Having decided to study medicine in Italy, Stergios Thymiopoulos was about to board his flight. Yet, he could not bear the fact that his family would sell land to finance his studies. He turned around and headed home to Trilofos, Naoussa. There, his famil...
Macedonia | Red | Xinomavro
Having decided to study medicine in Italy, Stergios Thymiopoulos was about to board his flight. Yet, he could not bear the fact that his family would sell land to finance his studies. He turned around and headed home to Trilofos, Naoussa. There, his family had been growing plums, peaches and vines for three generations. A chance meeting with Mrs Kourakou-Dragona, then President of the Wine Institute in Athens, who had instigated Greece's first appellations in 1971, had positive ramifications. She was adamant that the way forward in replanting Naoussa was Xinomavro. He heeded her advice. Grapes were sold to large négociants; a little wine and tsipouro was made. He was an enlightened farmer. Open-minded, intuitive, well-read, hardworking, and a visionary. Our talks about the birth of the Modern Greek state were memorable. He was also a man on a mission, buying hillside land on the axis of Trilofos and Fitia. He understood, better than most, nature and grape farming. In order for his vines to fully ripen on these cooler hillsides, his yields were low. He was also right on vineyard orientation and many other key quality factors such as canopy management. For all this non-greedy, common-sense approach, he endured being the butt of jokes by colleagues and friends. “One day, all this will pay off,” was his reply. It was his son, Apostolos, who studied oenology. Upon paying a visit to retired Mrs Kourakou-Dragona, she thundered, “So, you are the son of Naoussa’s best farmer! You have a tough act to follow.” The first vintage was 2003. Climate-change messages did not go unnoticed. As of 2009, he started to source grapes at higher altitudes. There is little high Naoussa where vineyards reach 500 m. Most are in this Trilofos-Fitia Naoussa PDO southernmost axis. Trilofos is at 200 m. There is a clue of the intricate geological complexity of these vineyards – just look at the travertine, quartz, and schist now enclosing the house courtyard. These were quarried from their more-recently planted vineyards. Apostolos is a risk taker: he harvests up to three weeks later than his colleagues do. A few other estates have now followed suit. He farms organically, with increasing elements of biodynamics. When locusts arrived one summer morning, he responded by releasing his flock of guinea fowl to “clean up”. A TV channel that was on hand interviewing him was able to capture this on film. It received traction on social media. His flagship Earth & Sky (Uranos in the US) is all about terroir. It shines like a beacon on a perilous foggy coastline. There is more to come: research on single-vineyard wines is redefining what Xinomavro sense-of-place snapshots can offer. For starters: there are different altitudes, old clones, and ungrafted micro-cuvées. Stergios died aged 55. Not long after, his other son, Theodore (28) died tragically in a tractor accident. Yet, Stergios’s legacy lives on. Under Apostolos’s stewardship, this estate has become Naoussa's game changer.
Indigenous yeast. Bottled unfiltered. Tasted several times in monthly intervals. Different each time. Lucent ruby. Vibrant colour on the outer rim. Strawberry-scented. Melt-in-your-mouth tannins, meshed with a high-acid, suave tannic backbone. Seamless oak. Layers of flavour. Insistent cherries on the long, mineral finish. Silky finesse. Great purity. Ethereal. An acrobatic act in a rather difficult discipline. Magnums would be an ideal companion for this tannin-management tour de force. A landmark. Best 2016–2036.
31 Jan 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 19/20
|Thymiopoulos Vineyards Earth & Sky|
|Area: Macedonia|| |
In a financial crisis, opportunities arise to explore offbeat alternatives. Recent success stories in agricultural investment include spirulina and sea buckthorn. After a lull, interest in wine has risen again. The level of investment in Amyndeon, now ...
Macedonia | Red | Xinomavro
In a financial crisis, opportunities arise to explore offbeat alternatives. Recent success stories in agricultural investment include spirulina and sea buckthorn. After a lull, interest in wine has risen again. The level of investment in Amyndeon, now matches Santorini’s recent fervour. Three all-new ventures are slated to break ground in 2015. Abandoned Xinomavro bush vines at Xino Nero are being replanted. On a recent visit to this landlocked, cooler-climate plateau (600–750 m), a positive mood was evident. “All local wine should be bottled,” quipped Chef Nikos Kontosoros. At the Vegoritis winery, veteran Christos Boskos has increasingly being doing that. His hardworking ethic is admirable. He has been at the forefront of the rising wine fortunes of this once no-man land. Few other addresses produce such high-standard bag-in-box blends. They put to shame scores of uninteresting bottled efforts out there. Hanging in his office, a detailed map of these unknown vineyards is a revelation. It reminds me of the complicated unique Burgundy patchwork. As we discuss what works best where, he pours some of the reviewed wine. One mouth-coating taste, and my memory bank is open for business. Though the expression is new to me, the obvious sense of place is not. As the wine aerates, the Theo Angelopoulos filmmaking technique, slow-moving, meaning-filled frames, springs to mind. Unfolding in such a fashion over dinner, it went on for quite a while. After service, Kontosoros joined me, taking a sip, rolling it around, not saying anything. It is times like these when a glance says so much: his eyes were on fire. Xinomavro magic does happen.
A blend of 17–25 y.o. vines in Bella Toumba and higher-altitude (above the rail tracks) Soskia place names. Sensuous and perfumed. Juicy, ripe tannins. Fleshy damson prune, with a touch of oak. Excellent texture. Emphatic varietal character. Light-on-its-feet high-acid. Allspice on the compact finish. Through a cold soak, a nod to modern winemaking without erasing its terroir of origin. Amyndeon should perhaps consider more this micro-parcel route. Best 2015–2022.
27 Jan 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 16.5/20
|Vegoritis Amyndeon Xinomavro|
|Area: Macedonia|| |
My first trips in search of sweet wines in Siatista were the single greatest disappointment of all my travels. Was it a romantic’s futile quest? It did cross my mind. Inevitably, I would be ushered into the basement of some furrier's house to taste “w...
Macedonia | Sweet | Moschomavro
My first trips in search of sweet wines in Siatista were the single greatest disappointment of all my travels. Was it a romantic’s futile quest? It did cross my mind. Inevitably, I would be ushered into the basement of some furrier's house to taste “wine served in Tsarist Russia” and many other, all true, historical footnotes stretching back 230 years. There was a slight issue: they smelled of glue. The culprit was high volatile acidity. It was a nightmare, like being imprisoned in a dungeon of vinous hell. These small, cask-filled, dusty cellars frozen in time left me bewildered. They contained old-fashioned, decaying wines of a once great and famous region. Was my curiosity to go unanswered? As years went by, somehow, the odd half-bottle with a handwritten label would end up in my hands. “The nightmare continues,” read some of my notes. Yet, one fights on, never giving up. I was in subdued mood when entering Dimitris Diamantis’ tasting room. All very tidy, clean smelling. Nice glasses. Enclosed wood fireplace. No show-off gadgets. It was a too-good-to-be-true feeling all over again. As he poured, the mind focused on the lovely colour and gently evolving aroma. One sip and a whole new world lit up. Persistence was finally rewarded. This was going to be an interesting visit. Another flag to pin on the 132,000 square km that my beat spans. I cannot convey what a pleasant surprise this recent venture had in store. Next time you drive by, en route to Kastoria, Metsovo, or Igoumenitsa, you may want to give this forgotten wine town of 5,000 souls a second thought. The best was yet to come from this visit. When I returned home, there was a lesson to be learned. While entertaining, my guests showed little interest in dessert. Though most of my friends swear “I do not do sugar”, they were passing around the reviewed wine with admirable teamwork efficiency. With a wry smile, I now know that proof is not always in the pudding.
Bottled in 2013. Blend of 75% Moschomavro, 15% Xinomavro. Magoutes vineyard. Planted in 1931. Altitude 845 m – 860 m. Grapes are air-cured on racks, not unlike the appassimento method of Amarone. Pale amber, ruby. Rose water, quince-jelly aroma. Walnut balsam. No perceptible volatile acidity. Residual sugars nudging 100 gr/L. Tension from Xinomavro. Texture of less-sweet acacia honey. Great poise and precision. Lip-smacking good. Digest. Cerebral. A great vintage, which is not often the case in this thin sliver of hillside vines. Showcasing cooler-climate Greece, a fascinating terroir with proper cellar management. Best 2015–2025.
05 Jan 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 18/20
|Diamantis Siatista Liastos|
|Area: Macedonia|| |
|Variety: Moschomavro / Xinomavro|
Onissimos Taverna in Peza, central Crete. The food is the real deal. Local ingredients cooked with discipline and patience. Onissimos is a genial patron: a twinkle in his eyes, his fair beard would not be out of place in a medieval painting from the Ven...
Onissimos Taverna in Peza, central Crete. The food is the real deal. Local ingredients cooked with discipline and patience. Onissimos is a genial patron: a twinkle in his eyes, his fair beard would not be out of place in a medieval painting from the Venetian merchant clubs on this island’s port cities. Nursing a broken leg, he sat close to our table, taking in all the jargon-filled comment on the clutch of bottles loosely centred in front of us. We were absorbed with this late-in-the-day harvest update, climate-change issues, anecdotes of stubborn farmers. Quietly we were also celebrating the new, 2014 vintage. As our supper was coming to an end, and the wine-deconstruction endeavour was losing momentum, with impeccable timing our host produced several glasses of a ruby-coloured wine. His killer comment: “717 kg of Kotsifali and 520 kg of Mandilari”. Pin-drop silence, followed by a warm round of applause. It was his house wine, made from neighbouring vineyards. Still closed on the aftertaste. I had never tasted such a young wine from these specific grapes. Yet, one can one learn from such a hobbyist effort. Obviously, it had not spent so much time on its skins. The Kotsifali aroma was scintillating floral. Despite our fatigue, it was a jolt of lightening. The Mandilari tannins were not obtrusive; no bell pepper, unripe green streak. It got me thinking in other directions. Of all the incomer red grapes on Crete, it is Syrah in which Kotsifali and Mandilari have found a soulmate. To date, the more successful of the two, with a strong commercial demand in the export market, is the Kotsifali-Syrah blends. The Mandilari-Syrah is more challenging, as farming to obtain ripe Mandilari needs that extra effort. In Yiorgos Lyrarakis’s words, “As the 2014 harvest unfolded, Mandilari had stressed and was almost laying down to take a nap. The harvest rains helped it. They were the right amount at the right moment for it to wake up and sprint to its full normal ripeness”. Their single-vineyard Plakoura Mandilari was easily the most toothsome of the in-the-raw cloudy samples on our table. A persuasive argument for how good this undervalued grape really is. The new generation is working on this challenge. The focused ones will get there, as the desire to turn the page is genuine. Zacharias Diamantakis at Kato Assites was illuminating: “Mandilari’s acidity is higher than Syrah's; beyond vivacity, it adds structure, spine”. Wine-wise, Crete is no longer terra incognita – it is the most exciting region in this 21st-century Greek-wine renaissance.
On social media, recently, I witnessed a lively Retsina thread. It came from far-flung corners of the world, including the Far East. It went on for several days. Comment was a revealing eye-opener. Through it all, it was clear that aficionados were either...
On social media, recently, I witnessed a lively Retsina thread. It came from far-flung corners of the world, including the Far East. It went on for several days. Comment was a revealing eye-opener. Through it all, it was clear that aficionados were either looking for the next step, or had seamlessly moved up to modern retsinas. I suspect there is a much larger following that even insiders are not fully aware of. From my vantage point, there are further encouraging signs. During my travels to the Greek islands, this new wave of retsinas, albeit of limited distribution, is telling. There were turning up in haunts old and new. Repeatedly, this niche revival comes down to four different names: Kechris, Tetramythos, Gaia, and Papagiannakos. They are all of subtly different styles and approaches. The biggest surprise came from an enterprising sommelier whose guests had all four while offering practical pairing plate pointers. Five years ago this scene would have been unthinkable. Yet, for open-minded punters, the synergies in this loose group are enticing. The Papagiannakos family are no newcomers to Retsina. Vassilis Papagiannakos is the third generation, with the fourth generation entering the family business. Today, most of their production has diversified from a one-trick pony to excellent, some may argue benchmark, Savatiano, aromatic Malagousia, an assortment of reds and a rare dessert wine. Their intimate familiarity with the local vineyards has not been lost and is one of their trump cards. A 15-minute drive from Athens airport, these rolling hills near Markopoulo are steeped in farming history. Since Neolithic times, grains, olive groves, the vine, and figs have been staples, today adding pistachio trees to the mix. Like all other agricultural produce grown here, they encapsulate bright, distinct flavours. The pine forests of nearby Koubaras and other Arvanites-inhabited communities are the source of the Aleppo pine. A dollop of measured pine resin is added to the grape must. As this ferments, the resin infuses the newly-born wine. Though the resin, harvested with sustainable practices, is not overwhelming, finding the right balance is not a simple matter of complying with legislature: 1 kg / 1,000 litters. Fact is, everyone uses a lot less. Other factors that come into the equation are vintage variation, ditto for the pine-tree sap. This specialty and their other, non-resinated wines are made in a first of its kind winery, built in 2008, with impressive energy-efficient features, including a complex natural-airflow system. Cooler northern winds are channelled throughout the winery and exit from the southern-facing windows. This is a long way from the cement tanks and old large casks the first Papagiannakos generation used.
On several fronts, this historic wine has not only found an enjoyable, fresh-tasting, modern context. It is also unique. Greece is not alone in reinventing traditional categories. Portugal's Vinho Verde is another revival story of a European stalwart. Though much reduced from the industrial-sized volume of 1960s behemoths, these hand-crafted retsinas usher in a new era. Not unlike Vinho Verde and Sherry, these light-on-their-feet retsinas are the perfect match for the saline and pungent small dishes found in this part of the eastern Mediterranean. Having upped its game, Retsina is now gaining a younger, more demanding, cosmopolitan fan base.
Justifiably, there are smiles down on the R section at wine central. Though I never expected anything like this on my beat.
According to the Office International du Vin, Greece's ranking in the volume of wine produced, 14 in the top 20 countries, has lost a place. Hungary has taken the slot previously held by Greece. The level of foreign investment in Hungary is an admirably c...
According to the Office International du Vin, Greece's ranking in the volume of wine produced, 14 in the top 20 countries, has lost a place. Hungary has taken the slot previously held by Greece. The level of foreign investment in Hungary is an admirably cosmopolitan mix. French, Spanish and American are just a few ventures that spring to mind. The fluctuating fortunes of the fragmented Greek vineyard are far more complex than a lack of a high-profile foreign-investment stamp of approval. The grubbing up of vineyards, some merited, others not, has set off an alarm bell.
On my rounds, I see, within historic regions, lazy farming practices. On Crete, a veteran told me how lifelong overcropping Mandilari with unripe ''green'' vegetal notes had run its course. No quality boutique address, of which there are now dozens, would touch grapes like these. Elsewhere, in the Peloponnese, there is an eerie silence in the increasing areas of unpruned vines. Further distressing signals come from terroir-star Santorini. The ongoing loss of vines is not only down to tourist-fueled real-estate demand for a place in the sun with a view. The advanced farmers’ age (average 63) cannot be overlooked. Some just sell up. Only a few have resorted to long-term leasing to professional farmers like Christoforos Hryssou, or Nikos Pelekanos. With 1.9 million visitors expected in 2014 (local population 13,200), it is not pragmatic to advocate a construction moratorium. A touchdown at the airport eventually results in some m2 of concrete pour. There is a way forward: to increase the value of land on which current housing lies. Land zoning is now of the upmost urgency. No vineyard is uniform in soil type. Vlichada, with high sand content, is not ideal for farming the much-in-demand Assyrtiko. It makes sense to designate that area for building, rather than farming. Sea views come as a bonus. The cementing over of Imerovigli, a Grand Cru had it been in Chablis, is just too awful to ponder on. For such a wine, brimming with a sense of place, Santorini’s part-time or full-time farmers command higher prices. The incentive of a higher revenue towards better farming increases land value; it is a win-win situation.
If there is a will for far-reaching change, of which I remain skeptical, other solutions exist, even for the aforementioned Santorini issues. : Therasia, the little Thera (Santorini), is 9.2 km2. Sparsely populated, it numbers 256 inhabitants. It is pre-tourism, no cement Santorini in the 1970s. Since 1613 BC, it has been covered with the same off-white porous topsoil that geologists attribute to the Minoan explosion that occurred on the other side of the caldera. In 1965, there were 74 hectares in vine. From the bay of Korfos, the canavas, cave-like rooms "carved" in the "soft" volcanic rocks, in which wine was produced and stored, exported in bulk to France for the production of sparkling wine. Today, the terraces bear little resemblance to those on my first visit, in the 1990s. Some 50 hectares have been abandoned. Replanting Assyrtiko, Aidani and a little Mavrotragano would be going back to the future. There is room for new boutique wineries. For their energy needs, solar and wind power could be tapped. Presto the carbon-neutral credentials. This expansion would give a new lease of life to one of a handful of the world's improbable vineyards. Nationwide action in planting vines is no fairy tale. Further inertia is simply unthinkable.