George Kassianos is the President of the Cyprus Sommeliers Association, the wine columnist for Sunday Cyprus Mail, Check in Magazine and wine writer at Cyprus in Style Magazine. After a lifetime in hotel management he is now the Training and Quality Manager for the Thanos Hotel Group. He is on the board of several wine committees including the Wine Expert Committee which approves appellation of wines from Cyprus. He was born and spent his early childhood in Morphou but after 1974 he relocated to Nicosia where he grew up. He now lives in Paphos.
“THE FUTURE IS VERY GOOD FOR CYPRIOT WINE”
Interview by Cyprus in Style Magazine: September 2019
WHEN DID YOUR REALISE YOU LOVED WINE?
After I finished my studies at school, I went to London to study for a degree in hotel management. After I graduated, I received a very attractive offer from Sheraton Hotels to work in their London hotels and later enter their management programme in the USA. I later decided against this and gained a lot of experience working in hotels and restaurants in London.
I actually never tasted wine until the age of 21. I had always drunk beer, brandy or whisky. Then one evening, during a meal with my father at a fish restaurant, I drank a rosé wine by Keo which I realised went really well with the meal.
This was my first appreciation of how wine can improve the taste of food. As part of my degree I had to study oenology and started with the wine laws of France – my fascination grew from there.
I had to talk to the class about the wine laws and I presented them with a Chablis and Beaujolais, which were the first wines I ever bought. I selected them after reading a book which my uncle had bought for me. I started studying wine by tasting wines and learning about them. I then went on to visit France, bought wine and took the bottles back to London.
This led me to doing extra classes at the Court of Master Sommeliers under Brian Julian. A sommelier can be defined as a trained and knowledgeable wine professional. I was obsessed with wine and also with the role of sommeliers. My first job as a sommelier was with the three Michelin starred chef, Nico Ledenis, in his restaurant in Pimlico, London.
WHAT WAS YOUR EARLY CAREER?
I was unsure if I should specialise to be a sommelier or work in hotel management but in the end, I decided to return to Cyprus. Whilst I selected hotel management with Thanos Hotels and Resorts, I also spent a lot of time still studying wine with a great emphasis on the development of Cypriot wine. I have worked in hotel management at the Annabelle Hotel, Coral Beach Hotel and Alexander the Great Hotel, all in Paphos.
In 1998 the Annabelle Hotel decided to launch a Year of Wine and I was involved in the planning and organisation of wine writers to come from the UK to Cyprus. I had the knowledge to take them around the local wineries. We went on to do a brochure about Cypriot wine, written in English and German, and won an award from the International Marketing Institute.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO WINE WRITING?
Many years ago the late Jill Campbell Mackay, a leading journalist at the time in Cyprus, came to one of my talks on wine. After this she wrote a review about it for the Cyprus Mail. She wrote the restaurant reviews for Cyprus Mail and our friendship grew as I advised her on wine pairings with her food for the reviews. When the original wine columnist for the Mail left, Jill suggested my name to take over and encouraged me to write. I have written the wine column for the Sunday Cyprus Mail since 2003. My friendship with Jill grew and we became very close; I am always very grateful for the support she offered me in my career.
DESCRIBE YOUR ROLE AS PRESIDENT OF CYPRUS SOMMELIERS ASSOCIATION.
In 2007, I attended, as a journalist, the world competition organised by the Association de la Sommellerie Internationale (ASI) in Rhodes. The year after, I became the 2nd President of the Cyprus Sommeliers Association, a position I have held since then, apart from a break between 2012 -2014 when I was re-elected. Now, as the President of CSA, our prime role is to ensure that, through the proper training of professionals, the culture of wine is promoted.
Whilst we place great emphasis on Cypriot wine, we are also working with spirits, beer, coffee, tea, chocolate, mineral water and cigars. Our priority is to ensure that members get the proper training they need. The association is a non-profit making organisation, so we must always ensure sponsorship and support from the government and private sectors.
We organise training events and represent Cyprus to the ASI through competitions such as Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa and Best Sommelier of the World. We also hold national competitions with Best Sommelier of Cyprus, which is held every 3 years, and Best Young Sommelier, which is an annual competition. We are always recruiting and encouraging new members to join our association.
HOW DO YOU SEE THE FUTURE OF CYPRIOT WINERIES?
Currently there are about twelve wineries which are leading the way in Cyprus. The ones who follow their successful methods of making good wines and marketing will do well, but the ones who don’t, will cease to exist.
The future is very good for Cypriot wine as the wineries are employing professional oenologists to look after their vineyards. They are also using more and more indigenous grape varieties and also expanding the wineries to attract visitors. They do this through the introduction of restaurants, tasting areas and lifestyle features. Of course, of paramount importance is to look after their vineyards.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR EXCITING PLANS FOR ‘THE BEST SOMMELIER OF EUROPE AND AFRICA’ AWARD COMPETITION IN CYPRUS IN 2020.
Over three years ago we decided that we would try to win the huge opportunity for Cyprus to host the Best Sommelier of Europe and Africa, mainly because we feel confident in our infrastructure and we have the vineyards here to show off our wine. Two years ago we were unanimously voted at the ASI General Assembly as the host country.
We beat other countries including Spain. We have been working on this project and it will take place on November 16th – 20th in 2020 in Limassol. In addition to the competitors, the event will include 55 of the leading wine journalists and the Sommelier Association Presidents of 65 member countries flying in to Cyprus.
This is our chance to show the world what Cyprus has to offer and also to promote our wine. All the big names in the world wine industry will be gathering in Cyprus in 2020. The last live final of the competition was live streamed to an audience in excess of 1.8 million viewers and we are hoping for a similar figure from Cyprus.
ARE YOU A RED, WHITE OR ROSÉ MAN?
I don’t have a favourite here but I do favour certain grape varieties. With red I like Pinot Noir, a grape which is difficult to grow but once you do, can produce some of the best wine in the world. With white wine I appreciate the Riesling grape which has complex, powerful qualities.
In Cyprus I am very happy to see many varieties but I am especially excited for the Xynisteri grape. I particularly look forward to the development of Promara, Morokanella, Spourtico and Yiannoudi varieties, not forgetting Commandaria, our flagship wine in Cyprus.
DO YOU ENJOY JUDGING SO MANY INTERNATIONAL COMPETITIONS?
I really do, as I am always gaining experience. With every wine that you taste you are always learning. Wine is never the same as it evolves over time. Judging competitions takes me all over the world and it gives me the chance to connect with other wine professionals to learn the latest trends. I have travelled all over Europe, South Africa, Russia, Argentina, Chile, Japan and Hong Kong to judge competitions.
WHO IS YOUR WINE HERO?
Without doubt it is Gerard Basset from France, who worked for most of his career in the UK. He had so much knowledge and passion. He also had a real vision of what a sommelier should be. I most admired his humility on meeting him. He was, in my opinion, the greatest sommelier and had every accolade in the wine industry. I was very sad when he died recently from cancer.
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS?
Obviously, right now I am working very hard towards the 2020 competition. After this I would very much like to open a School for Sommeliers in Cyprus.
I would like to create a centre of excellence for the Eastern region of Europe to train the wine professionals for the future. After this I will retire and enjoy my wine cellar, although I don’t think I will ever slow down.
Interview by Cyprus in Style Magazine.
Written by Sarah Coyne