Greek myth tells us that Dionysus, son of Zeus, the king of the gods, gave wine to the world. In recognition, his face appears on the badge that sommeliers wear.
Wine has been made on the Greek island of Lemnos for at least 3,300 years because Homer mentions the quality of the product in his Iliad. Lemnos sent wine to sustain the Achaeans, the collective name for the forces allied against Troy in the Trojan war.
Until about a century ago the vineyards of Lemnos were planted mainly with indigenous grapes like limnio, kuntra and fokiana. Muscat of Alexandria, known locally as Moscato Alexandrias, was introduced from about 1910 and has flourished to the point that it is the premier grape on the island, making dry and sweet delights.
Traditionally Lemnos produced more red wine than white, but that is changing because locals prefer white with their seafood, available in abundance and quality on an island located in the centre of the northern Aegean Sea about 65km off the Turkish coast. It was because of this proximity to Turkey that Allied forces established hospitals during the disastrous invasion of Turkey at Gallipoli in April 1915. Centenary commemoration of the campaign took me to Lemnos, where a plaque was unveiled in the Portianos military cemetery to honour the work of the nurses who tended the Gallipoli wounded.
Locals vary in their estimate of the number of hectares of vines on Lemnos – somewhere between 700 and 1200. Lemnos has few mountains – the highest peaks are about 400 metres – so the island is windy much of the year. This has the advantage of blowing away diseases. These winds also cool vineyards during the growing season, helping grapes retain acidity and develop complex aromas. Breezes temper the effects of the extreme summer heat and provide for an extended ripening period that concentrates flavours.
The island exudes health and vitality. In spring wildflowers and wild herbs offer sweet aromas and the sun shines gently. The majority of vineyards are on the southern side of the island, which locals describe as being shaped like a butterfly.
The wines of Lemnos could best be described as bright and fresh. The volcanic soils vary in quality. Soils with low fertility help to stress vines, producing small berries with concentrated flavours. Generally agriculture flourishes on Lemnos. As my knowledgeable guide Kostas Katenidis explained, “You put something in the ground on Lemnos and it grows.”
Muscat is used to make dry whites under the PDO Lemnos classification, as well as sweet and semi-sweet styles labelled as PDO Muscat of Lemnos. The latter can be quite high in alcohol, causing one to feel sleepy after lunch when they are served to accompany a wide range of Greek desserts.
The main red grape is called Lemnia (from Lemnos), also known as Kalabaki. It is listed as one of the 10 most ancient varieties in the world. Berries are small and dark with many pips, which can mean high tannins because pips and skin are the main contributors to the level of tannin. Locals tell me the taste is not pleasant and for that reason it is not eaten as a table grape like Muscat.
Lemnio was said to produce Aristotle’s favorite wine. The queen of wine writers Jancis Robinson said Lemnio was “almost certainly the Lemnia grape described by Aristotle as a specialty of the island of Lemnos”.
The red iron-rich soil of Lemnos is known as “terra Lemnia” and the Greeks and Romans believed it had healing properties. The ancient Greek term for the soil was “Lemnia ge”. This is the name of a wine produced at the Chatzigeorgiou Estate. Chatzigeorgiou loosely translates as George the leader. It is a family-owned estate in the village of Karpasi that makes about 270,000 bottles a year, about two thirds of them white, and exports to Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa and China.
Chatzigeorgiou senior founded the estate and was entirely self taught as a winemaker. He sent his daughter and son to wine school in Bordeaux. They make five still wines, two dessert wines from Muscat of Alexandria, and a lovely semi-sweet sparkling known as Muscat of Lemnos. This is a delightful wine with good acidity and a wonderful texture that would be refreshing on the hottest of days. Most of their wines retail at the winery, built in 2007, for about 8-12 euro.
Lemnos is one of the best places in Greece for sweet wines. They go with a wide array of desserts like fruit salad and fruit pies as well as traditional desserts such as dough balls fried in oil and smothered in local honey.
Another fascinating wine is the Kaviro, a rose that is a blend of Muscat and Lemnio. It is named after the Kavirians, a mysterious group of gods worshipped on Lemnos and said to be the protector of sailors such as Jason and the Argonauts.
Originally the grapes were fermented separately and the resulting wine blended but Paulina Chatzigeorgiou now ferments them together. This produces a zingy fruit-forward wine with aromas of strawberries that sings when drunk with the local fetta-style cheese, or spinach and cheese pastries known as spanokopita.
The ancient method of storing wine in clay jugs known as amphora is being revived. These jugs held the equivalent of about four bottles. Dionysus drank from them with a cup made of sheep’s horn decorated with bronze or gold known as a rhyton. We should be grateful to Dionysus for bringing wine to the beautiful island of Lemnos.
Disclosure: The Greek National Tourism Organisation in the UK provided Stephen Quinn’s airfare and Lemnos Tourism supplied accommodation and meals.