Santorini’s geology puzzle is breathtaking. While researching my forthcoming book with Chef Vassilis Zacharakis, I have been fortunate to broaden my scope beyond vineyards and wine. Vassilis is a brilliant wine taster. As most cooks, he has a holistic ...
Aegean Islands | White | Assyrtiko
Santorini’s geology puzzle is breathtaking. While researching my forthcoming book with Chef Vassilis Zacharakis, I have been fortunate to broaden my scope beyond vineyards and wine.
Vassilis is a brilliant wine taster. As most cooks, he has a holistic approach – ‘balance’ is his mantra.
He understands terroir through his suppliers of local specialties. “There is no question that the tastiest fava is grown along the foothills of Profitis Helias.” This mountain (550m) and a sliver of Akrotiri are the oldest parts of what we call Santorini today. This limestone mass dates from the Mesozoic period, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth. It is 200-45 million years old. Some 80–90% of the island’s vineyards, containing magma, ashes, and pumice stone are 3,600 years old.
Such thoughts came into the picture while tasting, with Mattheos Argyros, of his ungrafted 150-year-old Assyrtiko from Episkopi. The vines lie on volcanic ashes and sand on a limestone bedrock on the eastern side of Profitis Ilias. On another front, Argyros’s commitment in investment has far-reaching ramifications. Since his father Yianni's premature death, in 2012, he has rebuilt all the stone walls of the estate vineyards. He has purchased fallow land on mid-slope foothills to plant more of the rare, aromatic Aidani. His new winery is opening in 2016. Most of it is underground, with a Vinsanto cellar to house the island’s most important reserves.
“I could have made (the above ground) prettier; functionality was my main focus, though.” He is not alone on this new venture: Bordeaux heavyweight Stéphane Derenoncourt Consultants has been advising on all fronts. Julien Lavenu leads a team of fellow technicians Grigoris Skopelitis and Manos Kotsonis. This renewal by the fourth-generation producer contains an important message: There is a bright future in the island's wine fortunes, so hang on to your vineyards. I hope, after I have moved on, someone looking at this website can nod approvingly, muttering along these lines: “Yes, the vineyard protection zoning act has passed; we are planting loads more of the three As.” No prize for guessing what this acronym stands for.
Platinum. Floral. A cocktail of lemon zest and chalk. Stylish blend of 80% and 20% (seamless) oak cask. Focused. Great precision and texture. Subtle iodine marine salinity in the classy finish. Shellfish were created for such wines. More Chablis Premier Cru than Puligny Montrachet.
23 Jul 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 18.5/20
|Area: Aegean Islands|| |
Fifteen years ago, Zacharias Diamantakis was a distiller. His fragrant, textured Liatiko tsikoudia sets the standards. Its properties present this misunderstood, gifted Cretan specialty in the best light. He continues to distil now, selling his grape spir...
Crete | White | Vidiano
Fifteen years ago, Zacharias Diamantakis was a distiller. His fragrant, textured Liatiko tsikoudia sets the standards. Its properties present this misunderstood, gifted Cretan specialty in the best light. He continues to distil now, selling his grape spirit on to drinks artisans on the island. His energies have shifted to planting more terraced vineyards on his estate. Assyrtiko, Vidiano, Chardonnay, Malvazia Aromatica, Mandilari and Syrah are his choice of grapes. Location is Kato Asites, 400-650m above the sprawling city-port of Heraklion.
In this reviewed new top white blend, he has married rising star Vidiano and recent to Crete Assyrtiko. This effort is one of several new-wave wines to emerge on this now energised wine scene. On the east-facing, mostly calcareous clay soils, a new dawn is upon us. The age-old question arises: Place or grape? Well, looking at forthcoming reviews along these northern-lying scattered vineyards, there is a number of arguments that some grape varieties transform into something of note due to the place, gaining gravitas through eastern exposure and altitude. Having star grapes is not instant visa to terroir greatness – far from it.
Diamantakis points out: “Wine needs observing and patience.” In this instance, he has chosen to balance the aromatic with the mineral. Vines were planted as recently as 2009: It stands promising. Time will tell if he has chosen the right spot of producing something exceptional, capturing the magic only terroir can deliver. If anything, his sweat-equity experience in distilling, which requires disciplined precision, may turn out an invaluable asset.
In equal parts of both varieties. Vidiano’s viscous, creamy mouthfeel showcases stone fruit, merging seamlessly on to a firm, energetic Assyrtiko minerality. Smokey, nutty. Lasting savoury-saline aftertaste. Cask-driven ferment with a three-month stay on its lees offers a luxurious profile. Different. Best 2015–2019.
04 Jul 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 16.5/20
|Diamantakis Diamantopetra Vidiano-Assyrtiko|
|Area: Crete|| |
|Variety: Vidiano / Assyrtiko|
Santorini’s climate is classified as desert, and so is the nearby island of Anafi. Perched on the caldera ridge, the western-lying remaining vineyards of Santorini share marine humidity and incoming fog. This usually occurs when the south-western winds ...
Aegean Islands | White | Assyrtiko
Santorini’s climate is classified as desert, and so is the nearby island of Anafi. Perched on the caldera ridge, the western-lying remaining vineyards of Santorini share marine humidity and incoming fog. This usually occurs when the south-western winds are blowing. Streaks of mist and sometimes thick fog bounce off the caldera and continue their trajectory reaching the first half of the island. The burn-off imparts precious moisture. This natural cooling also slows down grape development, with harvest starting in the first week of August. Pyrgos, which reaches 300m, is usually one of the last to be harvested, up to two weeks later. Though the fog varies, what does not is the proximity and the humid and cooling effect of the sea below the caldera cliffs. Veteran farmer Nikos Pelekanos laments that the finest grapes were those of Imerovigli 280m. They now lie under luxury boutique hotels, albeit with breathtaking views.
What happens on the eastern side of the island, in the lower-altitude vineyards? Vourvoulos is one of the first to harvest. Ditto for neighbouring Exo Gialos. The reviewed single vineyard, all of 1.4 hectares, is planted to Assyrtiko. Yorgos Koutsoyannopoulos is hands-down the most unassuming man of the island’s current producers. Open-minded, measured, succinct in his comments, a pragmatist. During a visit, he illuminated: “The actual vineyard lies in the sub-zone of Aspra Homata at Exo Gialos. It is fully ripe by end of July, at times nudging in to the first days of August. It lacks moisture. Yields are low –even by Santorini averages.” He credits his U.S. importer, Dionysi Grevenitis, with the idea of separately vinifying this plot of 70–100-year-old-vines.
To varying degrees, Santorini’s bone-dry wines share a marine element. This single vineyard reaches further. More than any other Greek wine, Santorini is liquid geography. It reaches beyond coordinates, altitude and deep-rooted, ungrafted vines on a windswept volcanic moonscape. Swirl it in a decanter. Let it breathe. When did you last experience the Aegean cobalt blue in your glass?
Less oxidative than the 2013. Skin contact. Tank-fermented, no oak. Wet stones, salinity. No angularities, followed by a smooth, linear, very long finish. Returning wave of intense minerality and palate-awakening bright acidity. Intricately flavoured varietal punch. Satisfying and convincing. Another piece revealed of this one-of-kind vinous jigsaw puzzle. Worth watching. Best 2015–2025.
19 Jun 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 18/20
|Koutsoyannopoulos Santorini Ksera Homata|
|Area: Aegean Islands|| |
The setting: the Venetian Grand Arsenal overlooking the port of Chania. A beautifully restored 15th-century dockyard, it is possibly the finest venue for a wine tasting in Greece. The 8th Oinotika was a well-organized, enlightening show. Large, airy room,...
The setting: the Venetian Grand Arsenal overlooking the port of Chania. A beautifully restored 15th-century dockyard, it is possibly the finest venue for a wine tasting in Greece. The 8th Oinotika was a well-organized, enlightening show. Large, airy room, cool temperature. A civilized flow of tasters that allowed wine scribes to do our business. Genuine engagement, good questions. Generous bonhomie and humour, encouraging the high amount of 30somethings attending. This was also an opportunity to meet the most obscure addresses, especially from the far-flung western reaches of this continent of an island.
On a west to east axis, highlights that stood out include:
Pnevmatikaki Kritopelagitis 2014 White: An intriguing blend of Vilana and Romeiko, with fruity earthiness.
Manousakis Mourvedre 2012: Perfumed, civilized, smooth tannins.
Dourakis Euphoria: A dessert wine from sun-dried Romeiko, orange wine minus all the funky stuff. Bergamot scented, silky.
Alexakis Athiri Dandelion: Textured, vineyard-driven minerality.
Maragakis 8th Art Vidiano 2014: One of the show’s brightest stars. White flowers bursting with pit stone fruit.
Douloufakis Dafnios Liatiko 2013 : Boldly scented, thought provoking.
Lyrarakis Mandilari 2012 Plakoura Vineyard: Spice, vinosity, class-leading ripe, tasty tannins.
Digenakis Marisini 2011 Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Liatiko. Clever blend where the terroir imprint dominates the (mostly) cosmopolitan grapes.
Diamantakis Vidiano-Assyrtiko 2014: Apricot fruit in a pungent, mineral cocktail.
Nikos Gavalas Fragospito 2014: Malvazia and Spinas Muscat organically farmed at 400 m. Sensual aromatics with a sense of place.
Stilianou Winery Kotsifali: Sun-dried-citrus-rind-infused nectar.
Idaia Gi 2010 Kotsifali-Mandilari: Brimming with old vine concentration.
Silva Daskalaki Enstikto 2010: Remarkable Syrah from 22 year-old vines from a high, well-draining plateau.
Strataridakis, the southernmost winery of Europe: A candidate for the finest Spinas Muscat on the isle. Focused, unusual depth, refined. Re-taste the dry one after daydreaming on the dessert version.
Beyond the show, getting around is another matter. Wine-tourism development is a no-go without a safe, modern road network. At best, roads date from the 1950s. Blind corners, potholes, destabilizing heaving, falling rocks. Simply dangerous. To paraphrase those famous lines from Zorba the Greek, the smashing film hit of the 1960s, ‘the complete catastrophy’. One has to adapt, slow down, escape from the main routes to Venetian-era built and restored villages, such as Kastelos. Or simply walk the numerous well-mapped gorges. Get lost in the maquis: home to marine fossils covered with rare herbs or miniature prinos oak. Watch rare birds on thermals readying the plunge attack. Climb, with guides, one of the island’s four majestic mountains, such as the Lefka Ori (2,400 m).
In discovering new to me addresses, I managed safely to do a nerve-wracking coast-to-coast run from Chania to Sitia. But I did not manage to run into a handful of addresses with faulty wines. Cellar hygiene issues, such as reductiveness or bret. These can be relatively easy to fix. There is also a break-away group which is over-delivering. Thanks to the rich diversity of their soil types, unique grape mix, altitude, north-facing vines cooled by the Aegean winds, the best of Crete are compelling wines. Much to report here.
One can easily fall into the trap of thinking that the life of a wine communicator is an endless parade of hedonic experiences, in the fine settings of winery tasting rooms, with unfolding views of neat rows of vines, or snow-capped mountain ranges. Nice ...
One can easily fall into the trap of thinking that the life of a wine communicator is an endless parade of hedonic experiences, in the fine settings of winery tasting rooms, with unfolding views of neat rows of vines, or snow-capped mountain ranges. Nice restaurants, even. The occasional pick nick with vineyard workers. Well, it does not always come like that. Being on the move, one has to strive to accommodate the workload of a host of other professionals, in what ends up being rather long days.
On a recent update with ampelographer Kostas Bakasietas, the best he could do to accommodate my flying visit in Nemea was 8:30 in the evening for a supper tasting. Translated into Greek time, this means sitting down at 9:15 – hardly the ideal time to taste. Thankfully, the Argitiki grill house has proper wine tasting glasses. The crowds had not arrived, and it was a smoke-free environment. Bakasietas brought to the table a portion of his 12-year-long clonal research from diverse regions. These were micro-vinifications of the 2014 harvest from a bevy of clones he had planted in his vineyards in Nemea. He kicked off with two Cretan specialties: a floral, spicy Vilana, followed by a vibrant Plyto. Both hitting typicity and a notch above in character. What followed was six clones of Moschofilero. This was like opening a new window. They were all different, and all offered more gravitas. It got my second wind going, making me really focused. Aromatics were varied. What stood out was structure and interesting tannins offering a spine we do not see in the current wines coming from the Arcadian plateau. It makes one sit up and think that there is a whole new world out there.
Virus-free, healthy planting material is invaluable. Yet, nothing gave away what was about to happen. Another Cretan specialty, red this time, a Kotsifali. Pale-coloured. The aromatics and soft seductive tannins, followed by a haunting aromatic complexity on the palate, were simply beyond words. I sat there speechless. This was a whole-body experience, such as when first tasting a Mazis Chambertin. Epiphany. Kostas is serious, hard working and modest. His face was glowing with satisfaction. Eventually, I collected myself and landed back or terra firma – well, almost. On my recent time on Crete, there was no hesitation in keeping Kotsifali on my dark-horse shortlist of red grapes. That gut-driven feeling that there is something going on here. Just taste recent vintages by Douloufakis and Lyrarakis. Yet, nothing in 23 years of covering Greek wine had prepared me for this moment. If planted in the right place and farmed, as it should be, according to the modern know-how, this is the next great international grape. Above Assyrtiko. That good.
1890 AD. A poor road network had most Xinomavro regions in relative isolation. Human and goods transport was limited. Vines were ungrafted. Then an American visitor arrived outside Thessaloniki and unleashed havoc: Phylloxera vastatrix. By the 1860s it h...
1890 AD. A poor road network had most Xinomavro regions in relative isolation. Human and goods transport was limited. Vines were ungrafted. Then an American visitor arrived outside Thessaloniki and unleashed havoc: Phylloxera vastatrix. By the 1860s it had devastated the French vineyards. For a short-term fix, inky-black Paros Mantilaria was shipped in cask to Marseilles to boost the thin and anaemic vin ordinaires. The pest eventually arrived in Greece, in 1890.
Varietal wines as we know them today were unknown at the time. Farmers had other priorities, foremost survival. The field blend in Naoussa included a hotchpotch Cinsault, ''Gallika''. Negoska was a solid partner to Goumenissa Xinomavro. Over the Mount Vermion, in the cooler-climate, isolated Amyndeo, newly arrived Pontic Greeks (1922) and nursery specialists from Anatoliki Romelia (today's southern Bulgaria) expanded Xinomavro planting by sourcing cuttings from old vines. The ever-resourceful Romelians, who were not allowed to practise cheese-making in Bulgaria, knew a thing or two about vine propagation. The furriers in Kastoria, and especially Siatista, kept another bank of rare Xinomavro clones in their marked continental climate. Here, vines struggled to mature; they therefore resorted to air-drying their grapes under cover inside their stone-built houses. Further south, on Rapsani hillsides, Xinomavro thrived alongside other unique local grapes. All this unfolded with the speed of a slow-framed Theo Angelopoulos' film until Phylloxera arrived. Then things went haywire.
This inherited Xinomavro panorama still remains today, however. It is as clear as mud. What happened next has had long-lasting ramifications, most of which we taste today in our glasses. Are there any old Naoussa clones about? One such wine is the cuvée nature made by Thymiopoulos Vineyards. It is hauntingly different. None of the tomato vine aromatics. Dense mulberry with spice. It is out of this world, yet so different from the allspice of old vines in Amyndeo. A few vineyards were perhaps replanted with the old Naoussa clone(s). Now, though, they end up blended in with the newer arrivals from Amyndeo, from where most of the Naoussa replanting material was sourced. Taste-wise, they are very different from the Amyndeo stock used in restoring the Naoussa vineyard in the 1970s. There is another factor to consider, though. Naoussa is a warmer site than Amyndeo. Until recently, Xinomavro from inland, isolated Velvendo came to prominence, with the discovery of different clones to all of the aforementioned. The Velvendo clones have now also been tried in Naoussa.
These are some of the points that have surfaced while I was trying to make sense of this delightful puzzle as I prepare a Xinomavro Master Class for my students in Switzerland. If there is a hidden gem in all this, it comes from an unsuspecting corner, and it is not my technician friends. The feedback from advanced-level students of the École du Vin is invaluable. They simply "look" at the tasting panorama of mesoclimates and sites as we enjoy the great wines of the Piemonte. We receive by giving.
Originally published in Monopol