Rarely is vine age mentioned on the 15 Santorini producers’ labels. The average is 60-plus-years-old and can climb to 100 and above. According to the veteran farmer Nikos Pelekanos, production drops off at 250 years old, hence they saw off the above-gro...
Aegean Islands | White | Assyrtiko
Rarely is vine age mentioned on the 15 Santorini producers’ labels. The average is 60-plus-years-old and can climb to 100 and above. According to the veteran farmer Nikos Pelekanos, production drops off at 250 years old, hence they saw off the above-ground basket-shaped vine and continue ‘weaving’ with the old roots. How precious is this? One can only appreciate the depth these roots can reach when a powerline pole goes down. According to Nikos, they reach 9-11 metres deep. This perhaps explains how they can survive on so little, (330ml) annual, rainfall. In essence, one can only guestimate through oral accounts the age of the vines. There are 150- and 200-year-old ones scattered on the island. Soil specialists Claude and Lydia Bourgignon, who have researched on the island, claim that these are Europe's oldest vines, dating back 400 years. The recent arrival of more wineries has pushed grape prices up, renewing interest in replanting older or abandoned plots. This is a positive development in this under threat from building, much-diminished in size, unique vineyard.
One can argue Santo Wines (Union of Cooperatives) politics ad nauseam. What one cannot deny, is the incremental improvement of their wines. Chief oenologist Nikos Barbarigos continues to surprise. This new departure is not a marketing gimmick. It is a newly planted (4-5 years old), organically farmed, single-vineyard Assyrtiko in Episkopi. Towering above it is Profitis Ilias, the island’s limestone mountain (535m), which dates back some 2 million years. The topsoil of most of the current vineyards is ‘recent’, in geological terms, dating from the 1613 BC volcanic-eruption ashes covering most of today’s crescent-shaped island and a portion of the nearby island of Anafi.
With the ongoing boom of wine bars in Greece, the taste trends of the increasing number of wine lovers are changing. The search is on for discovering and enjoying wines of character. Who would have thought that sleeper Avgoustiatis from Zakynthos would have made such a splash? Xinomavro was an unlikely name to be mentioned, yet it now has supporters as passionate as Santorini Assyrtiko does. There is a small minority who find it hard to swallow the phenolic bite and sulphur character of these mineral-laden bone-dry wines. The gentler profile, without losing its tell-tale sense of place, of the wine under review here may be of interest. It is a fascinating glimpse, as vines do not have the deep-reaching roots discussed above. To my understanding, nothing comes close to this grapey, approachable, polished expression. Looking for some edutainment? ‘Relativity’ is a game that wine geeks love to play. Try the delicately perfumed Santo Wines Santorini 2014 and then the Organic reviewed here. Go back to your reference marker: Bingo! Even new-to-wine friends will get in on this tasting-is-believing exercise.
Synthetic closure. Smoky salinity, with lime qualities. Soft and lush, broad strokes of clean grapefruit, smooth, full-bodied, round mid-palate. Chalky notes with that bone-dry, mineral hallmark signature. Fleshy and luxurious. Citrus-toned, medium-long aftertaste. Gentle. Young vine playfulness. Best 2015–2019.
22 May 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 17/20
|Santo Wines Santorini Organic Wine Assyrtiko|
|Area: Aegean Islands|| |
In another life, one of the features was a profile of Santorini’s unique vineyard in The Greek Wine Guide, 1996 Edition. This jewel of an island vineyard was then promising, yet unknown to foreign markets. It was obvious that these penetrating, before c...
Aegean Islands | White | Assyrtiko
In another life, one of the features was a profile of Santorini’s unique vineyard in The Greek Wine Guide, 1996 Edition. This jewel of an island vineyard was then promising, yet unknown to foreign markets. It was obvious that these penetrating, before chilling chambers, angular, bone-dry wines would create a cult following, spearheading modern Greek wine out of relative anonymity. Such an improbable, windswept vineyard was too much of a good story not to become a darling by switched-on merchants and sommeliers looking for something different.
It seems like yesterday (summer 1995) that the late George Venetsanos took me to his winery, perched on the caldera’s rim, to discuss details of how master builder Tzorzis Saliveros and he set out in 1947, and completed in 1949, this one-of-a-kind gravity-fed winery. One still marvels at the inclined floor so water would self-drain. At the Venetian-era know-how steps where transported goods, solid or liquid, would remain shoulder horizontal. In the winery’s belly, the two giant pear-shaped water cisterns are awe-inspiring to look down into and marvel at their craftsmanship. Once they were vital, as the long-standing joke on the island was that wine is more plentiful than water. This lovingly restored piece of vintage industrial design is a labour of love by brothers Nikos and Vangelis Zorzos, successors to the Venetsanos Bros. Oenologist Ioanna Vamvakouri has been entrusted with spearheading this exciting revival. She has recently been joined by colleague Katerina Mitzelou, who also has previous experience on the island. Endowed with ten hectares, this is a true estate, located in highly thought-of Pyrgos and Megalochori. Four labels are being launched in the splendid 2014 vintage: a bone-dry Santorini, the previewed Nykteri, a modern take of red Mandelari with a twist and a 2007 Vinsanto inherited from the cellar.
Venetsanos Bros’ visionary canava is a landmark, adding needed momentum in favour of the diminishing vineyards threatened by urban development. Arguments for comprehensive land-zoning review are growing. It is imperative for building checks to be put in place sooner, as later is not really an option. Meanwhile, at the newly opened rooftop wine bar on this historic site overlooking the caldera cliffs and the Nea Kammeni lava islet, the view is as breathtaking as it was on my first visit to the island, 23 years ago. A few days before the official opening, I sat there in contemplation, in a rare moment of windless calm, ‘chewing’ nature’s precious gift: Assyrtiko’s genial, mineral-charged, tannic backbone reaching deeper. There is a glow. It is a nice place to be.
Ai Giorgis single vineyard, upper-mid slope, below the village of Pyrgos. Perfectly judged picking window for this style of wine, checking in at ABV 14%. Elegantly built. Crystalline fruit on the entry, with a linear presence throughout. Seamless oak. Blossoming into a stony, saline finish of compact minerality. Nicely textured. Still tight, it will age beautifully, rewarding patience. Imperative to carafe. Best 2016–2028.
09 May 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 18/20
|Venetsanos Winery Santorini Nykteri|
|Area: Aegean Islands|| |
At a time when white wines used to be flat and oily, a small clutch of boutique wineries were bottling as nature made them: refreshingly crisp. South African oenologist André Van Wyk at Gentilini was one of them. It is a different world, and Greek wine h...
Ionian Islands | Red | Mavrodaphne
At a time when white wines used to be flat and oily, a small clutch of boutique wineries were bottling as nature made them: refreshingly crisp. South African oenologist André Van Wyk at Gentilini was one of them. It is a different world, and Greek wine has moved into the 21st century. Petros Markantonatos is the driving force of Gentilini’s vineyards and winery. A natural communicator driven by a protestant-like work ethic, he steered this proactive address to its current admirable position. In an ideal world, he should be spearheading Greek-wine promotional campaigns in the Anglo-Saxon markets. In his broad-minded professional manner, he has done much to help, on merit, other up-and-coming worthy addresses in the export arena, such as today’s Naoussa star, Thymiopoulos Vineyards.
Though the actual Cephalonia Robola acreage is small, its considerable qualities have not gone unnoticed. It is more digest than Santorini Assyrtiko. Both are all about minerality, though they could not be more different expressions. The other gem on this limestone/clay island in the Ionian Sea is Mavrodaphne, a red grape. Cephalonia is its historical home. It took years to replant virus-free vines with tailored rootstock to each soil type. To map and think out the right single-vineyard blends. To change winemaking approach so as to unlock the potential of this charmer grape. This complete rethink has paid off handsomely. Today, Gentilini has a premium red soulmate to match their excellent Robolas. The Greek oenologist Alexandros Doukas’ arrival in spring 2015 heralds a new era for this open-minded, cosmopolitan address.
Three single vineyards planted to the smaller-berried Tsingelo: lower-lying plots at the Gentilini Minies estate, Thinia and the Antzoulatos Ianou vineyard in Omala (650m). Brilliant purple. Exotic spice. Hint of coconut from American oak. Mouth-watering, juicy fruit. Supple, savoury tannins. Energising mint lift on the dry, exotic finish. Brighter, focused, purer nuances than previous efforts. Super. Galaxies away from my first encounter with this grape from vines above the shoreline of Thinia (Thiniatiko) a.k.a. Mavrodaphne. Best 2015–2025.
01 May 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 17.5/20
|Area: Ionian 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