Wine of the Week – a winter warmer from Greece

Domaine Skouras vineyards - photo courtesy of the winery.

Domaine Skouras vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

I know what you are thinking. More Greek wine. I know, I know, but I showed it in a tasting and it was so well received and it is so good that I couldn’t resist having yet another Greek Wine of the Week.

The Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea - photo by my friend Ted Lelekas - © Ted Lelekas 2016

The Temple of Zeus in Ancient Nemea – photo by my friend Ted Lelekas – © Ted Lelekas 2016

My involvement and love of Greek wine goes back a long way. Well over 20 years ago I was involved with marketing Greek wines in the UK and we did very well from a small base, but even now Greek wines have never really broken through onto the UK market. However, there are very, very good wines and this one – and last week’s Wine of the Week –  is a case in point. I loved it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

st_george_2011_1024x10242012 Saint George Aghiorghitiko
Domiane Skouras
PDO Nemea
Peloponnese
Greece

100% Aghiorghitiko aged for 12 months in second fill 225 litre French oak barrels.

Nemea is the largest and most important wine region of southern Greece, perhaps in the whole country, although at just 3000 hectares of vines it isn’t huge in world terms – Bordeaux covers 42,000 and Rioja a whopping 57,000, so Nemea compares more in size to Sancerre’s 2600 hectares of vines. It’s is situated in the north west Peloponnese – not far from Argos and the archeological site of Mycenae – and is only an hour or so from Athens and very near the lovely seaside town of Nafplio, so makes an excellent place to visit while in Greece. Wine has been made here for thousands of years and Nemea was famous for being where Heracles killed the Nemean Lion. During the struggle the lion bit off one of his fingers, so locally the wine was known as ‘the blood of Hercules’.

vineyard-2

Domaine Skouras nestling amongst the vineyards – photo courtesy of the winery.

Nemea is always red and is made from 100% Aghiorghitiko, or Saint George – it mean’s Saint George’s grape, which is Greece’s most planted grape variety. In terms of style it produces all sorts of different wines from soft, easy everyday plonk to complex and structured versions. The better wines have lots of dark fruit and firm tannin, not entirely unlike Cabernet Sauvignon, but with less acidity than Cabernet. As a consequence the better wines come from higher vineyards where the air is cooler and preserves some of those essential acids and freshness – Nemea is around 500-700 metres above sea level.

dsc01806

Vineyards in Nemea – photo by my friend Ted Lelekas – © Ted Lelekas 2016

As well as being used on its own in Nemea, Aghiorghitiko also blends very successfully with Cabernet Sauvignon to produce sort of ‘Super-Peloponnese’ wines – Skouras’s Megas Oenos is one of the leading examples and it is superb.

Very roughly you can think of Nemea as being the Bordeaux of Greece and Naoussa the Burgundy – Chianti for Nemea and Barolo for Naoussa  would also be suitable comparisons and give you some idea of the respective styles.

George Skouras was born locally, in Argos, but studied wine making at Dijon before working as a winemaker all around the world. He eventually returned home ready to help lead the Greek wine revolution and created Domaine Skouras in Neamea in 1986, although his current state of the art winery was not finished until 2004. The focus is on the reds made from Aghiorghitiko, but he also makes some excellent whites from the local aromatic Moscofilero grape together with some Viognier and Chardonnay too.

A deeply coloured wine with a lifted, aromatic nose of rich black fruit – blackberry and cooked strawberry – together with clove and cinnamon spice and a touch of coffee notes and earthy minerality. The palate is pretty full-bodied with rich mouth filling fruit, smooth, but firm tannins and rich savoury, earthy characters. This wine is utterly delicious and would be perfect with lamb, roasts, casseroles or steaks. Right now the tannins are quite firm, in a lovely way, but will soften in a year or two if that is what you like. If you like Claret, Chianti or Rioja, you are bound to enjoy this wine – 90/100 points.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.95 per bottle and from The General Wine Company for £13 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

If you have never tried a Greek wine, but want a good, rich dry red with a nice meal, then this will certainly hit the spot. It is a serious bottle of red wine and any serious wine drinker would love it.

Wine of the Week – delicious Greek treats

P1030596

Looking towards the sea from Rapsani’s vineyards.

I love Greek wine and wish they were more popular and easier to buy in the UK than they are. I really enjoy presenting Greek wines to wine societies and recently I talked a wine group into agreeing to a tasting of Greek wines. Despite being nervous at first the tasters really enjoyed them. All the wines showed really well and impressed the tasters. Of course a handful particularly stood out and proved to be widely popular in the room and I will mention three of those today and tell you about some of the others another time.

The first one was a superb dry white from the Island of Santorini made from the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. I showed a terrific, mineral example made by the Santo Wines cooperative, which you can buy mail order in the UK – click here . If you want to try a more easily available example, Marks & Spencer stock a lovely, affordable version made by the splendid Argyros Estate – click here for details. I have written about Santorini wines in more detail before – click here.

Amongst the reds I showed a couple of wines form the same region as a contrast and I loved them so much that together they are my joint Wine of the Week.

P1030691

The village name in the Greek alphabet as well as ours.

That wine region is called Rapsani and it is a very beautiful place in Thessaly near Mount Olympus. I visited a few years ago and 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 warms up quickly and drains superbly.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

The wine has long enjoyed local fame and respect and historically the Rapsani cooperative was strong, however it fell on hard times and the Tsantali company 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.

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 right 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 a feeling of more body and alcohol.

Rapsani Vineyards

Rapsani Vineyards

tsantali-rapsani2012 Rapsani
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 6 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 30% new.

The grapes for this wine are harvested from the lower slopes of Rapsani, 250m above sea, and the extra heat shows in a slightly raisiny nose with richer dried cherry, some fresher, sweet raspberry aromas as well as the classic tomato stem of Xinomavro. There is sun dried tomato and tapenade too, which gives it a real savoury tang. The palate is medium bodied and very smooth with little touches of vanilla and caramel and lots of rich fruit. This is a terrific wine with just a an attractive touch of the rustic about it. It will appeal to Rioja drinkers and go perfectly with lamb and Mediterranean style food – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies and Evingtons Wines – for £8.50-£10 per bottle and from Amazon.co.uk for £28.58 per case of 3 bottles.
For US stockists – click here.

tsantali-rapsani-reserve2012 Rapsani Reserve
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 50% new.

The grapes come from further up, 250-500 metres above sea level, and the wine feels cooler and more elegant. It is also deeper, darker and more concentrated, with rich black fruit aromas, blackberry, cassis and plum, together with wafts of black pepper spice, coffee and leather. There is also a touch of that tomato stem and black olive umami / savoury character, even a touch of balsamic. The palate is concentrated, smooth and plush, with lots of fruit and spice and a lovely core of freshness to give balance and vitality. That savoury / umami note follows on to the palate as well, which makes the wine brilliant with food. A classy and elegant wine that wowed the room at my tasting – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies for £16.95 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

It always surprises people that I bang on about the delights of Greek wines so much, but they really can be very good indeed and well worth trying. The wines are classically European in style and structure, but because Greece has such wonderful indigenous grape varieties, they taste different and wonderfully exciting.

Try either of these with slow cooked lamb, or Kleftiko, and you will not be disappointed.

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?

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. Continue reading