Ahead of the 2015 harvest I travelled to Greece with South Europe Mediterranean Wines – an EU initiative to promote wine regions in Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and Crete – to find out more about this growing wine region.
While Greece boasts an ancient winemaking heritage, its winemakers have as yet been unsuccessful in properly hooking the international consumer. Much of their success has come from their use of international varieties such as Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah or Merlot, which are generally more easily marketed to export markets. However the region is also home to numerous indigenous varieties ripe for exploration. One grape tipped for greatness is Xinomavro, a high tannin, high acid grape whose name translates to “acid black”, and whose heartland lies in north west Greece within its two PDO regions of Amyndeon and Naoussa. Another variety to look out for is Vidiano, a white variety indigenous to Crete which has been described as Crete’s answer to Chardonnay.
My trip took me from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city, north to Greek Macedonia to visit the Amyndeon PDO and Naoussa PDO wine regions, south to the Peloponnese to explore its Nemea PDO, finishing with a pitstop in Crete.
Check out my snaps here.
Stopping off in Greece’s northwest region of Naoussa, I first visited Vaeni Naoussa, one of the region’s largest co-operatives, where we were given a tasting of its wines by winemaker Thomas Anastou.
Located in the Naoussa PDO, home of the Greek variety Xinomavro, the co-operative produces some 80 labels including reds, whites and rosé wines. Speaking about Xinomavro in particular, Anastou described it as a “very good grape” with lots of potential to capture the interest of international consumers.
A healthy bunch of Xinomavro at Vaeni Naoussa ahead of the 2015 harvest, which at the time was due to start in a matter of weeks.
Then it was on to the Alpha Estate in the northern Amyndeon PDO region, Greece’s highest, coldest and smallest appellation. Alpha is one of Greece’s biggest single estate producers, and also considered the most cutting-edge in the region. Since its foundation, the estate has invested €25 million, the biggest in the Greek wine industry in the last 15 years, in its operation which has resulted in infra-red drone cameras to monitor the harvest and underground irrigation across its 90 hectares of vineyards.
Kostas Arvanitakis, export director at the Alpha Estate, took us on a tour of the estate. It is currently the only winery in Greece producing a commercial wine made from Tannat, a variety more typical of France than the Mediterranean. Noting a change in Greece’s approach to winemaking in recent years, Arvanitakis said consumers were driving demand for higher quality, premium wines, helped by the fact that many of the country’s winemakers have been trained outside of Greece.
The estate benefits from sandy alluvial soils due to the fact that the region was once a lake, the remnants of which help moderate the region’s semi-continental climate. A steep edge of the vineyard offers a clear view of its soil makeup, revealing a sandy top, layer of clay and bedrock.
The Alpha Estate is home to 94-year-old Xinomavro vines, used to produce its Reserva wine range. This high acid, high tannin grape, which translates as “acid black”, is often compared to Nebbiolo due to its ability to develop complex earthy aromas with age.
Alpha’s winemaker, Angelos Iatridis, trained in Bordeaux and has a chemistry degree from the University of Thessaloniki. Uncommonly for Greece, he chooses to use carbonic maceration (whereby whole bunches of grapes are fermented in tanks flushed with CO2 prior to crushing) to produce his Xinomavro wines, which he feels creates a higher complexity of aromas and removes some tannins.
My visit to Alpha rounded off with a tasting of its wines, which included not only a 100% Xinomavro, but blends of Xinomavro with Syrah and Merlot, and a late harvest Gewürztraminer blended with Malvasia.
Heading south to the Peloponnese, a peninsula jutting out from beneath Athens, I arrived at Domaine Skouras, founded by George Skouras in 1986. This is the heartland of Agiorgitiko, a grape that non-Greeks find so difficult to pronounce George Skouras renamed it “St George” in some markets.
George Skouras shows off his ripening Agiorgitiko in the baking midday sun. He believes Greece is currently at a crucial turning point in the development of its wine industry, believing its next step to build its reputation on the international market is to produce an “icon wine”.
A keen art collector, Skouras’ winery is filled with interesting pieces including this painting of a donkey with an interesting backstory. The painting is apparently based on the legend of a donkey that apparently got loose in a vineyard and ate all the vines. The vintner was at first horrified, but soon realised that his vines grew back healthier and stronger – thus discovering the benefit of pruning.
Making our way to the airport, I was fortunate to have time to stop by the Parthenon, often mistakenly referred to as the Acropolis, which is in fact the hill on which the Parthenon sits. Acropolis means the highest hill in a city, with many such sites spread across the country.
Arriving in Crete, Greece’s largest island, I arrived at travelled to the Mediterra Winery where I was welcomed by winemaker George Stratakis,who took me through a tasting of some of the wineries 80 labels. In Crete, the native grapes of Kotisfali, Vidiano and Vilana are widespread, along with Mandalaria and Matalaria. The tasting included a naturally sweet Greek wine made with Muscat of Spina.
While Stratakis blends many of his wines with international varieties, he believes the future of Greek wines lies in better promotion of its indigenous varieties to make a stronger dent on the international market. An increasing number of younger winemakers working at wineries in Crete, having been trained in both Greece and abroad, alongside an increase in quality over the past five years or so, he believes will make further success for Greek wines outside of Greece possible.
Mediterra is currently undergoing extensive construction work with plans to open a visitor centre at the winery by next summer.
Our final stop on our Greek Odyssey was to Alexakis Winery, the largest winery on the island of Crete. Founded by oenologist-chemical engineer Stelios Alexakis in the 70s, it is now run by his two sons Lazaros and Apostolos, both oenologists with degrees from the Universities of Florence in Italy and Fresno in California respectively.
While the winery owns 10 hectares of vines, winemaker Demetri Tsoupeis oversees the production and purchase of grapes from around 1,000 winemakers in the region. Typical varieties include Malandaria, Vilana, Kotisfali and Vidiano. Tsoupeis believes Vidiano is the future of Cretan wine outside of domestic markets, describing it to be the Greek equivalent of Chardonnay.
Tsoupeis took me through a tasting of Alexakis’ wines, which including varieties native to Crete including Vidiano and Vilana, as well as a sweet Moscato. Its Mare de Candia was a particular highlight – a blend of the Greek white varieties Vilana, Vidiano, Athiri and Assyrtiko.
The Alexakis Winery is home to a beautiful tasting room with outside terrace, where it hosts educational tastings and events.
My trip concluded with a visit to the Almyra restaurant in Agia Pelagia, a beautiful coastal town just outside of Heraklion.
Giant prawns dripping in garlic and lemon butter and a glass of Alexakis’ Mare de Candia – a blend of the indigenous white grape varieties Vilana, Vidiano, Athiri and Assyrtiko – proved a perfect match. Yamas!