Remote vineyards and ancient monuments make this region the ideal destination for a wine-lovers’ road trip. Just don’t forget to fill up, says Sarah Jane Evans MW
Total planted area: 21,000ha (hectares)
Main grape varieties: Roditis (7,200ha), Aghiorghitiko (2,700ha), Savatiano (950ha), Moschofilero (750ha)
Production in 2011: 1.6million hl, 75% sold as bottled wine
Main soil types: very diverse – clay, limestone, sandstone, alluvial and some schist
World-class monuments, indigenous grape varieties, mountains and monasteries, glorious beaches, the freshest of feta cheese, almost empty roads – the Peloponnese is the ideal wine lover’s holiday. Every day brings history and hospitality. Dotted around are vineyards so well integrated into the dramatic countryside that there is none of the monovarietal overkill that has spoiled so many parts of the world. In general, too, there are many smaller-scale family businesses, which means there’s a good chance of meeting the owner or a relative. Everything about the Peloponnese – except the mountains – is on a human scale.
Stunning hill country
Accessibility is on your side as there’s no need to take a ferry to an island. Island holidays may be romantic, but as the Greeks will tell you, the ferries are becoming more expensive and their quality is falling. It’s much easier to pick up a car and take the highway out of Athens over the Corinth Canal.
In half an hour the first hills come into view. The region has seven mountains of 2,000m or more. Drive towards Nafplio, a favourite weekend spot for Athenians, and you are in Nemea, home to the red grape variety St George, or Aghiorghitiko – Greece’s most widely planted red. Its small, thick-skinned berries give rich, red fruits and some spiciness. It works successfully as a rosé, as a Beaujolais Nouveau style, as well as blended with Cabernet Sauvignon to make a structured wine.
There’s plenty of talk about sub-regions in Nemea. Winemakers with vineyards in the hillside region of Koutsi claim it’s a cru, as do those on the Asprokambos plateau, at about 800m in altitude.
It would be easy to visit all the Nemean wineries in a day or two. Allow Nafplio to delay you with its shops, its Venetian fortification in the harbour, the beach at Tolo and its monuments, notably the ancient cities of Mycenae and Tiryns. I first visited Mycenae as a classics student. It astonished me back then, but the amount of archaeological discovery since is remarkable – try to get there as soon as the gates open to have the site to yourself.
West of Nafplio lies Mantineia, where the white Moschofilero variety dominates. As aromatic and delicate as its name suggests, it makes a relatively low-alcohol white that’s perfect drinking in a hot summer. Then continue past Tripoli and ancient olive groves to the Byzantine island citadel of Monemvasia. It’s breathtaking the way the tiny town clings to the side of the great rock. Legend has it that the Malvasia grape was named after the island and that the Venetian occupiers took the vines around the Mediterranean. The new appellation of Malvasia of Monemvasia (for sweet wines from sun-dried grapes aged at least two years in oak) began with the 2010 vintage, but no wines have been released yet.
Enjoy the local wines in a taverna, accompanied by a savoury pastry filled with wild greens, or a pork casserole with a lemon and potato sauce. This region has a selection of grape varieties of its own, including the golden Kidonitsa (‘little quince’), Asproudi (‘little white’) and red Mavroudi (‘little black’).
From here, you can either return to Athens, or take the dramatic road over the Taygetos mountains to the west coast via Kalamata. There’s a great opportunity to discover the windy, coastal vineyards being revived. Visit the historic fishing village of Pylos and the unspoilt almost circular Voidokilia (‘bull’s belly’) beach.
If you have time to enjoy a few more days here, drive north towards Pyrgos, making a detour to the Temple of Apollo at Bassae. The Mercouri Estate (www.mercouri.gr) offers a warm welcome and is interesting for its Italian varieties including Refosco and Ribolla Giala. Continuing north brings you to Mavrodaphne and Muscat of Patras – vins doux and vins doux naturels. Mavrodaphne is one of the most well-known names of Greece, but – like Retsina – not always for the best reasons. Worth a detour is Antonopoulos near Patras, with its successful blends of native and international varieties.
Spring is a wonderful time to visit Greece, when the countryside is in flower and before it gets too hot. In 2014 the Greek Orthodox Easter coincides with ours, on 20 April. In autumn the summer crowds have dissipated and it’s a more relaxing time to visit the monuments and vineyards alike.
How to get there:
By plane: British Airways flies to Athens from London Heathrow. Easy Jet starts flights twice weekly to Kalamata from 6 July from London Gatwick. Flight time 3hrs 40mins.
Written by Sarah Jane Evans MW
Peloponnese: Six of the best wineries to visit
Founded in 1979, Semeli’s Domaine Helios winery sits at 600m in the highly prized Koutsi region, with superb views. Welcoming to visitors, it offers a good range of Greek varieties and you can stay here.
George Skouras launched his pioneering label Mega Oenos in 1988, the first to blend Cabernet with Aghiorghitiko, followed by his Viognier Eclectique and Dum Vinum Sperum Chardonnay. Labyrinth, a special blend, is topped up, solera style, every year.
This award-winning modern winery is just 15 minutes the other side of the airport from Athens. There’s a chance to discover fresh Savatiano from Attica, as well as a resinated – Retsina – version.
George Palivos, the third generation here, is an Aghiorghitiko specialist. He describes Nemea as ‘the Bordeaux of southeast Europe’. The winery is 800m from the impressive site of ancient Nemea.
Giannis Tselepos trained in Dijon, and grows Moschofilero, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Merlot and Cabernet. Tselepos Estate is 14km southeast of Tripoli near the ancient city of Tegea, in the foothills of Mount Parnon. A tour includes a little chapel in the midst of the vineyards.
In Koutsi, Nemea, Gaia produces top-quality Aghiorghitiko, showing the potential seriousness of the grape. A regular Trophy winner at the Decanter World Wine Awards, visits are by appointment.
Peloponnese: Where to stay, shop, eat and relax
Grande Bretagne Hotel
Five-star luxury in Syntagma Square, Athens, opposite Parliament. Lovely views from the rooftop restaurant, plus a spa and pools.
Small and friendly, this funky, four-star Athens hotel is just minutes from both Syntagma Square and the Plaka district.
Grande Bretagne Hotel
Nafplion has lots of pensions and small hotels. This one (different to the Grand Bretagne above) is the classic, packed with old-world charm, right on the waterfront.
Costa Navarino resort
Tucked away from it all in the southwest Peloponnese, two beachside five-star hotels – the high-end Romanos and the family-friendly Westin – have golf courses and a spa. Extensive activities are offered: Philosophical Walks led by scholars; regional cookery lessons; trips to Nestor’s Palace and Messini; weekend wine tastings with Greece’s only MW, Konstantinos Lazarakis; vineyard visits and olive-picking.
Kinsterna Hotel & Spa
Picturesque boutique hotel created out of a Byzantine mansion, with stunning views over Monemvasia and the Aegean. Set amid olives and vines, the traditional tsipouro spirit is distilled here in the autumn. There’s a spa, pool and wine tastings.
A beautiful neoclassical house in Athens with a stunning courtyard garden for summer meals, the young chef here has a formidable reputation.
Good modern food with the best view in Athens, on Lycabettus hill looking down over the Parthenon.= Take the funicular railway from Aristippou Street in Kolonaki.
In Athens, book a rooftop table for close-up views of the Parthenon. Classic dishes.
On the road from Athens airport down to Nafplion, stop at Pachi. This is authentic Greece: a small village with fishing boats, and tavernas selling the daily catch.
Tucked inside the historic town of Monemvasia this offers traditional taverna cooking, with lovely views.
3 Sixty wine bar
Nafplio’s daytime coffee-shopcum- night-time-disco, with an excellent selection of local wines.
In the Plaka quarter of Athens, there are lots of small shops selling olive oil, olives, herbs, honey and more. Best known is this one on Sofokleous St.
+30 210 3234612.
Set aside two days in Athens for visiting the key sights – the Acropolis and its museum has a good restaurant (theacropolismuseum.gr). The National Archaeological Museum houses treasures from Mycenae (www.namuseum.gr) and, close by, the Ilias Lalaounis Museum displays an astonishing collection of gold and jewellery, both historical and modern (lalaounis-jewelrymuseum.gr).