Thymiopoulos wines from Naoussa and Rapsani

I first came across Thymiopoulos in 2015, on a press trip in Northern Greece. They had a modest table in the corner of a walk-around tasting of Naoussa producers. At the end of a long day of eating well, drinking and tasting, my palate was jaded, and the rest of me felt a bit out of sorts too. Yet somehow the Thymiopoulos wines grabbed my attention. In contrast to most Xinomavro wines in the room, which seemed hard work for me at the time, those of Thymiopoulos stood out for their approachability. Under other circumstances, the other wines may well have been more appealing – I am certainly not averse to austere and astringent wines – but, in my fragile condition that evening, no thank you.

According to The Wine Society, the Thymiopoulos family has been growing grapes for generations, but only in 2003 did they start making their own wine. Since then they have considerably expanded their range and have converted to biodynamic viticulture, all the time building up an excellent reputation for quality. In The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017 by Yiannis Karakasis MW, the winemaker Apostolos Thymiopoulos is said to be considered “one of the stars of Greek winemaking” and “is credited with having shifted the flavour tone in Naoussa with his wine Earth and Sky by achieving that elusive combination of a strong tannin structure with a rich palate and fruity depth”. In the same book, Thymiopoulos is listed as one of the 6 best producers in Greece, and Earth and Sky is one of the top 10 indigenous Greek red wines. Jancis Robinson has also recently been praising Thymiopoulos wines, selecting the Jeunes Vignes in her recent Wine of the Week feature (only available to subscribers).

Back in the time I visited Northern Greece, even though Thymiopoulos were making a cheaper Naoussa for Marks and Spencer, the availability of their wine in the UK was quite restricted. But now things are looking up, and currently The Wine Society stock a particularly good range. So, for a local tasting group, a couple of weeks ago I bought five Thymiopoulos wines made exclusively from the Xinomavro grape – four reds of the Naoussa PDO, and one rosé. Also two Rapsani PDO wines, red wines made from roughly equal parts of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto. Here is the bottle line-up (click on the image to enlarge and see the labels more clearly).

I was pleased to note that most of these wines were sealed using Diam corks. Only Earth and Sky and Karavas, the most expensive wines of each PDO, used natural cork, and as far as I know they were also the only two oak-aged wines. I double-decanted all wines a couple of hours before tasting. They all had some fine sediment that was difficult to remove by decanting, but the sediment was so fine, and there was so little of it, that it was not noticeable when tasting. As usual, the scores below are indicative solely of how much I liked the wine at the time of tasting.

Rosé de Xinomavro, Macedonia IGP, 2017, £10.95
Late harvest and unfiltered. Quite intense for a rosé. Pink, verging on a copper-amber colour. Sharp and fresh. Almost vegetal. The fruit on the nose reminded me of a childhood fizzy drink, but I am not sure which. Pleasant, but not classy or classic. Medium high acidity. Dry. Aromatics assertive and intense, and very much as nose. Considering the tannic nature of the grape, I thought there may be some astringency, but no. A strange one. I am not usually a rosé drinker, but I think I liked it ****

Xinomavro, Jeunes Vignes, Naoussa PDO, 2017, £10.95
Medium pale garnet. Intense, mature and complex. Was this really as young as 2017? Medium acidity. Medium astringency. Aromas as nose. Elegant and understated. Drink now. Very pleasant drink. It might have got 5 stars, but initially it felt a tad watery ****

Kayafaz, Single Terroir, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £15.50
According to TWS, a tiny-batch experiment. Medium ruby garnet. Intense. Tar and violets that I associate with Nebbiolo. More primary than the Jeunes Vignes. Medium high acid. High astringency. Intense, as nose. Excellent length. Young and punchy. Good now, but will easily keep going for a few years *****

Earth and Sky, Xinomavro, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £21.00
Old vines, 18 months in large oak barrels, and unfiltered. Another medium ruby garnet wine, but more ruby than the Kayafaz. Medium intense. Hints of one of the components of the Kayafaz aroma, but not the full range. Some oak and coffee. Medium high acid. High astringency. Intense aromatically on the palate. Probably will be better in a few years time, or if I had decanted the bottle earlier. But as it was –  ****

Xinomavro Nature, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £14.50
Another experiment according to TWS, this time in low-intervention winemaking, with minimal sulphur and filtration. But I do wonder how that is to be contrasted with the other wines, some of which claim not to be filtered at all. Medium ruby garnet. Nose very similar profile to the Kayafaz. Medium high acid. High astringency. Aromatically, if anything maybe a bit more elegant and supple than the Kayafaz. Note that although this is apparently marketed as a natural wine, it has none of the characteristics you might associate with that; neither weirdness nor vibrant fruit. Nevertheless this is a beautiful wine, and I think my favourite so far. Drink now  *****

Terra Petra, Rapsani PDO, 2016, £20.00
Grown on schist, and unfiltered. Medium ruby garnet. Intense tar and violets. Medium acid. Sweet, soft and gentle aromatically. Medium high astringency. As nose. Drink now *****

Karavas, Single Terroir, Rapsani PDO, 2016, £28.00
Indigenous yeasts, and 18 months in French oak. Medium ruby garnet. Tar and violets again, but this time with noticeable oak. Medium acid. Smooth. Vanilla. Medium astringency. Classy wine, with the mark of oak. Good now, but considering the price I hope it will improve. Pleasant enough, but I think I prefer the grape to shine more clearly through the oak ****

All the red wines showed aromas that I associate with the Xinomavro grape – aromas that also remind me of Nebbiolo and which I think of as “tar and violet”. I am however prepared to concede that the description is my rather lazy shorthand for something I have difficulty putting into words. The “violet” bit seems relatively accurate, even if I believe other people use “rose” for the same thing. But the “tar” metaphor is rather over-the-top for a slightly piercing mineral (i.e. not animal or vegetal) note. Another similarity between Xinomavro and Nebbiolo is that, to my taste at least, both share a certain savoury nature, and show relatively little fruit. If all that sounds negative, it is not meant to be. I like both grape varieties very much.

Naoussa wines must be 100% Xinomavro, but Rapsani additionally has Krassato and Stavroto – normally all three varieties in roughly equal parts I believe. I am not sure about the varietal percentages in these particular Rapsani wines, but I cannot say I particularly noticed the influence of the non-Xinomavro varieties.

My notes were written as I tasted the wines, and shown above in that order. But I did return to taste and drink the wines a few times, and on the return tastings I must admit I got more and more uncertain about the differences between them. However a few differences continued to stand out. It was clear that the Earth and Sky remained tight and unyielding. Also that both the Earth and Sky and the Karavas showed oaky notes, and they remained the wines I liked least for current drinking. The other three Naoussas seemed to get more similar to each other, becoming equally delicious, with the Jeunes Vignes standing out in terms of value for money.

Overall it should be emphasised that we all enjoyed all these wines when tasting them, and later when we drank them with food. Perhaps there is something to be learned about the relative popularity of each wine from the left-over quantities? Well, the rosé remains were taken home by someone, but on the basis of the left-over volumes the order of popularity for the reds (most popular first) was: KaravasJeunes Vignes, Kayafaz, Nature, Terra Petra, Earth and Sky. The people have spoken!

When and where did winemaking begin?

I starting getting engaged with this topic when reading the November 2017 press stories about new archaeological evidence for winemaking in Georgia 8,000 years ago. We were told that this pre-dates the winemaking remains previously accepted to be the oldest, which were discovered in northern Iran. That confused me because, for several years now, Georgians have been claiming an 8,000 year old unbroken winemaking tradition. And then, to make my confusion worse, I saw articles elsewhere saying that the remains of the oldest winery were in Armenia. It does not help that popular reporting occasionally fails to differentiate different between “BC” and “years ago”, as to most people a couple of millennia here and there does not seem to matter. In the face of all these claims and a smattering of misinformation, what seemed to be lacking was a recent overview of the evidence with no promotional agenda – which is what I aim to provide here.

Firstly, as some say there is archaeological evidence for wine in China in 7,000 BC, let’s take a quick look at that claim. And dismiss it. What was found in China was evidence of a fermented drink. Some people have suggested the drink may have been made partially from grapes, but that is speculation, and seems very unlikely. Even if true, we would normally expect our wine to be made of grapes exclusively.

While individual countries now lay claim to the oldest winemaking tradition, we must remember that modern-day boundaries did not of course apply back in Neolithic times. There was a largish region that included (to mix names from different eras) Northern Mesopotamia, Eastern Turkey, the Zagros mountains in Northern Iran, and the South Caucasus, in which there were many new developments: permanent human settlements, plant domestication for food, and crafts such as weaving, dying, stone working, woodwork and pottery. It was within this context that, not unsurprisingly perhaps, winemaking seems to have emerged.

Archaeological evidence can currently only point to the existence of early winemaking activity in a few isolated instances, each one in a particular place and time. While important, that evidence sadly can say little about the general picture. However, there is also supporting evidence that links this region with the origin of viticulture and winemaking. Genetic diversity in a plant is taken to be an indicator that it has existed for a long time – simply because it has had more time to mutate – and the Eurasian wild grape shows its greatest genetic diversity in the Near Eastern uplands, suggesting that grape vines in their wild form originated there. Also, Western European grape varieties are closer genetically to the wild vine of Anatolia than they are to more local wild vines, meaning that they probably originated close to Anatolia as domesticated forms, and later spread west. This is also consistent with the current indigenous Georgian grape varieties being closely related genetically to those of Western Europe, though by itself that fact does not indicate any particular direction of travel.

The oldest wine-related archaeological sites are in present-day Georgia, just 50km south of Tbilisi. They were two nearby villages, each around 1 ha in area – sites 2 and 3 on the above map – comprising circular mud huts of 1-5 m in diameter. Here sherds of fired-clay jars were found with residues that, when analysed, showed to be very likely to be of a grape product, and which were dated as 6,000-5,800 BC. The jars were up to 1 m high and 1 m in diameter, with a capacity of over 300 li. The jars had small unstable bases, so for stability could have been partly buried when used, but the decoration around the top of the jars suggested that they were not totally buried. Present day Georgian qvevris tend to be larger, and are totally buried, so these ancient jars are perhaps better seen as a forerunner of the Georgian qvevri rather than the first examples. In fact, no direct evidence of winemaking on those site has yet come to light, but pollen samples indicate that there were grapes growing nearby, and considering the wine culture known to exist in that region at later dates, it does not seem unreasonable to assume that wine was actually made in those villages. These are the same sites where for several years Georgians have, with little justification, been claiming an 8,000 year old history of winemaking. But it was a lot more recently that the convincing evidence mentioned above was obtained, and published in November 2017 the PNAS article Early Neolithic wine of Georgia in the South Caucasus. Unless credited elsewhere, this PNAS article is the source of pretty much all the information in this blog post, and the map is reproduced from that article, so if you want to chase up more detailed references that is where to go.

Prior to November 2017, the earliest known winemaking site was in the of Northern Iran, site 17 on the map, just south of Lake Urmia. As on the Georgian sites, jars were found in a domestic mud hut with traces of the tartrates that indicated they had contained wine. These remains were dated to around 5,400-5000 BC. There were six partially-buried jars found in one hut, each with a capacity of around 9 li.


This quantity was typical for a hut in the village and indicates winemaking on a sizable domestic scale, but we must go to the Areni-1 cave (site 15 on the map) of present-day Armenia for the earliest evidence of a proper winery. Unfortunately, because Armenia’s legitimate claim for the earliest known winery is sometimes made in isolation, this can easily give the impression that winemaking itself started here. While in actual fact the winery was dated to 4,000 BC – around two millennia later than the winemaking finds in Georgia. Nevertheless, the Areni-1 cave finds are significant and impressive. In addition to the tartrates, there were found grape-vine fragments, pips, and the red pigment malvidin. Also plaster pressing floors, arranged so the released grape juice would run into buried jars. To put these Armenian finds into a bit of perspective, they are roughly contemporary with early signs of winemaking in Northern Greece at Dikili Tash, yet still considerably earlier than anything in what is now Italy.

So if anyone asks when and where winemaking began, the only honest answer is that we don’t know. However, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that it was in or around the South Caucasus. And there is strong archaeological evidence for winemaking 8,000 years ago at a specific location in what is now Georgia, which is the oldest hard evidence we have at the moment.

More interesting than chronological one-upmanship is perhaps the details of how wine was made in the Neolithic period, and how winemaking evolved into what we see today – but that is another story.

The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017 – book review

Here I review The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017: Decoding the land of Dionysis, by Yiannis Karakasis MW. Note the year in the title – the author’s intention is to update the book regularly. Its 128 pages are available only as a PDF, and can be ordered here for €14. The presentation is attractive, but I might have preferred a simpler format that is easier to print and read on-screen, even if the result were not as aesthetically pleasing. However, I am sure others would beg to differ. The purchaser’s name appears on each page to discourage sharing and you are prevented from copying text from the file, but otherwise there are no physical restrictions on the copying and you are trusted to respect the author’s copyright.

This is no massive reference tome, but a great introduction to Greek wine that also gives a good update on current trends. It clearly focusses on the what is important, allowing the newcomer to Greek wine to focus on its most rewarding aspects. There is often a temptation to be too inclusive and comprehensive, even in short introductory wine books, but in my opinion that can easily confuse. Neither is Yiannis afraid to stick his neck out with his opinions. I would say that too is good in books of this type. If you already know something about Greek wine you may agree or disagree with the opinions, but at least there is a starting point for exploration and discussion. Often finding the starting point proves to be the main stumbling block in getting to grips with an unfamiliar wine region.

The two forewords in the book include a note from José Vouillamoz on Greek grape varieties. This is followed by Part 1, which has sections on history, current trends and challenges. Also, in a section strangely entitled Down to the basics, there are trends and opinions on the key grape varieties. Part 2 has a map of the Greek wine PDOs, followed by four sections, on Santorini, Naoussa, other islands, and the mainland, where “other islands” means islands other than Santorini, and “mainland” means everything apart from Naoussa. Part 3 is on the Greek grape varieties. It starts by classifying nine of them as Quality, Promising or Pleasant surprises. The same nine varieties are then illustrated and described using bullet points. I felt this used a lot of space and communicated little – I would have much preferred a short paragraph on each variety. Finally in Part 3, the vintages are rated by region, and the aging potential of the nine grapes is commented on, the latter being particularly useful for new buyers of Greek wines I thought. Part 4 has two sections: on sweet wines and Retsina. Yes, Retsina is making a comeback, though judging by comments I have received when praising new high quality Retsinas, they will be a hard sell abroad. Finally there is Part 5, with its classifications and scores. The top producers are divided into the classes of exceptional, excellent, very good and rising. Then there are the top 10s for Assyrtiko wines, indigenous whites, international whites, indigenous reds, international reds, and sweet wines; followed by awards for producer of the year, emerging producer, and red and white wines of the year; and ten profiles of new generation winemakers. Do these profiles really belong in this part on classifications and scores, I wonder? Then, after five pages of pictures of 40 or so producers who don’t get their own profiles, we arrive at something that seems to serve as an introduction to Part 5. The book ends with some 60 pages devoted to tasting notes and scores of some of the better Greek wines, both recently released and older vintages.

So, as you can see, I have a few quibbles about the structure of the book, but the main thrust of its content is in my opinion spot on. For me personally, what I gained most was confirmation of a few things I had suspected but not seen expressed explicitly before, and ideas for future exploration of Greek wine.

As a small footnote, I had some problems printing the PDF using the latest Windows version of Adobe Acrobat Reader. Yiannis assures me that most people do not have this problem, but if you do come across it, you might like to try one of these two solutions, both of which worked for me. Before printing in Acrobat, try clicking on Advanced, and check Print as image before printing. Unfortunately this results in extremely slow printing, and seems to give poor print quality. A better solution in my opinion is to download another PDF reader called Foxit, and use that to do the printing.

Santorini wines and producers

I feel that any attempt at being systematic in a post on producers and their wines would be too presumptuous after one visit to the island, but I would still like to write a little about what I found and why I am so excited about Santorini wines. So am simply going to let you know what made the biggest impact on me, and hope that you will bear in mind that there are all manner of reasons why an experience may or may not have impressed at any particular moment. YMMV and all that.

If you haven’t seen them already, for a bit of background you might like to take a look at my blog posts that lead up to this one: Santorini as a destination for wine loversSantorini vineyards and vines and Santorini grape varieties and wine styles.

Wine with food

Let’s start with the wines I drank – not merely tasted – in restaurants. This of course is generally the best way to experience wines, and with the highly acidic Santorini dry Assyrtikos it is even more true than for most. With food Assyrtiko shines. Seafood is the obvious choice, and here is the aftermath at Fratzekos Fish Tavern in Perissa. While there is food on the plate I have more important things to do than take pictures.thalassitis-at-fratzeskos

The wine on the table is Thalassitis 2015, a Santorini PDO Assyrtiko wine made by Gaia that retails in the UK for around £18, or €17.00 from the producer. This is bone dry, crisp, sharp, and refreshing. It is intense and powerful, more mineral than fruit, possibly even a hint of Riesling-like petrol, but any fruit is definitely citric – lime, I think. If you want to understand Assyrtiko typicity, without getting confused by oak, oxidation or wild yeasts, this wine is a great place to start.

At another seafood restaurant, Melina’s Tavern, mentioned in my first post on Santorini, we had another Santorini PDO Assyrtiko. This was a 2014 from Boutari. This was not tried side-by-side with the Thalassitis, so I am relying on memory and my tasting notes, but I found the Boutari to be quite similar, and it is good for the same reasons. The differences I noted were that I found it even more difficult to identify the citrus fruit that the wine reminded me of, and there were hints of herbs and spices. I don’t think this is available in the UK, but looking at other Boutari wines I would guess would be a few Euros cheaper than the Thalassitis.

The final restaurant wine I’d like to mention is Gavalas Winery Santorini Natural Ferment 2015, also an Assyrtiko. This too was sharp and dry, but was aromatically more interesting, presumably due to the wild yeasts. Sweet ripe fruit, with a certain richness: orange, peach apricot. And a herby complexity. €16.00 from the producer, of which more later. I recommend the wine, but not the restaurant – Feggera in Megalochori.

Actually there is one more restaurant wine that deserves a mention, but the mention is a bit tricky as it was served to us in a jug, and described as homemade. It was red, thin, acidic and tannic, but alongside food it worked well – a heck of a lot better than the bottled and branded industrial plonk you get in the UK. Was this the Brusca style I wonder? Maybe not alcoholic enough to be Brusca. Get it at Tzanakis Tavern in Megalochori, where there is the friendliest welcome, and a group of local men eat and drink every day. And where every so often an incongruous bus-load of tourists is delivered for an evening of typical Greek food.

A couple of producers

The first one I’ll mention is Santo Wines, which is the Santorini coop. But it is not just any old wine coop, it is large, and has been hugely influential in supporting growers on the island, and in promoting Santorini wine in the rest of Greece and abroad. To make your mark in export markets you need to be able to supply good quality wine in large quantities, and Santo Wines is geared up to that task. It is also geared up to cater for the wine tourist, with large seating areas indoors and outside, in the shade and in the sun, where you can drink wine and eat light food. Apparently it can get busy in summer, but when we visited in October there was plenty of space. It is modern, smart, and the views are stunning.santo-winesThey have a large range of wines, but I shall mention just a couple. The first is, I believe, a style that is unique to Santo Wines: a sparkling Assyrtiko, made using the traditional method. Ours was of the 2013 vintage. This is maybe not as good as some of the other wines I mention here but – put it like this – it is one of the few wines I squeezed into my aircraft hold luggage to bring back. Minerally apple nose, again almost Riesling-like, highish acidity, and dry. If you’ve been following my tasting notes so far, you would expect nothing less of Assyrtiko, but add to that the fizz and you get an amazingly refreshing drink that would work well as an aperitif, or to drink with seafood. I actually first tried this at breakfast in a village in Northern Greece, and I liked it then too. It’s €23.00 at Santo Wines. You can pick up some seriously good stuff for that price in the Champagne region, so it is not exactly a bargain, but how many opportunities does a British wine geek get to drink sparkling Assyrtiko? The second wine I bought at Santo Wines was not cheap either: €70.00 for 50cl of 2004 Vinsanto. 85% Assyrtiko 15% Aidani, aged in oak for 3 years, 6 in tanks, bottled in 2013. I tasted this as a sip in the Santo Wines’ shop, along with a few other older Vinsantos, some cheaper and others more expensive, and this was by far the one I preferred most. Sadly no tasting notes for these older Vinsantos, but the 2004 would undoubtedly have a good whack of volatile acidity, as that is one of the things I look for in these wines.

xenolooThe other producer visit I’ll cover here is Gavalas, which has an equally pleasant tasting area, but one that is very different to Santo Wines. It is in a quiet and cool winery courtyard, in the centre of the village of Megalochori. The deal is that you can taste as many wines as you want, but pay one or two Euros (actually €1.65 or something like that) for each wine. My wife and I tasted all 10 wines they had available and, as the pours were generous for a tasting, we shared a glass. I’ve already mentioned their Natural Ferment Assyrtiko, so the wine I’d like to describe here is Xenoloo 2015. It is a blend of three relatively rare grape varieties – 50% Mavrotragano, 45% Voudomato and 5% Athiri. This pale ruby wine is intense and fresh on the nose, with red fruit aromas. I thought it maybe had a touch of brett stink too, but whatever it was the effect was positive. Very sharp, and quite tannic, in the mouth. Another purchase for hold luggage at €14.30. The Mavrotragano 2015 was also good, but that was a barrel sample.

Other wines that stood out

Another couple of other Vinsantos I really liked were Agyros 1992, and Gaia 2005, at €55.00 and €35.00 for 50cl from their respective producers. They were both quite volatile, with good raisiny flavours, and sweet of course, but I thought the Gaia was sharper, fruity, and with more volatile.

vassaltisAt Vassaltis, their 2015 Santorini Assyrtiko impressed all four of us at the tasting table – see label image with the reflection selfies of its admirers. Like many Assyrtikos, this was highish in acidity had great minerality, and I at least thought it had a little whiff of petrol. But unlike many Assyrtikos, this was not so aggressive, and had a gentle elegance – something that perhaps came from the 6 months of lees aging. This was a true stand-out wine for me, and I made sure a bottle of it accompanied me home. €17.00 from the producer. We also tried the 2014 by the way, which was Vassaltis’ first attempt at this wine, made with no added sulphur. To me this tasted overwhelmingly of Riesling-petrol, and was not nearly as successful. Another memorably good wine however was their Aidani 2015. This was lowish in acidity, gentle, floral and perfumed. A lovely wine, but only available at the winery as a mere 700 bottles were made. It was on sale at €19.50.

In our Boutari tasting, which actually did not include the Boutari Assyrtiko mentioned above, their Selladia 2013 impressed most. This is from a Boutari estate on the island, and is a 50/50 blend of Assyrtiko and Aidani, and was another bottle I bought – for €15.55 – to bring back with me. Apart from giving it a good score, my notes from Santorini were even briefer than usual: it was a bit like an Assyrtiko, but more muted rounded and full. However, the bottle I opened at home allowed me to find more words. On the nose, intense, fresh, honey, peach and apricot, with a certain lactic note. Medium high acidity, and dry. In addition to what I got on the nose, there was also some lime on the palate. I was intrigued that this wine appeared to be simultaneously sharp and soft, the softness coming from the lactic character.

apiliatisFinally a couple of Sigalas wines. I liked their Mavrotragano 2014 a lot, but again my notes were very brief: intense, aromatic, bright red fruit, medium high acidity, medium tannin. In conjunction with a very good score, that does however give me an impression of the wine – it was that combination of intense bright red fruit with acidity and tannin that made it so lip-smackingly good. It would have been €35.20 at Sigalas – if they had any left to sell that is, which they didn’t. The other wine I’m going to mention is Apiliotis 2009. This is 100% Mandilaria, and a red naturally sweet wine made from grapes that have been sun-dried for 10-12 days, and then oak-aged for at least 24 months, 9.0% ABV, and €27.00 for 50cl. On the nose, this was intense, volatile, and carried notes of cherry. Highish acidity and with detectable astringency, it was smooth and very sweet. I rarely like sweet red wines, but this won me over with its edginess.

Santorini is not the place to look for wine bargains. It is expensive by Greek standards, and not really cheap by any standards. But there is excellent quality to be found, and the wine has much to offer that is special and unique to the island. It is definitely worth exploring. And all that really applies to the rest of Santorini too.

(To be meticulous about following my own rules, I should disclose that I was given special treatment during the visits to Santo Wines and Boutari, for which I was very grateful, and was not charged for anything there apart from bottles of wine I wanted take home. Everything else on the trip was paid for in the normal way.)

Santorini grape varieties and wine styles

One hundred years ago it is said that there were nearly 100 different grape varieties on Santorini. One can assume that many of those have now died out, but there is still a lot of diversity, and all varieties are supposed to be local. That is to say I was told international varieties are banned, but I am uncertain how local and international are defined and exactly how the ban works. Anyway, here I am only going to discuss the more important varieties on the island – important in terms of volume, inclusion in the Santorini PDO, and quality.iliana-vines

Assyrtiko covers around 70% of the vineyard area, and is the main white grape in all Santorini PDO wine. Konstantinos Lazarakis characterises the grape very nicely his opening sentence on the topic: Arguably the finest Greek grape variety today, Assyrtiko has the rare ability of balancing breadth and power with high acidity and steely austerity.  The adjective assertive sums up the grape in one word, and also acts as a good alliterative mnemonic for its name if you are struggling to get to grips with your Greek varieties. As will be seen below, Assyrtiko can be used to good effect in sweet and dry styles, and is also used for at least one sparkling wine. In my opinion it deserves more international attention, which is now starting to be forthcoming. It was, for example, only a month ago that Jim Barry Wines announced the first release of their Assyrtiko. The white varieties Athiri and Aidani are much less common on the island, and serve as minor auxiliary wines to blend into Assyrtiko. Used like that, they tend to tone down the more aggressive nature of the Assyrtiko.

Mandilaria is the main red grape, acounting for just under 20% of the vineyards. It has very dark skins and thus can make very dark wines. On the island this is the most common source of red and rosé wines, and like Assyrtiko is used to make both dry and sweet styles. The red grape Mavrotragano is of little importance in volume terms, accounting for less than 2% of wine production in 2005. But in the 1990s Sigalas caused a stir by releasing a Mavrotragano varietal wine, demonstrating its high quality. Since then Mavrotragano has grown in popularity, and seems to have a good future.

Santorini PDO wines must all be predominantly Assyrtiko, but this can be blended with small quantities of other white grapes, all from Santorini of course. For Vinsanto the rule is that there must be at least 51% Assyrtiko; while for dry styles it is at least 75% Assyrtiko and the balance can only contain Aidani and Athiri. For non-PDO wines on the island, Cyclades PGI is usually used as the designation, which allows a broad range of varieties and styles.

vinsanto-wineThe wine with the oldest tradition, going back to ancient times, is the sweet wine of Santorini now known as Vinsanto. The word Vinsanto is a contraction of vin Santo or vino Santo – literally, wine of Santorini. In turn, the name Santorini derives from Santo Erini (St Irene), the name of the church close to its historical main port. Some suggest that the Italian Vin Santo was named due to its similarity to Vinsanto. There is even a story, probably apocryphal, explaining exactly how that came about. In practice, Vinsanto contains at least 80% Assyrtiko, and this is blended mainly with Aidani, or both Aidani and Athiri. The grapes are harvested late, and left to dry in the sun for 6 to 14 days. This exposure to the sun tends to create volatile acidity, and is a key point of difference with Vin Santo, for which grapes are dried in the shade. Vin Santo also tends to be less acidic and more fruity. The dried grapes are crushed and fermented, largely on their skins, after which they must spend at least two years in oak barrels. Older styles of Vinsanto usually finished their alcoholic fermentation at around 9% ABV, and some of these were then fortified. That is still allowed, though most producers seeking higher levels of alcohol would these days use yeast strains that can take the wine to over 13%.

nykteri-wineNykteri is another traditional style that is still made. This is a dry wine that is predominantly Assyrtiko. Ripe grapes are picked early in the morning, and these are all crushed and pressed the same day. For small-scale winemakers with a limited labour force, this is a lot of work that would continue on into the night, giving the wine its name – Nykteri means night work. After fermentation, the wine is aged in oak, sometimes new oak, for up to two years or so. The result is a premium wine with a high alcohol content, over 13.5%, that can sometimes show a little oxidation from the barrel ageing. When I first read the description of how Nykteri is made, I wondered why it was regarded as so special. Later, I learned about the other traditional style dry wine, Brusco, which means coarse. An understanding of Brusco is really needed to explain why Nykteri is a thing. For Brusco, over the period of a week or so, as the grapes of different varieties and locations become over-ripe, they are harvested and emptied into a shallow vat, one day’s harvest being dumped on the grapes of previous days, a method of working that is clearly more in tune with peasant wine-making than the frantic all-in-one-day Nykteri. During the week, the grapes at the bottom of the pile would get crushed, and start fermenting and macerating, and when the vat was full all the grapes would be trodden. As you can imagine, this is not a recipe for fine wine. The result is wine that is highly tannic, acidic and alcoholic, and probably illustrative of pretty much every wine fault imaginable. Brusco is no longer made commercially but, with the natural wine movement still apparently gaining ground, surely it can only be a matter of time before it is re-invented. I would certainly be up for trying it.

assyrtiko-wineMany Santorini wines are however made in what is best described as a modern style. They are typically fermented in stainless steel, and most commonly they are unfussy wines that are bottled soon after fermentation. But they are certainly not to be sniffed at. In my opinion, Assyrtiko dominant wines made in this style are some of the most exciting on the island, offering beautiful varietal clarity, and pure, intense refreshment. The most obvious words on these labels will most likely be simply Santorini and/or Assyrtiko. You will also see wines that proclaim themselves as oak-aged, wild ferment or reserve, and estate and single-vineyard wines.

For a bit more context, also see my other posts on Santorini. As before, my written sources are Santorini – An Historical Wineland by Stavroula Kourakou, and The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis.

Santorini vineyards and vines

465px-santorini_landsatSantorini is not a big island. The size of the airport runway in this satellite image will give you a quick intuitive feel for its size. To put numbers on it, the main island  is around 15 km from North to South, and 10 km from East to West.

With around 1,000 ha of registered vineyard, 1/9 of the islands’ total area is given over to vines. But in the main vine-growing area – the Western part of the Southern half of the main island, excluding most of the Akrotiri peninsular – over 50% of the land is vineyard.

It was no accident that we chose to stay in Megalochori, which is very central in that area, and within walking distance of four wineries. Around Megalochori, I got the impression that any land that was at all fertile contained vines. Even scruffy patches of land between buildings, and gardens attached to houses seemed to be pushed into vineyard service. Indeed, most vineyards are owned by small growers who sell their grapes to the co-op (Santo Wines) or to privately owned producers. Some vineyards are owned by the estates that produce wine, but that is not so common.

The image below shows some countryside between the villages of Megalochori, by the cliffs of the West coast, and Pyrgos, a few kilometres inland. Pyrgos is the white village on the leftmost hill on the horizon. Here there are vineyards and very little else. Note the stone walls and terracing used to protect vines from the strong winds on the island, and vineyards from wind-related soil erosion.

Even in this important viticultural region of the island, the land looks barren and the vines stunted and sad. OK, this was well after the harvest in early October, and I have read that in the summer the vines give a pleasing green colour to the landscape. Also we should of course judge vineyards by their fruits rather than by how pretty they look, and on that basis Santorini vines can hold their heads high.

santorini-vineyard
The vineyard soils (if that is the right word) contain very little organic matter. They mainly consist of sand-like pumice particles, and small fragments of pumice, with the occasional chunk of volcanic rock as shown below: black basalt, and rocks with red oxides and yellow sulphur compounds. This soil is áspa – a solid, compacted version of what I have just described – that has been tilled to the depth of 50-65cm to create something that vines can get a foothold in.

The surface of the vineyards is dry for the vast majority of the year, but apparently the pumice is very good at retaining water, so several centimetres below the surface the soil is permanently moist, from dew and the very little rain that falls. The vines spread their roots horizontally to collect this water in the layer of soil, though roots are also sent down through the solid áspa. Irrigation is not used on mature vines. There are no rivers on the island, and water is too precious to use in the vineyards even if it were desirable. For human use, some coastal towns get supplied with brackish water from a desalination plant, while other places get deliveries of water by tanker. Even with the moisture-retaining properties of the pumice, it is necessary to have widely separated vines to ensure each one gets enough water, and this results in low yields of the order of 20 hl/ha. Sometimes hollows are dug for each vine, with a small mound of earth around each hollow, in an attempt to both capture the dew and protect the vine from wind, and the basket-pruning described below serves the same purposes.

The vines of the island are generally very healthy, and get little chemical treatment apart from a dusting of sulphur – something that in this volcanic setting could arguably be considered part of terroir anyway! As mentioned in my previous blog post, phylloxera cannot survive in the Santorini soils so vines are left on their own vinifera roots, and cuttings taken directly from existing vines are used in new vineyards. Layering – propagation by bending a neighbouring cane into the ground to allow it to put down roots there – is sometimes used to fill gaps in old vineyards. Many vines are very old, and it is not unusual to find mention of 50 year old vines on back labels, or even 150, without these facts being trumpeted on the front of the bottle.

santorini-rocks

There are two traditional pruning methods on Santorini. These have various names in Greek, but I shall call them basket, and goblet-with-loops. They are both methods of pruning bush vines, and both keep the vine relatively low and sheltered from the wind. Before I describe each in more detail, I will just comment that many of the vines in the vineyards I walked through around Megalochori and Pyrgos did not seem to conform to either pruning system – they were all low bush vines, but the shoots just seemed to be allowed to radiate outwards along the ground. Maybe it was just me, the particular vineyards, or the season, but I found these vineyards difficult to relate to the ranks of basket-pruned vines you will see if you do an image search on the Web.

Basket pruning is by far the most usual of the two traditional systems on Santorini. According to contemporary accounts, it was common in the Eastern Mediterranean in ancient times, but as far as I know it is now unique to Santorini. The starting point for basket pruning is a sturdy trunk with three or four short spurs close to the ground. In the winter, one strong shoot on each spur is selected and cut to a length of 60-80cm, and the others are removed completely. The selected shoots are then bent round and twisted with each other to form a horizontal circular shape close to the ground, and become the canes for the next season’s growth. The following year, the strongest shoots from those canes are selected, and woven round to provide another layer to the basket. Thus the basket is built up, getting higher and slightly wider year by year. After 20 years or so, the basket is cut off, the spurs throw out new shoots, and the process is repeated. Below is a basket with only a few years growth.

santorini-basket

Goblet-with-loops pruning is less common, and mainly used for Assyrtiko vines as this method gives more exposure to the wind and Assyrtiko grapes have the protection of thicker skins. Also, this variety has very flexible canes that can be bent in all weathers, and in early winter. It is also be used with Mandilariá, but the harder canes of that variety are more difficult to bend, so the loops are usually longer and not as tight, and they are formed on damp days in early spring when the sap has started to flow again. As with basket pruning, the method requires a vine trunk with a few spurs, though the image below suggests the trunk need not be sturdy for this method. Two shoots on each spur are selected, and the others removed. One selected shoot is pruned to leave 2 buds, and the other with 10-15 buds. The longer cane is bent to form a vertical loop, and tied back onto the spur. One such loop can be seen in the centre of the image below, though this is a lot shorter than the supposedly ideal length, and there is only one in total on the vine. The looped cane provides the main grape-bearing shoots for the growing season, and is removed in the following winter. Meanwhile, the two shoots that come from the shorter cane provide the starting point for the next season.

santorini-loop
That’s all on Santorini vineyards and vines. I have already mentioned a couple of Santorini grape varieties with little explanation, but I shall cover these and other local varieties in more detail in my next post. Written sources are Santorini – An Historical Wineland by Stavroula Kourakou, and The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis. Other information came from Iliana Sidiropoulou of Santorini Wine Trails, who was our wine guide for a day. Errors and misunderstandings, as usual, are doubtless my own.

Santorini as a destination for wine lovers

Arguably Santorini’s biggest attraction is the view over the volcanic caldera. We arrived after dark, but when we woke up and stuck our noses out of the bedroom we saw it for the first time, and I took this picture. The two closest islands are the peaks of the volcano, while the distant island and Santorini itself represent the volcano’s edge. Nearly 4,000 years ago most of it collapsed into the sea, causing a tsunami that destroyed the Minoan civilisation in Crete some 100 miles away. It is often said that the caldera view is best from the resort of Oia; we were staying just outside the considerably less touristy Megalochori, and ours was pretty good too.

santorini-caldera

santorini-pyrgos

Visual clichés are not difficult to find on Santorini, but that does not necessarily make them any less attractive. This church is in Pyrgos, a village within easy walking distance of Megalochori, and close to the highest point of the island. It is another of the more traditional villages, but has considerably more tourist impact than Megalochori. Perhaps a good thing, as there is a better selection of restaurants, including some of the best on the island. Quite a few more-exclusive hotels too. But being more inland it lacks the much sought-after caldera view, at least the one you get directly from the cliff top. On the other hand you do get a 360° view of the whole island.

Santorini has archaeology too. We spent a leisurely two or three days visiting the two main sites, and the archaeological museums in Fira. Pictured below are some of the Akrotiri excavations of a Minoan bronze age settlement. The town was destroyed by volcanic eruptions around 1627 BC, the ones that also finished the Minoan civilisation in Crete. The site could be described as another Pompeii, both in the sense that it was a town destroyed yet preserved by a volcano, and also in terms of its archaeological significance. There is already a large covered area that has been excavated, but that represents only a small fraction of the town.

santorini-akrotiri

Close to those excavations is a small beach (yes, Santorini has beaches too, if you like that sort of thing) with a few restaurants. There we ate seafood, including this fried squid. Which brings me to the subject of food, and a good deal closer to why wine lovers in particular will like Santorini. Our experience with restaurants was very mixed. It seemed that Santorini tourists are quite happy to throw a lot of money at fancy restaurants that offer stylish, but poorly conceived and executed, food. However good places do exist, and also simple unpretentious family run operations with basic food at a fair price. The squid was eaten as Melina’s Tavern, which is definitely at the better end of the spectrum.

santorini-squid

santorini-wine

There is a lot more to Santorini wine than the Assyrtiko grape, but this variety is the lead player. Various styles of it can be found on the island, but a good quality wine that sees no oak contact is its purest expression, and the Gaia Thalassitis pictured here is an excellent example. Intense, with sharp and steely minerality, but also full-bodied and powerful. Even early in the morning as I type this, the thought of that small plate of squid with a glass of Assyrtiko is making my mouth water.

We did not see the vineyards at the most attractive time of year, but they are nevertheless probably best described as interesting rather than beautiful. I have never seen such barren vineyard soil before – pumice stones and dust, with the occasional lump of volcanic rock, and practically no organic matter.

Vines are widely spaced, to allow each one to find enough water, and pruned very low to prevent wind damage. Basket pruning is the style that usually gets mentioned, and you can see examples in the foreground of the image below. No phylloxera here, so every vine is on its own its own roots. Old vines are common, with many labels claiming vines over 50 years old, and some over 150 – truly pre-phylloxera. Expect more on Santorini vineyards, vines, varieties and wines in future blog posts.

santorini-vineyard

Are there any downsides to Santorini as a tourist destination? Well, it is not the cheapest place in Greece. However, by UK standards, even with a weak pound, I would not say it is particularly expensive either. Also, I am told it gets very busy in the Summer, especially when receiving visits from cruise ships, but in early October nothing seemed particularly crowded. The weather is a bit more of a risk at that time, but we still had maximum temperatures of 23-26ºC, and saw no more than a few spots of rain.

Santorini has so much to offer as a destination for wine lovers. If you haven’t yet been, you should at the very least seriously consider a visit. I don’t know why I left it so long.

Winenous’ fables #1: The Naoussa and the Burgundy

On the face of it, this is a simple story of two tasting notes, linked only by the wines’ having been tasted and drunk within a couple of days of each other. But there is a sting in the tail, and a moral.

Naoussa PDO, Greece, 2011
Medium pale tawny garnet. Nose: Intense. Dark fruit with a slight caramel nature. Mature notes. High-toned with violets. Rose. Herby, vegetal and savoury. Edgy licorice. Complex. Very attractive. Palate: Medium high acidity. Medium high astringency. Coarse in a good way – like a thin paste, or fine coffee grounds. As nose, but with more emphasis on the high-toned aspect. And something more savoury or meaty – crispy bits on the side of a roast. All in balance. Elegant, and not hugely intense on the palate. Excellent length. Refreshing, savoury, slightly bitter finish. Not a stunning wine that whacks you round the face, but it hits the spot. Drink now in my book, but good for another 5 years at least. Great with steak, also with Middle Eastern food. Also tried the day after opening, and it had not changed much ******

Premier Cru Burgundy, 2000
Nose: Pale tawny garnet. Huge nose, but rather too oaky for my liking. Warming, complex. Mature Burgundy lurking there somewhere. Palate: Medium high acidity. Smooth, gentle, ethereal. Merest hint of astringency. Oaky, yes, but the fruit comes through more on the palate. As mentioned before, warm, complex and mature. Still good Pinot fruit though, with delicate fragrance. Excellent length, with refreshing fruity finish. Oak got more obtrusive on the palate as the wine warmed throughout the evening. Drink now *****

So, two wines that I liked a lot, though I definitely preferred the Naoussa, produced by Boutari, which was the cheaper wine. I gave it my maximum score, which might seem over-the-top, but I reached the same conclusion on two occasions. I bought the Boutari Naoussa earlier this year from Booth’s Supermarket, when there was a 2 for 3 offer and 5% half-case discount, for £6.97. Full price was £11.00.

The Burgundy was considerably more expensive. In 2007 when I bought it, The Wine Society said its conservative market value was £75, but I got a 25% discount on that as I bought it in a mixed case, so I paid £56.25. Looking back on my tasting note, I wonder if my score was on the high side, as a result of being influenced by the high price. But despite its oakiness, I did think it was very classy and elegant.

But the scores not being reflected in that price difference is not the sting in the tail: a price difference of a different order of magnitude was the culprit. The Burgundy was Armand Rousseau’s Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Clos St Jacques and I checked current price on Wine-Searcher (after writing my tasting note). The asking price from the only listed UK merchant selling 75cl bottles was £640 (SIX HUNDRED AND FORTY QUID). That’s over 10 times what I paid for it, and about 100 (ONE HUNDRED) times the price of the Naoussa. And the bottle price of £640 might be regarded as a bargain, as another merchant was wanting £1,928 for a magnum.

burgundy naoussaAnd the moral? Well there are actually a number that spring to mind. The first one that occurred to me was “if you are going to check the current market price of a decent wine made by a famous name, do it BEFORE you open the bottle”. On later reflection the most screamingly obvious ones were “buying decent Burgundy is now a mugs’ game”, and “the Boutari Naoussa is a great wine that you really need to try”. I am sure there are also deeper morals lurking, on the subjects of price, value and quality, but I’ll let you figure them out for yourself. And feel free, if you must, to moralise about my plebeian taste – I can take it.

Tsantali Rapsani – straight, Reserve and Grande Reserve

tsantali rapsani
Let me start by disclosing that the Reserve and Grande Reserve wines were samples sent to me following a press trip to Northern Greece. More about the Rapsani part of that trip can be found here, including vine locations, varieties used etc. The straight Rapsani was bought with my own money in the UK – because on the trip I liked it a lot, and thought it represented good value for money. At the time I paid £10, but I see it is available cheaper now. You can get it from Amazon, Agora and Evington’s. As far as I know, the Reserve and Grande Reserve are not available in the UK, but I would guess their retail prices would be around £16 and £29 respectively.

I was taking the wines to Hawksmoor Manchester to use their Monday BYO offer, and double decanted them two hours or so before arriving, straight from my 12ºC wine fridges. As it turned out, there was hardly any sediment to remove. A few minutes after the decant, I tasted them. It was a hot day, so the wine had probably warmed up a couple of degrees before tasting.

Rapsani, 2012, 13.0%
Medium pale garnet.  Intense and very attractive nose. Fresh aromatic spices. Slightly mature red fruit. Medium acid. Supple and fruity. Medium high tannin. Intense aromatically on palate. Soft, rounded and gentle fruitiness, despite the tannin. Excellent length. Drink now, but no hurry *****

Rapsani Reserve, 2011, 13.5%
Medium pale, more ruby than garnet. Aromatic spices on nose. Tight. Blackcurrant with hard edge. Medium acid. High tannin. Intense on palate. Hard, but with icing-sugar-like sweetness. Excellent length. Good now, but would benefit from 5 years or so ****

Rapsani Grande Reserve, 2008, 13.5%
Very similar characteristics to the Reserve, but with even more aromatic intensity. A definite step up in quality. Potential is easier to imagine than with the Reserve, and it is a better drink now ****

As the wines warmed up in the restaurant I enjoyed them less. They all became more soupy, the Reserve wine became obtrusively oaky, and the Grande Reserve even more obtrusively oaky. However, my order of preference remained the same: straight Rapsani, Grande Reserve, Reserve. But that was just me – other people I was with who expressed a preference liked the Reserve best. I hasten to stress that my scores and preferences were for the wines as they showed on the night. The straight Rapsani was great for drinking now, but I did think that the Grande Reserve in particular had good potential.

The practical conclusion for me is that, when I can find more storage space (I have just returned from Germany, Alsace and Champage with more than 8 cases), I should buy more of the straight Rapsani – and drink it slightly chilled.

Mantinia PDO and Moschofilero

My odyssey in Greek wine continues, and I now feel I have the first glimmerings of understanding for the grape variety Moschofilero. At the very least I now have in my mind a crude caricature against which I can compare future experiences.

The area most closely associated with Moschofilero is the PDO of Mantinia, shown in bright red on the map. It lies in a mountainous region on the large Peloponnese peninsula, on a relatively flat plateau of over 600 meters above sea level. The low summer humidity of the region restricts the impact of many vine diseases, and its altitude confers light and crisp cool-climate characteristics to its wines. Mantania PDO wines must be predominately Moschofilero with up to 15% Asproudes, a generic term for local white varieties (aspro is Greek for white) normally grown and harvested together.

Moschofilero is a variety with a number of clones that are quite different in outward appearance if not flavour profile: they can have very different leaf shape, berry size and skin colour. Most vines bear grapes with red or pink skins, but they are vinified as white wines so the strongest colour you may see in the wine is a very faint pinkish tinge.

Help with pronunciation is given in the video. The name sounds as if it is related to Muscat, and although there is no close genetic link the aromatics of the two varieties are similar. But think more of a dry Muscat from Alsace that a heavy sticky one. Moschofilero is floral and grapey, and the ones from Mantinia are also typically light and fresh with good acidity – a bit lighter and sharper than an Alsace Muscat I would say. With those characteristics it stands in marked contrast to most other Greek white wines, which are heavier and more powerful: Assyrtiko and Malagousia varietals for example. Moschofilero has seen a lot of popularity in Greece, but little of that has spread to the UK where it is still  relatively difficult to source – compared with other important Greek grape varieties, that is. In the 1970s it was used to produce cheap Greek sparkling wine, and in the ’90s the variety become very fashionable within Greece. It is still regarded as a high quality grape, but perhaps in a more measured way. Use it as an aperitif, or to match any light and delicate food: salads or simply cooked fish.

I have only tried a few Moschofilero varietals, all from Mantinia, and bought recently from Maltby and Greek and The Daily Drinker. They were all sharp, light, delicate and floral as expected, and difficult to dislike if approached with an open mind, but they could easily be overwhelmed if eaten with the wrong food, and anyone expecting a rich oaky white wine experience would be very disappointed.

The one sparkling Mantinia I tried with some friends went down particularly nicely. This was Domaine Spiropoulos, Brut, Ode Panos 2013 – £18.30 from Maltby and Greek, so this was not one of the cheap sparklers from the 1970s. In terms of weight, sweetness and aromatics it lies about half way on the spectrum between Asti and Champagne. Sorry if that description is a bit crass. It does not really do the wine justice, but I hope it gives you some idea. On the face of it, it is light and fun, but there are also subtleties of flavour that raise it to another level. It gets a rating of ***** from me.

The other Mantinia I would like to highlight is Semeli, Mantinia, Nassiakos, 2009 – £11.50 from The Daily Drinker. I liked this too (****), though its age is the main reason for giving it a mention. I have not seen any comments on how well this variety ages, but I had imagined it to be a drink-youngest-available wine, and this one is now over five years old. It had lost some of the prettiness of younger Moschofilero but had, I thought, gained some complexity. In particular I thought, or imagined, it had acquired a very slight whiff of Riesling petrol. The wine may have been in decline (Who knows? Certainly not me), but it was certainly far from dead.

So there you have it – Moschofilero. Try it if you get a chance.