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
Kitros, Pieria. Preliminary research showed that I was to see mussel farms, salt pans, a protected wetland, rich in rare bird species, and the snow-capped Mount Olympus. It turned out differently: I was greeted by low cloud and mist. Neatly farmed rolling...
Macedonia | Red | Xinomavro
Kitros, Pieria. Preliminary research showed that I was to see mussel farms, salt pans, a protected wetland, rich in rare bird species, and the snow-capped Mount Olympus. It turned out differently: I was greeted by low cloud and mist. Neatly farmed rolling hills. Odd-looking, high-pergola vines. A puff of snow on the ground. Or so I thought. There is nothing like putting on my beloved hiking boots and heading out over wet sandy clay to see first-hand all these half-obscured sightings. These were no vines bearing grapes. They were kiwis. The puff of snow: leftover cotton buds. Worst of all, no sight of Mount Olympus, which, on a clear day, is of magnificent presence. Nikos and Helias Chrisostomou are amongst the most open-minded, progressive farmers I have met. Their career path is a lovely story: “We farmed kiwis; knew nothing of wine. Our father made a little red wine for his pleasure,” said Nikos. “Great volatile acidity,” quips Helias. “We were in our twenties, so we enrolled to Thessaloniki-based Maria Netsika's tutored tastings. We discovered a new world.” Fifteen years later, they had planted vines and built with their own hands their underground cellar. We went out to see their vineyards. A few sunrays breaking through, still no sight of the tall mountain. Their farming principles are a case study of how to manage each variety appropriately. They are learning each year of the demanding re-discovered Limniona. Consulting oenologist Angeliki Biba, collecting samples, joined us. “Limniona is vigorous; it needs stony soil to reduce cluster size. Smaller-sized berries are more aromatic. The florality tends towards sweet-smelling flowers, such as magnolia.” This reminds me of the superiority of the female sense of smell. It is more subtle than boys’. As we age, their sense of smell lasts longer, too. Back in the cellar, there were no false notes in tasting from numerous casks. The two brothers first planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, then in vogue. They are exemplary. Great for the home market. Ripe and tasty. Marked by freshness. They reminded me of southern France. From a homogeneous line-up, it was the Xinomavro-Limniona blend, Mousaios, that stole the show. It is on the vanguard of this up-and-coming region. Bold and brave, it breaks through into new territory. It illustrates these humble, pragmatic stewards of the soil, their fresh perspective into wine. As the mist got denser, I saw nothing of my action-list. The next visit is already planned. One never knows: in spring it may snow.
Floral. Peppery dark fruit. Complex and appealing firm structure. Refreshing tannic bite. Integrated older-oak support. Savoury, meaty notes. Voluptuous texture. Tobacco leaf on the attractive, earthy finish. Stylistically, it bridges modern Naoussa Xinomavro with new-wave Tyrnavos Limniona. The most exciting, energized all-Greek blend in ages. Indicates the potential of a little-known terroir.
14 Feb 2015 © Nico Manessis | Score: 17/20
|Chrisostomou Estate Mousaios|
|Area: Macedonia|| |
|Variety: Xinomavro / Limniona|
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|| |
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.