Greece – Part 2: A Taste of Monastic Life

The delightful sights of the coast of Mount Athos

Earlier in the year I had a wonderful tour around the vineyards of Northern Greece. Initially our little party were guests of Tsantalis (pronounced Santar-lee), who make some really good wines that are widely available.

The first part of the trip was a couple of days at their headquarters and main winery near Thessaloniki together with a visit to the wilds of Rapsani near Mount Olympus. The scenery was beautiful, the people welcoming, the food stunning and the wines – even for a longtime fan of Greek wine like me – were a revelation.

If the delights of Greek wine have passed you by, Tsantali produce two wines that are amongst my favourite for great value right now: Tsantali Rapsani and Tsantali Organic Cabernet – they really do take a lot of beating for price and quality.

With the nights closing in and the onset of Winter I find myself reliving the heat, clear blue skies and fierce sun of the Eastern Mediterranean and thought that I would share more of the experiences with you.

Mount Athos taken from near Lerissos

Some of you may remember from reading part 1 that we were a small all male group because the centrepiece of the trip was a visit to Mount Athos, where women are not allowed – hell even female animals are forbidden! This area takes its name from The Holy Mountain of Mount Athos and is actually a peninsula which forms a closed community made up of some 20 Monasteries. 17 of these are Greek Orthodox with the others being Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian and we were to be guests of the Agiou Panteleimonos, or St. Panteleimon, Russian Monastery.

Mount Athos is a part of Greece, but is basically self-governing and enjoys ‘special status’ within the Greek State and the E.U., so a permit – essentially a visa – is needed to get there, but the centuries old ban on women is still in force. Frankly I don’t suppose I would have ever have got to visit if I had not been the guest of Tsantali, but more of them later.

Our journey to The Holy Mountain started early – there’s nothing like a little suffering to make you feel like a pilgrim. We were breakfasted and packed by 7 a.m. and waiting in the cool morning air for the straggler to materialise so that we could finally set off. There was a sort of reality show sense of jeopardy about all this as time was finite – we had a ferry to catch. There is only one ferry a day and the implication was that all our plans would come to nothing if we didn’t get there on time.

It was a long drive East from Thessaloniki to our destination, the distance is only about 150 kilometres, but we were on small roads in a heavily laden van and all the while we were in a race against the clock and frankly it looked as though we were going to loose.

Map of Greece & Mount Athos – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Mount Athos forms the lower two thirds of the Easternmost prong sticking down from the Halkidiki Peninsula and although there is a road of sorts it seems that the only way to visit the Monasteries on the Western shore of the peninsula is to catch a ferry from Ouranoupoli, the last town on the Greek side of the border. A similar service operates from Lerissos on the East coast which we passed through and both these ports seemed very attractive towns –  information that I filed away for another day.

Possibly my favourite shop sign in the world!

My permit to enter The Holy Mountain

All the excitement ended in a bit of an anticlimax really. We were definitely late, but the ferry was still there and even though our hosts had to spend ages in the Pilgrims’ Bureau getting our permissions in order we made the ship easily. For the first time in my life I was officially a Pilgrim and on my way to Mount Athos!

The voyage was delightfully relaxing and the views of Mount Athos were stunning, so I thought I would just show you my photographs and comment where appropriate…please click the photographs for a larger view.

Leaving Ouranoupoli behind.

Left: Last glimpse of Ouranoupoli. Right: A skete.

Views from the ferry – olives by the shore & a monastic settlement or skete.

The shoreline of the Mount Athos peninsula was dotted with little settlements and often the ferry would pull up by their jetty and waiting groups of monks would board – we were forbidden to photograph the monks I am afraid.

Our happy band of Pilgrims arrives at Agiou Panteleimonos. At times I was put in mind of Lhasa by the monastery buildings we saw.

The ferry & our speedboat to the vineyards…

After touring the monastery for a while – which we were not allowed to photograph, but whose gift shop sold blessings as well as icons of Tsar Nicholas 11 and President Putin – we were taken by speedboat to the Tsantali managed vineyards of Metoxi Chromitsa whose winery is housed in a cloister settlement belonging to the Agiou Panteleimonos Monastery.

Tsantali vineyards – Metoxi Chromitsa with Ouranoupoli in the distance.

My first experience of the landscape amazed me. There was such tranquility and beauty, the vistas magnificent and the weather was perfection, I am not sure I have ever seen such beautiful vineyards and the feeling of peace was quite overwhelming.

Metoxi Chromitsa – vineyards around the cloisters of St. Panteleimon / Agiou Panteleimonos.

Nothing had prepared me for the grandeur of arriving at the Cloister, we were on dirt tracks rather than roads, so it was the closest I will ever get to the feeling that a mediaeval person would have had when arriving at a castle or monastery. The building dominated the landscape and reassured by its very presence and I felt quite detached from the modern world.

Our Pilgrim band arriving at the winery in the cloisters. The right hand photo is taken from the balcony you can see in the left hand one at top right.

The winery, and our little group, were housed in a part of the Cloister that appeared quite tumbledown, but the important bits had been done up and our quarters were perfectly comfortable, while the views from the balcony were stunning.

Left: The Cloister’s garden and vineyards. Right: Pilgrims going about their devotions in the room that backs onto the balcony in photo above.

The meals we were served were superb and consisted of many dishes like rather grand mezes. In the main the monks and any visitors are vegetarian, but there is some leeway to allow them to eat fish. All the vegetable were locally grown, the honey was made by the monks and their bees and all seemed right with the world.

Around the cloisters.

All over Europe monasteries had been the keepers of knowledge for centuries, and that included knowing how to grow grapes and make wine, but it seems the twentieth century saw a marked decline in winemaking on Mount Athos.  The Tsantali company have been producing wine and spirits since long before this region was part of Greece, Ottoman rule finally ended here in 1913. Evangelos Tsantalis came to Metoxi Chromitsa in 1971 and noticing that the vineyards were no longer tended he offered his family’s expertise to bring them back to life – as long as he could also make some commercial wine. The deal was done and soon wines from Mount Athos were commercially available for the first time.

Evangelos knew a good thing when he saw one. The place has a classic Mediterranean climate, the winters relatively mild and dry, with just enough rain and snow melt water off Mount Athos and sea breezes that temper the dry heat of summer. I suspect these conditions that suit grapes so well also made it a perfect place for the monks to settle too.

These growing conditions allow Tsantalis to farm organically which helps with the biodiversity of this beautiful place. Also the deep sandy-clay soils are pretty thin with have very little organic matter which forces the vine to put down deep roots seeking out nutrients, which can help to keep yields down and to increase complexity in a finished wine.

In order to experience the wines from this amazing place we headed off down the slopes towards the sea and sat on the terrace of a beautiful tasting room that overlooks the vineyards and the sparkling waters of the Singitic Gulf or Gulf of Agion Oros / Holy Mountain with the Sithonia Peninsula shimmering in the distance.

Probably the best view I have ever seen from a tasting…

The Wines

2011 Agioritikos white
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
A dry white wine blend of Assyrtiko, Athiri & Roditis grapes
The colour is very pale straw with a little lemon citrine brightness.
The nose is very fresh and clean with lively with citrus and  some herbal components too.
The palate is surprisingly soft rather than crisp, fresh though with enough acidity to keep it zesty, some weight makes it feel quite like a fat, floral and rich Vinho Verde. The zing is rich like lemon peel rather than light lemon juice. This is not a wine to particularly think about, but it is very good with Greek cuisine and I found myself returning to it again and again with lunch – 86/100 points.

Widely available in Greece, it really is good with the food, it is stocked in the UK by Wine Rack at £8.99.

2011 Metoxi Chromitsa X white
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
This blend of 40% Assyrtico, 40% Sauvignon Blanc & 20% Athiri is one of the top white wines they produce here and the quality shows in the concentration and complexity.

The nose is wonderfully aromatic, but not in a sweet perfumed way, but more akin to a herb garden; broom, thyme and fennel herb notes dominate and are kept fresh by some underlying lemon and lime.
The mouthfeel is fatter and richer than crisp, textured even, even the high acidity has a richness rather than crisp or tart quality. There is a stony flinty mineral character too as well as a fresh citric tang giving a long citric finish. This is a pretty good wine and goes superbly with classic Greek food – 88/100 points.

2007 Metoxi Chromitsa X red
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
This limited release wine is a blend of some of the best parcels of grapes grown on the estate; 20% Xinomavro (pronounced Kersi-naw-mav-ro), 30% Limnio and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and aged for 12 months in heavy toast French oak barrels.
The colour is a bright, just opaque plum with some garnet showing. The nose is warm, soft and deep with rich plum and cherry fruit and some crunchy raspberry fruit adding a fresh acidic note as well as a touch of vanilla, like cream soda, some spice and pepper. A little twist of dried cranberry is there too, showing that the wine has a little age.
The palate offers rich black cherry mingling with a little brighter more acidic red cherry too. The texture is quite chewy with dry tannins, quite high acid and tangy raspberry characters all the way through. This medium bodied wine is surprisingly fresh and elegant – 89/100 points.

2007 Agioritiko Abaton
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
This 80% Cabernet Sauvignon & 20% Limnio blend is almost the top tier of production and represents a rigorous selection of fruit, fermented in open topped wooden vats with the finished wine being aged 12 months in new French oak. Abaton by the way means ‘untrodden’ and refers to the cut off and monastic nature of Mount Athos.
Deep red with very little black, but more garnet. The nose gives cedar and developed leather notes, a touch of prune and even some leather. It smells mature with bitter cherry, chocolate and cassis.
The palate is very soft  and pretty juicy with ripe black cherry verging on over ripe. There is prune, toffee, coffee and earth making it quite complex and nice with a smoky mocha quality. This wine feels very traditional, even attractively rustic and it cries out for all the meat dishes we could not eat on Mount Athos – 89/100 points

2001 Metoxi Chromitsa red
PGI (Vin de Pays) Mount Athos
This mature example predated the production of the higher rated Metoxi Chromitsa X wines, but gave us a good idea as to what these wines do with some age. It is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon & Limnio fermented in old open wooden vats and then aged in new French oak barrels for 8 months.
The colour showed much more brown and had a brambly hue too.
The nose was a little meaty and singed and had some earthiness, dried fruit, coffee and smoke.
The palate was lovely, supple and concentrated with smoky dried leather and fruit, cedar, spice, mocha and caramel. There was a little acidity and supple tannins giving a nice texture – 90/100 points.

The 1999 Metoxi Chromitsa red was equally good if a little more fragile with orange peel and cranberry characters.

As the Monastery is Russian their top wine, Kormilitsa Gold – which we didn’t taste – is frequently served at the Kremlin.

Left: sunset from the vineyards. Right: the border.

I’m not sure that I would want to spend my whole life here – the cells were very hot at night – but visiting Mount Athos, seeing some of the Monasteries and the stunning landscape was a great experience that I will cherish. As was getting a taste of what the monks eat and trying these fascinating wines in the place where they are made.

Can I thank the Agiou Panteleimonos Monastery and the Tsantali company for their wonderful hospitality and the great Ted Lelekas (his blog is here, in Greek) for doing all the hard work and making it happen. Thank you all, the visit was a superb experience.

Please, the next time you visit Greece take a little care over the wines you have and I think you will be astonished by how good they can be. By the same token, the next time you want to drink something different at home – give Greek wines a go. You will not be disappointed and if you drink it while looking at my photographs here, then you won’t really need to go abroad –  will you?

4 thoughts on “Greece – Part 2: A Taste of Monastic Life

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