Modern Greek wines are terrific! They couldn’t be further from the taverna plonk that still floods the (non-Greek) collective imagination, a connection that’s as hard for the country to shake as those resilient straw-covered Chianti flasks are for Italy. I recently visited a handful of mainland Greece’s most interesting wineries — the country produces 0.8 percent of Europe’s wines — and was impressed by what I saw and tasted. (See my Zester article on Greek vineyard food). The wine estates were selected by George Spiliadis, whose family runs the Milos restaurants in New York, Montreal and Athens, which specialize in pared-down Greek dishes made with fine Mediterranean ingredients.
Macedonia: Out of Thessaloniki
From our first base, near the bustling port of Thessaloniki, it’s just a short hop to Domaine Gerovassiliou, in the quiet coastal hills of Epanomi. Vangelis and Sonia Gerovassiliou have created a stylish venue for their winery. The handsome buildings are surrounded by well-kept vineyards whose gentle slopes facilitate mechanization. Below the modern tasting rooms, their wine museum displays a unique collection of rare artifacts, including clay amphors from 500 B.C., beautifully decorated wine vases from the Greek symposia, and Vangelis’ extensive, and eclectic collection of over 2,000 corkscrews. (One features the legs of a cancan dancer, another is shaped like a gentleman’s walking stick.)
“Grapes have been grown around here since the Turkish occupation in the 17th century, when they were used to pay taxes,” Vangelis explains as we walk through neat rows of vines. “Eighty percent of our market is within Greece; the Greeks are keen to drink international varieties such as sauvignon blanc, viognier and syrah.” From its 56 hectares (about 138 acres) of vineyards, the estate produces a portfolio of 10 wines, primarily white. There are several award winners among them. “In Greece the average size of wine estates is less than one hectare,” says Vangelis. “So ours is considered medium-sized.”
At Gerovassiliou, I had my first sips of some of Greece’s most interesting native whites: malagousia, in both a dry mineral version with hints of citrus and exotic fruits and as a delicious late-harvest dessert wine, and assyrtico, a crisp refreshing varietal made with a grape originally from Santorini. Gerovassiliou also makes a successful red wine, Avaton, from the lesser-known varieties limnio, mavroudi and mavrotragano.
Gerovassiliou trained in Bordeaux as a winemaker and has maintained his links with the region. Denis Dubourdieu, professor of oenology at Bordeaux University and one of the country’s most sought-after experts on white wines, is a friend and occasional consultant. Dubourdieu’s associate, Christophe Ollivier, has a more constant role here and at the Gerovassilious’ other wine estate: Biblia Chora. In 2001, with fellow winemaker Vassilis Tsaktsarlis, Gerovassiliou began building an imposing winery in the hills of Kokkinochori, near Kavala in eastern Macedonia, just 50 kilometers (about 31 miles) from the Turkish border. Biblia Chora is situated under Mount Pangeon, at 300 meters (about 984 feet) of altitude, and is now producing wines made from 35 hectares of vines planted in 1998.
At Biblia Chora, as at Gerovassiliou, the wines are made in a clean, modern style. The current collection comprises eight wines made with both international and indigenous grape varieties. Assyrtico is paired with sauvignon blanc and with semillon. It is also vinified alone in one of the estate’s two organic wines, Areti. The organic red is made of agiorghitiko, a varietal from Nemea in the Peloponnese that Biblia Chora introduced to Macedonia. The wine is characterized by its rich color, soft tannins and a floral, feminine nose of cherries and violets.
Up Mount Olympus
The winding drive to the Katsaros estate on the lower slopes of Mount Olympus, the home of the gods in Greek mythology, is exciting for anyone interested in how grapevines in Greece fare in more extreme conditions. Mount Olympus is Greece’s highest mountain, has 52 peaks, and is located on the border between Macedonia and Thessali. The Katsaros family’s house and small winery are perched at 817 meters (about 2,680 feet), and command sweeping views over hills and valleys to the sea. Here Dimitrios Katsaros has carved out nine hectares of vineyards in 21 small, irregular-shaped parcels nestled in the mountainside.
At first I was disappointed not to find indigenous grapes in these fantastic vineyards, but rather chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and merlot. “When we started planting, in the early 1980s, we looked for varieties that could adapt to this climate,” says Dimitrios. “The French grapes took to it well and at that time our idea was just to make a little wine for our friends and families.” With his son, Evripidis, who has studied oenology in France, Dimitrios is now experimenting with native grapes for future planting.
“Up here there is no way to work the vines mechanically,” explains Evripidis as we visit a parcel planted on a steep terrace. “We do all the vineyard work by hand, which makes for higher production costs.” The wines gain elegance and minerality from the altitude. In the small, vaulted and frescoed cellar below the house, they are aged in barrels.
Et in Arcadia ego
That enigmatic phrase, “even in Arcadia I exist,” is the title of two paintings by Nicolas Poussin and a reminder of my former life as an art historian. It kept coming to mind as we wove our way from Athens up into the bucolic, unspoiled center of the Pelopponese peninsula. Modern Arcadia can’t be that different from the archaic version: tiny rustic villages with farmers still tending their flocks and fields by hand took us back to another era. The charismatic Yiannis Tselepos had the vision to create his wine estate here, working almost exclusively with native grape varieties. In a land this old, how could it be any other way?
“This hilly terrain, in what is known as Mantinìa, is where most of the white moschofilero is produced,” says the affable Tselepos as he drives his Jeep up to a breathtaking plateau at 800 meters (about 2,624 feet) where he has restored an ancient stone mill and chapel. All around are vineyards framed by scenery noble enough to appear in the landscapes of Poussin or Claude Lorrain. “When we began here, in the 1980s, no one was interested in Greek varieties,” Tselepos says. “We planted some international grapes too, to get started, but our production now is focused primarily on showing that Greek varieties, when well made, can deliver fantastic wines.” Tselepos, who also has vineyards of red agiorghitiko in the Nemea wine area nearby, was a pioneering independent winemaker. Now other producers have followed his example and the area is making a name for its wines.
Tselepos produces moschofilero, known for its citrus notes and crisp acidity, in both traditional and more modern styles: He even makes a sparkling wine with it. “Not to compete with champagne, but to give a different approach,” he says. “Moschofilero’s acidity helps retain its elegance and aromatic freshness. Having a modern cellar is important, but it’s from the vineyards that your personality can emerge.”
Down to the coast: Patras
In the Middle Ages, the trade in malvasia grapes started in the Peloponnese but vines are believed to have been cultivated here for over 7,000 years. Coming down from the crisp air of the mountains, the change in climate was dramatic: the small port of Patras (winner of the coveted European Capital of Culture title in 2006) was balmy and warm. Here, in the low slopes above the sea, the Parparoussis family grow vines around their historic villa and cellars in a garden that seems exotically tropical. Thanassis Parparoussis’ wines are for enthusiasts of stylistic originality. Even their names suggest complexity and an uncompromising search for authenticity: “The Gift of Dionysos” is a crisp white wine with lovely length made from the rarely found, rosy-skinned sideritis grape. Parparoussis grows many of his vines as traditional, free-standing bushes, and uses only indigenous yeasts in the cellar. His Nemean Reserve made with agiorghitiko (the 2004 is the current release) shows the grape’s potential for aging gracefully and delivers both warmth and elegance on the palate. The aromatic 2005 Rio Patras Muscat, with notes of Mediterranean herbs and burnished caramel, provided a fitting close to an exciting week of wine discovery.
Carla Capalbo is an award-winning food, wine and travel writer, as well as a photographer, based in Italy for more than 20 years. She writes regularly for magazines and newspapers, including Decanter, BBC Olive, The Independent, World of Fine Wine, Bon Appétit, Departures, Food & Wine. She is a long-time member of Slow Food, the Guild of Food Writers and the Circle of Wine Writers and has won Italy’s Luigi Veronelli prize for best foreign food writer. Her articles have been included in anthologies Best Food Writing 2011 and How the British Fell in Love with Food. Carla is a co-organizer of Cook it Raw, an itinerant think tank featuring top international chefs. In 2006, she and designer Robert Myers were awarded a gold medal at the London Chelsea Flower Show for the Costiera dei Fiori garden she produced for the Campania region.
Carla was born in New York City to a theatrical family and brought up in Paris and London. After getting a degree in art history, she made sculpture in London, wrote about design, and later worked in Manhattan as a food and interiors stylist for photography, for clients that included the New York Times. She moved to Italy in 1989 and worked as the Milan correspondent for Vogue Décoration before writing her first cookbooks on Italian food. Her spirit of adventure led her to undertake three personal and detailed guides to the food and wine culture of Italy. The first was The Food and Wine Lover’s Companion to Tuscany which took three years to research and write (Chronicle Books, 1998, shortlisted for Food Book of the Year by the Guild of Food Writers).
It was followed by another three-year project: The Food and Wine Guide to Naples and Campania (Pallas Athene, 2005) which was illustrated with her photos. To write it, Carla lived in fishing villages and mountain communities in diverse parts of the large region to meet and write about the many restaurants and small food artisans of Campania. Her most recent book, Collio: Fine Wines and Foods from Italy’s North-east (Pallas Athene, 2009-10) is also richly illustrated; it won the coveted André Simon Award for Best Wine Book 2009. Her other books include Cheeses of the Amalfi Coast and The Ultimate Italian Cookbook. Carla divides her time between Italy, Bordeaux, London and further afield. When she has time, she leads food and wine tours in Italy and France.
Her travelog, Assaggi, has just begun on her newly launched website: www.carlacapalbo.com.
Top photo: Biblia Chora vineyard in eastern Macedonia with row of malagousia grapes, also spelled “malagouzia” in Greece.
Photo and slideshow credit: Carla Capalbo