Tag Archives: Greece

How well does Greek wine age?

There is undoubtedly irony in Greece being known for wines for current drinking, and for being a country that rarely produces wines that will age. After all, this is the country that invented wine, and in ancient Homeric texts, aged wine is celebrated and seems almost commonplace. The rest of the world would take millennia to catch up.

But from the days of the Roman conquest until just the last ten years, Greece has not been able to break into the international marketplace; ageworthy Greek wines had no international customers. Without a marketplace, where is the incentive to make these sorts of cellar ready wines? Even Vinsanto, the brilliant, traditional and nearly eternal sweet wine of Santorini, was quickly supplanted by Vino Santo, Italy’s pale imitator. Vinsanto remains less known than it should be, and even less known than Italian Vino Santo.

So with only a few years in which Greece’s winemakers have had any motivation to make ageworthy wines, which wines are in fact ageworthy? Amongst the white wines, the dessert wines stand out, and Vin Santo is one of the most stable wines that a cellar master will ever purchase; some people believe the wines last a century. But Santorini’s Assyrtiko based dry white wines are surprisingly long-lasting as well. These wines have already proven that they can last a decade or even more.

With red wines, the two best known indigenous grapes, Xynomavro and Agiorgitiko, have already shown their abilities, albeit from only a handful of producers. Agiorgitiko has been combined with other grapes such as Syrah to offer some newer blends that many of us believe are eminently ageable. Xynomavro seems not to need helpmates; it has already shown its cellaring abilities all by itself. Are there other grapes that can do as well? That remains to be seen, and we should hope to see soon, now that Greece’s great winemakers believe that there are international buyers who will reward them for making those sorts of wines.

In which Doug contentedly consumes Tsantali wines on Mount Athos

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.

July 2005

In July, I left for Greece. It was a short trip, but that’s fine since my family couldn’t come along. Athens, Santorini, the Pelopennese, Athens, go home. No one feels sorry for me, I know.

Santorini is one of the truly remarkable places on the planet. It’s an ancient volcano, all blowed up, as they might say, now a sunken caldera.

The remaining hillsides are populated with those famous Greek homes of white plaster, or with vines. The vine training is something I’ve never seen before. The canes are twisted and woven into a round form, like a basket. The grapes spill onto the dry ground, volcanic dust and broken rock. There’s no rain to speak of, so there’s no harm in letting the grapes rest on the earth.

The basket of canes protects the vines from the sun and wind. The vines drink what little they can find from the ground and then soak up the fog and mist that appears most evenings as the moisture condenses out of the Mediterranean Sea and air. At night, the walls are wet and so are the leaves of the vines. By morning, everything is dry again.

The Assyrtiko vine may have been grown here, in this fashion, since before the last volcanic explosion, the one that pretty much killed everything, except the grapeseeds and legends. Large rocks from Santorini are found on islands hundreds of miles away, blasted into the air when in the 4th century BC all hell broke loose.

It’s a vanished and sunken bowl of a volcano. My room faces into the interior of the caldera. Perhaps three miles away is the center, still active, though I don’t see anything. The hills are brown and red and the white homes hang above the cliffs like exposed bone sprouting out of the hide, like teeth, baby teeth. The sea is darkening; the sun has disappeared into the ocean.

A line of darkness follows the base of each cliff, just shadows, but it’s as if each cliff is floating slightly above the water. There are two ships in the center of the caldera’s sea; one is an almost Chinese skiff, like a sampan, the other looks like a pirate vessel. They circle each other, occasionally a flash bulb glows as they take pictures of each other. Are they disappointed with their selection?

There is a steady glint on one of the hills. I’m thinking of a rifle.

The swallows which give my hotel its name, Celladonia, swerve and twitter across my vision. My laptop sits like a black hole on my legs.

Two cruise ships have been lazing about, like fat men in a tub. But now the lights are coming on. Music comes and goes from all quarters of the warren about me and from the ships in front of me.

When it first blew up nearly 4000 years ago, it’s thought that this was a mighty city. Then two thirds of it just went up in the air and down into the water. Some people think that this was Atlantis. Now we float above its aquatic grave.

I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Paras Sigalas and his wife Antonio. He’s the winemaker Jancis Robinson calls the best winemaker in Greece. He might well be; he’s certainly got my attention on Santorini. His Assyrtikos are fantastic. He makes a red from the Mavrotragano grape; it too is delicious. It’s a 2003, and black plum, vanilla, rose hips and saffron, a touch greenish. “Yes,” he says, “if it’s not ripe enough, it has green tannins, so I let the alcohol go to 14%.” It smells like Grenache meets Pinot Noir in some ways as well.

He offers two dessert wines. One he calls Vin Santo. It’s deliciously honeyed and nutty and I have a good chuckle about the name. He shows me the bottle; it says Vin Santo. How do the Italians feel about that label, I ask?

Oh, we invented Vin Santo, he says. In the 1450’s the Venetians bought the wines of Santorini and called them VinSanto, which is short for Vino Santorini. That’s why the Italian haven’t been able to stop them from naming the wine.

Back then the wines were sent in goat sacks. In the 19th century, barrels were used to move the wine to Russia. The craftsmen of Santorini were famous for their great woodcrafts but there was a problem; there was no wood on Santorini. So the barrels of wine went to the Black Sea and they sent back wood. “We traded wine for wood,” Paras says.

I’ll have to add more of Greece later.

Early summer saw some tasting as well, especially from the Loire Valley. There’s great stuff afoot there these days. Pascal Jolivet is always trustworthy; all the wines are pretty and carry some elegance even in the super ripe 2003 vintage. And their 2004’s are very fine as well. The Chateau du Nozay Sancerre is far more complex than all but the very best California Chardonnays. Yes, I know they’re different grapes; I’m serious that comparing them in this way ends up with Sancerre and Pouilly Fume as the more compelling actor in this conflict.

Henri Pelle Menetou Salon – okay, you haven’t heard of it, but that’s your fault. Try it; first rate Sauvignon Blanc, even in a warm vintage like 2003. Another Henri, Henri Brochard has some delightful 2004 Sauvignon Blanc to offer from both Sancerre and Pouilly Fume.

Even white Burgundy seems to have handled the heat of 2003 fairly. Bouchard’s Bourgogne Blanc ’03 won’t change anyone’s world, it’s far too simple for that, but despite the richness and alcohol, it still carries pretty earthiness.

As usual, Jaffelin is completely reliable. The Macon Fuisse 2003 is textured and fine. Chateau Fuisse’s St. Veran is probably short of acid, but who cares? So it won’t live a long time, compared to most of the wines Chateau Fuisse produces. I’ll drink it sooner and enjoy it more.Bouchard’s St. Veran 2004 has richness; Jaffelin’s St.Veran is even better. It’s richness comes from the fruit only; no support from oak is required. Drouhin’s St. Veran 2004 is similarly pretty. And I continue to be impressed by Chateau de Davenay. Bouchard’s Beaune Premier Cru 2003 isn’t too rich to loose its traditional personality, but it’s a close battle between ripeness and earth.

A lovely Spanish discovery in summer as well: Casta Diva Cosecha Miel 2003 – A pure, bright and floral orange muscat nose, the floral notes are surrounded by flavors of lemon, orange, and honey; the mouth is round, very tasty, and very well balanced. This is what people mean when they call a wine “pretty”. A wine for light desserts, such as fruit pastries, or just a bowl of fruit.