As some of you will know I visited Greece last year to tour some of that country’s amazing northern wine regions. I have written about some of the highlights already in my articles about Rapsani and the amazing Mount Athos, but I thought that I should tell you all about some of the wines made from Greece’s star northern black grape – Xinomavro.
Do, please remember to click on all the links…starting with this one about my Greek wine tasting in London perhaps?
This part of Greece is where some of their truly classic wines originate and I was fortunate enough to experience a wide range of them last year and to visit many of the really exciting producers in this beautiful part of the world.
Xinomavro (pronounced K-see-NOH-mah-vroh) is the signature grape of Macedonia and makes some of Greece’s finest red wines. Agiorgitiko (pronounced Ay-yor-yitiko) from Nemea region in the Peloponnese is arguably Greece’s other really important black grape and I think they should both be a more widely grown. Indeed in my opinion both could well have a future as international grape varieties – as should Spain’s Tempranillo and Italy’s Aglianico.
Xinomavro is grown across the north of Greece and is the only grape permitted in the mono-grape wine region appellations / PDOs of Goumenissa, Amynteo and most importantly Naoussa. It is Naoussa (pronounced Now-sir) that is considered to be the finest of all the regions up here and to have the greatest potential for even more future greatness. The others must not be ignored, but it is easy to see why this particular place has earned such a high reputation.
As you might suspect the area has a long history of wine production, so much so that the artist Cousinery wrote in 1831: “The wine of Naousa is to Macedonia what Burgundy wine is to France. I am in a position to say that the wine of Naousa is the best in the Ottoman Empire .” In truth though I would be willing to bet that with a few exceptions we would barely recognise the wines made around here before the Second World War. Phylloxera hit this part of the world very late, so when it did arrive in the 1930s it was just one of the many problems to be coped with – world wide recession and world war followed closely by civil war must have seemed like more urgent horrors. So it was not until the tourist boom of the 1960s that the region began to be properly replanted and new wineries built – interestingly the timing is identical to the blossoming of California and Spanish wines, which just goes to show that all wine needs to develop is a long period of peace and relative prosperity.
What makes Xinomavro stand out from the crowd is its potential for elegance. The wines it makes, especially in Naoussa, can be very fine indeed. The whole place is basically a south facing slope, sheltered so the extremes of climate that other parts of Macedonia are subject to are somewhat tempered here – and it shows. What’s more the sun exposure balances the grapes variety’s natural high acidity very well indeed.
Some people like to compare Xinomavro to Pinot Noir and in terms of colour and tannin that contrast gives you a pretty good idea of what it is like. If I have to compare it to anything though, and it does make things easier if you have never tried one, then I think Nebbiolo might be a better bet. True it is less tannic, but everything else is bang on, body (not that full, whatever the books may say) and acidity, more improtantly it has red fruit characters and a similar deeply savoury, umami nature.
While Pinot always makes think of red cherry and raspberries, I see from my notes that Xinomavro for me is often very tomato-like in flavour and aroma. Sometimes the tomato feels fresh, other times more sun-dried or cooked and even occasionally just tomato stalk, but it is always there and makes the wines go superbly with the wonderful local cuisine.
My favourite Naoussa wines so far:
1997 Tsantali Naousa Reserve
Originally from Thrace, the Tsantali company created their Naoussa estate and winery in 1970. is one of Greece’s major producers of wines – and spirits. In my opinion their quality is pretty high, whether you are just drinking one of their straightforward everyday wines or indulging in something a little more special.
40% fermented in small open fermentors and hand plunged four times daily and 60% in stainless steal tanks. 12 months in French oak, just 10% of which is new.
A little tawny and earthy red, but the colour is still quite vibrant.
The nose was smoky with prunes and concentrated cooked tomato notes.
Loads of sweet deep dried fruit and ready vanilla and caramel, some spice and raisins and prunes. Very elegant, and joyous the tannins dry the finish and the acidity just sits in the background. Superbly balanced and stunning. The finish is fresh and lively still with studs of rich sweet, smoky bacon, tomato and savoury meaty characters.
Amazingly long and intense and the finish is really smooth. A great wine that is ageing very slowly – 92/100 points.
As far as I am aware the Tsantali Naousa Reserve is not available in the UK at the present, but their tasty and excellent value non-reserve Naousa is available from Wine Rack at £7.49 a bottle.
Tsantali wines are available in the US via Fantis Foods Inc.
1997 Kir-Yianni Ramnista Estate Naoussa
Ktima (Domaine) Kir-Yianni
The Boutari family have been a key part of the development of Greek wine. In many ways it was their negociant company that put Naoussa and Santorini on the wine map as quality regions and that family firm continues to this day, but Yianni Boutari, Stelios’s father branched out on his own to create this estate in 1997. When he was a negociant all the grape growers had respectfully referred to him as “Mister Yianni” or Kir-Yianni in Greek. The grapes are from selected vineyard blocks on their Yianakohori vineyard and the wine spends 12 months in a mix of 225 and 500 litre oak barrels.
Deep earthy savoury aromas mingle with black treacle and leather notes together with an underlying mix of cherry and sun-dried tomatoes.
Lovely integrated palate of wild raspberry and leather, tomato and earthy minerality. High in acid, but very soft, with smooth fine smoky tannins and tomato stem flavours. Lovely texture and tension between the freshness and richness. The finish is slightly drying, but has great balance and real finesse – 93/100 points.
2001 Chrisohoou Naoussa
The Chrisohoous are delightful people and their beautiful winery includes a fabulous museum of local culture and wine together with an amazing restaurant. Our little group were the only guests the night I was there and we were treated to course after course of stunning food – do go if you are anywhere near. The family have made wine since the 1940s, but they were basically negociants until 1978 when they started specialising in estate bottled Naoussas. They still make an enormous array of different wines, but the Naoussas are where the quality is. They are aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.
Earthy red with a kiss of orange pink in the rim too.
Delightfully vibrant nose, with red cherry and leaf mulch forest floor sort of aromas.
Plenty of soft fruit, red raspberry and deep cherry on the palate. Lovely almost creamy texture with some spice and oak characters like toffee and coffee and the acidity provides a balancing touch of freshness.
The most Pinot Noir like Xinomavro I tasted on the trip, beautifully balanced and ageing very very slowly – 92/100 points.
2008 Paliokalias Naoussa
Kostis Dalamaras farms his vineyards organically and seems to really love this land that his family have tended since 1840. The place is small, homely and teeming with cats. It reeks of tradition, but there is nothing old-fashioned about Kostis’s wines, they really are exquisite and very Burgundian in feel. His Paliokalias is a lieu-dit and is a remarkable wine made from 80 years old vines and is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.
The nose was very Burgundy-like here, earthy and savoury, while the palate was a beautifully poised and elegant wine with gorgeous balance between the fruit and gently spicy oak. Lots of red berries and plums gave way to sun-dried tomatoes and then a twist of tapenade for good measure – 91/100 points.
2011 Thymiopoulos Young Vine Naoussa
31 year old Apostolos Thymiopoulos is great winemaker and like Kostis Dalamaras is a rising star of Naoussa. He doesn’t make much, so his top wines are hard to track down – in the UK anyway. Luckily the same problem does not exist for this wine made from the younger vines on the estate and vinified using only the wild yeast and 30% is aged for 3 months in a mixture of 225 litre, 300 litre & 500 litre oak barrels – both of these give more complexity.
This could well be the best wine to try first, if you have never tasted a Naoussa. It is gloriously bright and seductive, bursting with cherry and raspberry fruit with fresh acidity and attractively chalky light tannins. Fresh tomato and tomato stalk characters provide the savoury notes to balance the sweetness of the red fruit. A lovely user-friendly wine that goes with all manner of lighter dishes and tastes good lightly chilled too, if you like good Gamay, Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo or Barbera this is the wine for you – 89/100 points, it scores especially high marks for value.
But wait, there’s more: Alpha Estate – Amynteo
So, if wines in the Nebbiolo, Pinot Noir mould are your thing then you have a wonderful new region to explore in Naoussa. Excitingly though there is even more for you to discover. It isn’t in Naoussa, but no article about Xinomavro would be complete without a mention of the Alpha Estate.
The Alpha Estate was the brainchild of Angelos Latrides and Makis Mavridis who saw great potential in the underused Amynteo region. It is higher and cooler than Naoussa with more rain in the winter, but enjoys hot summers, which are tempered by the nearby lakes and excellent sun exposure. In addition the sandy soil is protection against phylloxera and because of that there are pockets of very old vines in the region.
Alpha Estate is an exciting wine producer, it has the feeling of being cutting edge and experimental and as a consequence they grow lots of different grape varieties, including Syrah, Merlot, Negro Amaro and Barbera, but the signature grape for them is ungrafted Xinomavro and they make several different examples, all of which are very, very good, even the more affordable Hedgehog label. It seemed to me that the hallmark was freshness and terrific integration in their wines and it was interesting that they use oak with almost no toast at all.
2006 Alpha Estate Old Vine Xinomavro
Medium to deep black cherry colour with deep black cherry aromas together with freshly cooked tomato aromas, dried cherry, cherry stone, herbs and molasses. The palate has a lovely succulent texture with fantastic freshness and gentle opulence. The fruit is the thing right now with bright tomato and cherry and cooked tomato dominating the underlying dryness and austerity. Real freshness, elegance and finesse, but very very drinkable too and no sign of leather or ageing yet – 92/100 points.
I do hope all this has whetted your appetite to go and try some Xinomavro from Naoussa or Amynteo. There is a wonderful array of quality Greek wines just waiting for intrepid wine drinkers to discover. What appeals to me is that they are classic European wines, but with new and different flavour profiles, so both familiar in many ways, but also exciting and different.
Go on, try some and let let us all know what you made of them.