Greece – Part 1: Tsantali and Rapsani

Rapsani Vineyards

One of the best things about wine for me is the excitement of new experiences. Too many wine drinkers seem to restrict themselves to a very narrow range of possibilities, so I love to show them just what an amazing variety of good wine there is. Just because a wine seems unusual to us does not make it necessarily an oddity or a niche wine, just one we have not yet tried.

So, whether they are made from grapes I have never experienced before or produced in regions that are new to me I get very excited by new wines – as long as they are good. You can imagine my excitement therefore when I was invited on a tour of vineyards in northern Greece. I had never been before, but did know something about the wines from my days at The Greek Wine Bureau in London during the early 1990s. I was only a small cog there, but I helped to create a little interest in Greek wines in the UK and have retained a love of them ever since. Updating that knowledge and actually seeing the regions sounded like a wonderful opportunity.

We were a small, all male group of wine writers, bloggers and educators who set off to explore the wine regions of Macedonia, it is unusual for these things to be men only, but that was a stipulation this time. You see the centrepiece of our journey was a visit to Mount Athos and this self governing part of Greece is a monastery-covered peninsula where women are not allowed to set foot.

I have been back from Greece for a few weeks now and have been telling everyone I meet how great it was and how good the wines were. They all seem to expresses amazement that I find Greek wines so interesting and it seems that even those who have enjoyed holidays there have a low opinion of the wines. Well I don’t know what they drank, but we tasted dozens of different wines from different regions, made from many different grapes in a wide variety of styles. A few were merely acceptable quality, but most were very good indeed.

The trip was made possible by the generosity of the Tsantali (pronounced Santar-lee) company and they certainly did us proud by taking us to places that were either physically very hard to get to or, as in the case of Mount Athos, just picky – apparently very few non monks or pilgrims are allowed to visit.

Tsantali products are highly visible in Greece as they distil ouzo and act as a negociant marketing wines from all over the country. The real focus of this family company though – and the side we had come to see – is as grape growers, vineyard owners and winemakers.

It appears that winemaking in Greece – as in many places – was pretty much a localised cottage industry until the tourist boom of the 1960s and ‘70s when the likes of Tsantali transformed the scene by making wine from across the country and marketing it to the new influx of tourists – just as Torres did in Spain. This kick started the industry and they very quickly became more ambitious and sought to make better wine, so today Greece is a story of beautifully managed estates, passionate, proud winemakers and some superb indigenous grape varieties.

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

In fact it is these grape varieties that make Greece such an exciting wine producing country. They are not really found any where else, so the flavours are unique and exciting.

Greece is overwhelmingly a white wine drinking country apparently, which I can well believe as it does suit the way they eat, so there are some superb white grapes including:

Moschofilero (pronounced Moscow-filler-ro) which is pink skinned and aromatic and is the main grape of Mantinia in the Peloponnese, while Robóla is the grape that made Kefalonia’s white wines that you read about in Captain Correlli’s Mandolin. Roditis seems to be grown everywhere – except Rhodes confusingly – while in Macedonia Malagouzia is just reemerging from virtual extinction.

Of all Greece’s white grape though I have developed a passion for the high acid Assyrtiko and during our first tasting at Tsantali’s winery in Agios Pavlos (St Paul) near Thessaloniki we were able to taste examples from two very different regions. One was grown in their own vineyards in Halkidiki and the other in the grape’s island home of Santorini.

2011 Tsanatli Assyrtiko Organic
Halkidiki Protected Geographical Indication
This is a rich example whose ripe fruit balances the acidity nicely, so the overall effect is quite soft with the acidity played down somewhat. This makes it a very attractive wine which will go with almost anything – 86/100 points.

2011 Santorini Assyrtiko
Santo Winesthe Santorini cooperative whose wines are marketed by Tsanatli
Santorini Protected Designation of Origin
The classic style from Santorini’s volcanic soils, this is crisp, fresh and all about the minerality and acidity. If you like Loire Valley Sauvignon or dry Riesling you will enjoy this. Is there anything better with a piece of fish, a salad and a sea view? – 91/100 points.

Of course Greece is also home to some fabulous black grapes amongst which the most important are:

Agiorgitiko (pronounced Ah-ghee-or-gheetee-ko) which produces the supple fine reds of Nemea, Limnio which has been cultivated for so long that we are pretty sure Aristotle wrote about it and Xinomavro (pronounced Kersi-naw-mav-ro) the main grape of Macedonia which is used in Naoussa (pronounced Now-sir), Goumenissa and Rapsani.

And Rapsani was where we went next.

It was a long journey, but the scenery was so beautiful and varied that none of us minded. Basically we were headed for Mount Olympus, so we could see our destination shimmering in the distance for the whole time we were travelling. What’s more although it was about 40˚C on the plain there was still snow on the mountain-top.

On the way we stopped off at Vergina to see the the tombs of the ancient Macedonian kings, including Philip II and Alexander IV – Alexander the Great’s father and son. The place is astonishing and certainly worth a detour as the grave goods on display in the museum are breathtaking and helped to give a cultural context to our journey. The ancients drank wine from grapes grown in this land and the silver drinking vessels on display were quite beautiful.

Eventually we arrived at the village of Rapsani and started to wind our way up into the rugged hills towards the vineyards. In many ways it reminded me of Priorat, but the landscape was a little softer, more beautiful and less stark. It was wonderfully peaceful up there with stunning views of Mount Olympus to the north west and the Aegean Sea to the east. The vineyards sit at between 250 and 800 metres above sea level allowing for a staggered harvest giving very different characters and complexity to the wines. The soil higher up also put me in mind of Priorat, as there is a lot of schist, red, iron rich schist in this case which drains superbly.

Looking towards the sea from Rapsani’s vineyards

The wine has long enjoyed local fame and respect and historically the Rapsani cooperative was strong, however it fell on hard times and Tsantali took it over in 1991 and brought in much needed investment and know-how. For a long time they were the only producers here and remain the most important and widely seen label.

Our party scrabbling in the vineyards of Rapsani

Traditionally Rapsani wines were a blend of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto and Tsantali keeps to that tradition by using one third of each grape in a field blend – so the grapes are fermented together, not blended. The latter two by the way only grow here while Xinomavro is used across northern Greece. This makes Rapsani quite different as on its own Xinomavro has something of the dry structure of Nebbiolo about it, while the other two grapes add body and alcohol.

We tasted the whole Rapsani range:

2009 Tsantali Rapsani
Rapsani Protected Designation of Origin
A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 6 months in 300 litre Fench oak casks, 50% new. 
Nicely concentrated, supple and smooth red wine, it’s pretty full-bodied with loads of ripe fruit and flourishes of spice, some fine grain smoky tannins come in at the end, so put it away for a couple of years if you prefer it without those. A terrific wine for the money it really over delivers and is perfect with all sorts of meaty dishes, especially lamb – 88/100 points.

£7.99 a bottle in the UK from Wine Rack.

2008 Tsantali Rapsani Reserve
Rapsani Protected Designation of Origin
A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 225 litre Fench oak casks, 50% new.
This is clearly more concentrated with more spice and earthy notes too.
The palate is very ripe with juicy fruit, smoky and savoury umami characters. It is full-bodied with some touches of dried fruit and leather firm, but not aggressive tannins and enough acidity to make it a terrific food wine. Ideally it needs a three or four years to soften – 90/100 points.

We were also fortunate enough to taste two older vintages of the Rapsani Reserve:

2000 Tsantali Rapsani Reserve
Rapsani Protected Designation of Origin
A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 225 litre Fench oak casks, 50% new.
Showed how ageing really changes this wine. The tannins had fallen away leaving a rich silky mouthfeel with loads of dried fruit characters, balsamic notes and a rich smoky finish – 90/100 points.

1999 Tsantali Rapsani Reserve – tasted from magnum
Rapsani Protected Designation of Origin
A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 225 litre Fench oak casks, 50% new.
We tasted this with some hare at dinner and it was magnificent with a brambly and wild  mushroom savoury nose.
The palate had nice acidity and still lovely fruit just turning to prunes and raisins with soft tannins and a savoury herbal character. It was smooth and seamless, yet still structured and firm. I loved this it was a really great wine of sophistication, elegance and finesse, not power – 92/100 points

2007 Tsantali Rapsani Grand Reserve
Rapsani Protected Designation of Origin
A third each of old vine Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 18 months in 100% new 300 litre Fench oak casks.
This was very different, clearly complex with aromatic tomato plant notes. The intense, concentrated palate had loads of juicy fruit and smoky oak making it very attractive and chunky, balanced by sour black cherry acidity and savoury, coffee, cocoa and spice. It seems very good, but boy does it need time – 92/100 points.

Then just to show us that they can do everything we tasted a wine made from an international grape variety:

2007 Tsanatli Cabernet Sauvignon Organic
Halkidiki Protected Geographical Indication
8 months in new French oak.
What a terrific Cabernet, the nose was dominated by sweet ripe fruit, soft spice and some mint with even a touch of dried fruit showing it comes from somewhere hot. There was a rich texture to the palate of ripe cassis and blackberry, but also slightly stewed fruit giving a big mouthfeel with smooth tannins that are still slightly tight. Frankly this gets better and better in the glass. It is a rich powerful wine, but very well balanced – 90/100 points.

£8.99 a bottle in the UK from Waitrose & Ocado.

This was just the start of my Greek trip, but I already felt at home. Mount Athos and Naoussa were still to come, along with more fantastic meals, amazing wines, beautiful scenery and unrelenting sunshine.

I will tell you about more of it soon, in the meantime do yourselves a favour and try some Greek wine.

14 thoughts on “Greece – Part 1: Tsantali and Rapsani

  1. Dear Quentin
    I see that I will be able to learn a tremendous amount about wine from you, and intend to follow closely.
    Kind regards,
    Alison
    (myweeklywine.com)

    • Well serving that blind seems a bit mean! I am astonished it only fooled a lot of people and not all of them actually. Glad you liked it though thanks for telling us.

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