jam, take it home and eat it with toast on a rainy day.

As cheese course, you are handed Roquefort coated in chocolate in the shape of a hazelnut served with a vanilla brioche bun and hazelnut dust. You carefully assemble the sandwich, take a bite and wish you had the largest mic ever known to man to drop and then walk out the door. You tell your friend the chefs—Georgianna Hiliadaki and Nick Roussos—should just close shop and open a simple bakery to sell brioches and koulouria to carb fiends like yourself. 

The Pomegranate
The dessert courses follow a similar pattern. The "Pomegranate of Abundance and Prosperity" is served in an emptied pomegranate and consists of caramelised ginger with cereal topped with a custard and bright red spheres made to resemble the fruit's seeds. You wouldn't mind this for breakfast on a weekend. Then as straight-forward a course as you'll get: a morsel of crispy bacon topped with milk chocolate beads, crunchy caramel and gold foil, once again a satisfying interplay between sweet and savoury. To wrap things up, an explosion: orange juice concealed in a round and golden chocolate shell and dramatically presented over foliage and dry ice to look like wild miniature oranges surrounded by mist. Once the dessert hits your tongue, it bursts open and releases the cleanest citrus liquid the Mediterranean could ever conjure. Call it a minty and fresh finish to what has undoubtedly been one of the greatest meals you've ever had.

You know your words and pictures don't do Funky Gourmet any justice but they spill out of you anyway; you're like a teenage boy who's just shared his first kiss with the curvy girl he'll one day meet at the altar.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: A Lifetime Supply of Sparkling Spatulas.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Thomas Cook Has Featured Us!

Here's a quick hitter for the weekend.

Thomas Cook, the UK-based travel agency, has featured the blog in its own snazzy blog.

Check out their article Romantic Things to Do in Cyprus with a brief mention of Whine on The Rocks as your go-to source for somewhat humorous restaurant and bar reviews.

And, as my New Year's resolution to y'all, I promise to start populating these pages again.

May the wine be with us.