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 relatively 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…
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.