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