Friday, December 22, 2017

Off The Rock: Ktima Pirgakis

Upon exiting E65 on our drive north from Kalamata to Agiorgitiko's home in the Peloponnese, the small town of Nemea—its main road like that of any sleepy village seemingly decades removed from a major metropolis—slumbered away. 

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the town that lends its name to one of Greece's major wine regions; a few wineries announced by brown signs sit along the side of the road, old men and women lounge on stoops drinking coffee, a mishmash of architectural designs rise above the sidewalks.

View of Asprokabos from Ktima Pirgakis
Once you leave Nemea, however, and trudge along narrow potholed roads to Asprokabos, an up-and-coming sub-region just south of the Corinth, that ingrained idea one has of what wine country should look like reveals itself with each turn. Grapevines—perfectly lined up in a domino rally waiting for father time to tap over—extend uninterrupted towards the sea with nary a sign of concrete to impede their march.

We arrived at Ktima Pirgakis to find Konstantinos Pirgakis, his charming wife and their two daughters waiting for us. Upon arrival we notice that the winery, which sits at 815 meters above sea level, rewards its visitors with an awe-inspiring view of the vineyard-covered hills of Asprokabos.

For those of you not in the know, Asprokabos, which stands between 650 and 850 meters above the Mediterranean, is a distinct Greek terroir equipped to make phenomenal wines. According to Yiannis Karakasis, one of two Greek Masters of Wine (MW), this specific region of Nemea "is one of the coolest mesoclimates in the country" where "there is [a] big diurnal temperature range of about 15 ºC in the winter and even 20 ºC during summertime, which is crucial for the preservation of acidity and for building tannin structure." Considering its relative coolness, says Karakasis, this remote region, which is at present inhabited by only a handful of wineries, is capable of producing "a more exotic version of Nemea, more Old World in style perhaps."

Konstantinos Pirgakis
Obviously, one of those five is Konstantinos Pirgakis' growing operation, which, at the time of our visit in July, was undergoing a significant expansion, one that should facilitate the winery's hosting of wine tourists like The Wife, Ph.D., Little Miss Despot and myself. Rooms for rent, a kitchen for culinary events, and two separate wings for red and white wines are in the works and should be completed, if my memory serves me well, by 2018. Still, among the bricks, bags of cement, naked rooms and rows of grapevines swaying at a distance, Konstantinos, in a mix of broken English and harmonious Greek, played the role of host to perfection.

Today, he told us, Ktima Pirgakis consists of twelve hectares of land. For years, Konstantinos' father owned and cultivated vineyards in his native village with some plantings now only a decade removed from being a half-century old. Upon starting the winery in 2008 and inheriting his father's vineyards, Konstantinos initially dedicated his efforts at producing and selling Agiorgitiko. He quickly realized, however, that with the market saturated by these jammy, velvety wines, it was a better bet to diversify a bit and introduce grape varieties alien to Nemea. Perfectly in line with his penchant for experimentation, Konstantinos planted the unique—by Greek standards—Tannat and Petit Verdot to grow alongside other international and local varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Malagouzia, Assytriko and the region's ubiquitous Agiorgitiko.

The Big, the Bold, the Beautiful
Konstantinos believes that ninety percent of wine quality comes from the grapes and holds Asprokambos' grape growers in high esteem. He praised the sub-region's growers for being trustworthy, organized and professional, churning out high-quality grapes on a yearly basis in a terroir that requires no irrigation. As proof, Konstantinos compared the vineyards in Asprokabos to those down in central Nemea: as evinced from our drive up the hills, the first are symmetrical and evenly laid out, while the latter take on a more haphazard and disorganized pattern. Obviously, Konstantinos recognizes that the ten percent left to the human hand remains important since a loose screw, wrong turn or weak wrist can turn perfect grapes into high-end vinegar.

In addition to the work done by the local growers and winemakers, Asprokabos' unique microclimate helps the sub-region's grapes preserve their acidity, freshness and overall structure. Thanks to its cooler temperatures, harvest happens in September, often several weeks later than what's normal for the rest of Nemea. This sub-region is so much cooler, Pirgakis mentioned, that temperatures during the winter can drop to as low as -15 ºC.

Where the Magic Happens
Konstantinos' wines are not for the faint of heart; they are big, bold and powerful yet retain plenty of sophistication. His dad thought he was crazy making such massive wines. However, Konstantinos, who's somewhat obsessed with experimentation, meaty bodies and high alcohol content, repeatedly told us he makes what he loves to drink.

Several barrel samples of his latest vintages attest to this preference. For example, his Chardonnay, which sits in barrels for two years but still showcases plenty of delicious tropical fruit, is outright opulent and unctuous, an acquired taste for those who might prefer their Chardonnays more Emily Ratajkowski/Ryan Gosling than Kim Kardashian/Gerard Butler. Likewise, the Pirgakis Petit Verdot—we sampled the 2014 and 2015—had robust tannins, were earthy and meaty, and, above all, felt like dabbing your tongue on a black pepper mound. And that's a wonderful thing for a pseudo wine blogger obsessed with hot sauce.

Here are some of the tasting's other highlights:

The 2014 815 alt. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot blend is Pirgakis' flagship wine. Konstantinos told us that this bottle, which retails at about 18 Euros, is in very high demand in places like Santorini, where restaurants sell it to clients in the know for up to 120 Euros. A pretty nose that touches on bright red fruit like raspberries and red currants, some pepper, coffee, dark chocolate and dustiness, and a nice hint of meatiness to it. It's well rounded, silky and refined with well-integrated tannins, great acidity and plenty of freshness. Started off a bit closed (and spicy) but opened up after an hour sitting in our glasses. Personally, I'd recommend decanting this big boy.

The 2016 Ktima Pirgakis Malagouzia is marked by an intense aroma of stone fruits, canned peaches and cream, Turkish delight, orange peel and lemon blossom. To the palate, it has a nice mineral backbone, a sour, almost peppery finish, some salinity, and a lovely hint of apricot and peaches that runs unencumbered through the mid-palate.

Ktima Pirgakis' Lineup
The 2016 Late Harvest Agiorgitiko is highlighted by plenty of light red fruit on the nose, some raspberries and candied strawberries, brown sugar and a lively acidity that makes it enjoyable as a simple yet somewhat enticing dessert wine. I would even dare drinking it with spicy food.

The 2014 Ktima Pirgakis Assyrtiko, which is aged sur lie, has a compelling, slightly oxidized nose marked by sweet spice, orange peel, and a pleasant nutty component. To the tongue, it has a nice breadiness combined with notes of apricots, quince, baked pears and honeysuckle. An interesting mainland Assyrtiko that might have benefited from greater acidity. Then again, maybe I'm dreaming of Santorini.

The 2014 Spilia Agiorgitiko was a revelation. I'm not a big fan of Agiorgitiko as I sometimes find wines made from this variety to be too jammy or like dipping my face in a vat full of cooked red fruit and cloves. This version, however, drank remarkably well, showing a finesse I rarely see from other Agiorgitiko wines. Dark cherries, blackberries, licorice, chocolate, smoke and plenty of meatiness dominate the nose, while the palate is marked by sour cherries, blackberries, a lovely herbal finish and great acidity that screams for this bottling to be consumed with food.

You can get in touch with Konstantinos Pirgakis via his website, Facebook (personal profile & winery page) and Instagram. His wines are usually available on The Rock at Cava Oinon Pnevmata in Nicosia.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Case of Questions with Wine Explorers

During the past couple of years, more and more wine bloggers have started showing up on The Rock. I'm not sure whether the Cyprus Tourism Organisation is doing a better job promoting the Cypriot wine industry or these bloggers are stumbling upon bottles of Cypriot wine that have piqued their interest. In any case, the more the merrier as long as they leave some wine for the locals.

One of the latest blogger's The Rock has welcomed is Jean-Baptiste Ancelot, a wine professional who runs Wine Explorers, an ambitious project that seeks to "highlight the richness of the world’s vineyards and reveal unknown and very original great growths and hidden treasures from far away winegrowing regions." So far, Wine Explorers has spent three years on the road, having visited 92 countries, 250 wine regions and 1500 vineyards and sampled more than 15,000 wines. Cheers to that!

Cyprus finally made in onto the list and, following their visit during the summer of 2017, Wine Explorers had plenty to say about our humble island.

As is generally the case, Whine On The Rocks reached out to exchange a word or two with our visitors.

Why wine?

Wine Explorers (WE): Good question. This is a mystery to me. I will always remember the day the light suddenly clicked in my eyes when tasting wine. I was 22, living in my hometown in the north of France (where no vines grow - ha-ha!) Invited to a live jazz show in a very small wine bar, I fell in love with the special atmosphere of the moment: the wine we enjoyed on this evening (I forget which labels) was the link between people from many horizons and that amazed me. Coming back home late in the night, I literally searched “wine jobs“ on the Internet: I wanted to know more about it and see if I could apply for something. But the list of jobs in wine is infinite! And I get lost. So I decided to apply for wine education in Bordeaux (not very original but super efficient) and then did a Masters degree and an MBA in wine business. It was so interesting! At the time, I did my internships in Switzerland, Hong Kong and New York in order to open my mind to some of the most important wine business places of the world. But I wanted more. My dream was discovering the wine world through my eyes. So I researched for six years and found out that the “real” wine world in the 21st century was made of (almost) 92 wine producing countries and decided that the only way to better understand my passion was to visit all of them. This how the Wine Explorers’ project started: a four-year exploration of the wine planet with a unique question in mind: What if the great wine terroirs had not all been discovered yet? Today, Wine Explorers is the first and only global wine inventory ever made in the history of wine, and we are very happy to share our discoveries each day.

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

WE: As kids, we were not allowed to drink, even a drop. I had to wait until I turned fourteen in order to have my first drops of wines. It was Christmas time and my mother served us her traditional and incomparable foie gras, pouring in my glass some Gewurztraminer Vendanges Tardives. I still remember the syrupy taste of wine in my mouth. Memorable.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

WE: Such a difficult question. Just for the Wine Explorers’ project, we have already tasted more than 3,200 wines. How could I pick one – ha-ha! I recently discovered in Thailand a cuvée made of Durif (Petite Syrah) from GranMonte estate. This was a shock to me: I was in an extreme climate region of the world, where it is possible to harvest twice a year and the wine was so delicate, dense, precise, full of energy and delicious red fruits. I instantly loved it. Proof that with technique, knowledge, hard work and the best quality grapes, it is possible to make (very) good wines in unexpected parts of the world!  

Favorite wine-producing region? Why?

WE: Again, difficult question – ha-ha! I have to name a few, with your permission, as I loved them equally and for different reasons. The Valle of Guadalupe in Mexico for its super dry wine production area, full of life and energy. The Okanagan Valley in Canada for its wild and lovely wine scene. Or Dalmatia in Croatia for its diversity in terms of autochthone grape varieties. And there are so many more!

Your favorite food-and-wine pairing?

WE: Food-and-wine pairing is a very personal subject. Depending on the moment, the people with whom you are (girlfriend, family, business, etc.,) the place, the weather, changes everything. The best match at the end of the day will always be the one you like, even if not conventional. Also, what is conventional? But this is another debate. Today is summer time, we are enjoying an octopus carpaccio and I deeply love the sur-lies Xarel-lo from Penedès that I’m drinking with it.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

WE: Nothing! Cyprus wine history is 5,000 years old. The island is beautiful with a unique climate and topography, talented winemakers and a delicious local cuisine that goes great with its wines. Look at halloumi: with a glass of Cyprus white wine, it is a little moment of paradise. You also have many super interesting indigenous varieties like Xynisteri, Promara and Morokanella (white) or Maratheftiko and Yiannoudi (red), for example. And, above all, you have Commandaria, this unique and delicious amber-coloured sweet dessert wine made on the foothills of the Troödos mountains, which is the world's oldest named wine still in production. What else? This is what I call a precious and invaluable heritage.

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

WE: To focus on what makes Cypriot wines so special and unique, as mentioned above. What's important nowadays, in a world producing more wine than is consumed and where the competition is harder than ever (good quality wines can be made everywhere), is to market “what makes you different/unique from the rest of the world,” therefore creating a strong identity. It shouldn’t be difficult to look at the potential Cyprus has in its hands.   

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

WE: Every day is a new day! I get up every morning with the same stars in my eyes and a unique question in mind: what’s going to happen today? And the more I learn, the more I realise I don’t know anything about the wine world. It is infinite. It can be affraying. I prefer saying to myself that it creates its own beauty. Wine has something magical. 

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

WE: At the moment, we are halfway through the Wine Explorers’ project with 52 countries explored in 2.5 years of travels. (Cyprus was n°50 a few weeks ago!) It should end in October 2018. Then, many projects are planned, which is also very exciting! The “after“ project will result in books, documentaries, the creation of wine bars, an online website with information, videos and the possibility of enjoying wine bottles we discovered. Consulting and conferences are also a big focus in order to share and exchange information about the wine world. Our first important conference will be next year during the Masters of Wine’s Symposium in Spain where I’ll be a speaker. And there are many other ideas; travelling opens your mind all the time! 

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

WE: The people behind the wine are usually my best friends and I respect them a lot. I don’t know if I could be capable of making a great wine one day. I have the easy job: travelling and tasting. The winemakers, the viticulturists, the workers in the vineyards, these are the real “kings“ to me, if I may say it like that. A person like Jean-Claude Berrouet is a good example to me and I admire him a lot: someone talented, discrete, with more knowledge than many people, but always very humble, curious, kind and with a smile on his lips. A mentor to me. 

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

WE: Waiting three days in front of the gates of one of the two Ethiopian wineries was a moment as strange as stressful. After two days of travels in the middle of nowhere, we were so happy to finally arrive at Rift Valley winery. And we didn’t know why it was so complicated to get in. In fact, people were just checking our records and reading everything we already had published in order to see who and how we were. Finally, we were invited to come inside and received the red carpet treatment. One of my favorite memories. 

Of course, your all-time favorite island wine?

WE: Two (small) islands are coming to mind right now. And both deserve to be visited at least once in your life if you are a wine lover: Waiheke Island, near Auckland (New Zealand), and Korčula in Croatia. But there are so many more!

You can contact Wine Explorers via their Website, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Monday, May 22, 2017

An (Almost) Case of Questions with Christos Vassiliades, Vassiliades Expressions Winery

Spearheaded by the older guard, the Cypriot wine scene's transformation during the past decade has led to the appearance of new players who have rapidly established themselves and contributed their own creative touches to The Rock's wine.

One of these young 'uns is Christos Vassiliades, mastermind behind Vassiliades Expressions Winery in Chandria. I had the good fortune of paying him a visit on a frigid night back in February and left impressed by the quality of his dry Xynisteri, Sauvignon Blanc and dessert wine made with botrytized Xyn. Besides producing the only (I think) single varietal Cabernet Franc in Cyprus (one I haven't had the chance of sampling), what left me in awe of Christos' gun-ho attitude is that he had the cojones to plant that fickle damsel known as Pinot Noir at a very high altitude in the dear hope that it pans out. Here, Christos talks to us about his passions, plans and personal favourites.

Why wine?

Christos Vassiliades (CV): For me, wine is a cultural symbol and a sign of progress. It forms the path that connects tradition and avant-garde innovation. Wine is also a timeless delectation, the result of a constant flirtation between the earth and the vineyard. Wine cultivation is the interface, which creates mythical stories, traditions and legends.

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

CV: The first wine that captured my attention and is always on my mind because it reminds me of my childhood and my family’s tradition is my grandmother’s wine. She’s both my tutor and inspiration. She has been a winegrower working with traditional urns, and the pleasant scent of her basement during the fermentation period is the most indelible memory of my life. 

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

CV: My all-time favourite bottle of wine is the Antonin Rodet Bourgogne Pinot Noir. An exceptional Pinot Noir produced by an important winegrower in Burgundy. It’s an amazingly balanced objet d’art with the essential elements of elegance of a Pinot Noir. I am grateful because I have the opportunity to not only taste it but also procure it in Cyprus.

Favourite wine-producing region? Why?
CV: My favourite wine-producing region is Sonoma County in California. A polymorphic region, both geologically and climatically, that helps it produce wines with special characteristics: a huge variety of wines in different styles and ideal for every occasion. It is actually quite impressive the way this region produces wines of the highest quality such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel.

Your favourite food-and-wine pairing?

CV: If I take into account the variety available in the international culinary and wine scene, there are innumerable ‘pairings’ and, by extension, answers to your question. So I would prefer stating the Cypriot variety called Maratheftiko, which perfectly matches beef liver on the grill or even better on the barbeque. I would not omit to mention the combination of our winery’s dessert wine “HW,”a late harvest botrytized Xynisteri that makes a perfect match with every single traditional Cypriot dessert from fruity spoon sweets to syrupy ones.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

CV: Personally, I am convinced that if local winemakers had the same approach towards issues like our understanding, our cultivation, the vinification and the better promotion of indigenous varieties, even the forgotten ones, it would be a huge step forward for the quality of our wine production at a national level. As a result, Cypriot wines would be better promoted and, as a consequence, they would be treated better abroad.

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

CV: Lately, in Cyprus, interest in the wine industry has increasingly developed, and this is very promising for the future of the local industry. Despite the progress made, there´s still a long way to go to reach our objectives, which is no other than to create a strong vinous education on the island. For a country with such winemaking tradition and historical background, it is almost obligatory for us to get to know wine better and in a less superficial way. We will never achieve our aim if customers, consumers and professionals won’t pay the attention required.

Cyprus’s wine industry improves day by day. It is crucial for rising winemakers to have a plan and a philosophy in order to contribute to and facilitate the resurrection of the Cypriot vineyard. Exporting wine means exporting culture. Therefore, wine is not just a common product of alcoholic consumption but a piece of art that involves vision, knowledge, passion and aesthetics. For a country like Cyprus, because of the limited range of wines, improving the current situation is very difficult and requires so much effort from the wine industry’s professionals.

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

CV: The most enjoyable time of the year is the harvest period. It is the moment you realise that all of your hard work during the year finally pays off, and you come face to face with both the past and the future. That feeling is indescribable. You finally ‘decode,’ smell and taste your own brainchild, a creation you can experience with all of your senses.

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

CV: The philosophy that encloses the establishment of our business is very clear and simple.  Our winery ‘Ekfraseis’ attempts to take advantage of the great geological and morphological conditions of the area as best as possible. The Pitsilia area’s aforementioned conditions and especially the Madari mountain where our winery is primarily located give us the ability to successfully cultivate our indigenous, international and Greek varieties such as Mavro, Maratheftiko, Xynisteri, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Assyrtiko, and expand the local oenophile public’s choices. The future plan for the business is to keep up the hard work and one day expand the amount of the production based on the capacity of the vineyard, but I prefer taking one step at a time.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

CV: My favourite wine personality is Dr. Richard Smart, the Australian viticulturist whose aid has provided a real breakthrough in numerous aspects of modern viticulture at an international level. He is the creator and the inspirer of many modern trellis systems and scientifically proven ways of growth management and quality improvement of the crop. 

Of course, your all-time favourite island wine?

CV: In a Mediterranean island like Cyprus, with high temperatures throughout the year and an extended summer period, I would strongly recommend white and rosé wines with a light and fruity flavour. They can easily replace summer cocktails that are often consumed during the summer. I wouldn’t say no to a light red wine, even if it’s mainly imported to Cyprus because, as we all know, the variety of local red wines is much more intense that the ones imported, but there is always room for exceptions to the rule.

You can reach Christos via Facebook and Instagram.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

A Case of Questions with Exotic Wine Travel

Exotic Wine Travel is the brainchild of Matthew Horkey and Charine Tan, two authors, speakers, marketers, travellers and wine lovers who left Singapore two years ago in search of good wine and interesting stories to tell. Following an unexpected meeting with a representative of the Cyprus Tourism Organisation in Tbilisi, Georgia, Matthew and Charine landed on The Rock and visited more than twenty wineries and bars as part of a wine itinerary set up by Cyprus Sommelier Association's George Kassianos. So far, they have written about their first impressions of our island, a cheat sheet on Cyprus wines, and a glowing review of the work being done by the Kyriakides boys at Vouni Panayia Winery. Since us here at the blog are a nosy bunch, we got in touch and had them join our distinguished "Case of Questions" family. ¡Salud!

Why wine? 

Exotic Wine Travel (EWT): Wine is a wondrous port of entry into various topics like sociology, philosophy, geography, history, and science. As full-time travelers, wine makes us feel at home and connects us to people wherever we go, because wine lovers from all over the world speak the same language. Wine is like a steroid in communication and friendship. Meet a wine lover and the next moment, you'll be spending the night with his or her family and friends.

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

Charine Tan (CT): My first sip of wine was at an indecently young age. I believe it was a Graham's 20 Year Old Tawny Port, or 10 Year Old. But the one that really captured my heart was a red Burgundy. I had no clue about the producer, appellation, or region. It was my 18th birthday and I was treated to dinner at a French fine-dining restaurant in Singapore.

Matthew Horkey (MH): The first time I tasted wine that was distinctly different was a house red wine in Lucca, Italy. I was a broke graduate student, backpacking across Europe with some friends. We ordered a liter of house red wine that was completely different from the supermarket plonk I was drinking in America. As I drank it, there was an "ah hah" moment where I finally understood that wine could taste good and have fine nuances to it. 

All-time favorite bottle of wine? 

CT: Château d'Yquem 1986. It's not about the sensory merits per se; that wine showed me a new realm of possibilities for wine. I was never partial to sweet wine, so it was a surprise that I ended up loving that wine.

MH: Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage 2002 (red). I love Syrah but this wine had so much leather, earthy, and meaty nuances to it that were brand new to me.  It blew my mind that Syrah could taste like that. It was actually a present for Charine's birthday but I kept returning to her glass, sniffing away in wonder.

Favorite wine-producing region? Why? 

EWT: This took a bit of debating to get to a consensus. It'll be Piedmont. We spent two weeks in Piedmont in June 2015. We were just starting our long-term travel then and Piedmont was the first wine region where we engaged in some serious wine tourism activities. Piedmont has it all as a wine region—the views, people, food, wine, culture, entertainment, and to a decent extent the infrastructure.

Your favorite food-and-wine pairing?

EWT: We are very experimental with wine, food, and actually pretty much everything. So there's never a safe or default choice for us when it comes to pairing. But if we're put in charge of the food at a pairing session, we'd suggest a table full of different cheeses, bread, cold cuts, olive oil, nut oil, and dips.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine? 

EWT: Just like most wine countries that are rebuilding their modern wine culture, Cyprus is still finding its brand identity and brand story. A geographical name and history are not enough to characterize and brand a wine country. Other salient points need to be considered. Cyprus needs to first identify the cues or attributes that are already strongly linked to the country: the legendary Commandaria sweet wine, the omnipresent Mount Olympus, the surprise of meze, the refreshing Xinisteri, the intense tasting reds made from old bush vines, etc. Then build the rest of the offerings upon that. The offerings will need to cover the entertainment, education, aesthetic, and participation aspects of wine tourism. A brand name is strengthened by a positive experience at every touch point—from the winery to the hotel, airport, and social media. 

The increased international awareness and global demand for Cypriot wine will also offer wiggle room for wine producers to experiment with new styles of wine. Based on our conversations with a few winemakers, it seems like Cypriot wine producers are very reactive to what the local market demands and sometimes feel obliged to make wine in a certain way that they don't necessarily believe is the best step forward.

EWT Loved Vasilikon Winery's Agios Onoufrios as a Bargain Red

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry? 

EWT: More focus on indigenous varieties and clonal selection to improve the quality of wine. More collaboration among producers and between the private and public sectors. 

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

EWT: The people we meet and the stories of their countries told to us in various narratives and through different lenses.

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

EWT: We've decided on this since the very beginning of Exotic Wine Travel. We want Exotic Wine Travel to be an indispensable resource for wine travelers in the same way as how Lonely Planet was to independent travelers. But maybe with a touch of "Eat Pray Love" sort of inspiration thrown into it.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why? 

EWT: Karen MacNeil. Her style of wine writing is something that we hope to emulate. The Wine Bible does a wonderful job of taking the readers through the world of wine. It is informative and entertaining. There is a perfect balance between facts, wine recommendations, and humor to keep drinkers of all level engaged. 

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

MH: I'm so clumsy and knock over wine glasses all the time. Once I was at dinner with a group of friends. I got so excited and moved my hands so violently that I knocked over my glass and spilled red wine all over a guy's white dress shirt. It was the first time I met the guy and he was pretty upset (understandably so). And of course, I've spilled wine over Charine at tastings and events too.

Of course, your all-time favorite island wine?

EWT: The Vlassides Opus Artis 2011 was the best wine that we discovered during our two-week press trip in Cyprus.

You can reach Exotic Wine Travel via their website, Facebook, Twitter, Vivino and Instagram.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

White on White

Domaine Papagiannakos on Display
Greek wine has come a long way since those ignoble days when retsina, the pine-tinged beverage that reminds me of a freshly cleaned boy's toilet, defined the country's wine industry. During the past ten years, Greece's exciting work with a myriad of endemic varieties have left a conspicuous mark on global wine lovers' palates; demand for these wines is rapidly increasing and, unfortunately, prices are soon to follow with Paris Sigalas' earth-shattering whites, for instance, already asking fans to cough up an additional ten Euros per bottle. On average.

Besides Xinomavro, a red I would love Axe to bottle up as deodorant, two of my favourite Greek varieties are whites. Santorini's flagship Assyrtiko, of course, which breathes in the island's volcanic rock and brackish breeze and creates a wine that makes you lick your lips and pucker up. The second one is Malagousia, a dwindling variety that was rediscovered by Vangelis Gerovassiliou, and reminds me of the peaches, mango and cream body lotion The Wife, Ph.D., rubs on her tummy whenever she's trying to seduce me.

Vassilis Papagiannakos at A.G. Leventis
Besides these, however, I've recently re-discovered two other Greek whites that have further accentuated the country's unbridled potential as a world-class wine producer: Savatiano and Moschofilero.

During recent industry events in Nicosia, I had the privilege of tasting two of these varieties' incarnations and, while they do not belt out Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On in the same way Assyrtiko and Malagousia do, they've done enough to tickle my fancy.

Savatiano was originally known as the main grape behind retsina, a status that unfortunately blemished its reputation as a variety capable of delivering bigger and better wines. However, thanks to the work of Domaine Papagiannakos just a stone's throw away from Athens' airport, Savatiano has gathered steam during the past two decades and started showing plenty of potential as a grape capable of shining on its lonesome. As mentioned in a 2014 article by Tara Q. Thomas in Wine & Spirits magazine, Vassilis Papagiannakos' "young savatianos have caused waves all over Greece for their fruitiness and clarity—characteristics not often associated with the variety." In an event hosted by importer Vassos Eliades Ltd., at the A.G. Leventis Gallery, Vassilis mentioned that this variety is his pride and joy, one that has been worked on for decades and has firmly put his winery on Greece's wine map. His 2015 rendition delivered as evinced by my review below.

2015 Boutari Oropedio Moschofilero
As for Moschofilero, I have always loved the versions put out by both Skouras and Tselepos. It came as a pleasant surprise, however, to enjoy Boutari Winery's latest experiment with the variety—the barrel-aged Oropedio from Mantineia—during a soiree organised at Caraffa Bastione by its importer Photos Photiades Group. I've always associated Moschofilero—with its pinkish hue, citrus undertones and oh-so-sweet spice—to a more subtle understudy to Gewürztraminer, and Boutari's latest experiment didn't change my mind. And before you get all uppity about my description for this variety, please take it as a compliment: Gewürztraminers are sometimes like a once pretty woman who's iced her face with one dollop too many of turquoise-toned makeup.

2015 Papagiannakos Savatiano - Vibrant aroma of orange peel, stone fruit, apples, white flowers and sweet spice. On the palate, there's plenty of apple, melon, some honeysuckle and beeswax, and (maybe, just maybe) a piney element, which could be my brain telling me we're edging closer and closer to retsina. Full-ish to the mouth with good length, quite waxy and a bitter finish, which can be confounding. 86/100.

2015 Boutari Oropedio Moschofilero - Somewhat tropical on the nose, reminiscent of pineapple doused in sweet spices and a touch of white flowers. The palate is dominated by notes of baked apples with cinnamon, some pear and a delicious citrus finish. Medium bodied, quite fruit forward yet short, and overall well received thanks to its loukoumi-like qualities. 87/100. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Five Ages of Halloumi

Kitchen & Bar
After spending a few days last year binge watching Chef's Table on Netflix, I thought it'd be a great idea to open a high-end restaurant on The Rock that would allow me to channel my inner Bottura and wow affluent Russians with my inventive use of Cypriot ingredients. Five ages of halloumi anyone? That fantasy, however, ended up being rather ephemeral; I eventually woke up from my delusional slumber and recalled the shallow depths of both my wallet and culinary technique. Plus, I'm still not sure Cyprus is ready for thirty miniature courses chockfull of microgreens, fermented roots, trahana broth, spherified brandy sours, sous vide afelia and deconstructed pastitsio. Yeah, that last one sounds gross.

What has been great during the past few years is the upsurge in the number of taverns that have made it a point to serve creative Cypriot cuisine. Working within The Rock's preferred meze model, chefs at various eateries (Peiragmena in Lympia, for instance) have begun experimenting with local and seasonal ingredients, slapping bright tattoos, patches of facial hair and a black leather jacket on tradition.

Ribs & Commandaria
Last weekend, we headed to To Patrikon, a newish establishment in Tersefanou (near Larnaca airport) that markets itself as a modern and creative Cypriot tavern. Housed in an old house on the village's main road, the tavern is  sparsely decorated, sits about forty patrons and opens only on weekends. As soon as we sat, the manager/owner stopped by to make sure we understood this wasn't your typical Cypriot village tavern and let us know that everything was homemade except for the pastourmas. We nodded and food then arrived in waves with each dish being carefully described by our waiter.

Overall, the food was excellent and the level of inventiveness quite high. There was a fava bean puree topped with black olive powder, spring onions and a red pepper sauce, which was creamy and balanced. Fresh, warm halloumi—not grilled for once—was topped with a fig puree and fresh mint if I recall correctly. A wild mallow shakshouka with red peppercorns and runny egg yolks was a welcome and utterly comforting variation on the usual (and monotonous) scrambled eggs dish served at most taverns. Besides the standard Greek salad, our waiter also brought us a refreshing salad with wild bladder campion, broad beans, mustard greens and black sesame seeds. Finally, for dessert, a touch of playfulness with a deconstructed pumpkin turnover (kolokoti) served as a bed of sweet bulgur wheat with raisins topped by a fluffy, not-too-cloying pumpkin mousse and crumbled vanilla cookies.

Cauliflower & Tahini
As for the meats, there were thin slivers of wine-soaked bacon; spareribs slow cooked in Commandaria wine, which fell off the bone and were deliciously sweet; citrus marinated chicken legs and thighs grilled over charcoal like the good ol' souvla we all love and adore matched with roasted potatoes, taro root and beets, and; beef livers topped with wild greens. Thanks to The Wife Ph.D's penchant for vegetarianism, I was perfectly satisfied by the butcher's selection, but I can envision a traditional Cypriot caveman asking mommy to grill him a pork chop upon his return.

Deconstructed Kolokoti
However, three dishes shone above all others. The roasted cauliflower with chopped onions and tossed in a tahini and parsley dressing worked wonderfully well, with the usually bland vegetable a deserving conduit for the savoury, thick and nutty dressing. The trahana fritters elevated the fermented grain-and-dairy mix that's typically eaten as a soup and remains to this day an acquired taste. To Patrikon's interpretation of this Cypriot delicacy was crunchy on the outside, gooey in the inside and ate like a tangier Italian arancini. Finally, the bread was—hands down—the best I have ever had on the island. Piping hot, it had a hard crust covered in sesame and poppy seeds but a soft and cloud-like interior, almost melted-cheese-like in texture. Honestly, management should hire one of those roadside girls that dazzle men with iced coffee, have her sell them buns by the dozen and laugh all the way to the bank.

Chicken & Roots
If I had one complaint, albeit minor, it's that the wines on offer were overpriced with selections from both Vlassides and Argyrides running a good 5 to 10 Euros above standard restaurant prices. I do believe it's best industry practice for restaurants to charge two-and-a-half times the retail price and in this instance it was significantly more. Besides that surcharge, the wine menu was varied enough with a good selection of red and whites from Cypriot producers including Tsiakkas, Ktima Christoudia, Vouni Panagia, Vlassides and Argyrides, among others.

On the way out, I stopped to read a sign handwritten in chalk by the kitchen. It said in Cypriot: "Once you try this meze at To Patrikon, you'll remember it for the rest of your life." In this day and age, as Donald tries to tells us that McDonald's trumps Noma or Central or D.O.M. or Alinea, diversity, inventiveness and spontaneity become, to paraphrase James C. Scott, everyday forms of resistance. Yes, the meal was memorable but, better yet, that spirit to battle stagnation and the status quo shone through their food.

Whine On The Rocks' Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Sparkling Spatulas.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Case of Questions with Konstantinos Lazarakis MW

2017 is here and what better way to get the blog's year started than with a Case of Questions involving Greece's first Master of Wine? Konstantinos Lazarakis, who calls Piraeus home, studied Mechanical Engineering and Jazz before making the brave leap into the magnificent world of wine. In 2002, he became the first Greek Master of Wine and two years later founded the local branch of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust of London, one of the most influential educational organisations in wines and spirits in the world. Konstantinos recently signed a book deal with Infinite Ideas in Oxford to update and republish his landmark book Wines of Greece, which was first published in 2005. Here's to a fantastic 2017 full of great wine and a dearth of whine.

Why wine?

Konstantinos Lazarakis MW (KL): Because it is an amazing product. It encapsulates great living, great people, great complexity, tradition, sensations, history, culture, travelling and many more things in the most imaginative way. It is so difficult not to be absorbed by wine once you realise how amazing it is.

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

KL: It was a Megas Oinos 1996 by Skouras at the window of a Piraeus (my home town) cava shop. It seemed to me so expensive that I went in to ask whether there was by mistake an extra zero on the price tag. The price was okay and the owner of that shop invited me to his opening party to which George Skouras was invited. I went there, had a chat about wine with him for 30 minutes and I went away totally captivated. That was the point of no return for me. I was 21 years old. This is why I felt the wine was so expensive (while it was actually a great value for money given its quality). At that age, even drinking cheap bottled wine was a luxury.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

KL: Had too many great bottles to separate one. Possibly that very first bottle I saw on that cava window that got me into wine.

Favorite wine-producing region? Why?

KL: Every single wine region in Greece and Cyprus. Wine has to do with feelings. It has to do with what is close to your heart. And these two countries are where my heart beats.

Your favorite food-and-wine pairing?

KL: Actually, I pay no attention to food and wine pairing! I choose the food I feel like eating and then a wine I feel like having… I even had gorgeous dinners when, while having grilled fish, I was craving for a dense, big red. If you have an appetite for a wine, the food will never stop you from enjoying it.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

KL: I think the lack of proper marketing is important, especially on a generic level. Also, there is a lack of international perspective – where its wine stands in general on a global level. Since the wine market is nowadays a worldwide battlefield, you have to compete with everyone even when you deal with your own national market. It is interesting also to see that the international perspective in Cyprus is growing mainly from the consumer side – from educated consumers who understand what wine is in a much broader context. On both matters things get better by the minute, however, and the important element is there – Cypriot is, in terms of quality, style and value, a world-class offering.

Konstantinos unwinds on holidays with a chilled beer on a Greek island.

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

KL: I think that, in ten years time, Cyprus wine will be a lot more important and well known in the international wine scene than what it is at the moment.

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

KL: Meeting glorious people and visiting glorious places.

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

KL: There is no business plan for me, other than “Do what you know well, get more knowledgeable on that, and focus more on and understand the market better.”

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

KL: Michael Broadbent MW. He's done everything, tasted everything, been everywhere (and keeps doing all these things at an old age) but continues to be one of the most accessible, humane and down-to-earth people in our business.

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

KL: Too many to say – and I am sure I do not remember the best of them!

Of course, your all-time favorite wine to sip on an island?

KL: To be honest, when I am on holidays I like to decompress from the world of wine. So you will often find me on a Greek island with a nice beer in hand!

You can reach Konstantinos Lazarakis MW on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or WSPC Greece.