Greece has about 300 indigenous grape varieties and these are featuring in the rebirth of the country’s wine industry, particularly in northern Greece. Well-trained winemakers with a global perspective are working to make the world aware of their wines.
For historical reasons Greece mostly produced bulk table wine for export for much of the 20th century. The Ottoman Empire occupied Greece for more than 400 years until 1821. In that time wine production declined and only a handful of remote monasteries kept traditions alive.
When the Turks left they destroyed many vineyards. The phylloxera louse devastated Macedonian vineyards at the start of the twentieth century.
But after replanting and heavy investment in technology and training, that region’s wines have gained a worldwide reputation. Some of the leaders include Domaine Gerovassiliou, Tsantali Rapsani, Katogi Averoff, Alpha Estate and Kir-Yianni Estate.
The gods of ancient Greece and their home, Mount Olympus, figure strongly in northern Greece. The mountain looms above many of the vineyards. Worship of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, spread throughout the Mediterranean in the 1,500 years before the birth of Christ. Dionysus’ mother Semele is said to have lived on the slopes of Mount Vermion near Naoussa, one of the key winemaking centres in northern Greece.
Historians suggest that Greece introduced winemaking to their colonies in Italy, France and Spain from about 800 years before Christ.
The ancient Greeks believed that wine helped them achieve greater intellectual clarity and spiritual awareness. They gathered at “symposia” where they would eat and talk about philosophy while drinking wine. Moderation was important. Diluting wine with water was a mark of sophistication. The Greek word “krasis” meaning a mixture of wine and water gives us “krasi” – the current word for wine.
Greek wine has become regulated in recent years in accordance with European Union rules. The phrase “protected designation of origin” (PDO) means wines are produced from specific varieties using traditional methods. Northern Greece has six PDOs. In the Rapsani PDO, for example, wines can only be made with Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto grapes. Xinomavro translates as “sour black” and is the main red variety in the northern Greece. It is becoming seen as a flagship grape.
Young Xinomavro has aggressive tannins but the grape has great ageing potential. Wines older than a decade offer aromas of tomatoes, herbs and olives. The tannins soften yet provide impressive structure. Xinomavro is sometimes likened to Nebbiolo, used to make the great reds of Barolo in Italy. If you drink young Xinomavro, try versions that are blended with grapes like Merlot and Syrah that help soften those tannins.
Malagousia is grown mainly in Macedonia and makes elegant textured whites with zingy acidity and intense perfumes. The grape was nearing extinction by the late 1970s. Vangelis Gerovassiliou founded Ktima Gerovassiliou in 1981 at Epanomi, about 25 kilometres from the city of Thessaloniki, to rescue and honour this grape. His 2013 Malagousia is an elegant combination of citrus zing with flavours of pear and mango.
The meticulously-tended vineyard houses a museum of wine artefacts that Gerovassiliou has collected, including about 2,600 corkscrews and examples of clay amphorae used to carry wine and olive oil. Many were recovered from shipwrecks and are covered with barnacles. Wines from this estate are sophisticated and elegant. Assistant winemaker Thrass Giantsidis is justifiably proud of the estate’s 2011 Avaton, a luminous blend of Limnio, Mavroudi and Mavrotragano. Limnio is the oldest-known Greek variety, discussed in an earlier column.
Evangelos Averoff founded the Katogi Averoff Winery in the mountain village of Metsovo almost 60 years ago. He planted Greece’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, with cuttings from Chateaux Margaux in France. Alexandros Ioannou said his grandfather aimed to show that Greece could produce great wine. Vines were planted at more than 1,000 metres above sea level, the highest in Greece. Katogi means the entrance to a mansion in Greek. Their range of 14 wines combine class and elegance.
Alpha Estate is in the coldest appellation in Greece, in the remote region of Amyndeon, and has gained international attention in recent years. Wine Enthusiast magazine named Angelos Iatridis as winemaker of the year in 2014. Export manager Kostas Arvanitakis said alpha, the first letter of the Greek alphabet, was meant to symbolize the rebirth of Greek winemaking. Alpha State exports to 32 countries and makes about 500,000 bottles a year.
This beautiful estate, nestled in mountains, owns vines almost a century old. The flagship Alpha One – 2008 is the current vintage – is a super wine. Backers have spent 20 million Euros in recent years upgrading the property, with plans to boost the cellar to a million bottles. The estate and its two restaurants attract about 12,000 visitors each year to this remote region, a tribute to the quality of the wine.
In 1997 Yianni Boutari left the Boutari Company, one of the biggest in Greece, to establish Ktima Kir-Yianni in the Naoussa region. Sales director Lamros Papadimitriou said Kir-Yianni’s two properties produce about a million bottles a year and exports to 22 countries. Yianni’s sons Stelios and Michalis studied oenology in California in the United States. Stelios is responsible for day-to-day operations. Michalis moved to Shanghai in 2012 to focus on Asian markets. Exports have doubled since 2013.
The 2011 Diaporos is an elegant and majestic wine, its 93 per cent of Xinomavro softened by Syrah. Fruit comes from the Ramnista block. Tastings of the 2006 and 1999 Ramnista showed how delicious Xinomavro becomes after a decade or more. The 2014 Akakies sparkling, also made from Xinomavro, highlights what this grape can do, with its cherry fruit and zingy acidity. Akakies is the Greek word for the acacia trees that grow in the region, their pink flowers resembling the colour of the sparkling wine.
The estate’s viticulturalist, Dr Haroula Spinthiropolou, is the author of Grape Varieties of Greece. She and her family own an organic estate, Argatia Winery, near the smaller of the Kir-Yianni vineyards. It focuses on indigenous varieties. The 2011 Argatia Xinomavro is polished and elegant, though like many 100 per cent Xinomavro needs time in the bottle for the tannins to soften.
Disclosure: Wines of North Greece (link here) provided accommodation and meals while Stephen Quinn was in Greece.