Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Case of Questions with Adam Montefiore, Wine Trade Veteran & Wine Writer

The Eastern Mediterranean has a seemingly eternal history of winemaking. Countries such as Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece and Cyprus, to name only a handful, have been making wine for eons and eons, longer even than the time it takes me to compose a blog post.

One of the most important wine personalities chronicling this history, particularly when it comes to Israel, is Adam Montefiore, British born, who moved to Israel more than thirty years ago and devoted his life to championing his adoptive country's wine.

Throughout his career, Adam has worked for Israeli wineries, helped develop a global brand for the country's wine industry, lectured about his drinkable passion at important universities and participated as a judge in international wine competitions. Today, he offers educational services and promotes Israeli wine as a partner in both the Israel Wine Experience and Handcrafted Wines of Israel, while leading his own consultancy through which he helps a number of leading wineries, hotels, restaurants, retailers and private collectors.

Most remarkably, Adam has promoted Israeli and other Eastern Mediterranean wines via his writing. He penned the book The Wine Route of Israel and has contributed to Hugh Johnson's Pocket Wine Book, Oz Clarke's Pocket Wine A-Z and Jancis Robinson's The Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine. To this day, he works as the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post and is an active member of The Circle of Wine Writers.

Since Adam has visited The Rock and knows Cypriot wine quite well, we thought we'd reach out and see what he has to say about Israel's next door neighbor and the state of its wine industry. L'chayim! 

Why wine?

I started in beer working for Bass Charrington, then the largest brewery and pub owner in the UK, who produced or marketed beer, wines, spirits and soft drinks. The company had wine interests being owners of wine shippers Hedges & Butler, Bordeaux negociants Alexis Lichine and Chateau Lascombes. They put me on a WSET course to make up the numbers in 1979. On completing the course, we were given a copy of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. That was the beginning. Gradually I slipped from beer to wine, which I found more absorbing, complex and broad. Who would know then, that I would later be a contributor to Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book for, to date, over 25 years?

Why wine? I would like to answer with the famous monologue by Robert Mondavi. Without quoting it in full, I can simply say it ends with the simple sentence “Wine is life.” Through wine I experience agriculture, art, technology, archaeology, history, gastronomy, religion, tourism, geography and peoplehood. It is so much more than a drink. It has a broad literature and I enjoy reading and talking about wine as much as drinking it.

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

The first wine I noticed was Palwin, a sacramental wine, which was served at our Passover meals. This was my earliest wine memory. The wine was red, sweet and to my mind as a child, it was tasty. It was a thrill to drink it, because it felt slightly naughty. With regard to age, seeing the bottle on the table was an early memory. I could have been anything from five years old upwards, but imagine I was a little older when I was allowed to taste it. Whatever age it was, I looked forward to be given a sip of the forbidden fruit.

The first wine I purchased, drank and enjoyed was a brand called Hirondelle. It was a bland, harmless wine with no obvious character, but it was cheap coming in a liter bottle and was easy drinking. Perfect for the new wine drinker. I must have been about twenty when I first purchased this as my first wine of choice.

All-time favorite bottle of wine?

An all-time favorite wine is as difficult to pinpoint as a favorite meal. However, I will never forget the first great wine I drank. It was a Ch√Ęteau Mouton Rothschild 1971. This was an epiphany moment. I will never forget the color, the deep concentration of fruit and the aroma of cigar box. For the first time I understood the depth and quality of this subject called wine. It was the first luxury wine I tasted, and though it sounds corny, it really opened a window in my mind.

Favorite wine-producing region? Why?

I love the wines of the Eastern Mediterranean. This is a fascinating wine region that gave wine culture to the world, and in terms of both volume and quality, it really was the France & Italy of ancient times. The region as a whole made terrible wines for 2,000 years but recently there has been a very exciting revival. It is a region of mountains, sea, stony soils, hot sun, indigenous varieties, mud coffee, anise flavored spirits (Arak, Raki & Ouzo) and East Med cuisine, which is becoming so popular. It is also a region where the wine producing countries are unfortunately divided by war, discord and religion. However, taking the Eastern Med countries together, it is a whole new world of wine, in one of the oldest wine producing regions on earth. I have been a passionate advocate of the Eastern Mediterranean as a quality wine region for over thirty years.

Outside the love of my life, my favorite wines are made from Riesling and Pinot Noir. I love Italy, in particular Piedmont and Tuscany, can’t ignore Bordeaux and recently became captivated by Portugal after visiting for the first time.

Your favorite food-and-wine pairing?

I don’t believe in matching food and wine, though as an exercise it is fun and rewarding when you get it right and reach the satisfaction of 1+1=3. I suppose, showing my British roots, a good vintage port and a ripe stilton cheese is a combination that is hard to beat. I also get a kick of drinking food and wine from the same region or terroir. Generally though, I drink the wine I want and the food I want and get along fine. I think we can spend too much time on pretentious exercises. In the end, wine is to enjoy with a meal, but it is important to remember, that the idea of professional tastings, wine scores and competitions, which we spend so much time on in the wine trade, is not really what wine is all about.

What is Cyprus missing when it comes to wine?

A national identity, branding and an international presence. I believe the industry lacks confidence and should be bolder in being outgoing and less provincial. Cypriot wineries have a great product and a wonderful story. I wish the marketing was more international, assertive and informative.

What do you foresee for Cyprus’s wine industry?

The move to higher elevation vineyards and the trend of wineries owning their own vineyards will continue. The wonderful range of indigenous varieties (Maratheftiko, Yiannoudi, Promara, Morokanella, etc.,) will continue to be explored and developed further. Xynisteri is so much better from high altitude vineyards and I have even tasted some old vine Mavros with enchanting aromas. I believe in the wines and am sure we will be hearing a great deal more of Cypriot wine in the future.

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

Food, wine and friends is a holy trinity, like a three-legged stool. If one is missing it all falls. Sharing wine with friends, along with good food is the best. Meeting and learning about people, places and their wines is a wonderful experience. I am so fortunate my hobby is my profession. In any case, in truth we are not in the wine business, but the people business. It is all about connections, with a shared passion.

What is your “Five Year Plan” for your career in the wine industry?

I spent most of my career working with only three companies: Bass Charrington in the UK, and then the Golan Heights Winery and Carmel Winery in Israel. Now I am on my time, independent and self-employed, and having fun. I am the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post, for whom I have written since 2010. I manage my own wine consultancy business and I am a partner in the Israel Wine Experience. My five year plan is to continue what I love to do: writing, educating, consulting and lecturing about wine.

Who is your favorite wine personality? Why?

Two heroes of mine were Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who taught us so much about wine, branding and marketing. They were in my opinion giants and the greatest wine personalities of the 20th century. Both effected change and were great innovators.

Currently, I believe Jancis Robinson MW stands above all others as a wine critic, wine writer and communicator. Her depth of knowledge is unparalleled and she carries her dominant position with grace and generosity. She can produce wine books of the greatest scholastic depth, yet also has the ability to communicate at eye level with the beginner. Hard to believe both these abilities are contained in the same person. What a gift!

I have also enjoyed the beautiful wine literature of Hugh Johnson, who writes like a poet. His books have accompanied me from my first, youthful steps in wine and even now I can lose myself in his prose.

(As a declaration of interest, if relevant, I should point out I contribute to The Oxford Companion To Wine, The World Atlas of Wine and, as already mentioned, The Pocket Wine Book.)

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

Yes many. What comes to mind is a tutored tasting when I nosed a wine and began pontificating about it in great detail. After five minutes of giving intricate details, someone took pity on me and whispered in my ear what was painfully obvious to everyone else: “I think you may be talking about the incorrect wine.” Unfortunately I was on auto-pilot, talking about the next wine on the list, but not about the wine in everyone’s glass! Embarrassing, but hilarious too.

Of course, your all-time favorite Cypriot (or other island) wine?

I can’t name one wine. I enjoyed a ten year old Ezousa Maratheftiko 2009 and an eighteen year old Vasilikon Cabernet Sauvignon 2001. Other wines that come to mind that I will look out for are the Zambartas Xynisteri, Vlassides Shiraz, Zambartas Maratheftiko and Tsiakkas Commandaria. If we are talking tradition, I can’t ignore an old ETKO Centurion Commandaria, but I can’t remember the vintage.

You can reach Adam via his website or LinkedIn.

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