A Greek Original – Naoussa & Xinomavro

Naoussa vineyards.

Naoussa vineyards.

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.

My favourite road sign photographed in Macedonia in 2012.

My favourite road sign – photographed in Macedonia in 2012.

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.

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

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

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.

How it used to be done -

How it used to be done – the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa in the mid 1950s.

How it's done now - the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa in 2012.

How it’s done now – the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa in 2012.

Kostis Dalamaras - the 5th generation of his family to farm here.

Kostis Dalamaras – the 5th generation of his family to farm at the Dalamára Winery. He now makes beautifully supple and elegant modern wines from organically grown grapes.

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.

Delicious traditional nibbles at the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa.

Delicious traditional nibbles at the Dalamára Winery in Naoussa.

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:

Tsantali's Naoussa vineyards.

Tsantali’s Naoussa vineyards.

tsantali naousa reserve1997 Tsantali Naousa Reserve
Tsantali
PDO Naousa
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.

Yiannis Boutaris, charismatic owner of KIR-YIANNI evangelist for Greek wine and the 5th generation of his family to make wine, but the first to adopt a true estate method of production.

Stelios Boutaris, charismatic winemaker and owner of KIR-YIANNI evangelist for Greek wine and the 5th generation of his family to make wine, but the first to embrace a true ‘estate’ concept.

The beautiful

The beautiful Ktima (Domaine) Kir-Yianni.

VdP_red_RAMNISTA1997 Kir-Yianni Ramnista Estate Naoussa
Ktima (Domaine) Kir-Yianni
PDO Naousa
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.

Kir-Yianni wines are available in the UK through London General Trading.
Kir-Yianni wines are available in the US through different companies listed here.

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Ktima Chrisohoou.

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The delightfully hospitable Keimis & Betty Chrisohoou.

xinomavro_big2001 Chrisohoou Naoussa
Ktima Chrisohoou
PDO Naousa
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.

in his vineyard.

Kostis Dalamaras in his vineyard.

Kostis Dalamaras amongst his vines.

Kostis Dalamaras amongst his vines.

Feeding time at Dalamara - they are inseparable pals!

Feeding time at Dalamara – they really are inseparable pals!

11592008 Paliokalias Naoussa
Dalamara Winery
PDO Naousa
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.

Naoussa vineyards.

Naoussa vineyards.

Young Vines2011 Thymiopoulos Young Vine Naoussa
Domaine Thymiopoulos
PDO Naousa
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.

Available in the UK from The Wine Society for £10.50 a bottle.
Available in the US from K&L Wines for $14 a bottle.

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.

Angelos Latridis the charismatic and winemaker and owner of the Alpha Estate.

Angelos Latridis the evangelistic winemaker and owner of the Alpha Estate.

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The Alpha Estate.

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Alpha Estate vineyards, note the sandy soil.

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.

Old Xinomavro vine in sandy soil - more than 80 years old.

Old Xinomavro vine – more than 80 years old – in sandy soil at the Alpha Estate.

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.

59113-xynomavro-reserve-old-vines-400x7002006 Alpha Estate Old Vine Xinomavro
Alpha Estate
PDO Amynteo
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.

Alpha Estate wines are available in the UK through Novum Wines.
Alpha Estate wines are available in the US through Diamond Importers Inc.

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.

2012 – a look back at the best bits

Me with my favourite vintage of Tsantalis Rapsani

Me with my favourite vintage of Tsantalis Rapsani, Greece – Photo by kind permission – ©Brett Jones http://www.thewinemaestro.co.uk

2012 was an amazing year for Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page. I tasted some wonderful wines, visited some amazing places, was shortlisted for an award and my readership doubled – all trends that I hope continue in 2013.

61601  Wine Tasting, Mount Athos, Tsantali, Greece 20 Jun 12 copy

Me & fellow traveller Patrick Maclart hard at work on Mount Athos, Greece – Photo by kind permission – ©Brett Jones http://www.thewinemaestro.co.uk

To celebrate all this I thought that I would start the new year with a backward glance at some of my highlights of 2012 – so you can click on the links to read the pieces if you missed them first time around, or just enjoy them all over again.

Those of you who know me well know how much I relish new wine experiences and 2012 got off to a cracking start for me with a tasting of wines from the Ukraine. It was a fascinating glimpse at a fledgling wine industry just setting out on the path to producing quality wines and there was much promise there.

Champagne

Richard Goffrey at the Dom Pérignon launch

Richard Goffrey at the Dom Pérignon launch

Champagne
One of the most sophisticated and stylish experiences of 2012 for me was the launch of the 2003 Dom Pérignon. In many ways the whole piece of theatre of the launch was bonkers, but the wine was sublime and there is no doubt that my sparkling wine of the year was the 2003 Dom Pérignon, it was possibly my wine of the year too – I just wish I could afford it.

dp2003 Dom Pérignon
The aromas were astonishingly lifted and perfumed with fresh floral notes, lemon zest and lemon peel as well as richer tones of lemon curd and the flaky pastry that shows yeast autolysis as well as pine nuts hinting at a creamy ripeness to come. Running through the whole bouquet were strands of minerality, iodine, saline and wet stones that promise well for the acidity on the palate.

The palate was a revelation, this was not simply fresh and lively, indeed it was subtly the opposite, being textured and intense. The mouthfeel was silky with the merest hint of creamy ripeness, while the acidity was in a supporting role and never dominated. Rather wonderfully there was a twist of deep green olive bitterness to the wine’s finish, even a touch of tannin which accentuated the mouthfeel – those phenolics perhaps? This makes it a real wine to appreciate and enjoy rather than a straight-forward Champagne to frivolously guzzle. It offers soft richness and poised balancing acidity. It has ripe fruit in abundance, but nothing that overpowers or dominates as a single flavour and it has taut minerality – in short it has tension. The competing sensations vie with each other for your attention, which makes it fascinating to drink.

The finish was of epic proportions, I was still tasting it more than 2 minutes after I had drunk it. I would without doubt give it a gold medal in any wine competition I was judging, so cannot help but award it a very high mark – 94/100 points.

English Wine

Vines at Plumpton, Sussex

Vines at Plumpton, Sussex

Even less likely inhabitants of the Sussex countryside!

Even less likely inhabitants of the Sussex countryside!

One of the things I really enjoy about writing my wine page is the scope it gives to stray far and wide. Well in 2012 I used a few chances to taste some wines made nearby, but that in many ways seem off the beaten track – English wine. I have enjoyed English wine on and off for 20 years or more, but I have never been more thrilled by the quality or more confident in the future than I am now. You can read the beginnings of my optimism about English wine here.

Pruning at Stopham - photo by kind permission

Pruning at Stopham – photo by kind permission

This delight in English wine continued with a pair of exciting wines from the Stopham Estate, in Sussex, that seem to be a possible pointer to the future. Their 2010 Stopham Pinot Blanc and 2010 Stopham Pinot Gris struck me as being excellent quality and sensibly priced, so were able to hold their own against wine from anywhere – and indeed they did sell out pretty quick as production is small.

My English experiences contiuned later in the year when I was able to taste this amazing wine:

2006 Eglantine Vineyard North Star

which is a stunning dessert wine made in Leicestershire of all places.

And while Welsh wine is clearly not from England I thought this the right place to mention that I tried some excellent Welsh wines in 2012, read about them here.

Hungarian Wine
My ongoing quest for different styles of wine and unusual grape varieties caused me to try a couple of fascinating wines from the tiny region of Somlo in Hungary and I would highly recommend them as something a little different, but very high in quality.

My Italian Trip

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The charming Eva & Leonardo Beconcini

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Pinzimonio – one of Eva’s many lovely cats

My first trip of 2012 was a personal pilgrimage to Tuscany to visit an estate that not only makes Chianti, but grows some Tempranillo as well. What’s more it isn’t just a marketing ploy, they have always grown it here. I got excited by this and wanted to see the place for myself and try the wines. In the end I had a fabulous time walking the vineyard and tasting the terrific wines that Leonardo Beconcini makes at Pietro Beconcini Agricola. This was followed by the most glorious lunch made by his charming wife Eva before finally being introduced to their many cats.

Cinque Terre

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Manarola one of the Cinque Terre

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Cesare Scorza’s shop in Manarola

I was loathe to leave Italy, so took the chance to visit a nearby area that was completely new to me. The Cinque Terre is a short train ride away from Pisa and is an amazing place to visit. I highly recommend it for its wildly beautiful landscape with an air of mystery as well as the incredibly attractive towns that give the region its name, of course it also produces some lovely wines and I was fortunate enough to meet two passionate local wine makers.

My Vinho Verde Trip

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Me dressed for the weather in Vinho Verde

In all my years in the wine trade I had never visited Vinho Verde, buts as the sheer quality of the wines had impressed themselves on me of late, I was determined to put that right and in May I was able to do just that. I learnt a lot, not least why that region of Portugal is so green. Boy does it rain there, I was quite relieved that my hotel room was on the twelfth floor as I expected all the lower ones to flood at any moment. However, in the brief moments when it wasn’t raining the scenery was lovely and I visited some terrific winemakers and tasted much more variety in the different Vinho Verdes than most people expect – the place makes all colours and styles.

My Spanish Trip

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The Riojan landscape

No sooner had I returned from Portugal than I returned to Iberia with some colleagues for a trip to northern Spain that took in Rioja, Navarra and Ribera del Duero. We were guests of Bodegas Faustino and it was a delightful experience and one of the many highlights was the tapas bar crawl of Logroño, it was a memory to cherish and I enjoy reading about it every now and again.

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Stylish pintxos – Basque Tapas – in Bilbao

My Greek Trip

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Looking from the Rapsani vineyards east towards the sea

The border between Mount Athos & Greece

The border between Mount Athos & Greece

In a fabulous year for trips one stood out from all the others. In June I visited the vineyards of northern Greece with some fellow bloggers as the guest of Tsantalis and it was an incredible experience. We visited quite a few regions and beautiful places and had experiences that will stick in my memory for ever. The wines were fabulous, as was the food and the hospitality of the people. The one downside was that it was an all male trip as we went to the closed monastic settlement of Mount Athos and you can read about that here..

New Experiences

George Sandeman - complete with halo

George Sandeman – complete with halo

In June I was invited to an amazing dinner that paired Sandeman Tawny Ports with Japanese food. I only went because the idea seemed completely mad and it was hosted by George Sandeman, but it was a delightful experience and really opened my eyes as to what is possible and enjoyable with food and wine pairing. I hope to repeat it with American barbecue food as it seems to me that could be a brilliant match with Tawny Port.

Southern Italian Delights
I have never been to Sicily, but hope to put that right soon, as I have become utterly captivated by the exciting wines of southern Italy, including Sicily. So far I have more experience of the whites and they are so good they deserve to be more widely appreciated. I wrote about some fantastic white wines here.

Shades of Grey
In November I was moved to write about some more unusual grape varieties that have ‘gris’ in their name. It seems that most people know Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, but I have become very excited by Sauvignon Gris and Grenache Gris and decided it was time to speak out about some of the lovely wines made from these grapes – you can read the piece here.

Chile Branches Out

The wild side of Chile at Luis Felipe Edwards 2003

The wild side of Chile at Luis Felipe Edwards 2003

This year I was delighted to be able to taste some really excellent Chilean wines made from blends and slightly more unusual grapes, so Chile remains a wine producing country to watch – read about some of the wines here.

Classic French Regions

My Loire Valley Trip

Angers from the Castle ramparts

Angers from the Castle ramparts

The Loire valley personified

The Loire valley personified

It was quite a year for trips and one of my unexpected highlights was a visit to the Loire Valley. I visited the area around Angers with a group of fellow bloggers and we tasted some fabulous wines and enjoyed some superb meals, but for me the centrepiece was a visit to Savennières whose wines had never really impressed me in the past, so I wanted top see what I was missing.

Burgundy

The delights of Beaune

The delights of Beaune

Aloxe-Corton

Aloxe-Corton

In my rush to experience the new, I didn’t leave the classics behind though and in October I presented a sumptuous tasting of red Burgundies from the house of Louis Jadot. It was aterrific experience and a wonderful insight into how these great wines develop. Read about it here. I also enjoyed a wonderful visit to Burgundy as a guest of the Discover the Origin campaign and I shall be writing about that soon, however I did taste my white wine of the year on this trip:

Item-ITEM_600--040713812010 Bourgogne Blanc Cuvée Oligocène
A.c. Bourgogne Blanc
Patrick Javiller
Do not be misled by the humble appellation, this is a great wine. The vineyard –  les Pellans – is only not Meursault by a technicality, in fact half of it is within the appellation as this piece of land is in the village of Meursault, but not all of it has the A.C., which is why this wine comes in at a fair price. This really shows what white burgundy is about. It illustrates terroir and offers plenty of richness as well as elegance and tension. What’s more it is absolutely delicious and great with almost and elegant fish dish or white meat. 91/100 points – it gains points though for being stunning value for money.

Available in the UK from James Nicholson and Goedhuis & Co at around £20 a bottle.

Bordeaux

As French as tarte aux pommes

As French as tarte aux pommes

As if that wasn’t enough, I was then invited to Bordeaux as the guest of Yvon Mau and was able to visit a great swathe of impressive Châteaux and try some superb wines that made me finally realise that there is some wonderful wine from Bordeaux available at non stratospheric prices. I will write more about some of these soon, but this piece gives you some of the flavour and tells you about a stunning wine from Montagne-St Émilion that has my vote as my red wine of the year, if for no other reason than it so exceeded my expectations of what a wine from this appellation can offer:

bouteille_chc3a2teau_guadet_plaisance_2009_esprit_de_bordeaux12009 Chateau Guadet Plaisance
Montagne Saint-Emilion
The colour was an intense opaque purpley black that managed to be vivid and bright as well as dark.
The nose was dominated by cedar, spice & singed meat aromas, together with brooding deep plum and fresher redcurrant and a touch of a ripe sweet, almost creamy note.
The palate was luscious, round and concentrated with a smoky sweet ripe fruit quality together with sweet ripe tannins and firm oak structure, all balanced by a taut freshness. All this gives a gloriously succulent texture and a spicy bite to the palate. Even the oak tasted nice, like mocha mixed with toasted coconut. There is an attractive and elegant opulence to it and I suspect it will age superbly, but it really is delicious now too. I consider it deserving of a gold medal if I was judging it in a competition, so award it 91/100 points – it gains points for being great value and seductive.

All in all 2012 was a great year for Quentin Sadler’s Wine Pages. I hope you enjoyed reading my thoughts and that you found it useful and some of you tried the wines that I wrote about. Please keep coming back in 2013 and do leave comments – it is always nice to hear from you.

 

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