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. 

Whine on the Rocks (WHOTRS): 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

WHOTRS: 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.

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