It was the first afternoon of our wine trip in North Greece programme, and time for The Rapsani Wine Aventure. On receiving the itinerary before my trip, 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 grapes: the highly respected Xinomavro variety, and the lesser known Krassato and Stavroto, which moderate Xinomavro’s rather austere structure. Traditionally the vineyards have mixed vines, but some newer ones 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 Grande 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.
We 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.
We 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 Grande 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.