Olympic Performers

To celebrate the Olympic Games’ long-awaited return to their spiritual home,
NICO MANESSIS chooses his selection of Greece’s gold standard wineries, and predicts the stars of tomorrow

WHILE THE OLD World has been emulating the New World by picking riper grapes, and the New World has responded by putting more terroir into its wines, Greek wine over the past two decades has been quietly re-inventing itself. Today, Greece has become a serious producer of modern, diffferent, exciting ‘new’ wines.

Wine always had a special place in ancient Greece, and the fundamentals were already in place for a modern Greek wine renaissance. Today’s Greek wine profile is shaped by the country’s varied mainland and island vineyards. Its mountainous terrain, with steep slopes and high-altitude vineyards, compensates for its southerly latitude. Blessed with a mild, cooling maritime climate, the island and shore-line wine-producing regions display markedly different mesoclimates. The tapestry of soils is a winemaker’s dream and some of the finest Greek terroirs include limestone, clay, schist, loam, marl, volcanic ashes and sand. Add to this the 300-odd native grape varieties there are to play with, and you have the basis for a fabulous wine-producing country.

The arrival of trained technicians and oenologists, plus investment in new boutique wineries establishing the notion of estates, has allowed producers to better understand the relationship between vineyards and wineries, and the true potential of this bond is now being realised. ‘Star’ red varieties such as Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko are better understood, and the collected data is used to accentuate their unmistakable characteristics even further.

Indeed, Greece now produces wines with personality, elegance and, above all, with a sense of place. Noted for their balance and natural freshness, they are ideal food-oriented wines. So in the spirit of the Athens Olympic Games, here are my wine gold-medal winners, arranged, broadly, from north to south.

Ktima Gerovassiliou

In 1974 Emile Peynaud chose the 23-year-old Vangelis Gerovassiliou to manage Chateau Carras, a position he held for 23 consecutive harvests. During this time Gerovassiliou had also been building up his estate in the undulating hills of Epanomi, near Thessaloniki, where he created his leading ktima (estate) white by blending the crisp Assyrtiko with the then obscure, semi-aromatic Malagousia; it is still one of the benchmarks of modern Greek whites. He also produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier ‘to show what we can achieve with cosmopolitan grapes’, while his red ktima is a blend of Merlot and Syrah. Having brought Malagousia (Greece’s answer to Viognier) out of obscurity, the restless producer has turned his attention to old Greek red varieties.

Avaton 2002 was the first vintage made with the local Mavroudi and Limnio grapes, while from Santorini comes the rare red Mavrotragano (‘black-crunchy’). No doubt more surprises lurk among the 600 barrels that fill his cellars.

Malagousia 2003 ****

Peachy-apricot fragrances follow through on the palate. Full and radiant expression shored up by 15% Assyrtiko. A stand out. £8.54; Vkb

Samos CoOperative Union

The northerly exposed, densely planted terraces of this verdant island are in a class of their own. The fortified Grand Cru, a vin doux at 15% alcohol, is the top-selling Greek wine in France. Nectar, from sun-dried grapes, at 14% alcohol, is a naturally sweet wine, and a fresher rendition. But the one that’s collecting all the medals and disctinctions is the cask-aged Anthemis, currently the 1999. This amber-gold liquid is one of the great dessert wines and there is no doubt that this island vineyard is a real goldmine.

Anthemis 1999 *****

Amber-golden. Restrained Muscat scents. Deeply layered velvet palate with raisins and honey. Very long poised finish. Class. Whispering not shouting. £8.45; EcW, WSo

Oenoforos

Angelos Rouvalis is the founder and driving force behind this winery, which overlooks the Gulf of Corinth. From the pink-skinned Roditis grape, raised high (600–850m) among the pine forests and canyons of Egialia, his Asprolithi wine, a Patras appellation, has never put a foot wrong. A light and insistent crisp, dry white (11.5% alcohol), combining a hint of peardrops from the Roditis grape with the minerality of Egio’s high, north-facing terroir, it has moved with the times.

Oenologist Tassos Drossiadis has managed to extract the best from the elegant Lagorthi grape which Rouvalis took a gamble on. Another indigenous variety that was saved from near-certain extinction, it packs immense flavour into a wine of only 11% alcohol. More recently, Riesling (‘Well, it is the finest,’ says Rouvalis) and Syrah have swelled the ranks, both with equally impressive results.

Asprolithi 2003 ****

Best yet, now with 10% skin contact. Green apple with citrus. Tasty acidity with a flintstone-lemony aftertaste. Delicate.

N/A UK; Tel: +30 2691 029 415

Gaia Wines

Partners Leon Karatsalos, agronomist, and oenologist Yannis Paraskevopoulos have created an enviable track record for exports from this cutting-edge producer. Putting their faith wholly in indigenous grape varieties, they have built two wineries in very diverse regions. On the volcanic island of Santorini they established the mineral-laden, bone-dry white Thallasitis label as a cult wine, much of it exported. And at Koutsi, a sub-region of high Nemea (the largest red wine appellation), they have cemented their reputation. Their fun red wine Notios became a runaway success in the UK, certain US states, Sweden, Japan and Belgium, among other markets.

Gaia Estate, the flagship, packs black-cherry overtones with silky-smooth tannins. It is bottled unfiltered and the maiden 1997 vintage shot to national prominence after scooping up all three categories at the 1998 Thessaloniki International Competition.

Notios 2003 ***

Forget the Gaia Estate flagship. If it’s fun you’re after, try this prototype of the modern Greek red. Brimming with black cherries and soft tannins. Up to 2005. £11.39 (2001); Odd

Ktima Mercouri

Built in 1860, this villa and farm, with vines and olive groves overlooking the Ionian sea, would not be out of place in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Adjacent to Fia, the port of ancient Olympia (birthplace of the Olympic Games), this winery has an atmosphere reminiscent of a Tuscan seaside resort.

In the early 1990s the descendants of founder Theodore Mercouri started to vinify their Refosco and Mavrodaphne grapes, which hitherto had been sold off to a Patras merchant. The 1993 vintage showed great potential while the 1997 Lot 1, a cooler vintage, raised the bar even higher and remains a highlight. The 2001 Ktima Mercouri retains all the warmth, vinosity and spice of this estate, and is garnering both praise and commercial success.

Ktima Mercouri 2001 ****

Cardamom-like spice, riper tannins. Vinous. Gently oaked finish. Closed. Time will bring more complexity. 2005-09 £8.65; Vkb

Tselepos Vineyards & Winery

In the middle of the Peloponnese lies the appellation of Mantinia, a plateau of vineyards at 650m altitude and home to the late-ripening (mid October), semi-aromatic, high-acidity blanc de gris grape Moschofilero.

Yannis Tselepos, a Greek Cypriot and a Dijon-trained oenologist, has emerged as the leading winemaker in this up-and-coming region. As there is no indigenous red grape tradition, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon were planted instead. Of the two, the more successful has been the single-vineyard cuvée Kokkinomylos Merlot.

A convincing Gewurztraminer and an improving méthode classique sparkling wine are more recent additions. But the star is the Tselepos Mantinia, of which the 2003 vintage is the richest and most aromatic to date, with a rose petals and lychee nose and a smoky finish. Thai food anyone?

Mantinia 2003 ****

Rarely does Mantinia come this ripe. Copper hues. Rose petals, lychee and smoky ‘gris’ fruit on the palate. £6.84; Vkb

Sigalas

Paris Sigalas is an intellectual – while travelling on a roadshow he’ll often have his head buried in the classics. But his crisp, terroir-packed wines from this dramatic, volcanic island are anything but antiquated, and the severe Santorini Oia and the richer, cask-fermented Sigalas Oia Bareli are among the island’s top performers.

Oia Bareli is the first Greek wine to be listed at Alain Ducasse’s Spoon restaurants. If ever there was a food wine that can handle almost anything hurled at it this, with its minerality, salinity and lees-richness, is surely the one. Like all the island’s other wines, it is made from 80-year-old ungrafted Assyrtiko vines, pruned in a basket shape that’s unique to Santorini.

Santorini Oia 2003 ****

The most balanced vintage of this wine in a decade. Summer herbs. Vibrant fruit and minerality with a hint of salinity. Rich tasting. £8.20; Vkb

Tomorrow’s Golds

Biblia Hora

Oenologist Vassilis Tsaktsarlis and star winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou have joined forces in what has become one of the most coveted new addresses, in the foothills (380–450m) of Mount Pangeo at Kokkinohori, east of Thessaloniki. Thorough planning has gone into matching soils – theirs is rich in oxides, has a limestone bedrock and, in places, a gravel topsoil – to varieties. At higher elevations – ‘where it is cooler at night’, says Tsaktsarlis – Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and, new to the region, Agiorgitiko have been planted. ‘Assyrtiko and Sauvignon Blanc have been planted in the lower-altitude, more fertile soils,’ he continues. A total of 30ha (hectares) of vines will eventually come onstream. The 2003 white is a 60/40 blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Assyrtiko, and is the emergent top wine: the exuberant fruit comes from the Sauvignon Blanc, while the Assyrtiko gives structure with minerality and acidity.

Though it is a winning combination, Tsaktsarlis says that in future the main focus of the estate will be on reds. He comments: ‘I am looking to highlight our varied terroir. Agiorgitiko here is more floral. It reminds me at this stage more of Pinot Noir than of what is coming out of Nemea.’ After tasting their tanks and casks in late spring 2004, there is no doubt that these sprawling vineyards and villa-like winery are a promising new discovery – or rediscovery: the location of this 21st-century investment was known during the Ottoman era as palia-ambelia (old vineyards).

Biblia Hora 2003 ****

Crisp cassis on the nose. Lively attack. Mineral frame. Depth. Finesse on the fruity-intense finish. From £8.99; Ame, Bth, BWC, CeD, EcW, Hax, Wmb

Alpha Estate

This 33ha estate is the most talked-about new venture in Amynteon, northwest Macedonia. The region’s semi-continental climate experiences heavy snowfalls in January and February. A longer than usual start-up period, with no harvest in the third and fourth ‘leaf’, is a first for Greece. The soils are 80–90% high-drainage sand, and irrigation management is crucial.

Traditionally this is Xinomavro country, but 25% of this estate is planted to Sauvignon Blanc. The balance of red grapes is made up of Xinomavro, Syrah and Merlot. Yields are 20hl/ha for the white, 23hl/ha for red. Nocturnal temperatures here drop to 12?C, and into single figures closer to harvest.

However good the white, the star in the making is the red. The 2002 shows a pretty, floral nose from Syrah, plus colour and roundness from the Merlot, all wrapped up in the tell-tale tannic backbone and acidity of Xinomavro. The 2003, tasted in cask in May 2004, is in a different league entirely, and confirms this ambitious newcomer’s commitment towards the next step in Greek wine.

Alpha Estate 2002 ****

All spice. Red berry syrah freshness. Ripe fine-grained tannins. Integrated oak. Best decanted. 2007-10.

N/A UK; tel: +30 2310 498 282

Nico Manessis is a world-leading expert on Greek wines. He is the author of The Illustrated Greek Wine Book (Olive Press). Visit www.greekwineguide.gr for more information