Review of “Our Blood is Wine”: A Film about Georgia Qvevri Wine

 

Our Blood is Wine, directed by Emily Railsback, released by Music Box Films, 2018. Available as video-on-demand via iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, etc.

Our Blood is Wine is a fascinating look at traditional wine-making in Georgia (the republic, not the U.S. state) and how it survived the traumatic Soviet era to be widely celebrated today as a natural wine icon. This documentary has been made with the same restraint and respect for tradition that the Georgians use in making their qvevri wines. The wines let nature tell its story to a greater extent than most wines do. And the film lets Georgia tell its story in a very natural way, avoiding unnecessary intervention.  Highly recommended.

I admit that I was a bit concerned when I learned about Our Blood is Wine. Georgia is unique and I worried that the film would treat it with the generic techniques that are so often found in wine films — sunny vineyard scenes, the changing of the seasons, pick-up trucks with faithful dogs. You know what I mean. These scenes are charming and beautiful, but they are clichés. They could be anywhere, so they end up being nowhere. Wine films are filled with them.

Georgia is different, special, so the film needed to be different, too. Sitting at a key geopolitical crossroads, Georgia has experienced invasion, occupation, and foreign rule repeatedly and yet somehow the people, their culture, Christian religion, unique  language and alphabet, have all survived. Georgians are survivors and the same is true of their wines.

Our Blood is Wine shows the hard work and sacrifice of artisan winemakers in Georgia instead of sunny vineyard scenes. We travel along with Chicago-based sommelier Jeremy Quinn, our inquisitive guide, but he is not the star of this show. He usefully yields the screen to the Georgians who have created these wines, preserved the indigenous grape varieties, and crafted the fantastic qvevri themselves.

One thing that keeps the film moving is the fact that we mainly see people at work and often (as in a scene where several sweating shirtless men carefully move a large, awkward, heavy qvevri into place) the actions speak as loud as any words ever could. The hard work contrasts with the beautiful Georgian music that forms the film’s soundtrack.

The Soviet era, which the film shows through archival footage, was particularly hard on Georgian wine. Georgia-born Joseph Stalin made sure that he had a constant supply of good wine from his home region, but the rest of the country’s wine industry was not so lucky. Private vineyards were seized and industrial wine production replaced private cellars to satisfy undiscriminating palates elsewhere in the Soviet empire.

Traditional wine-making practices survived through home production and even today  most Georgian families make wine for their own consumption, some of it very good. Georgian wine consumption is high by U.S. standards. The rule of thumb for a party is two bottles of wine for each female guest and three bottles for each male. The domestic industry is necessarily focused on export since it is hard to compete with homemade wine for local sales.

There are, as I wrote in 2016, three wine industries in Georgia today. Some large producers focus on sweeter wines (which can be very good) to sell to traditional Russian and former-Soviet markets. Another industry has grown up around exports of clean international-style wines made with indigenous Georgian grapes. And, finally, a relatively small craft industry exists to satisfy the growing global demand for the natural wines made in qvevri — traditional hand-made clay pots that are buried in the earth. These wines and the people who make them and love them are the focus of Our Blood is Wine. 

Sue and I were delighted when, at the end of the film, the art of Georgian wine was driven home through the work of an artist who actually paints with wine and the juice of the grapes instead of oil or watercolor. Saperavi art? Could it be, we wondered? Yes! The artist was our friend Elene Rakviashvili, who helped us to learn about Georgian wine and culture when we visited in 2016.

Our Blood is Wine is worth seeking out for what it teaches about Georgia, history, culture, politics, and of course wine. One of the best wine documentaries of recent years.

Book Review: Intriguing Variations on a Wine Globalization Theme

9781107192928Wine Globalization: A New Comparative History edited by Kym Anderson and Vicente Pinilla, Cambridge University Press, 2018. (See also The World’s Wine Markets: Globalization at Work edited by Kym Anderson, Edward Elgar, 2004.)

The fact that wine is such a global business was one of factors that motivated me to study it seriously in the first place. My 2005 book Globaloney (named a Best Business Book of that year by Library Journal) included a chapter that examined the evolution of global wine markets and that got me hooked.

Globalization’s Terroir

Globaloney was a heart a series of case studies that together argued that  globalization is not an  unstoppable tsunami that sweeps away all before it, but rather a complex set of forces that play out differently in different industries. Fast food globalization, for example, is different from slow food globalization. And while high fashion and used clothing are both traded in global markets and acted upon by some of the same general forces, their specific patterns and impacts are very different.

Globalization reflects its terroir, I used to tell audiences at book talks, and the volume that Kym Anderson, Vincente Pinilla, and their talented team of authors have assembled take this idea one step further. The core of the book is a collection of historical case studies of how national wine industries have developed in both the old and new wine worlds in the context of global markets.

Two things struck me as I read the studies. First, I was excited by how detailed and interesting this research is. Fascinating. Irresistible. I couldn’t wait to turn the page to read more.

The second striking feature was how much wine globalization really does reflect its terroir. Although there are some common themes (the impact of phylloxera and the Great Depression, for example), the fact is that wine has developed and evolved in distinctly different ways in different parts of the wine world. Globalization has been an important factor in many cases, but not in the same way everywhere.

Argentina’s Unique History

Let me use the excellent chapter on Argentina by Steve Stein and Ana Maria Mateu as an example. Argentina’s wine history has been shaped by a series of strong internal and external forces. Let’s start with the grapes. Spanish missionaries from the Canary Islands brought high-yielding low-quality Criolla grapes with them and this set the tone for wine-making and drinking for much of the country’s history.

French wine authority Michel Aimé Pouget was lured away from his work in Chile to improve wine quality and he brought higher quality grapevines, including especially Malbec. Alas, the authors tell us, Malbec was frequently valued less for the quality of its wines than the fact that they were dark and strong and could therefore successfully be diluted with water without completely losing their identity as wine. Low standards like this defined the domestic market for decades.

British influence, in the form of the railroads that they financed and helped to build, had a profound impact on Argentina wine. Prior to the railroads that connected Mendoza and San Juan with bustling Buenos Aires, the domestic wine industry was quite small.

Mendoza and environs made wine for local consumption. Buenos Aires residents (more and more of them immigrants from Spain and Italy) filled their glasses with imported wine. Lower land transportation costs changed everything  when the train line was completed, expanding the internal market and fostering a wine boom.

Anticipating the impact of the railroads, Mendoza officials sent recruiters to Europe to bring back experienced Spanish and Italian wine-growers and wine-makers who expanded the industry. With phylloxera spreading at home and hard times all around, the difficult decision to uproot and replant families and businesses to immigrant-hungry Argentina was easy to  make.

Peso Problems

The list of international and global forces and effects in Argentina is a long one and I  only scratch the surface here. In recent decades, for example, the government’s strong-peso policy of the 1990s (the peso was linked to the U.S. dollar) made imports of wine-making equipment and technology artificially cheap and wineries were quickly upgraded. The collapse of this monetary system and the peso crisis that followed made the output of those wineries artificially cheap to foreign buyers, a factor in the country’s wine export boom.

Rapid domestic inflation combined with an unyielding exchange rate earlier this decade made the peso over-valued again and the wine export boom fizzled. Policies are changing now. Perhaps the export boom will return, albeit in a different form. Too soon to tell at this point.

Argentina’s wine history and its experience with international and global forces is fascinating and other chapters in the book are equally interesting. Wine’s story is a complicated one, with each nation developing and responding in a different way depending on many factors including history, culture, institutional structure, timing, and government policy.

This book is a great resource for anyone interested in understanding the wine world today and how we got here. The volume concludes with “Projecting Global Wine Markets to 2025” by Kym Anderson and his colleague Glyn Wittwer, a set of forecasts and analyses based upon their econometric model of global wine markets.

Economists Know the Price of Everything …

Wine Globalization has many strengths that recommend it to a broad readership and one obvious weakness that will discourage some who would otherwise benefit from studying it: the price. If you are not familiar with the academic book market, the price of this volume will take your breath away: $139.50 for the hardback and $124 for the Kindle on Amazon.com.

This is how books are often priced by academic publishers, who need to spread high fixed costs over small expected press runs.  If you have a son or daughter in college (or are in college yourself), you already know what textbooks cost these days. Incredible.

But all the news about price is not so discouraging. Kym Anderson and his colleagues at the Wine Economics Research Center at the University of Adelaide provide an enormous array of useful and interesting global wine market data (some of which informs the Wine Globalization volume) for the attractive price of … free. Free!  Here are some of the data sets you might want to explore. (You can find even more data here.)

Anderson, K., S. Nelgen and V. Pinilla, Database of Global Wine Markets: A Statistical Compendium, 1860 to 2016 (November 2017)

Anderson, K., S. Nelgen and V. Pinilla (with the assistance of A.J. Holmes), Annual Database of Global Wine Markets, 1835 to 2016 (November 2017)

Holmes, A.J. and K. Anderson (2017). Annual Database of National Beverage Consumption Volumes and Expenditures, 1950 to 2015 (July 2017)

Wine Globalization is a valuable contribution to our understanding of world wine markets. Highly recommended. And that’s not globaloney!

Book Review: James Conaway on the Napa Valley Wine Wars

napaJames Conaway, Napa at Last Light: America’s Eden in an Age of Calamity (Simon & Schuster, March 2018).

Hegel wrote that the Owl of Minerva only takes flight at dusk, suggesting that wisdom (the owl) finally awakes when the day is nearly done and the opportunity to benefit from insight has almost passed. It is a sad thought — I hope that Hegel is wrong — but it captures pretty well the gist of this new book by James Conaway, who has been writing about the Napa Valley for many years.

Conaway’s new book presents a series of vignettes and profiles that collective capture the ongoing wine war in the Napa Valley. Conaway is not a neutral observer in this battle, so this is a tale of white hats and black hats.

The White Hats include Andy Beckstoffer, Volker Eislele, and Randy Dunn, leaders in movements to preserve Napa’s farming and environmental heritage. The Black Hats include Mike Davis, Jean Charles Boisset, and especially Kathryn and Craig Hall, who have told their side of the wine wars story in their book A Perfect Score.

Reading Conaway’s book about what’s wrong with the Napa Valley made me sad because it reminds me about something that is wrong with society today. The Napa Valley of Conaway’s book is full of people with their backs to the wall, angry, suspicious, and unwilling to bend or compromise. Reminds me of any number of issues in society today (guns and immigration, for example).

There doesn’t seem be much room for meaningful dialogue. Sometimes it seems like there isn’t even a common language, much less common values or goals. Gridlock prevails: movement is slowed or stifled, but threats remain.

Only at the very end of the book — dusk, I suppose, or last light — does Conaway give a sense that there might be some coming together, working together. Hope it is not too late. But recent news is not encouraging.

Pressures continue to grow. Last week, for example, the Napa Country Board of Supervisors voted to put an initiative on the June ballot that would shut off development in certain areas. Pro and con forces seem to be prepared for a serious fight over the future. Meanwhile an interview with James Conaway suggests that he’s given up hope. Too little, too late.

I learned a lot about the Napa Valley,  wine wars, and the White Hat and Black Hat combatants from this book, but I admit to being disappointed. Conaway takes a strong stand with his White Hat friends and his anger and outrage come through clearly. But I wonder what the conflict looks like from the perspective those who are in the middle, trying to balance interests and reconcile development and environment before the last light is gone?  That’s a book that I would like to read.

Not that there aren’t glimpses here of what a working consensus might look like. I was especially intrigued by the sixteenth chapter, which gives an account of how John Williams of Frogs Leap Winery led a successful movement to restore a stretch of the Napa River. Water, Conaway suggests, is at the root of all conflict in Napa. Rivers both divide and unite. The Williams story shows that it is at least sometimes possible to find common ground.

Building that common ground where shared values are developed and real progress can be made is important both for Napa and for society in general. Having started with Hegel’s owl, I conclude with William Butler Yeats’ falcon, from “The Second Coming.”

   Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …

Field Notes from a Visit to Madeira: The Island Where Old Barrels Go to be Reborn

justinos

Madeira is a Portuguese island off the coast of Morocco, a short 80 minute flight from Lisbon. When it was discovered in 1419 it was uninhabited, but now a quarter-million residents plus hundreds of thousands of tourists fill the island.

Madeira is famous for soccer (the Funchal airport is named for native son and Real Madrid striker Cristiano Ronaldo), its beaches, gardens, and mountains, too, which rise more than 1500 meters above sea level. And wine, of course.

I had been vaguely aware of Madeira (“Have some Madeira my dear”) for some time when I had the good fortune to read a terrific book called Oceans of Wine by David Hancock that opened my eyes to Madeira’s unexpected wine history (America’s founding fathers toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence with Madeira) and unique production technique, where heat and long barrel-aging play important roles.

There followed a number of memorable Madeira experiences, which I recorded in my book Around the World in Eighty Days. Sue and I twice enjoyed a 1875 Barbieto Malvasia Madeira wine at the end of great meals at The Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville, for example, and we shared a special bottle of Broadbent Madeira with her parents and their neighbors on another occasion.

Calling My Name

I could hear Madeira calling my name, but the opportunity to visit did not present itself until a few weeks ago, when Sue suggested that we add a long weekend in Funchal to a trip to Madrid and Porto, where I spoke to groups of local wine producers about U.S. market export opportunities.

Tourists come to Madeira for many reasons. The big draw seems to be the beach scene and the coastline near Funchal is lined with busy resort hotels. Others are attracted by walking and hiking opportunities in the beautiful mountain areas. Funchal is also a cruise ship port, so hundreds of tourists flood into town each day and disappear back on board each night at dusk. They find the attractive market, the beautiful gardens, and lots of cafes and restaurants.

Sue and I stayed at a small hotel just behind the cathedral, which put us right in the mix of tourists and local residents and just a short walk from Blandy’s, one of two Madeira lodges we visited during our stay. Blandy’s was founded in 1811 and has been throughout its history a family-owned business. A few years ago it partnered with another family firm, the Symingtons of Porto, to create the Madeira Wine Company, which makes and markets several Madeira wine brands.

1957

Madeira Wine History

Our tour of Blandy’s gave us a sense of the rich history of Madeira wine. The upper floors of the lodge were uncomfortably warm for us, but the barrels of wine seemed pretty happy there. The reason for the heat, if you don’t know the story, is that many years ago some Madeira producers noticed that the wines they sent abroad seemed to be transformed by the time they spent in hot ship holds.

Initially they thought that the rough movement of the ocean was the key, but they eventually learned that it was the heat that helped the wine oxidize in a particular way that made it both delicious and gave it long life. Madeira wines today spend years in old barrels (no new oak flavor is imparted) in warm rooms and the results are just as striking as they were in Jefferson’s day.

The high acidity of the base wine keeps Madeira fresh through its maturation process. Although we think of Madeira as a sweet old wine best paired with Christmas cake, Madeira ranges from dry to sweet and invites extended study — characteristics it has in common with Sherry wines.

New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov recently released his very personal list of 2017’s most memorable wines. A Blandy’s 1992 malmsey was highlighted. It was unforgettable, he said. We enjoyed the wines we tasted at Blandy’s, including the fresh and lively 1957 Bual pictured here.

Past and Present

A visit to Blandy’s is all about history, tradition, and romance and I think it should be on every tourist’s must-do list. A visit to Justino’s is a completely different experience. Justino’s once had a lodge in central Funchal like Blandy’s but they moved their operations to an industrial park outside of town a few years ago where the romance level and visitor head count are much reduced in exchanged for increased production scale and efficiency. (Blandy’s also has a modern production facility located away from town).

1999Winemaker Dina Louis showed us around the facility and helped us taste through the wines. The barrel room was again the center of the visit, but this time it wasn’t the heat that got our attention but the age and condition of the barrels themselves.  Both firms employ teams of coopers not to build barrels, as you would expect in a winery somewhere else in the world, but to keep ancient barrels in use, lending distinct character to wines. Madiera wineries scour the world looking for really old barrels in which to age their wines.

There is something about the old barrels and their individual histories and characteristics that Dina Luis finds fascinating and she spoke movingly about a particular barrel that contains her dream wine. Is barrel terroir a thing? Dina convinced us that particular barrels imparted particular subtle influences and made us really want to explore this idea more deeply.

Sue and I stumbled across a project that was underway where used Irish Whiskey barrels were imported and used to age Madeira wine for an Irish client. Then the wine is bottled the barrels will be sent back to Ireland to be filled with more Irish Whiskey — each product lending character to the one that came before. Apparently this sort of barrel fusion is part of the tradition in Madeira, where sailing ships would stop and fill their empty barrels (which previously contained other wines or spirits) with Madeira wine.

Champagne, Madeira, and a Resolution

As we toured Blandy’s and Justino’s and tasted the wines I couldn’t stop myself from finding parallels between Madeira wine and Champagne. Nobody would confuse the two wines in a tasting, but they do share several characteristics. Both begin with acidic base wines, the acidity necessarily to retain freshness through the production process. (Conventional table wines are made in Madeira and we tried as many as we could, but only found a couple that we liked — I think it must be difficult to find balance with such high acid levels).

The base wine for both Madeira and Champagne is then manipulated through an extended process — a second fermentation in the bottle for Champagne and long, hot barrel-aging for Madeira. The art of blending is important in both cases, too, with non-vintage multi-year blends most common. We like to say that wine is made in the vineyard, but these wines are both really made in the cellar.

Madeira’s ability to age makes it special, although we tasted lovely 3-year and 5-year wines, too. The oldest Madeira on my personal tasting list remains that 1875 Barbieto, but the 1934 Justino’s that Dina Luis let us sample is just as memorable.

Sue and are very lucky — our travels this year took us to Cyprus, where we tasted Commandaria — one of the oldest wines in the world — and to Madeira, where they make wines than can last for more than a century.  We found unexpected wines in Spain, Portugal, and Argentina, too. But you don’t have to travel so far to discover new wines — globalization brings a world of wine to your neighborhood shops.

What’s the takeaway here? The world is full of interesting and delicious wines and maybe we ought to try a little harder to take advantage of this great diversity. Seek out new wines from new places and then circle back to under-appreciated old wines from old places. That sounds like a worthy New Year resolution!

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Many thanks to António Filipe for helping to arrange our visit to Blandy’s and to Bartholomew Broadbent for doing the same at Justino’s.

Celebrating Milestones for Canada (150 Years) & Canadian Wine (37 Vintages)

Milestones. Do they mark how far you have come on a journey? Or do they tell you how far you’ve left to go? Both, I guess, which gives them a (wine) glass half full / half empty quality that invites contemplation.

Canada and Canadian wine have reached important milestones recently and I think there is something to gain in contemplating them in tandem.

O Canada!150

2017 is the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation — a significant milestone in its national history. The past 150 years have not always been easy. Canada has been rocked both by external events (world war, global depressions, financial crises) and domestic social and political conflicts, too.

Canada’s version of federalism gives even more autonomy to its provinces than U.S. federalism gives to its states. The balance between federal and provincial interests has not always been smooth and tensions among the provinces (and even within them) and their people and cultures have not always been easily reconciled.

Canada has somehow negotiated these challenges and emerged, on its 150th birthday, in an admirable state — prosperous, generous (especially regarding refugee immigrants) and widely respected. O Canada, indeed!

Indeed, Canada is even celebrated today on Broadway, where the Tony-winning musical “Come From Away” draws audiences to consider the remarkable response of one Canadian town the unexpected arrival of refugees, in a way, from the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau traveled to New York to see the show — his special guest was someone named Ivanka Trump!)

150 years is an important milestone, but nobody thinks Canada’s story is over. The future is sure to be full of challenges as the road twists and turns, rises and falls. But Canada and Canadians can look forward to the journey with confidence.

O Howard Soon!howard-soon1

July 24, 2017 is another important milestone. It is the day Howard Soon retired as Master Winemaker for Sandhill Wine in Kelowna, British Columbia, after an amazing 37 vintages. Soon is the dean of Canadian winemakers and this milestone is reason enough to celebrate his amazing career and Canadian wine, too.

The grandson of Chinese immigrants, Soon initially took his biochemistry degree from the University of British Columbia into the brewing industry before making a fateful pivot to wine, working his way from quality control to assistant winemaker to winemaker for Colona Vineyards, one of Canada’s largest wine firms.

The Canadian wine industry has changed dramatically over Soon’s remarkable winemaking tenure as it faced market challenges that are both external (increased competition from the United States after the NAFTA treaty) and domestic (the lack of a true “Canadian” wine market because of strong provincial control over alcohol sales). Soon has played an important role in helping the industry to weather the storms by setting a course to higher and higher quality.

When Sue and I first visited Vancouver many years ago the sommeliers refused to serve Canadian wines — they simply wouldn’t do it. It was an over-reaction because there were some good wines even back then, but an indication of their poor reputation These days, however, there is obvious pride in the wines all around and they are proudly featured and served.

Soon and his winemaking colleagues have both changed Canadian wine for the better and they have done something even more difficult — they have changed the way Canadians think about their wines. Quite an achievement.

Soon’s most recent project, Sandhill Vineyards, is in the vanguard of the quality movement (Sandhill appears in my next book Around the World in Eighty Wines). It was founded twenty years ago with the idea to feature terroir through a series of small production single-vineyard wines.soon

Soon has received virtually every recognition that Canadian wine has to offer and he reaches the retirement milestone at the top of his game. His signature 2014 Howard Soon Sandhill red wine was recently named #1 red wine of the year in the All Canadian Wine Championships.

(Signature wine is right — the label bears Howard’s actual signature!)

The wine is special. Grapes from the Phantom Creek Vineyard were co-fermented in the proportions found in the vineyard — a field blend! — then aged in new French and American oak for 22 months. Critic John Schreiner calls is a “triumphal achievement.”

Howard Soon and Canadian wine have come a long way but they both seem to have arrived at this mile post with enthusiasm to move forward to reach new goals.   Sue and I had dinner recently with Howard and his wife Wendy. Howard told us he plans to spend more time with Wendy and their kids and grand kids.

But the same drive that has pushed him to this milestone seems likely to carry him ahead to new challenges and adventures. Great winemakers like Richard Peterson and John Duval, to name just two, seem to move from one mile-marker to the next, always looking forward. It will be interesting to see where the wine road takes Howard Soon!

The Next New Zealand? Reflections on Cyprus Wine Industry in Transition

pafos“Cyprus wines? Not really sure I have ever had one. Do they make much wine in Cyprus?”

Many readers of this column would probably say something similar when asked about Cyprus wine, but the person I was talking to was a bit different.

I spotted him on the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Seattle and remembered that he sat in front of me on the earlier Larnaca-Frankfurt leg. He did business in Cyprus and traveled there a lot, he told me. Drank wine there, too. But Cyprus wine? Not so much.

Mostly he drank the less expensive import wines while he was in Cyprus — wines from Spain, Chile or Australia. Maybe he tried one from Cyprus, he thought, but mainly he stuck with the value import wines.

In this respect my new friend’s consumption pattern reflects the Cyprus wine market in general. When Cyprus entered the European Union back in 2004 its ability to protect its domestic wine industry from cheaper imports was greatly diminished — imports account for about two-thirds of Cyprus wine sales now — and a new wine regime began to emerge.

Regime Change 101vasilikon

Unable to compete with very efficient international value wine producers, Cyprus had no choice but to reconfigure its wine sector to move up the quality (and price scale). And while Cypriot wines are not expensive by American standards (a bottle of truly excellent Vasilikon Xynisteri dry white wine cost less than $20 at a seaside restaurant in the tourist district — what a steal!) they are necessarily priced above the imports.

This was my first visit to Cyprus, but not my first experience with the types of changes that Cyprus wine is experiencing. My native Washington State, for example, had to make the quality leap in the 1960s when the “California Wine Bill” was passed by the legislature in Olympia and cheaper California wine flooded into the local market. The forced upscale move was the best thing that every happened to the wine industry here.

New Zealand faced the same sort of situation in the 1980s, when the collapse of their protected wine sector forced a dramatic economic course correction. Imports flooded in, foreign investment came, too, and a new export-oriented quality wine industry emerged. New Zealand today has the highest average export price of any country for still wines — an amazing achievement.

I found a similar story in Canada, which was forced to liberalize wine trade with the U.S. when the Nafta agreement was signed in the 1990s. In order to be competitive winegrowers in the Okanagan had to replace their hybrid vines with vitis vinifera — an expensive investment. But the results have been amazing.

The transition from volume to value is never easy and is always controversial (my South African friends can attest to this). Not all firms or regions will make it through the process successfully (there is a “survivor bias” to the data), but the success stories are compelling. This is the world that Cyprus wine has entered.

Revolutionary Vanguard

promara

Revolutions always have a vanguard. As is often the case, some winemakers took the first steps to higher quality before market conditions made this a necessity and we visited several of these pioneering wineries (see complete list below). One that stands out in my mind is Vouni Panayia Winery in the mountains near Pafos, which was the first private regional winery in Cyprus.

Vouni Panayia was founded in 1987 by Andreas Kyriakides, who had previously worked in the enology and viticulture section of the Department of Agriculture and so had a good understanding the Cyprus wine sector. He and his family set out to achieve quality at a time when quantity was still a strong factor and to do it using indigenous grape varieties at a time when international varieties were in vogue.

Kyriakides bet on his vision of the future and the family’s efforts have paid off. Sue and I were impressed with the deep red  Yiannoudi, which went so well with the roast lamb at lunch, and the delightful dry white Alina (made with Xynisteri variety). The white Promara (indigenous Promara variety)  was fantastic — a desert island wine candidate!

Going Native?

Vouni Panayia Winery might have helped start the quality revolution in Cyprus, but they have had plenty of help. The movement is advancing rapidly today and seems to be ready for the next challenge: gaining greater traction (and higher prices) in the domestic and carefully chosen export markets.

My first thought when I tasted some of the wines was that Xynisteri could be the key to this next stage — it is a delightful dry white wine that would appeal to Sauvignon Blanc drinkers. That first bottle of Vasilikon Xynisteri was followed by several others of that variety from various producers and we never had one that wasn’t delicious.

wine

This observation led, of course, to the idea that indigenous varieties should be the prime focus for both red and white wines. Vouni Panayia certainly makes a strong case for the indigenous grapes of Cyprus.

I still believe in the Cypriot native varieties, but as we tasted more and more wines I realized that Cyprus winemakers can do wonders with some of the international varieties, too. Maybe a hybrid strategy is called for.

My heart wants indigenous variety wines that are not found anywhere else in the world, but my pragmatic head says that Cypriot winemakers should make the best wines they can out of other grapes, too. We had wonderful Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Why not? So long as native varieties are not forgotten. The quality of the best of these wines is so high that I think they will thrive.

The Next New Zealand?

So, to return to the headline at the top of the page that I teased you with, is Cyprus likely to be the next New Zealand — a small, almost forgotten wine-making island that makes the transition from volume to value with spectacular success?

It is not a ridiculous question. Back in the mid-1980s not many could have imagined much less boldly predicted the amazing growth that New Zealand has achieved in the last 30 years. That same conversation (Do Kiwis make wine?) that I had about Cyprus at the start of this column could have been about New Zealand wine back then.

That said, Cyprus is not likely to be the next New Zealand. No one is. New Zealand’s unexpected success was the product of global market conditions that don’t exist in exactly the same way today due to the rapid expansion of wine production in other New World nations. The market space that New Zealand has been able to fill doesn’t exist in the same way for other wine exporting countries any more.

But Cyprus doesn’t have to be the next New Zealand to be successful. Wine-makers on this small island have great potential and if they can only work together to realize it in domestic and international wine markets, that will be good enough.

Maybe in 30  years we will ask if some other country has the potential to be the next Cyprus? Wouldn’t that be delicious!

2017 Cyprus Wineries Visited

Ezousa Winery

Nelion Winery

Tsangarides Winery

Tsiakkas Winery

Vasilikon Winery

Vlassides Winery

Vouni Panayia Winery

Zambartas Winery

Look Through the Rainbow: Cyprus Wine’s History of Boom and Bust

rainbow

We were sitting in the sleek, modern Vlassides Winery tasting the wonderful wines of Sophocles Vlassides and hearing his strong views on wine, Cypriot wine, and his own ambitious winery project, when it started to rain.

Weather can be complicated in these mountains and soon the sun began to shine through the showers creating first a simple rainbow, then a richer multicolored arc, and finally a pair of rainbows nestled together. From our winery perch we could see both ends of the rainbow (where pots of gold are said to rest) firmly rooted in the vineyards below.

Rainbow, vineyard, pot of gold — what a perfect metaphor for Cyprus wines, I thought. But the sharply analytical Sophocles Vlassides (who studied winemaking at UC Davis as a Fulbright Scholar) popped my mental bubble. Rainbows are pretty, but we were really looking at the wrong thing. If you want to understand Cyprus wine today, don’t look at the rainbows, look through them to the mountain across the valley.

If you look through the rainbows on Sue’s photo above you will see the remnants of dozens  of terraces that once were planted to vines that, along with hundreds of similar vineyard areas, formed the basis of the great Cyprus wine boom.

The Surprising History of Cypriot Wine

I had never tasted a Cypriot wine before we arrived in Pafos for the Cyprus Wine Competition. You might not have tasted one either because most of the wines are consumed in Cyprus these days and only a trickle enters export market pipelines. But this wasn’t always the case.

Cypriot wines were once well known and some even famous in European wine circles according to the Oxford Companion to Wine‘s history. Pliny the Elder, the Roman “Robert Parker,” praised them, for example. Cyprus fell under Venetian influence for a time and its  wines circulated widely. I have a reproduction of a book called Wines of Cyprus by Giovanni Mariti that was written to explain Cypriot wine to international consumers. It is dated 1772. and was first published in Florence.wines-of-cyprus

Commandaria, Cyprus’s signature sweet wine, commands an important role in the country’s wine history. Indeed, Wines of Cyprus talks of little else. Along with Tokaj, Vin de Constance and a few other treasured sweet wines, Commandaria was a “King of Wines and Wine of Kings.” Ironically, my book was written during the period of Ottoman rule when the Cypriot wine trade and the industry itself slowly declined in importance.

Cyprus came under British administration between 1878 and 1960 (so UK electrical plugs are needed and autos drive on the left side of the road). Cyprus “sherry” became an important export during this period — we saw a few old bottles at the Cyprus Wine Museum in Erimi Village — but this trade has faded away, too.

Look Through the Rainbow

A variety of circumstances led to a boom in production and export of cheap basic wines and grape must concentrate (some of which was reconstituted and fermented as British wine) in the years after the British exit.  The grapes to make these wines (international and indigenous varieties) came from the vineyards we saw (and many others like them) when we looked through the rainbow at Vlassides.  Yields might have been high in those days, but it is pretty clear that production costs were high, too. No machine harvesting on steep terraced slopes.

The Cyprus export boom collapsed in two stages according to the industry people we talked with.  Competition from cheaper New World producers such as Chile and Australia crowded Cypriot wine out of some markets. The collapse of the Soviet Union drained dry previously reliable Eastern European markets for basic wine. The Cypriot bulk wine boom went to bust.

A Quality Revolution

The movement from unmarketable quantity to desirable quality began in the 1980s, according to the Oxford Companion, led by the “Big 4” producers: KEO, SODAP (a cooperative), ETKO and Loel. Change accelerated after 2004 when Cyprus joined the European Union. Subsidies to cheap wine exports ended and uneconomic vineyards like the one we saw were grubbed up.

The contrast between past and future was clear to see as we talked wine with Sophocles  Vlassides at his modern facility tasting the tense, structured wines that he makes from international varieties (perhaps reflecting his UC Davis training) and indigenous varieties, too.  Sue and I took home a bottle of his excellent Syrah and Panos Kakaviatos, who was in our media group, opted for an unexpected Sauvignon Blanc.

What is the state of the Cyprus wine industry today? Are there pots of gold at the vineyard rainbow ends ? Or have I stretched this metaphor a bit too far? Come back in two weeks (after Independence Day) for observations and analysis.

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In the meantime, here are some rainbows for you to ponder.