Nafplio, Greece – No matter how many times you visit Greece, no matter how traditional some of its sleepy towns may seem, there is plenty of new here. Led by a coterie of (often) French educated, worldly and dedicated winemakers, Greece's historical varieties are undergoing a remarkable makeover. Pleasant Assyrtiko is becoming rich and unctuous Assyrtiko. Pink Moschofilero has lost its color and gained floral intensity and tangy texture. Agiorgitiko has grown from soft and forgettable carafe wine to complex age-worthy vin de garde. Savatiano isn't just for Retsina anymore; Roditis isn't a throwaway pink wine either. Light, bitter and vegetal Xynomavro is becoming a powerful competitor to Italy's Nebbiolo, at least for some wine writers. I prefer to think of it as its own, very idiosyncratic man (think Ross Perot crossed with Russell Brand. Actually, don't think about that at all; that would be really weird).
But just as the culinary world has wakened up to octopus (it's popping up on menus around the country like calamari in the 1980's), the wine world is beginning to grasp that these wines are from grapes that we cannot link to any well-known grapes, and so these wines are indispensable. With continuing wine trends of higher acidity and lower alcohol as the stated goal of the industry (even if high alcohol fruit bombs still get all the press), Greece's red and white wines offer a wealth of novel tastes. And wine drinkers are nothing if not ADHD; they seem to want to try something new everyday and simply changing brands of Cabernet is no longer enough. Instead, Greece offers an entirely new set of grapes, flavors, aromas, histories and traditions of food and wine.
The new Greek wine revolution is only just now beginning and let's face it, this is the most exciting time for bona fide geeks; this time around, we get to play a role in the industry's rediscovery of the world's oldest wines. Case in point? Mount Athos, an ancient Orthodox enclave along the coast of Greece. I took a trip there a few weeks ago and returned hot, dusty, sticky and probably a little smelly. The road to Mount Athos isn't paved; the gate to the property through which we enter intended only for the vineyard workers; we've parked our cars behind the trees and scrambled through the brush. "Hurry, hurry", declares our host, " we need to hurry". I don't see anyone at all, no armed guards, but we slide through the gate and jump into a truck parked on the other side of the nearly hidden entry.
It's okay that we're here; I'm not sure why we're acting like border jumpers. You see, we're males, every one of us, so it's cool. We've left the women in our group behind in their surf and Champagne soaked misery. Gosset Rose. Some misery, huh? But Mount Athos, a religious retreat along the coast in northern Greece, is for men only. However good the wines are here, and they are good, there is one central notion that will never, ever leave the mind of the visitor: why no women?
And make no mistake, the wizened watchers over Mount Athos' traditions do not discriminate against humans only: female animals too are unwelcome here. I'm not making this stuff up; like many aspects of religion, certain ideas have taken root and no matter how bizarre the tree grows, nobody has the nerve to cut off the weirder branches. The only explanation that I'm given is that this area (no small stuff – it's about 400 square miles of someone's estrogen-free concept of heaven) was founded upon the worship of the Virgin Mary. Any whiff of womanhood, other than the two millennia old mother of god, is unwelcome and might distract from the primary focus. Nope. I couldn't make this up if I tried.
We climb a rutty blonde road; it's not paved and not in great shape. We have to maintain it ourselves, explain our hosts, the winemaking team for Tsantali Wines. The company entered a sort of marriage with one of the powers on Mount Athos in the 1970's, rescuing old vines, cleaning and organizing vineyards, planting new ones. These days they're cleaning an abandoned shell of a building; they'll build a winery inside, though it will take years.
They also built a little tasting room high atop their vineyards, with sweeping views down to the Aegean Sea. After our long drive, we take turns using the toilet, as well as making lame comments as to which toilet belongs to the women, or why have walls around the thing at all? Clearly we are not yet in the spirit of the thing.
The wind blows the smell of mastic, and lavender, and wild sage; it is persuasive rather than reproving. It's quiet here; no buzzing bugs, no machines or motors in the distance, just a few birds chirping (ah-hah! Female birds! So even this religion has a bit of real world flexibility). We trudge up to one monastery (there are twenty of them dotting this spit of land as it reaches up to the Mount of Athos itself. Hmm, Athos…ensues a series of mispronunciations of the name.
The Tsantali's have converted one building into a sort of wine museum and guesthouse. One religious pilgrim is staring at me from the balcony: I wave; he waves me away and disappears. Against the backside of the long four-story structure, there is a pen with three boars; two small ones and a full-grown, tusky and busily drooling male. I take pictures as quickly as I can; my compatriots talk to him and he paws the ground and rubs against the fence. More drooling and grunting. He's got to be at least three hundred pounds of muscle and musk (Sorry, Howlin' Wolf). The other two give way to Big Billy the Monk, as I rename him. Later he will feature in my absurd report to the women about the wild gay romp that I was offered on Mount Athos. In your dreams, Billy.
The story of Mount Athos gets odder: the residents pay no taxes and own variously reported portions of Greece's land mass – some say ten percent, some say it's closer to one third. Moreover the taxpayer covers their salaries. And you think you got financial challenges? This nearly thousand-year-old scam is admittedly one of only several systemic reasons for Greece's fiscal crisis, but these guys could make Bernie Madoff blush, I'd bet. Oh, no, that's right, it's all for god. I always forget cause I'm not a drinker of that kool-aid.
The crisis has caused more than a few folks to question the arrangement but in a court of law, ownership is ownership, no matter how poorly thought out the original deal might be. And I don’t see the surprisingly savvy moneyed monks handing all their well-gotten gain over anytime soon. Why should they?
For Tsantali, it's been a fair enough deal; Tsantali does all the work and shares its profits with the monks, sharecropper-like. They've replanted existing vineyards with new material and grapes, created new ones, and they seek to benefit form the place's isolation by hewing to organic viticulture. Think of it: most organic vineyards are uncomfortably close to someone who isn't organic at all. Sprays, pesticides, herbicides and such have a tendency to drift; they rarely respect boundaries.
The wines Tsantali fashions here are delicious if still little known in the U.S, but like all wines Greek that seems to be changing. The wine tasting proceeds at a Greek, languorous pace. The wines are seductive. All is quiet, the sea a languid blue liquid framing the greens and browns in a cold calm. The air is gentle; the mood is anything but dictatorial or judgmental or discriminatory. But soon enough we head down to slide through the little green gate, padlocked again behind us and the sounds are nearly raucous in comparison; buzzes, ringing, clangs, screeches, booming, shouts, yips, barks, caterwauls, for all I can tell. We drive back to the hotel and while we feel rather mellow, the women seemed even more relaxed. I count three dead bottles of Gosset.