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 Gew├╝rztraminer. [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.