If it were possible to give an entire country an award, our Rising Star would in all likelihood be named as Greece. The country’s winemaking has made enormous strides, and it is now producing truly world-class wines. Much credit for its increased profile on the global stage should go to one person, though, who is the very worthy winner of this year’s Rising Star award.
Apostolos Thymiopoulos, based in Naoussa in Macedonia, northern Greece, is far more than a fabulously talented winemaker. He has become the ambassador for Greece’s new wines and winemakers, taking Greece beyond the southern Mediterranean and establishing it on international markets. Further, he has done this through his transformation of Xinomavro, a red grape likely unfamiliar to most, and seen as overwhelmingly tannic by many of those who have come across it. Thymiopoulos has propelled the hitherto relatively obscure region of Naoussa and its formerly unloved grape variety to success in global markets; it’s an exceptional achievement.
Thymiopoulos was the first in his family to bottle the wine from their grapes. He had worked in the vineyards from an early age. ‘I always wanted to work on the family farm,’ he recalls. ‘As a teenager I was fascinated by wine and wondered why we always sold our grapes on. At high school I discovered that I could study winemaking at Athens University, and that way I’d be equipped to make wines.’ His long-term UK importer, Mary Pateras of Eclectic Wines, says: ‘There was no plan B – it was oenology or nothing.’
After university, Thymiopoulos opened a wine shop in Thessaloniki. The access this gave him to fine wines from elsewhere in Greece and beyond, and to understanding consumer demand, was to be a key influence. But after his father and brother died in quick succession, he closed the shop to work full-time in the family winery.
From small beginnings
Earth and Sky had been his first release in 2005 (vintage 2003). ‘In 2008,’ recalls Pateras, ‘we were importing the wines of Haridimos Hatzidakis, from Santorini, and he suggested we go and see Apostolos. We met, shook hands, and our first order was 20 dozen. He told us that he was happy to start small, he just wanted a presence in the UK.’ Today he sells ‘pallets and pallets’, but it illustrates his determination to develop international markets from the beginning.
The wine shop was a key influence, and so too was Hatzidakis. He died far too young in 2017, aged just 50, but he had been Greece’s most influential winemaker – an inspiration to a generation of terroir-focused winemakers. The pair were firm friends. Together they would holiday in France and Italy along with their importer, visiting biodynamic producers, eating and drinking well, and picking up new ideas.
Thymiopoulos, as Hatzidakis did, farms biodynamically. He also follows the non-interventionist agricultural practices of the late Japanese thinker Masanobu Fukuoka. It may be
that Thymiopoulos studied winemaking, but his inspiration is the soil. His life is mostly spent in the car, travelling between vineyards. Visitors will always catch up with him in a car. My last rendezvous with him was at a roundabout…
Thymiopoulos’ restless energy is in contrast to the elegance of his wines. Ben Greene, of UK merchant Wine & Greene, says: ‘His signature is harmony, a fine balance, and tannin management.’ He adds: ‘He’s a lovely guy.’ Charlie Young of London wine bar group Vinoteca remembers meeting Thymiopoulos in Greece about six years ago. ‘There was energy and excitement about him,’ he recalls. ‘The wines we tried were knockout. His wines are an easy sell because people always love them. We pitch the Xinomavro like many others do – somewhere between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir – yet it’s very much its own thing.’
What lies ahead for our 2022 Decanter Rising Star? He has expanded his winery and populated it with concrete eggs and amphorae, as well as his preferred larger-size oak. Rosés have entered his repertoire: ‘I felt a good rosé has great potential to be a gastronomic wine, and not just a marketing product to save money. Domaine Tempier from Bandol is my favourite, and the Viña Tondonia Rioja rosado inspires me to be brave and daring.’
Matthew Horsley, wine buyer at The Wine Society, talks of his ‘now legendary rosés, which have wowed people again and again’, describing Thymiopoulos’ wines as being ‘of impeccable elegance and authenticity’. They are ‘not just up there with the finest wines in Greece’, Horsley says, ‘but can stand proudly among the finest wines in the world’. Thymiopoulos will continue to build on the success of the late-release rosé Xinomavro with a forthcoming late-release white. He’s also considering a blanc de noirs sparkling.
‘It should be said that Apostolos Thymiopoulos isn’t just a great winemaker, he’s also a great person,’ Horsley sums up. ‘Incredibly kind, impossibly generous and tireless in his pursuit of excellence. Simply put, he’s a joy to work with.’
Apostolos Thymiopoulos: Five winemakers and what they taught me
‘When I opened my shop in Thessaloniki, I had no real knowledge of the world of wine, and everything was exciting, a discovery,’ says Apostolos Thymiopoulos. ‘When customers bought wines, I would always ask them what had influenced their choice, in order to get first-hand experience of the market. Today, when I’m with friends and family they always ask me to choose. Normally I’ll select organic wines for their purity and the way they reflect the winemaker’s expertise. I have winemaker friends all over the world. The five I name below have taught me so much, whether with a specific wine, or for their overall philosophy.’
Christophe Roumier, Burgundy:
‘I discovered Christophe’s Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses during a memorable tasting at the winery some years ago. He made me understand how important it is to make good use of the barrels to get the very best of a terroir that gives different fruit character every year, depending on the weather conditions.’
Jacques Selosse, Champagne:
‘From Jacques, I learned patience – a value that I appreciate in each of his wines.’
Jean-François Ganevat, Jura:
‘This estate’s wines encouraged me to push my own limits and, above all, never to stop experimenting.’
Domaine Gramenon, Rhône:
‘At Philippe Pinoteau’s restaurant Le Baratin in Paris, I discovered La Mémé, Côtes du Rhône rouge, which taught me to respect the fruit during winemaking and to express this
in the wines I produce.’
Haridimos Hatzidakis, Santorini:
‘Haridimos taught me how to extract freshness from fire – that is, how to produce wines with freshness and finesse from a hot volcanic terroir.’