Keo Heritage Maratheftiko 2001
Cyprus is known as the island of Aphrodite (the goddess rose into existence from the sea
foam nearby), a fact that makes me somewhat cautious, since over the course of my
philosophical ramblings (and yes, philosophy was my major in college) I have developed a
greater affinity with the goddess Athena. Those wishing to delve deeper into the sense or
nonsense behind this can read my
essay on goddess choice. The gist has to do with the so-called
“Judgment of Paris.” This refers to the choice made by the Trojan prince named Paris, and
not to the controversial blind tasting of California and French wines about which people keep
writing books and making movies. Paris chose Aphrodite as “the fairest,” spurning the
goddesses Hera and Athena, because Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in
the world, Helen. Paris had to abduct Helen, causing a war of revenge, devastation, and
Today, however, if you choose Aphrodite by looking into the wines of Cyprus you can have less risky results. The Keo Heritage Maratheftiko gives you a touch of a grape whose origins may be too old to calculate, all the while bringing a quality and a style perfectly in tune with our present millennium. Athena, goddess of wisdom, could not fault that I think.
The big red grape of Cyprus has long been the easy-to-grow Mavro, which has rarely produced wines of any distinction. Traditional vineyards, especially in the Troodos mountains around the town of Pitsilia, would frequently grow Maratheftiko (also called Bambakada) among the Mavro; presumably in the old days these two grapes were co-fermented, the Maratheftiko adding acid, tannin and interest to the Mavro wines. As time—in the case of Cyprus many hundreds of years—progressed, the Maratheftiko moved to the endangered species list. This venerable vine was only rediscovered in the 1980s, attracting the attention of a number of growers, including Keo, the island's largest beverage conglomerate.
And Maratheftiko needs attention. It is a high-acid, high tannin grape that is difficult to grow because it is one of the only grapes that is not a hermaphrodite (you detect the name of the goddess in that word of course), meaning that male and female varieties have to be planted close to each other to ensure proper pollination. Maratheftiko's other problem is that it is not very productive. Move beyond these challenges, and the potential is there, especially if, like Keo, you marry this ancient grape with twenty-first century French oak. The $12 Heritage enjoys a full year in a combination of new and one-year-old barrels.
The center of the wine is ruby, while a wide outside rim is an appealing garnet you don't often see. Sweet oak, vanilla and black cherry are the first aroma notes, but deeper down there is blackberry, mountain herb, a smokiness reminiscent of lapsang souchong tea and a nice bit of leather.
In the mouth, the wine's key attribute, both a plus and a minus, is its acidity. I can appreciate the panoply of flavor this acidity brings, and yet I want a break from it every now and then. That said, there are riches here. Fruit is cherry, black cherry, prune and pomegranate. Toast appears, as does cigar box and cedar. You get a woodiness reminiscent of ice cream sticks. The extra layer—the winner of this wine—is a bitter layer: root vegetables, truffles, mushrooms, twigs.
The long finish of the Heritage seems at first to be all puckering acid combined with firm drying tannin, but that warm bitter tinge just mentioned comes into play; I can only liken it to the civilized delight I find in the occasional Campari.
As a final observation, it comes to my mind that Maratheftiko is more difficult to pronounce
than Malbec or Merlot—I will give the Greek language its due and am open to instruction. As
well-tied to the Cypriot hills as this wine is, it has a mainstream Bordeaux feel to it. You
want to enjoy it at some sophisticated venue in London or Paris, but then shock everyone by
dancing and throwing plates.
Winemaking on Cyprus goes back about as far as going back goes.
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman
Judgment of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens
Botticelli's Birth of Venus (Aphrodite)