Wine talk: The Eastern Mediterranean pioneers

The whole Eastern Mediterranean is now geared to growing and producing wine with individuality and quality, in a way unthought-of before.

XYNISTERI: OLD Vine vineyard in Cyprus owned by Zambartas Winerie (photo credit: Courtesy)
XYNISTERI: OLD Vine vineyard in Cyprus owned by Zambartas Winerie
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Eastern Mediterranean was the cradle of the wine industry. This meeting place between southeastern Europe and the Middle East was where wine culture began. The Fertile Crescent was good to wine and wine was good for trade and business. However, that was ancient history!
In the intermediate period, Jews and Christians never stopped making wine, although this was really preserving a domestic tradition and in no way could be called an industry.
It was only in the 19th century that commercial winemaking was reintroduced. The beginnings of new wine industries were first flagged up by the founding of ETKO by Christodoulos Haggipavlu in 1844 in Cyprus; followed by Ksara, set up by Jesuits in 1857 in Lebanon; then Archaia Claus, established by Gustav Klaus in 1861 in Greece.
In Israel, the revival of a wine industry dated from the founding of Carmel by Edmond de Rothschild in 1882. Doluca and Kavaklidere were the first private sector wineries in Turkey. Doluca was founded by Nihat A. Kutman in 1926, and Kavaklidere by Cenap in 1929.
DOMAINE BARGYLUS is a Syrian wine, considered one of the finest wines in the Eastern Mediterranean.Photo: CourtesyDOMAINE BARGYLUS is a Syrian wine, considered one of the finest wines in the Eastern Mediterranean.Photo: Courtesy
The Eastern Mediterranean of the 20th century was dominated by large monopoly-sized wineries, like Carmel Mizrahi in Israel, but the wine was not great. Wineries focused on inexpensive brands and high-volume sales. The main objective was simply production and distribution, rather than branding or any pursuit of quality. When I started in the wine trade, the Eastern Mediterranean was a historical and archaeological memory. The one thing that it was not known for was the quality of its wines!
Greek wine was probably symbolized by the liter bottles of Domestica found on the back shelf display of Doner Kebab kiosks in London, or Retsina, the white wine flavored with pine resin that was encountered by tourists. Turkish wine was not on the radar at all. If the Turks drank anything, it was Raki.
Cypriot wines were very successful in terms of sales, punching well above their weight, but the objective was volume not quality. Cyprus Sherry (to Britain), bulk wine to the Soviet Union, and Ghluwein to Germany were strong markets. Lebanese wine was regarded as quaint, but the dominant winery was owned by monks, and for a long time decisions were under the thumb of the Vatican in Rome. In any case, the Lebanese far preferred Arak to wine.
Israeli wines were generally oxidized, lacking fruit, and the image was of sweet wines.
Fast forward to today and I believe the Eastern Mediterranean is one of the world’s most dynamic wine regions. The whole area is now geared to growing and producing wine with individuality and quality, in a way unthought-of before. The heroes who brought about the change were catalysts to a new dawn in this ancient world of winemaking, which in a couple of decades somersaulted into a new world of modernity, technology and quality.
SOPHOCLES VLASSIDES, the pioneer winemaker of Cyprus. Owner of Vlasssides Winery. Photo: CourtesySOPHOCLES VLASSIDES, the pioneer winemaker of Cyprus. Owner of Vlasssides Winery. Photo: Courtesy
The first winery to show the Greeks the way was Domaine Carras in Halkidiki. It was founded in 1966 by Ioannis Carras, who was determined to make a wine that would compete with the best in the world. Money was no object. He employed the iconic wine consultant Emile Peynaud, and originally planted Bordeaux varieties. Later they flirted with rare Greek varieties (including Malagousia).
Carras employed the young Evangelos Gervassiliou, a student of Peynaud, as winemaker. Today Carras is regarded as Greece’s most famous winemaker. By the mid-1970s, people realized that the idea of quality from Greece was something tangible that could be achieved in modern times. There followed the rise of the small winery, and from the 1990s Greek wine never looked back.
As for Lebanon, a Francophile named Gaston Hochar founded Chateau Musar in 1930. It became the best wine in Lebanon but was scarcely known by most Lebanese, let alone anyone internationally. Wine was drunk only by the French residents in Beirut. That was until the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979, when Michael Broadbent, MW of Christies, one of the iconic giants of the wine world, found the wine.
The winery never looked back. Under the canny, charismatic and unique leadership of Serge Hochar, Gaston’s son, Château Musar began to be regarded as one of the great wines of the world and its success catapulted little Lebanon into the drawing rooms of a staid wine world. Wine lovers were fascinated by the exotic idea of a wine from Lebanon and enchanted by the charm of Serge, who became known as one the world’s great wine personalities. Today Lebanese wine is no longer a one-winery country. Lebanon has a vibrant wine industry and many Lebanese wineries are making really fine wines.
YIANNIS BOUTARIS of Kir Yianni Winery. A pioneer of the Greek wine revolution. Photo: CourtesyYIANNIS BOUTARIS of Kir Yianni Winery. A pioneer of the Greek wine revolution. Photo: Courtesy
In Israel, the story was closer to home. The roots of the revolution took place in 1976 when moshavim (cooperative farms) and kibbutzim (collective farms) planted the first vineyards on the high-elevation Golan Heights. In 1982 these pioneers decided to make an experimental Sauvignon Blanc from their vineyards. The results were pretty poor, but way ahead of anything produced in Israel at the time. So in 1983, four kibbutzim and four moshavim formed a partnership to found the Golan Heights Winery.
The CEO of the winery was a canny kibbutznik named Shimshon Welner, who had experience with apples but was new to wine. He sought the services of a wine consultant from California, Peter Stern.
During this time, he and Welner shook up the establishment. Winemakers were employed who were graduates from the University of California, Davis. They brought New World technology to the vineyard and winery. Decision-making in the vineyard for the first time reverted from the grower to the winery. Harvesting was at night. Wines were fermented in temperature-controlled stainless tanks. Aging was in small French oak barrels.
It all seems obvious today, but then it was trailblazing. If you have not understood the picture, think of Robert Mondavi’s influence in the wine revolution in California. The Golan Heights Winery’s effect on Israeli wine was no less significant, albeit on a smaller scale.
So when we arrived at the 2000s, Greece, Lebanon and Israel had reinvented themselves partly because of the pioneers mentioned, and partly because of the response of others to their successes. Turkey and Cyprus were left behind, but in the last 20 years, they, too, have also made great strides of their own.
The roots of change in Turkey had begun back in the late 1990s. Then, Gulor Winery and Sarafin were the first to plant the noble, international varieties. The Sarafin project was higher profile. It was a joint venture between Guven Nil, who owned the vineyards, and Ahmet Kutman of Doluca Winery, one of the stalwarts of Turkish wine who had studied at UC Davis.
During this time, the Turkish wine industry seemed to develop mainly in the west of the country, in the Thrace and the Aegean regions.
Against the trend, the other prominent large winery, Kavaklidere, quietly continued to make wine from then unfashionable varieties in forgotten regions. They proudly and stoically focused on varieties like Bogazkere and Okuzgozu from the Eastern Anatolia, and Kalecik Karasi, Narince and Emir from Central Anatolia. In those days, I had heard of only two Turkish wines, Sarafin and beautifully named, Buzbag, a rustic blend of Okusgozu and Bogazkere!
Buzbag was made by Tekel, the government monopoly. In 2004, the wines and spirits producer was privatized and Kayra was formed.
They appointed as their winemaker Daniel O’Donnell from California. This period coincided with the founding of a number of boutique wineries geared toward quality, and the wine world, from Masters of Wine downward, became fascinated with the Turkish local varieties for the first time. O’Donnell, being an English speaker, was a natural communicator and became the most visual spokesman for Turkish wine.
It is sad to hear that Turkish winemakers of today put up with unbelievable government restrictions and a vociferous, official anti-alcohol lobby. This is at a time when the wines have never been better. All wine lovers should support the courage and determination of Turkey’s wine producers.
The wine industry in Cyprus was rocked to its core by a number of changes. The outlawing of the word “Sherry” outside Spain, the collapse of the Soviet Union and joining the European Community meant that export markets collapsed, and Cyprus opened itself to competition.
The high-volume production days were over. As a result, the Cypriots have become more quality-oriented. Like in Israel, where the wine industry moved north and east in search of higher altitudes, the Cypriots moved to the Troodos Mountains, and as families abandoned vineyards because of declining demands, the quality wineries began to grow and manage their own vineyards.
THE GREAT, and one and only Serge Hochar. The master behind Lebanon’s Chateau Musar. Photo: CourtesyTHE GREAT, and one and only Serge Hochar. The master behind Lebanon’s Chateau Musar. Photo: Courtesy
Here, there are two heroes. First was the late Akis Zambartas – the CEO of the giant KEO – who found, identified and revitalized the country’s little-known, disappearing indigenous varieties. He later founded Zambartas Wineries, which is now run by his son, Marcos, and regarded as one of the leading wineries in Cyprus.
The other was Sophocles Vlassides. He came from a family of grape growers, but was the first to leave the comforts of the island’s traditions. He went to study at UC Davis and returned to set new standards at his top-notch Vlassides Winery. He planted his own vineyards, invested in small French oak barrels, and built a beautiful state-of-the-art winery. He proved to be an inspiration to the industry as a whole as it started to change gear.
Today every Eastern Mediterranean country is making the best wine it has made in 2,000 years. Many newcomers have invested in wine, building purpose-built wineries, solely geared to quality.
One of the best wines in our area is a Syrian wine called Domaine Bargylus. There is also quality Jordanian and Palestinian wine. It is a fascinating region. The more you scratch the surface, the more you find.
We should be grateful to those pioneers who created change and inspired the new thinking in their respective countries. The Eastern Mediterranean is at the same time the newest and most ancient wine region: A new-world region in one of the most ancient wine-producing regions on Earth.
The writer has been advancing Israeli wine for over 30 years and is referred to as ‘The English voice of Israeli wine.’