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Meet the judges: Q&A with Terry Kandylis

Group head sommelier at Noble Rot, Terry Kandylis will return to Decanter World Wine Awards judging in 2024 as Regional Chair for Greece and Cyprus. Get to know more about him...

Titled Best Sommelier 2015 in Greece, Sommelier of the Year 2016 in the UK and representing Greece in the European Final in Vienna in 2017, Terry Kandylis is now the Group Head Sommelier at Noble Rot in London.

Growing up in Evia, Greece, Kandylis’ earliest encounters with wine were humble, centred around homemade wine that his family produced with purchased grapes. It wasn’t until his cousin, a sommelier, gave him a glass of quality Greek wine that his curiosity grew.

Working part-time in restaurants whilst studying Physics at the University of Athens, Kandylis experienced a pivotal moment when he served Pouilly-Fuissé instead of Pouilly-Fumé. ‘A classic rookie mistake’ he commented. Guided by his mentor, a restaurateur, he began learning more about different grape varieties, regions and wine styles.

Fast forward, Kandylis has worked at numerous fine-dining establishments including The Fat Duck, The Ledbury and private members club 67 Pall Mall before holding the position of Group Wine Director at Caprice Holdings Ltd.

Announced Regional Chair for Greece and Cyprus at Decanter World Wine Awards 2023, he will once again oversee the panel at the 2024 competition.

Ahead of judging this May – and with entries closing soon on 15th March – we get to know more about Kandylis, his proudest moments, thoughts on the future of Greek and Cypriot wines, as well as advice for producers.

Tell us about yourself. What does a typical day look like?

I’m now the Group Head Sommelier at Noble Rot and we have three sites. We’re a very wine centric group of restaurants. We started as a magazine which is still doing better and better every year and I love what the team is doing, their ethos and approach, and I think we’re very like-minded when it comes to the wines we like and the producers we admire.

My daily or weekly routine includes liaising with the Head Sommelier, all the sommeliers and tasks in each restaurant, being by their side, answering any questions they might have, guiding them and hopefully mentoring them in their steps. In a way, I want to transfer my experiences from the places I’ve been and the wines tied to them.

What is your proudest achievement so far?

I’m quite proud for 2020-2021 when I embarked on a winemaking journey. I bought some vineyards in Ribera del Duero and I started my own winemaking project.

I think the stories and the memories of my grandfather making his own wine, and of course, diving deeper into the world of wine and being able and lucky enough to meet producers and try some of the world’s best wines inspired me. Plus, hospitality was suffering in the middle of the pandemic and I really wanted to embark on this journey.

So one of my proudest achievements is resuscitating some extremely old bush vines. Some of them were abandoned or about to be grubbed up. I feel that making my own wine in Ribera del Duero captures my philosophy and my understanding about the wines of the world.

What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in the wine industry so far?

Staying humble. Wine is a fantastic beverage; I call it the social lubricant in the western world. I’m coming from Greece where it was always a vital part in the symposiums and meetings of people. The ancient sommeliers – ‘οenohoos’ as they used to call them – had even more power in their hands!

We’re not going to the moon. We need to stay humble. Wine can teach us so many lessons. When tasting a wine blind, one allows their senses to be part of a play where they’re trying to think about the origin of the wine, the variety or how it’s been made and, quite frequently, they might guess that wrong, so staying grounded I believe is important.

Which wine producing region or varieties would you encourage people to explore?

If speaking about my native Greek varieties, I would definitely say the grapes of Santorini, Robola from Kefalonia when it comes to whites and the amazing varieties in Crete. Then, definitely Xinomavro in terms of reds and Limiona.

Now, when it comes to the wines of the world, the regions that have always been inspiring to me are definitely Burgundy, Northern Rhône and Bordeaux. Now I’m making wine in Spain, so I love Tempranillo and the other local grapes. I love Garnacha, which for me is the Pinot Noir of the South. I actually adore Garnacha!

Finally, I think sommeliers need to try more classic Bordeaux because these wines can be great. They might have fallen out of fashion within the younger generation but I feel like a lot of things are changing and becoming again more relevant to the young consumers. Bordeaux wine, especially with age, is one of the finest wines in the world!

What’s exciting in the wine world right now?

I believe we’re currently in one of the most exciting eras. We now have the scientific medium to analyse old techniques and prove whether what we’re doing is right. We’ve learned from the mistakes of the past and from the systematic cultivations in the 60s and 70s. Now we have a much better understanding and appreciation of what the old farmers were doing, hence the direction towards biodiversity, sustainability but also regenerative viticulture are more relevant than ever.

We’re indeed facing a lot of problems like global warming, irregular climatic systems, floods, frosts, disease pressure that are unprecedented, but at the same time, I think it’s in our hands to reverse the situation. Starting from farming, it’s important that we create an ecosystem that is alive, strong and sustainable rather than just a monocultural organism that is fed by chemicals.

Why do you think people should try wines from Greece and Cyprus?

Greece, and now Cyprus, are coming very strongly into the play. Winemaking and viticulture in these countries is probably at least 4000 years old, so there’s a very long history. We can talk for hours about what the Greeks have contributed to the wine world, but the main thing that Greece and Cyprus now offer is amazing native varieties only to be found in these specific pockets of the world. Some of them are so rare that they can only be found in a small part of the country.

However, although we have a very long winemaking history, I would say that the modern history is quite short. The wine revolution started from the 80s onwards. Greeks and Cypriots are now discovering all these unique varieties they have in their hands and it takes years of experimentation to understand them better.

I think what Greece and Cyprus offer are unique and exciting wines, the majority of which are at very appealing prices and can please every wine consumer and connoisseur. Some of them are truly world class and I don’t just say that because I’m from there! On the contrary – I would say I’m probably the hardest judge when it comes to wines from my native country. Right now, we can certainly say that some producers are really crafting amazing wines from varieties that are purely indigenous and I think they have such unique qualities and personality.

For the restaurateurs, these wines offer amazing value for money, especially now that prices for Burgundy and some Italian wine regions have skyrocketed. Consumers can now find really good wines that don’t break the bank and Greece and Cyprus can offer this.

What’s your advice for DWWA entrants?

I think it’s important that the wines are true to their region and their terroir. I would say that many of the foreign consumers who buy a Cypriot or Greek wine will buy something that is quintessentially Cypriot or Greek, like a Xinisteri, a Maratheftiko, a Limiona, a Mavrodaphni.

When it comes to international blends, they still need to have typicity. Some varieties have adapted better than others. For example, I believe some of the Rhône varieties are performing great. What’s important though, is that the wines are true to their origin, have character and personality. I would say maybe think less of winemaking and more of variety and terroir typicity.

Where do you see the future of  wines from Greece and Cyprus?

It’s important for these countries to become more extroverted. What helped the renaissance of Greek wine was actually the recession in the country. Back in 2008-2009 when the domestic market collapsed, the winemakers had to look abroad. Up until then, we were making wine for the Greeks, and now much more wine is getting exported.

There are already many pockets of Greeks abroad like in Munich, Chicago, New York or Australia that have helped in the early days, but now it should all be about education. Educating the sommeliers and the trade to understand the indigenous varieties. I think countries like Greece and Portugal have such a wide array of amazing native varieties that deserve to be explored. We’ve just started in a way! I’ve been lucky and privileged enough to see the growth of Greek wine in the UK.

When I came in London, very few people were keen to try Greek wine. It was still associated with the badly made Retsina. Now you see Retsinas on wine lists! Properly made Retsinas – one of the most ancient styles of wine – being served and admired by an international clientele.

That’s why I always say this is just the beginning. Everyone should keep working, from the farmers and the wine growers to people involved with exports. It’s important to bring people in the country and educate them. It’s a continuous effort which takes a lot of work.

It’s important to be established and in front of the eyes and, of course, on the palates of the wine connoisseurs as a quality-producing country. We don’t make much wine; we are more or less the same size as Austria, so focusing on quality is key.

There are very few wineries that have the capacity to produce wines for supermarkets. The restaurant trade and the wine bars is where the wines have better chances to succeed. It’s impossible to compete with the lower price points of Chile, Argentina, Australia.

What’s an interesting fact about wines from Greece or Cyprus?

When hosting masterclasses I always said that I snowboard in Greece, and people were surprised… but, in fact, Greece is the third most mountainous country in Europe.

Another amazing fact is that Cyprus is phylloxera free. The island is so isolated that phylloxera never made it there. Also, there are many amazing terroirs and some of them in high altitudes. Think of Troodos mountains in Cyprus where you can easily find a vineyard at 1000m.

Finally, everything about Santorini, from the volcanic islands in the southern part of the Aegean to the unique vine training systems that look like bird nests.

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