Wines of Greece (and my 200th variety tasted!)

Whilst on a recent trip to the Greek island of Zakynthos I made sure to stay in touch with the local wines which, after olive oil, is one of their major agricultural endeavours.

Although the shelves still have plenty of room given over to sweeter wines, the dry wines they produce are now a far cry from the oft-maligned ones that Greece was once famous for.

Winemaking in Zakynthos is focused on the central part of the island sweeping north to south through the fertile central plains.  There are five major wineries on the island, with Solomos and Callinico being the two most featured in Kalamiaki where I was staying.

Red grapes fare better in the soils and warm/hot climate here and so production is focused on red wines (or strong rosé wines).  Even though it isn’t viewed as the faux pas it once was, it did feel odd drinking red with the fresh local fish dishes in my quest to drink local too.

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Tsantali ‘Metóxi’ Limnio/Cabernet Sauvignon blend 2011, Mount Athos, Greece, 13%, ~£10

The Tsantali family have been producing wine since 1890, and this blend spends 8 months in large French oak barrels prior to seeing further ageing in bottle.

A nice deep dark ruby in colour, this wine had a full nose of cherry and herbaceous spice.  The palate comprised black berried fruit with much of the crunch of a typical Cabernet Sauvignon and toasty roasty woodiness.  In addition there were further spicy notes, a medium acidity and a smooth lengthy finish.

I’m not sure what the blending percentages are, but even though Limnio is listed first it’s either stylistically very similar to Cabernet or it forms the lesser part of the blend.  Regardless, Limnio is one to add to my list of new grape varieties tried (my 199th one to be precise) and Oz Clarke described it as “one of Greece’s most important red vines” so it’s a good one to tick off.

Augustos Avgoustiatis, Zakynthos, Greece, 12.5%. ~£4.00

This wine is made from the local Zakynthian Avgoustiatis grape variety which is so-named as it ripens early and is usually picked at the end of August.  This is another variety which I had never tried before and marks my 200th so I will be sending off the next ‘Wine Century’ form very shortly!

A vibrant youthful purple in colour, the dense nose was led by black cherry and also offered some confectionate sweetness.

The palate was a veritable compendium of sensations and I noted down coffee, chocolate, meat, blood, smoke and wood, all finished off with a lighter touch of vanilla!  It’s fair to say that this was a rustic earthy wine that was more about the tertiary darker characters than it was the vibrant fruit suggested by its appearance.  What fruits did appear were reminiscent of plums and damsons.

Also of note was a medium gripping tannin against a good fresh acid which probably made the whole blend come together, working well against the dark notes of the wine.

Googling this grape variety now shows that the resultant wines should be about clean fruit and of high quality, so I’d wager the cheap price tag on this one has fairly influenced this particular bottling and it wasn’t a typical example.  I didn’t even note down a specific vintage year which could also be indicative that one wasn’t offered up by the label.

Note: I did also try this variety again in a Solomos ‘Amoudi’ 2013 (blend with Mavrodaphne) wine so, although I didn’t write a tasting note for that wine, I’m still comfortable to tick it off the list.

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Estate Papaioannou Agiorgitiko 2006, Nemea, Greece, 13%, ~£12.00

I’ll also briefly mention this wine which, coming from the Agiorgitiko grape, I was convinced would take me to 201 varieties tried.  Alas, upon checking my notes I already seem to have tried it.

I’ll still give it a brief mention though as it was lovely and reminiscent of a good Pinot Noir balancing a lightness of touch with a good depth.  It even managed to win a Gold medal at the Thessaloniki International Wine Challenge back in 2009.

Hailing from Nemea VQPRD AOC and coming from a 40 hectare plot of vines, the wine was a light red in colour and full of redcurrants and cherry on the palate.  Clear wood, light vanilla, pepper spice and a hint of chocolate blended with a fresh acid rounding out a well realised wine.

Even though I couldn’t add this grape variety to my list, the quality of this bottle will remind me for some time to come that I’ve definitely tasted it.  Lovely stuff.

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It’s all Greek for me

Last weekend saw Decanter magazine put on their usual March Fine Wine Encounter, but for the first time the event was completely devoted over to wines from the Mediterranean. Looking specifically at these wines threw up quite a few firsts for me and is a well-timed move by Decanter. Merchants and even some supermarkets are already starting to stock or broaden their ranges from countries such as Israel, Lebanon and Turkey, and this in turn means that customers are able to start trying these wines without specifically hunting them out. A quick look at the awards being dished out further paints the picture – In the 2009 Decanter World Wine Awards (picked purely as it was the nearest historic Awards catalogue to me as I write) Turkey won only one bronze medal – In the 2014 awards they won over 40 medals. Obviously producers need to be entering their wines in the competition in the first place, and the number of those entered certainly has gone up, but you get the picture.

Wine enthusiasts are always looking for the next thing – I think it’s an inherent part of being interested in wine (it certainly is for me). With prices pushing certain wines out of reach on the one hand and the glut of commercially successful variety wines on the other, the time seems right to delve in to what’s been going on in these hitherto unembraced countries. Hand in hand with this is the education piece – I mentioned the tasting to a worldly-wise family member and their reply was that they didn’t even know wine was made in some of these countries.

There’s also good news for the casual wine drinker and that is, as well as becoming more widely available, the wines are pretty darn good too. It’s easy to forget that these countries having been honing their craft for years, and constitute the oldest places on earth to have been making wine (Old-Old World Wine, if you like). Like anywhere, I’m sure there are still many works-in-progress to be found, but for those shown at the Decanter event I’d be happy to pay the same price as I pay for my regular bottles. I’d certainly get a renewed vigour in sharing them with others to spread the word.

My top takeaways from the day, in no particular order:

  • Moschofilero – a Greek white grape – makes a deliciously peachy and floral Sparkling.  I tasted the Amalia Brut NV from Ktima Tselepos.  I’ll be looking more at this variety.
  • Slovenia are making Sparkling wines (the Slovenian term is Penina), so you may soon be drinking Penina alongside your Cava’s and your Prosecco’s.  The wines tasted on the day were in large part Chardonnay, blended with smaller amounts of Rebula (AKA Ribolla Gialla from Friuli).
  • Rapsani is a small high altitude Greek village making smooth jammy reds.  Having tasted the offerings on the day, I now have the badge to prove I am a #rapsanilover.  Greece showed really well on the day for me, definitely proving that (and I’m sure that they’d agree with me here) some of the uninspiring wines that they were quite famous for, are now a thing of the past.
  • And finally, honourable mention for the lovely chap pouring at the Villa Conchi stand, who admitted to me that they were new to the show circuit and launching a new range of Cava’s.  This was the first stand I went to on the day as I like to start with Sparkling, and I don’t think he had his pour levels quite sorted out.  They were as big as you’d get when buying a glass of wine in a restaurant!  Too good to spit though and a lovely creamy Brut Imperial NV.

Overall, producers seem to have found a good balance of producing wines from indigenous grapes to create their own regional USPs (unique selling points) and the more internationally recognised varieties, so as not to scare off traditionalists. It remains to be seen whether drinkers will take to obscure grape varieties such as Krassato or Kalecik Karasi as they have to Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio. I was thoroughly happy with the day though – a lot of new avenues to discover and over 20 new grape varieties tasted. Having been to many Decanter events in the past it did feel a little quieter than previous ones focusing on more established regions so, with my above enthusiasm noted, there is definitely more inroads to go to get the masses excited about these wines.

The good news is that they are now clearly on the agenda. For me, I was actually happy this time around with less attendees (the flagship November event can be quite rowdy with thirsty tasters three deep at particular producers!) as it gave more chance to have lengthy chats with the winemakers (whose first language is not necessarily English), and to taste through their whole offerings rather than just picking highlights.

Yamas!

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