John Szabo reports on top whites (and a few reds) from Greece, land of singular flavours and excellent value, and offers compelling reasons to drink native varieties
2013 has yielded an exceptional crop of wines throughout Greece, especially whites, playing to the strengths of the country’s envious range of native varieties. According to the harvest report on the New Wines of Greece website “winemakers throughout Greece are hailing 2013 as one of the best in recent years. Favorable growing conditions, without the extreme heat that usually characterizes Greek summers were aided by cool northern winds allowing grapes to mature evenly and completely, with relatively few problems. The wines have excellent acidity and good alcohol levels with the whites showing intense aromatic qualities.”
A tasting in Toronto in May left no doubt of the high quality of the vintage, with many familiar estates making the finest wines I’ve tasted in the last decade. Below are some of my top picks; click on the name of each for the full review and availability.
Toronto trade out in full force to taste Greek wine
Why Go Native
Although the names/varieties and regions for the majority of the recommendations will be utterly foreign, I’d urge you to go native and not to miss out. The prices remain amazingly low relative to quality, and this is your chance to discover new and intriguing flavours. And it makes sense to focus on the indigenous grapes in a country that has over 300 known varieties, and probably many more waiting to be documented. If these varieties are still around in the 21st C., there’s probably a very good reason.
Consider this: Greece has been making wine for the better part of four thousand years. Yet the actual cause of alcoholic fermentation (yeasts consuming sugars and spitting out alcohol) wasn’t discovered until Louis Pasteur took a microscope to fermenting grape juice a little over a hundred years ago. The technological bag of tricks that winemakers today have at their disposal to tweak a wine’s aromatics and structure and stabilize it against the ravaging effects of oxygen is a mere few decades old. (And new oenological products continue to emerge on the market like the latest range in a seasonal fashion catalogue.)
All of this development has enabled grape varieties to be transplanted in places around the world for which they are not naturally suited, and for commercial grade wine to be made from them. It has also allowed winemakers to customize a wine to fit a perceived market, denaturing the style that a region is naturally inclined to produce. The commercial pressure to put a popular variety on a label is often too much to resist, and indigenous grapes have often been ripped out to make way for chard, cab and co.
Now back to the Greeks and a few thousand years ago. No products, no technology, little understanding. In fact, ancient winegrowers had very little ability to materially affect the outcome of their winemaking ritual, and you can be sure that plenty of vinegar was made, even with fingers crossed and all.
Ancient Cretan winery at Vathypetro c. 1000BC
But the one area in which they did have some control over the process was the type of vines planted in their vineyards. Good old-fashioned empirical trial and error would have led to a natural selection of varieties (distinguished easily enough by leaf shape, bunch size, and other basic morphological features – no Ph.D. required), which over time would have proved themselves to be naturally adapted to the local growing environment. And by adapted I mean that they would have been the varieties that yield naturally balanced wines – ones that would have been stable enough to last at least until the next vintage before turning to vinegar (remember, this was an era in which wine was more than a part of life, it was nothing less than a staple). By today’s standards, this means wine that doesn’t require any tinkering or chemical adjustments: crush, ferment, press, drink.
One of the most important features of a well-adapted variety is the retention of natural acidity/low pH, given that no bags of tartaric acid were available at the local supply store. This is especially critical in a generally warm, dry, Mediterranean climate where ripeness is easy to achieve – high acid/low pH is a natural defense against bacterial spoilage. You’ll find that the majority of native Greek whites from indigenous grapes are remarkably fresh and lively considering the southerly latitude on which they’re grown – a perfect illustration of natural selection.
So over the course of several thousand years, suitable grapes and places were matched up as efficiently as an online dating service: assyrtiko with the poor, wind-swept volcanic soils of Santorini, moscophilero with the cool, high mountain plateau of Mantinia, or vidiano with the arid, hot, north-facing slopes of Crete, to name but a few. Stick with the native varieties and your chances of finding, naturally well-balanced, authentic wines increase dramatically.
Although Greek winemakers of this era are as well-trained and technologically equipped as any, in some cases the grape growing and winemaking techniques employed several thousand years ago are still practiced, simply because they still work (though fewer keep their fingers crossed). I love that fact that this gives us a window on the ancient world and on what the wines sold in Athens c. 200 BC might well have tasted like.
Time to go prospecting.
“This year’s harvest was one of the earliest ever in Santorini, beginning at the end of July, but because of the residual effects of a “perfect storm” (Winds over 11 Beaufort) that damaged vines during the previous 2012 growing season, production was down over 20% from last year. This year’s wines are being compared to the benchmark vintages of 2009 and 2011, and similar to these years, the 2013 wines are showing exceptional aromatic qualities, great structure, firm acidity and, of course, intense minerality, a Santorini trademark.” – NWOG Harvest Report
Traditional vineyards, Santorini
Estate Argyros 2013 Santorini, Greece ($23.95) Matthew Argyros represents the 4th generation of winemaking at the family-run estate, founded in 1903 by George Argyros. The estate owns some of the oldest vines on the island, including a parcel reputed to be over 150 years old. The 2013 estate, from the oldest vines, is so distinctively Santorini with its riveting salty-sulphurous minerality, yet tightness and acidity are taken to new heights. This is quite literally crunchy and electrifying, with a perfect pitch of alcohol and dry extract, firm and gently tannic on the palate.
Similar in style to the Estate but just a narrow step below is the Argyros Assyrtiko 2013 Santorini, Greece $19.95. It’s made from the “young vines” (50-60 years old), and offers impressive density and weigh, palpable astringency from tannins even though this is made from free-run juice, and extraordinarily fresh acids, finishing on a quivering mineral-salty string. Like the estate, this really shouldn’t be touched for another 2-3 years.
Paris Sigalas, Santorini
Paris Sigalas is another leading grower on the Island whose wines rarely fail to excite. This former mathematician applies precision to his process and the Sigalas 2013 Santorini, Greece ($22.95) is a beautifully balance, extraordinarily rich and stony example with textbook volcanic minerality – that hard-to-describe saltiness that permeates the wine from start to finish. Fruit character is as usual subdued – assyrtiko rarely exudes much more than a whiff of grapefruit-citrus-pear – this is much more about the almost sulphur hot springs-like aromatics. Given my experience with Sigalas’ wines, this should age beautifully, and likely hit peak somewhere around 6-8 years of age, if you can wait.
Rounding out the Santorini selections (although one other excellent grower, Haridimos Hatzidakis, did not present at the tasting) is the Gaia Thalassitis 2013 Santorini, Greece ($23.95). Made by the skillful hands of Yiannis Paraskevopoulos who makes the wine at Gaia Estate in Nemea and teaches oenology at the University of Athens, Thalassitis is often a little more tame than the above-mentioned wines. In this case it’s notably reductive off the top (flinty-matchstick notes) and very tightly wound on the palate with ripping acids and firm, tart, lightly tannic texture. A fine wine, best after 2016 I’d say, and should hold a dozen years in all without any stretch.
“2013 is considered by the island’s winemakers to be the best vintage in the last 20 years. In spite of the early harvest, the growing season was characterized by a stable, constant rate of grape maturity due to spring winds and moderate summer temperatures.” NWOG Harvest Report
Nikos Douloufakis is the third generation to make wine at the family estate in the village of Dafnes, a few kilometers south of Heraklion on north facing, undulating hills. The focus here is on indigenous grapes, though winemaking is clean and modern, and price/quality is excellent. The Douloufakis Femina 2013, PGI Crete, Greece ($14.95) made from malvasia is not a particularly complex wine, but is explosively aromatic, with crunchy, zesty green fruit and plenty of floral-orange blossom notes. Hard to believe this comes from Crete; it would be equally at home in Northern Italy, stylistically. A perfect match for spicy Asian fare.
Nikos Douloufakis and John Szabo in vineyards, Dafnes, Crete
A richer and more “serious” wine from Douloufakis is the Dafnios White 2013, PGI Crete, Greece ($18.95) made from 100% vidiano, one of the top white varieties on the Island. The 2013 is a fine, fruity unoaked wine that runs in the same style spectrum as, say, viognier, substantially flavoured and very ripe, with mostly yellow orchard fruit and some mango-guava-papaya tropical fruit flavours. Drink this over the short term.
“This year’s harvest yielded very good results for Moschofilero, although production was down 20-30% because of frost damage that occurred near the end of April. Early results indicate this year’s vintage will have excellent aromatic potential with good structure.” – NWOG Harvest Report
It took Yiannis Tselepos ten years of careful observation before deciding to establish his vineyards on the eastern foothills of Mt. Parnon on the plateau of Mantinia in 1989. He consistently produces one of the top wines in this sought-after appellation. Overnight skin contact for the Tselepos 2013 Mantinia Moschofilero, Greece ($19.95) extracts maximum aromatics, though this is anything but rustic. The 2013 is one of Tselepos’ best, wonderfully fresh and fragrant, floral and fruity in the typical moschophilero fashion, with zesty acids and mid-weight palate. Enjoy now or hold short term – this is best fresh.
Domaine Spiropoulos, Mantinia
The Spiropoulos family, with ties to the wine industry stretching back to the 19th century, is another top grower in Mantinia. The Domaine Spiropoulos Mantinia 2013, Peloponnese, Greece ($16.95) is made from all-estate grown moschofilero, organically farmed, and has a pale pink tinge, reflective of the dark skins of fully ripe moschofilero (like pinot gris when ripe. The palate shines with its vibrant fruity flavours in a fairly substantial and weighty expression (though still just 12.5% alcohol).
Ktima Biblia Chora 2013 Assyrtico / Sauvignon, Greece ($22.95) The Biblia Chora Estate was established in 1998 by two well known winemakers, Vassilis Tsaktsarlis and Vangelis Gerovassiliou, who developed their model organic vineyard of 140 hectares at the foot of Mount Pangeon in Kokkinochori, Kavala (northeastern Greece). Assyrtiko and sauvignon blanc are common blending partners in this region, the former adding depth and structure and the latter adding its perfume and zest. The palate is rich and explosive, deep and flavourful, with tremendous intensity and length. Terrific stuff here, with evident concentration.
Angelos Iatridis, Alpha Estate, Amyndeon
Alpha Estate 2013 Axia Malagouzia, PGI Florina, Greece ($17.95) Alpha Estate is likewise a partnership between two wine industry veterans, viticulturist Makis Mavridis and oenologist Angelos Iatridis, who, after years of consulting winemaking experience in various parts of Greece, chose the Amyndeon appellation (central-northwest Greece in the regional unit of Florina) to create his own wine. The 2013 Malagouzia is the best yet from the estate, offering all of the lovely rich, ripe fruit in the tropical spectrum that the variety is capable of, with a generous, plush texture and very good length. This will appeal to fans of generously proportioned and aromatic whites like viognier, with a little more of a cool and fresh acid kick. (The 2012 is currently in VINTAGES).
And the Reds…
And for those who can’t do without red, here are a couple of currently available standouts to track down:
Boutari 2008 Grande Reserve Naoussa, Greece ($16.95)
Alpha Estate 2009 Syrah / Merlot / Xinomavro, Macedonia, Greece ($32.50)
Thymiopoulos Vineyards Yn Kai Oupavós Xinomavro 2010, Unfiltered, Naoussa
Domaine Karydas Naoussa 2009, Dop Naoussa
Katogi Averoff 2008, Metsovo
That’s all for now. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
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