From Burgundy to Coonawarra, Macedonian producers are seeking parallels, and attempting to give order to their terroirs. SUSAN KEEVIL outlines the regions and their styles
Nobody’s quite sure yet what goes where and which grapes suit which patch of the Macedonian countryside the best. Nor has anyone discovered which of this land’s cooling breezes – from the mountains, the lakes or the sea – have the best effect on the sun-baked vineyards: ask any producer and he’ll claim the superiority of his own. But since the 1970s the winemakers and viticulturalists of this part of Greece have been working hard to catch up with their European counterparts and have so far come up with two appellations making a flavoursome splash, and five other regions defending their individuality.
‘AC’ Naoussa is the region you’ll undoubtedly hear about first, and its permitted grape variety, Xinomavro. Naoussa is on a cluster of rolling Chianti-shire hillocks that become densely forested as the terrain gets higher – running streams and mills earn this area the title ‘Manchester of Greece’ for its textile industry. But when it comes to the wines, the only fair comparisons lie in Burgundy and Piedmont. Xinomavro is as difficult to tame as Pinot Noir or Nebbiolo, with the juicy soft fruit of the former (strawberries) and the feisty tannic-acid structure of the latter. Plus there’s another characteristic that’ll ensure anyone can spot this region’s wines ‘a mile off’: tomatoes.
Benchmark Xinomavro – the ‘Naoussa’ of Naoussas – comes from the Macedonian Domaine (Ktima) Kyr-Yianni. Take a good year such as 1994 and the wine’s turned tawny in the glass, gained quince-jelly and fig on the nose, with spicy acidity, truffles, caramel, strawberries and, always, tomatoes on the palate. All in perfect harmony.
A few years younger – 2001 for example – and the tomatoes will be standing proud, surrounded perhaps by a few notes of tobacco and black olive, with a whack of acidity. This is a wine to buy for its complexity, not for its youthful puppyfat, same as any Barolo.
‘I search my soul and say this grape cannot make a big New World-style red,’ says winemaker Michaelis Boutaris. ‘It’s great locally, with local food, but abroad it’s a different matter. We’d have to refine it more, make it more fruit-forward. It’s not that we’ve changed the style completely, just created a spin-off.’
Spin-off Xinomavro includes such versions as those with added Merlot or added Syrah and those barrel-fermented in American oak, but the best are those gaining richness from lower yields, higher juice concentration. A domaine accepting high-yield fruit will make a wine with acidity that stands out crisply, and less flesh to balance it. Coop Vaeni’s wines taste a bit like sharp young Nebbiolo for just this reason. But Kimis Chrisohoou offers more hope that basic quality is improving: ‘Back in the 1970s they started growing Xinomavro grapes but only had big tractors to harvest them, so 2.5m between the rows was normal. The vines weren’t dense enough. Lately there have been smaller tractors and it’s gone from 2,650 plants per hectare to more than 3,000 – much better!’ Yields are suddenly lower and the wines are improving.
Yannis Voyatsi of Domaine Boutari argues instead that, ‘the real turning point for Xinomavro came with new methods of winemaking. We need to extract colour fast and take care not to cross that fine line when the tannins get too bitter; this means we have to cool the ferments to 26?C and make sure they stop fermenting at just the right moment. And we always carry out a malolactic fermentation to control the acidity.’
Naoussa is also renowned for its Syrah and white wines from Roditis, Sauvignon and Gewürztraminer – all classified as ‘table wines’. Michaelis Boutaris compares his Roditis with Moscophilero (another white grape, popular further south): ‘But this is more robust, you can drink it with real food – even grilled oysters, strong flavours like that.’
The second great Macedonian appellation is Goumenissa. Once famed for its wine and silk production it was literally put out of business by the arrival of cheap Chinese silk and phylloxera in 1917/18. The region nonetheless remained heavily agricultural (cotton, wheat, watermelons) and, after the war, attracted refugees from Turkey and Bulgaria. The Bulgarians, being keen wine growers, recognised the area’s viticultural assets and started the business up again.
In the 1970s the Macedonian firm Boutari began planting vines here and in 1974 (three years after Naoussa) the region gained its own appellation, with Xinomavro again, but this time with added (20% minimum) Negoska. Negoska is a Greek ameliorator: it has mulberries instead of Merlot’s cherries but the effect it has on Xinomavro is just the same (softening the tannins, lightening the acidity and boosting the colour). ‘The only doctor for Xinomavro is time… that or another grape variety,’ is Thomas Ligas’ maxim.
Anyone looking for classic ‘Goumenissa’ should visit Domaine Tatsis. Be amazed by the winery (there are bigger tool sheds) and be doubly wowed by the wines. Brothers Stergios and Pericles reckon their region offers softer wines and ‘a better capacity for aromatics’ than Naoussa. This not only shows through in their white Roditis, but also in the Goumenissa itself, which has an added wild character on the nose, plus smoother, silkier fruit (still tomatoey) than you’d find in Naoussa.
Another clue to Goumenissa aromatics could be in the cooling breezes that sweep down the River Vardaris from the Paiko Mountains.
But if mountain climates are good, then Mount Olympos and Mount Athos each have a lot to offer too. Both are renowned for their chunky grand vin reds – perhaps the most revered in Greece in terms of the modern, Parker-pointed, extracted style – sharing perhaps common terroir traits with the mountainside vineyards of Napa.
Olympos vineyards lie in patches here and there on ancient terraces at anything up to 600m above sea level. Tsantali’s Rapsani and the Cabernet-Merlot blends from Domaine Katsaros are benchmark wines. The Katsaros blends are full of minty cherry fruit, with a complex structure. Rapsani Reserve and Grand Reserve are made from three indigenous varietals: Xinomavro, Stavroto and Krassato; the latter two are native to this area only and give the wines a burly, nutty mouthfeel.
Mount Athos is on the Athos peninsula, property of a strict sect of monks who stipulate that only men may tread on their hallowed turf, so this author has little sense of what makes the wines the way they are. One thing’s for certain, however: they’re concentrated and gutsy.
ALONG THE COAST
Macedonian coastal wines are still in their infancy. At Kavala, halfway between Thessaloniki and Thrace, the Oinopedion winery is breaking into a new and barren region with hopes of it becoming the next, say, Gigondas – a soil full of rough stones, which reflect the heat and drain the land after rain. Yields are low here, the air is cool (at 300m), and optimism is high.
Further along the Macedonian coastline, right on the Turkish border, is Tsantali’s Maronia Winery. It’s too early to say where the winemaking’s going here, but the red iron-rich soils bode well for red grapes, reminiscent as they are of Australian red earth in Coonawarra. Tsantali hopes that one day the wines will be as good.
They’d also like to plant the same varieties that Odysseus is said to have tasted, but no positive grape ID has so far been made from relic pips in the ancient stone crushing troughs found in the foothills, so they’re sticking with Limnio, Aghiorghitiko and Cabernet instead.
At Epanomi, back in the east, Macedonian Domaine Gerovassiliou (again, the only winery in the region) has a longer track record – the underlying soils have been known for their fruit and vine potential since Byzantine times. Today, however, the international varieties dominate, and the wines show concentrated vibrancy and more power than wines from France or Spain, more definition than wines from Australia or Chile. Viognier develops the sweetest quince and green apple character and Syrah is outstanding (Gerovassiliou’s has savoury sour-cherry fruit and soft, silky tannins). But here there’s twice the breeze – from the Gulf of Thessaloniki and from Mount Olympos – and maybe, both climatically and fashionably, the wines are simply twice as cool!