Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Deciphering Cyprus

What do most of know about the wines of Cyprus? Precious little, I'd bet. But going to a recent tasting of Cypriot wines in Manhattan recently, I learned a lot in a little time, mainly because people kept whispering facts into my ears are regular intervals. Cyprus' wine-growing tradition is one of the oldest in the world. Check. Phylloxera never penetrated the island's shores, so vine here still have European rootstock. Check. Ancient kings sipped Commandaria from jewel-encrusted goblets thousands of years ago. Check.

Ah, yes, Commandaria. If you know anything about Cyprus, it's probably that name. Commandaria is Cyprus' special fortified wine, made from native Mavro (red) and Xynisteri (white) grapes, using the same methods Richard I and Turkish Sultan Suleiman II encountered centuries ago. The grapes are dried on straw for ten days, then fermented very slowly, for two to three months, before spending two years in barrel. A sort of Sherry-like Solera method is used, with a little older wine left in each barrel as new wine is poured in. (This is somewhat ironic, since, to my tastes, Commadaria is closer to Port in character, with lots of date, fig and mature fruit flavors.)

There were three Commandarias on hand. Every winemaker out there seems to make one. Keo's St. John Commandaria, a famous brand, was begin served, but I'm afraid its thunder was stolen a bit by the presence of Etko's Commandaria Centurion. If I am to believe the pourer, this delicacy is aged fully 100 years, meaning whoever put it in barrels probably died sometime back in the 1970s or so. Another report on the wine says it is made from a cuvee ranging in age from 30 to 100 years. That sounds more believable. (Though 100 years makes for a better story.)

The flavor was remarkably similar to the younger Commandarias, only with more subtlety and finesse. Figs, dates, raisins, currents, every wrinkled fruit you can think of. It goes for $150 a bottle, making it a nice present in case you're looking or something to give me.

I'd love to say something good about the regular still wines, but I'm afraid I found most of them only acceptable, with over-aggressive acidity and underdeveloped fruit. The Xyniesteris can come off a lot like Vihno Verdes, which isn't too bad, and which I might like better if I were drinking it while lounging on a Cyprus beach.

One happy exception was a Keo red wine called Heritage. It is made from the Maratheftiko grape, which, I am told, is highly volatile, acidic and tannic, and needs some time in barrel to settle down. Hence, the new release is a 2001. The wine was impressive, with muscular acidity, a great deal of depth, understated fruit and plenty of green and earthy notes throughout. It had a real character of its own. It's complex and gave me plenty to think about—mainly that I'll have to keep on considering Cyprus.

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