Assyrtiko from Santorini

In an a summary of my experiences with Greek wines a couple of years ago, and also on a trip to North Greece earlier this year, Assyrtiko wines struck me as being particularly worthy of more attention. So I have been exploring further, concentrating on Assyrtiko from the variety’s spiritual (and quite possibly actual) home – the volcanic island of Santorini. My exploration was helped by samples of Santo Wines sent to me by Tsantali, which I supplemented with two wines produced by Gaia, bought from Noel Young.


Before I tried these four wines my rather simplistic characterisation of Assyrtiko was intense and acidic, with Riesling as the closest point of comparison. Now I am more confused, but at a higher level as clearly there are many possible styles.  I still think I was basically correct, but the variety has a lot more to offer than I suspected. The wines were tasted, and then drunk with food, on different days in June and July this year – so more real life drinking than a “proper” comparative tasting. The Gaia prices are what I paid at Noel Young, but for Santo Wines I give estimated UK retail prices because as far as I know they are not available here (though you can get a different Santo Wines vinsanto from Hyde Park Wines).

Santorini, Assyrtiko, PDO Santorini, Santo Wines, 2014, 13.0%, £12.00
Pale straw with greenish tinge.  Intense and fresh, with lime and minerality on the nose. Medium high acidity. Dry, but with citric aroma sweetness. Palate aroma as nose. Primary. May keep a few years, but I suspect best drunk young.  If blind I would have guessed it was a Riesling – probably an Aussie one.  I thought *** at first, but this is growing on me, so ****

Thalassitis, PDO Santorini, Gaia, 2013, 13.0%, £16.25
The Assyrtiko grapes are from the Episkopi vineyard. Surprised to find a black plastic cork. Pale straw with greenish tinge.  Intense and fresh. Sweet and luscious peach. Soft and subtle on the nose. High acidity.  Bone dry, and hugely intense aromatically. Overpowering citrus aroma, lime I think, on the palate, but peach still in there somewhere. Excellent length. Full-bodied.  Feel I should mark this very highly, but for me it is too intense and challenging at this stage in its development.  Needs 10 years or so to calm down I thought, and then I read that Gaia suggest 2-3 years in the cellar so maybe that would be sufficient.  Maybe more rounded after a couple of days in the fridge. Note that I always rate wines on the immediate impression ****

Assyrtiko, Wild Ferment, PDO Santorini, Gaia, 2014, 13.0%, £17.60
Ungrafted 80yo Assyrtiko vines. Same black plastic cork.  Pale straw with greenish tinge. Intense.  Subtle oaky reductive notes, integrated into soft lime. Very attractive nose.  Medium high acidity. Bone dry. Palate aromas as nose.  Excellent length.  Good now, but I think it will improve with another few years, and better with food ****

Vinsanto, PDO Santorini, Santo Wines, 2007, 11.5%, 50cl, £18.50
Naturally sweet wine from sun-dried grapes. Mainly Assyrtiko, with some Aidani. Three years in oak. Bottled 2015. Medium pale caramel, with greenish tints towards the edges.  Fresh and sharp on the nose.  Lemon maybe, but mainly caramel with sultanas and almonds.  High acidity.  Sweet.  Nice balance of the extremes of acidity and sweetness, which is how I like sweet wines. Finishes sharp and then sweet. Not at all cloying.  Drink now ****

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Sunday night fever and the Kurniawan affair

I met Laurent Ponsot, a key play in the exposing of Rudy Kurniawan, this morning.  He is now working as sommelier in a Loire Valley restaurant.  Seemed a like a nice enough chap.  He pretended to have heard of my blog, but could only chat for a few minutes as he had to dash to get a taxi.

If you are thinking some of the details about my meeting with the Burgundian producer are about as suspicious as the label on one of Kurniawan’s bottles, you would be right – the encounter was part of a fever-induced dream just before I woke up. Late last night, when I was having problems sleeping due to a bout of the flu, I watched on YouTube the version of the Kurniawan affair according to the US television programme American Greed, and some bits of it had obviously resurfaced.

UK readers of my blog might find the American tone of the programme a bit too much at first, but stick with it for the content to come.  The accounts of I have read left me feeling a strong antipathy to Kurniawan . How dare he build up trust with his friends, only to abuse it by defrauding them.

But this programme had me almost feeling sorry for him. It seems he was the front guy for a larger operation.  He was lured in by a gang, with promises of fine wine drinking opportunities and money, and probably forced into debt to keep the scam going for as long as possible.  OK, so this is just my speculation, but it seems plausible.  When the fraud was rumbled, as he was the public-facing part of the fraud Kurniawan was hauled in and received 10 years jail to be followed by deportation, while the rest of the gang were never tracked down.

And was there not some degree of culpability on Spectrum and Vanquish, the auction house that shifted a lot of Kurniawan’s wines? Maureen Downey at Zackys didn’t need any of her special anti-fraud skills to get Kurniawan’s number when he tried to get them to auction the wine – she merely insisted on some sort of evidence of provenance, which could not be provided. But Spectrum and Vanquish  had no such qualms, letting Kurniawan sell anonymously, and even allowing an obvious lie about how long a wine had been in his cellar to slip into the catalogue.

To be honest I neither have little sympathy for the “collectors”, some of which chucked millions of dollars at these fraudulent wine.  Harsh perhaps, I know, but there you are.  Where are Kurniawan’s gang now I wonder? Maybe involved with lower profile fraud, but I bet they are not piddling about with the likes of the wine that I buy.

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The Yin and Yang of wine appreciation

Yin_and_Yang_svgI don’t want heavy-in on Chinese philosophy here, partly because I am not convinced Yin and Yang match very well onto what I have to say. But they suit my purpose in that they represent different aspects of the same thing, and that thing is strongest if the Yin and Yang are in balance. Rather than enter into a debate about which aspects of wine appreciation are Yin and Yang, I am simply going to declare that I am using Yin to represent the tendency to collect wine and intellectualise about it, while Yang is for drinking and enjoyment.

The Yin of wine appreciation
Yin is the shady side of the hill or valley, and where better to locate your cellar?  It should of course also be underground, and with plenty of shelving for your unopened cases, and racks for bottles, each major wine region and producer in its own section. There may be a few wine books down there, but your main library of well-thumbed book is more accessible. Drinking wine breaks up your collection, and seems like a bit of a waste. If you are to open your bottles, you would prefer to use them as an educational opportunity, with like-minded people in vertical and horizontal tastings. Yin usually represents the female aspect of something, but I bet you are a bloke.

The Yang of wine appreciation
Yang is on the sunny side, and in the summer you will be out in the sun drinking a bottle of something. You have a good palate, and can easily tell the difference between the good stuff and plonk without seeing the label, which is just as well because you really couldn’t be bothered to read the label. But you have a picture of it on your phone, and you might remember what you were told about the wine at the time of buying or consumption. Drinking wine gives you a great deal of pleasure at many levels, and you would find it hard to live without it. There’s a small selection of good bottles under the stairs, though you are never entirely sure what is there. Yang is supposed to be male, but you are just as likely to be female.

I hope I have made my point by now: wine appreciation has an intellectual and a hedonistic aspect, but in my opinion it is strongest – and most fun – when the two are in balance. In my portrayals, I suspect that Yang seems more normal than Yin to most of us, as it is closer to the social-drinking end of wine appreciation. But do let at least a little Yin into your life, even if you think the balance should not be fifty-fifty.

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Barolo Boys – film review

Around 1980 I was on a budget holiday in Northern Italy, where most meals were bread, cheese and ham picnics.  However, one evening we pushed the boat out and went to a proper (albeit cheap) restaurant.  I remember we ordered a bottle of Barolo and, even though I had little interest in wine in those days, I can still conjure up a vivid image of how it tasted: brown, tannic, and totally devoid of fruit.  Today I would probably send it back, and I did consider it back then.  But of course we drank the bottle, even though it was impossible to derive pleasure from it.

That must have been an example of the wine that prompted the modernist revolution in Barolo.  It was the style of wine that sold for little money and kept the wine growers in poverty, as described in Barolo Boys, The Story of a Revolution.  But then how does it relate to the great traditional Barolo wines that, in the same documentary, David Berry Green said were so fantastic?  Ultimately I am still left a little confused about what the situation was before the revolution, and how it relates to the current state of affairs.  However, it seems that the quality of Barolo has been raised generally, irrespective of whether the traditionalist or modernist tag is applied. Are the Barolo Boys to thank for that?  Regardless, it must be seen as a good thing.

The Barolo Boys were a group of producers who introduced crop thinning, shorter maceration times and barrique aging, thus making the wines more appealing to consumers and critics alike, and allowing them to sell for a lot more money. The film tells this story through interviews with the people involved, and through archive clips.  However nice it was to meet the people, learn a bit about their culture and see the landscape, I am not convinced that is the best way to understand a story, but I cannot deny that I did learn quite a bit.

I am a little ashamed to admit that I used to think that the Barolo Boys was just the name of the winemakers’ football team.  Though it is that too, and the football team even featured in the film.  The other surprise was to see the documentary’s Langhe landscapes suddenly switch to the volcanic Mount Etna and Marco de Grazia.  I know about Marco – he is the guy that is currently busy raising the profile of Etna wines.  But what’s he got to do with Barolo? Ah, I see… before he arrived in Sicily he encouraged the Barolo revolution, introduced the Barolo Boys to America, and imported their wines.  In fact, it was on the American tour organised by him that their name was coined.

Interestingly, the booklet that accompanies the DVD mentions that in the early 19th century Nebbiolo was used to make a wine that was semi-sweet and slightly fizzy.  But the landowners wanted something better, so experts were called in to introduce the latest winemaking techniques.  Does that sound familiar? Terms like traditional and modern are, if they have any meaning at all, relative terms.  My only concern about change, particularly with modern communications, is that stylistic choice in the world of wine might get diminished. That might be a real danger in some cases, but I would say today’s Barolo remains distinctive. And if you want red wine in the early 19th century style, you can still get that from the region, in the form of Bracchetto d’Aqui. Has much really been lost?

If you are interested enough to read my blog, I think there is something in this documentary for you. DVDs of Barolo Boys, The Story of a Revolution are available here, along with further information. That is where I bought my copy. But be warned – the homepage is a badly-executed multimedia extravaganza, so you will probably want to turn your computer sound off.  If you want to see the trailer, you’d do better accessing it on Vimeo directly, by clicking on the above image for example.

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A visit to Alpha Estate, Amyndeo

We were getting towards the end of our trip in North Greece now, the last full day in fact, and were now in the heartland of Xinomavro.  To be more precise, we were visiting Alpha Estate in Amyndeo, one of the two PDOs that require 100% Xinomavro, the other one being Naoussa,

Alpha Estate’s export manager, Konstantinos Arvanitakis, showed us around the vineyards and winery.  The Amyndeo region lies on a plateau at 615m above sea level, between three mountain ranges, and the lakes on the plateau moderate the continental climate.  The estate was founded with 33ha of vineyard in 1998, now 120ha.  It contains vines of 14 different grape varieties, including some unlikely international varieties such as Tannat, and experiments with varieties and the most suitable terroirs continue.

Amyndeo is one of the driest regions in Greece, and thus irrigation is very important to Alpha Estate.  To achieve this, they use 19 wells as water sources, and many filtration units scattered around the estate treat the alkaline water obtained from the wells. The irrigation is sub-soil – it was the first in Europe – and controlled by underground sensors and leaf measurements.  They also have a vineyard weather station, and use satellite imaging, to monitor the state of their vineyards. Experiments with drones will commence next year.  On a smaller scale, their WineScan machine can analyse over 50 grape samples a day, and is used to check on the grapes’ development to help plan work in the vineyard.


Above left is one of their newer cordon-pruned vineyards, with the winery in the distance. To the right is a vineyard with pre-phylloxera bush vines, in a sandy soil that is hostile to the phylloxera bug.  Historical records show that this is at least 93 years old, and it is one of four old vine blocks on the estate.

In the winery they had all the usual kit, and also these cool-looking rotary fermenters which are used with Ximomavro.  A recipe for a tannic monster of a wine you might think, but we were reassured that they were programmed to rotate only very infrequently.  Oh, and Alpha Estate is the biggest importer of French barrels in Greece.


The Alpha Estate pursuit of excellence extended to the tasting room.  I have posted before how tastings could be improved, and this one implemented all six of my suggestions and went even further.  We had 13 wines in 13 glasses, each glass being selected to show off its particular wine.  The reds were poured before we entered the room, and the whites immediately before tasting so they were at the correct temperature. Note the differently shaped glasses, including an Oregon Pinot Noir glass for the Xinomavro Old Vines Reserve!  Note the detailed data sheet for each wine, including label image and space at the bottom for notes.  Note the map showing what wine is in each glass, and even where to find the “ancillary water glass” and “spittoon glass”.  The tasting proceeded in blissful silence, allowing us to concentrate on the wines themselves without marketing spiel to affect our impressions, but if we had any questions oenologist Katia Beli was on hand to help.


So with the perfect tasting conditions I have a fantastic set of notes to share with you, right?  Well, not really.  Although I occasionally make exceptions, I like to get to know wines better than is possible from a single tasting sample before giving my opinion.  But how about a list of my favourite wines?  Here they are: Axia 2012 (50% Xinomavro, 50% Syrah),  Syrah Single Vineyard Turtles 2011, Ximomavro Old Vines 2010, Utopia 2011 (Tannat), Malagouzia 2014, Omega Late Harvest  2012 (85% Gewurztraminer, 15% Malagouzia).  Alpha Estate has pretty good availability in the UK, and I already have a bottle of the Xinomavro Old Vines Reserve 2010 waiting to be picked up, so I might be posting tasting notes at some later date.

Alpha Estate delivers excellent wines now, but is a relatively new producer that is very much still striving for improvement, so definitely a producer to look out for.  And do drop by if you are in the region – we were told that they have an open door policy, and offer anyone who visits the same 13 wines we tasted.  But not necessarily in 13 different glasses.

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Xinomavro and me

I’m not going to give you an exhaustive account of  the native grape varieties I encountered on my recent wine trip to North Greece, but Xinomavro certainly deserves a few words.  And before that I’d like to say that the trip also confirmed my liking for Assyrtiko and Malagousia. They are very different grapes, Assyrtiko being lean and mean, the closest point of reference being Riesling I would say. A couple of times I even believed I detected a whiff of petrol in it.  Malagousia however is a lot more full-bodied and aromatic – more of a crowd-pleaser I think.  Incidentally, Malagousia was effectively rescued from obscurity by winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou, now owner of Ktima Gerovassiliou, who joined us for lunch there.  Assyrtiko’s stronghold is Santorini, which is now even more firmly on my list of places to visit. Anyway, back to Xinomavro…


Xinomavro vine with ripe fruit. ©User:Elisavetch

The variety is hardly a branding success with a tricky-to-pronounce name that translates as sour-black.  Actually the pronunciation is not too difficult: It starts with a “ks” sound and the stress is on the first “o”. Without a doubt, Xinomavro is the quality black grape of North Greece.  It is the only variety allowed in the important PDOs of Naoussa and Amyndeo, and, as mentioned in a previous post, one of the three varieties required for PDO Rapsani.  Most of Xinomavro wines are red, but it is not unusual to find rosé and even white examples.  There is nothing special about the grapes used for the white version; they are just vinified as a white wine, in the same way as the base wine for a Blanc de Noirs Champagne.

Xinomavro is often compared with Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, and said to develop olive and tomato notes as it matures. I am not sure about Pinot Noir, but I can certainly see similarities with Nebbiolo, largely because the Xinomavro tannins are so huge. The aromatic profiles of Nebbiolo and Xinomavro also have points in common.  Someone on our trip said that neither variety was particularly fruity, and I think I see what they mean, but that is not to say they are not aromatic. On the basis of the young wine aromatic profile only, I also found similarities with Aussie Shiraz – a sort of engineering workshop smell of oil and Swarfega – but I think I was in a minority of one on that!

Am I selling the grape to you? Really, you have to believe that I came away as a big Xinomavro fan. Despite the name, I did not find the wines particularly acidic, but they were certainly not flabby either.  Maybe that makes it sounds more attractive?  But the best is to come.  Like Nebbiolo, Ximomavro wines age well.  I really would not like to characterise the bouquet of mature Xinomavro wines from my limited experience, other than to say that they are beautifully complex and I wasn’t totally convinced about the olive and tomato flavours they are meant to have.

The white Xinomavro wines I tried were attractive, with no hint of their tannic grape origins.  On the other hand, the rosés were pretty dark and beefy by rosé standards, tending towards a light red wine.  As I am not a big rosé wine lover, the closer it is to a red wine the better. It should also be noted that while most Xinomavro reds are very tannic, it is possible to vinify the grape to make a red wine that is much more soft and fruity when young.

A good example of that  style (to the honest, the only one I found on the trip) is Thymiopoulos Naoussa Jeunes Vignes, which is available from The Wine Society.  Marks and Spencer also do one of his wines at a similar price, which they call Thymiopoulos Xinomavro.  If you are buying from The Wine Society, you could also pick up a bottle of Thymiopoulos Earth and Sky Naoussa, which is considerably more tannic and age-worthy than the Jeunes Vignes.  I tasted the 2008, which I suspect had already begun to soften with age.  I wouldn’t want to single these wines out for excellence, as I tasted many other good ones, but I think they offer a nice contrasting pair, and have the advantage of being relatively easy to buy in the UK. If you would like another recommendation, I would suggest the Alpha Estate Xinomavro Reserve Veilles Vignes, which is PDO Amyndeo. We tasted the 2010, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the wines we sampled at Alpha Estate.  Amyndeo wines are supposed to be softer and more generous than those from Naoussa – Côte de Beaune rather than Côte de Nuit as someone put it – and this is approachable now, even if it would improve with age. It is available from a number of independent merchants in the UK.

So I have three Greek grape varieties that I know I like: Assyrtiko, Malagousia, and now Xinomavro.

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Stelios Kechris Domaine, Retsina, and the Tear of the Pine

The very first event of our North Greece wine trip was an evening tasting in our Thessaloniki hotel, offered by four wineries that we would not get the opportunity to visit.  We had many good wines, but the Tear of the Pine in particular grabbed my attention. It was not only good, but something markedly different to anything else I had tasted before: a high quality Retsina.

kechris_totpModern Retsina is generally a low quality white wine heavily flavoured with pine resin, which masks the quality of the base wine and any faults it might have.  It is uncertain how it developed from the ancient practice of using pine resin for sealing amphoras to help preserve the wine.  The evidence seems to be that the resin flavour was merely tolerated by the Greeks, it being left to the Romans to decided that it was a Good Thing, with Pliny the Elder writing about the best resins, and how he liked the bits of resin that got stuck in his teeth.  But how did Pliny’s connoisseurship of pine resin lead to the resinous Greek wine of today?  Apart from anything else, the resin is now added at the fermentation stage, which is necessary to extract the resinous flavour.  The above-mentioned amphoras were used for transporting wine, not for fermentation, so it is possible that if ancient wines did taste of resin it was because the fermentation continued a little or re-started after the main fermentation period.

I always thought that Retsina was a pleasant enough drink when sitting in simple taverna when on holiday on a Greek island; in that situation I think I tended to order it more than most people.  But for some reason the idea of drinking it back in the UK never appealed.  Then, a few weeks ago, I was at a tasting in central Thessaloniki on a rainy evening, and without wanting to sound too negative the atmosphere was probably closer to that of Manchester than a Greek beach.  The second producer at the tasting was Stelios Kechris Domaine, with oenologist Eleni Kechris presenting the wines.

eleni_kechriWe started with their Kechirabi Retsina, a wine they started making in 1939.  It is 100% Roditis and fermented in stainless steel tanks with top quality pine resin. Without having had  other Retsinas to compare with, it was difficult to evaluate, but I thought it was better than the Retsina of Greek beaches enjoyed many years ago.  The predominant flavour was without a doubt pine resin, and it had a nice clean and refreshing feel to it.

Then we moved on to the Tear of the Pine Retsina.  Like Kechirabi, the vintage was not on the label, but it was in fact from 2014.  To give you some idea of the price, it retails in Greece for around €12, which would probably translate to around £17 in the UK, and is over double the cost of Kechrabi. The Tear of the Pine is made from the highly regarded Assyrtiko grape variety, fermented in new oak barrels, and aged on the lees for 6 months. It demonstrated very well how good Retsina could be, if you start with the intention of making a good quality white wine and use carefully selected pine resin in a controlled fashion. Here the use pine resin was very subtle, to the extent that it was easy not to notice initially. But the strength of the resinous aromas did seem to build up, perhaps as the wine warmed, and was most noticeable on the finish.

Let’s attempt a tasting note for the Tear of the Pine… Intense, fresh, citric on the nose.  Almost Riesling-like with lime and maybe a hint of petrol. Herbs. Oak definitely. Aromatic resin in the background, sometimes contributing a spicy note.  Medium high acidity on the palate, and bone dry.  Citrus, oak and pine in that order of intensity, and with that order in time. More pine on the finish, then oak, giving an almost astringent finish.  Elegant, with the resin providing complexity and refreshment.  I drank the wine with dinner on a couple of occasions too, and the only slight negative was that after four glasses or so the wood flavours – the oak as well and the pine – started to get a bit much for me.  If only I was able to stop after three glasses… :) *****

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Rapsani – the adventure, the wine and the town

It was the first afternoon of our wine trip in North Greece programme, and time for The Rapsani Wine Aventure. On receiving the trip itinerary, I quickly checked out this Adventure using Google. I found the video, and it looked fun.

But it took me more time to figure out what Rapsani was, and why we were being taken up the mountain. It turns out that Rapsani is the name of a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) that lies just to the South of Mount Olympus. Its wine is red, and made from roughly equal parts of three varieties: the respected local Xinomavro variety, better known as the grape of Naoussa, and the lesser known Krassato and Stavroto varieties, which moderate Xinomavro’s rather austere structure. Traditionally the vineyards have mixed vines, but some newer vineyards are mono-varietal.


The mountainous PDO region is closely associated with the producer Tsantali, who effectively rescued wine production there by buying the failing local co-op winery from the Greek Agriculture Bank. They did this in 1991, and invested heavily in the area, not only in the vineyards and production facilities but also in promoting the wine. And it was Tsantali who were our hosts, transporting us in Land Rovers up the mountain, pouring samples of Rapsani en route in the vineyards, and providing larger quantities of mature vintages for us to drink with dinner at our destination, a taverna in the town of Rapsani – the town that gives the PDO its name.


Our first stop en route was at around 250m above sea level, where we inspected some bush vines and tasted Tsantli’s entry-level 2012 Rapsani. This was made from vines grown at altitudes up to 250m, and in accordance with the PDO rules had at least 6 months ageing in oak barrels and a further 6 months in bottle before release. Their Reserve Rapsani is grown at 250-500m and has at least 12 months in barrel and 12 in bottle, and the Grand Reserve is grown above 500m with at least 3 years in barrel and 1 in bottle. So we were standing on the boundary between straight Rapsani vines and Reserve ones as it were, and tasting the wine of the vineyards below us. It was refreshing, straightforward, and easy to like. Whilst having character and a certain edginess it also had good fresh fruit. There was minerality and good acidity, with an astringency that was kept at a low level, but which still made a positive contribution to the wine.

rapsani_viewWe paused at places with stunning views where you could see the extent of the Rapsani vineyards, but the next tasting stop was as 500m. Here the vines were cordon pruned. Following the pattern of sampling from the vines we had just driven through, we had Reserve wines here: a 2014 barrel sample and the 2011. I thought I detected a little reduction in the barrel sample, but the 2011 was more complete, with slightly lifted red fruit, good depth, a smooth and viscous mouth-feel, and moderate tannins. A more serious wine than the straight Rapsani, but I liked them both equally in different ways.

rapsani_chapelWe also popped into the charming St Theodore’s monastery, founded in 1778 and dedicated to winegrowers. Internally it is covered with well preserved Athonite style frescos. Then onto Rapsani town. We first visited the fascinating Museum of Wine and Vine. Here there were many well presented winemaking artefacts, but for me some of the most interesting exhibits were the photographs. These included some from what I would guess were the 1950s and 1960s, depicting families posing in vineyards wearing their Sunday-best. Clearly the vineyards and wine had great cultural significance for them, which would have made the economic decline of winemaking in the area, leading to the collapse of the co-op, even harder to bear.

This was followed by a short walk to a local taverna for an excellent dinner of generous proportions, and equally generous supplies of Tsantali wine, mainly Rapsani of course, but also a Malagousia. The wines included the 2008 Grand Reserve, and two magnums of fully mature Reserve, 1999 and 2002, which beautifully demonstrated how well Rapsani can age in 10-15 years.

It was a long day, finishing well past midnight, but I had experienced a lot. And I had learned a lot about Rapsani, from the history and vineyards, all the way through to enjoying the magnums of mature Rapsani Reserve with good food. I felt I had begun to get under the skin of Rapsani.

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Glass shape, and how wine tastes

Around a month ago there was a flurry of interest in the wine world because new research had supposedly proved that wine glass shape is important for how wine tastes.  See for example the Open Culture and National Geographic articles. Being naturally sceptical, I dug out the abstract for the paper describing the research, and then the paper itself.  In brief, the paper proves no such thing, and doesn’t claim to either.  However, if you are intrigued and want to know what the paper actually relates to, read on…


It describes a novel technique for measuring the presence of ethanol vapour, and the authors used the technique to measure ethanol at the mouths of various glasses containing wine. Note that a) they measured ethanol vapour concentrations and b) the measurements were made on vertically standing glasses, presumably ones that had been standing for some time to allow the vapour patterns to stabilise.  Sadly for wine lovers, they did not measure the concentrations of the interesting aromatic compounds that give wines their smell and flavour, and they did not measure anything from a glass that had being swirled a little and inclined towards the mouth.

So what possible interest could this be to wine drinkers?  Very little I would suggest, notwithstanding some remarks made in the National Geographic article about alcohol suppressing flavours, the questionable evidence for which seems to relate to alcohol in solution anyway, not the vapour form. However, there was also an intriguing comment by the original authors referring to the ring-shaped alcohol pattern in the mouth of the Cabernet Sauvignon glass: This phenomenon allows us to smell the aroma of the wine in the center of the glass at a lower alcohol concentration. Accordingly, the shape of the wine glass has a very sophisticated and functional design for tasting and enjoying the aroma of wine.  A strange comment I thought, which came out of the blue and with little explanation or justification.  It could be construed as a nod to Riedel who provided “technical assistance and advice”, but I wouldn’t dream of being so cynical.

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Impressions from a wine visit to North Greece

The trip was organised through the Circle of Wine Writers, and I am very grateful to Ted Lelekas for initiating and leading the visit, to Wines of North Greece for their support including trip expenses within Greece, and to all producers who gave us hospitality. We started in Thessaloniki, and then visited the points of interest in a clockwise direction on this map. For more geographic detail, click on the image and pan and zoom around my Google map.

n_greece_mapThe producers we visited were Gerovassiliou (G), Tsantali vineyards in Rapsani (H), Katogi Averoff (A), Alpha Estate (B) and Kir-Yanni (K), but we also met many others and tasted their wines.  I mention the ones we visited here, because inevitably they had the greatest effect on my overall impression. It is also worth mentioning that about half-way through the 5 days, we took a break from wine-related activities and visited the Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai in Vergina, which is probably the most impressive archaeological museum I have ever visited, and a stunning reminder of Macedonia’s historical wealth and power.

From what we were shown, and indeed from what I have read elsewhere, the overriding impression is that producers in North Greece are ambitious, quality conscious and, perhaps most importantly, prepared to drive forward their vision by investing and taking risks. This is not a place largely populated by small family businesses who continue to produce wine according to the tradition of centuries, nor a place that attracts foreign celebrities who come to play out their winemaking fantasies. Here are people serious about rebuilding a modern wine industry.


Outside Gerovassiliou’s new visitor centre, looking over their vineyards and the Aegean Sea to Mount Olympus

There is a lot of pride in native grape varieties, and significant efforts have been made to save and protect them.  But equally I found a surprising willingness to use international varieties, blended with local or other international grapes, and in varietal wines.  Presumably the wines made solely from international varieties are mainly for the Greek market.  They must be difficult to sell abroad, where they compete either with classic regions or with whoever can sell cheaply at the commodity end of the market.

alpha weather

Weather station in Alpha Estate’s vineyards, with their winery in the distance

The approach to viticulture and wine making is largely based on science and technology. Many of the producers use sustainable viticulture, and I understand there is a certification scheme for this in Greece, but few seem to worry much about being organic. Biodynamics was only mentioned once, and in reply to a direct question from me. The reply was “we have no interest in biodynamics”. I fear most drinkers of quality wine would like a bit of mysticism in the back-story, but personally I applaud the approach of ignoring woo-woo and seeking quality through science and sustainable viticulture.

Indeed, taken as a whole, I found the down-to-earth and business-like approach very refreshing compared with the flannel often heard in wine marketing.  It accords more with the “common-sense attitude” in the strapline of my blog.

So those are my general impressions.  More about specific parts of the trip later…

Update: Alexandra Anthidou, Wines of North Greece, indicated that my comments on the use of technology and biodynamics were not generally applicable to Greek wineries.  For example, around half of them are in fact biodynamic.  The ones we visited, and which formed my impressions, were a selection of some of the more serious, successful and famous wineries.  I still suspect that equivalent producers in other countries and regions would project a different image, but I will let you the reader decide on that.

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