Saturday 22 March 2014

Greece's time will surely come (2)

In the first part of "Greece's time will surely come" we didn't actually mention any of the wines tasted so here we would like to make up for that.

We were bowled over by the general standard. Obviously some wines were better than others but all were on a remarkably high level given the diversity and variety of styles, grape varieties, terroirs and producers. We kept mainly to the more interesting (obscure to us) Greek grapes such as Athiri, Aidani, Dafne, Kontouro (more commonly known as Mandilaria), Mavrotragano, Plyto, Thrapsathiri, Vidiano, Vlahiko,  with a few interesting foreign varieties thrown in such as Refosco, Touriga Nacional and Tannat.

Our first stop however was at the only independent wine producer of any size on Lesvos: Methymnaeos.

We had just been reading about this very winery in Lazerakis so it was a very great pleasure to find the printed word made flesh in the form of Mr. Yannis Lambrou himself, Producer in Chidira, Lesvos. Mr. Lambrou is unique, one can safely say. For starters he has revived an almost extinct red variety local to Chidira, Chidiriotiko. Mr. Lambrou believes this is the grape which made one of the most famous and expensive wines in ancient Greece and now has 60 ha of it in the volcanic soils of the area.

As if that wasn't enough in terms of uniqueness, Methymnaeos make a white also from Chidiriotiko (i.e. a blanc de noire) and moreover, a Orange wine from the same grape. The Red was our favourite among these, the white being rather austere and perhaps even intentionally a touch oxidised - maybe a food wine? The Orange came in two vintages; 2010 which was also rather Rancio and 2013 which Mr. Lambrou promised would go the same way with a bit of bottle age. We actually preferred the younger less oxydised Orange wine but perhaps our palates are not evolved enough to appreciate the purpose of these wines. Their fascination could not be denied however.

Mr. Lambrou describes the red as the Burgundy of Greece and indeed it showed lightness of colour and taste despite a surprisingly high alcohol content. It was indeed Burgundian but in no way a slavish copy.

'Wine Grapes' would have liked to test Chidiriotiko to make sure it isn't something else or even a blend but no samples have been made available. Our gut feeling is that this is like nothing else we have encountered, but what do we know?

The Whites

On this showing, Greek whites shone particularly brightly. Way back in these pages we made the discovery of Vilana from Crete. How wonderful to find that this was just the tip of the iceberg. We can now add the following to Vilana as major discoveries eligible for inclusion to the Slotovino Hall of fame

This Aidani was gorgeous. It's a pity about its uncharacteristic 14% abv. Half a bottle of this on a hot Greek summer's afternoon would probably do for us for the rest of the day.

The Samaris Kontoura is actually Mandilaria so not quite as obscure as it might have seemed. Lovely wine at 12%.

We just loved this ueber-obscure beauty made from a grape called Plyto (Pluto?). A way less alcoholic than the Aidani at 12.5%. Much more typical of Greek whites in fact.

Lyrarakis is the maker of this and the equally obscure Dafni. Nice but we liked Plyto even more.

Idaia Winery's Thrapsathiri (Crete) is rarer than their Thrapsathiri/Chardonnay blend. We haven't tasted the latter but can't imagine the former could be improved.

This Vidiano is also a tad higher in alcohol than is the norm but is quite marvellous even so. The Oenologist was on hand to explain all about his products. That is typical of the seriousness of these producers.

We had admired two whires from Mediterra already at the Decanter tasting of Greek, Italian and Bulgarian wines in January 2014 so it was good to see them at Oenorama too. They plan to be at Prowein, Dusseldorf too. A very hard-working organisation who have alreadt made inroads into the British and other markets with their delicious Xerolithia and outstanding Mirambelo available from Oddbins and other wines from Morrisons etc.

 If you ever find any of these in shops or restaurants just go for them! We believe you won't be disappointed.

For the reds

Vlahiko, Kontouro/Mandilaria, Mavrotragano, Kotsifali were just a few of many on offer.

Vlahiko has the reputation of being peppery. This one at 12.5% certainly tickled the tastebuds.

Of these, the Mavrotragano was outstanding. We had found the Hatzidakis version already in Theatre of Wine in Tufnell Park, London - a shop which gets better and better. From Lazarakis we understood that already in 2005, Mavrotragano was making waves but it was a surprise to find other producers making their own versions. The one from Argyros was just as good as that of Hatzidakis. The whole Mavrotragano phenomenon reminds us of what happened with Centesimino on Italy. Suddenly it's everywhere. In both cases, the formerly obscure grape deserves its new-found popularity.

The other reds from native varieties were, again most attractive. When Greek wine explodes across our collective consciousness, all these varieties can safely be taken up.

True to form, when Greek producers import foreign varieties they cast their nets well beyond the Cabernets, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Syrah etc. Which other country brings in Nebbiolo,


Tannat (with Syrah)

Touriga Nacional

and others including quite a lot of Tempranillo apparently? Those tasted were also very fine expressions of these grapes. We would like to mention here especially the Refosco of Adam. Adam is the name of the village near which the grape is grown. It lies outside Thessaloniki which is interesting in that the south is more of a happy hunting ground for interesting varieties than the north which tends to specialise in Xinomavro, Agiorgitiko and the international varieties.

The charming owner of this vineyard is Nikos Asteriadis, a Chemical Engineer married to a poetess. Educated in the US, he speaks perfect English and is a worldly negotiator. In many ways he was typical of producers represented at Oenorama and his wines can stand up against competition on any winelist or in any merchant's shelves.

There were plenty of sweet wines on show. After all, an entire island is devoted to them; Samos and Santorini produces the famous Vinsanto (as opposed to the Vin Santo of Toscana). Greeks also like their bubbly and that was well represented. Lots of Olive Oil was also there. The Italians used to buy up Greek Olive Oil and leave their labels imprecise as to the origin. Typically you might read "Product of EU and non-Eu countries"! The Greeks have got wise to this and now produce their own. We have known about the etherial Avlaki and Agathiri oils from Lesvos made by Deborah MacMillan and Nathalie Wheen, ex-pat luminaries of the London culutral scene turned Olive Oil producers.

There is one last wine which was just irresistible although at the same time a slightly guilty pleasure;

It is described as an "Orange Semi-sparkling Wine" but could be mistaken for a vivace Rose. It is so more-ish as to be a contender to knock pink Prosecco off its perch. If someone took this beauty in hand, we might not hear the last of it.

It comes from Domaine Glinavos and is made in the Ioannina area from Debina (white) and Vlahiko (red) grapes. It is called Paliokairisio (Old Times). The fact sheet states that "Bottling is done without adding other substances" so this might be something of a natural wine without sulfates. The blurb goes on to say "Tea and Cognac colour. Its aromas are those of apple and of butter in mild oxidation. The small amount of natural carbonate brings out the richness of tastes and aromas with a sweetness that blends harmoniously with all the other elements... To be served at Cool."  You never knew you would yearn for a wine with aromas of  apple and butter in mild oxidation but you will!

Sadly it was not given to us to have studied Greek and we expect we are not the only ones unable to read so many of the labels, front and back which are in Greek alone. Even if the producers don't need to export their wines, it would be nice if those of us who come across them in Greece could understand better what we are drinking. Just a thought. Otherwise one should have a Greek speaker on hand.

We were lucky enough to have as our companion and interpreter a former CEO of Olympic Airlines, now on the board of Easyjet, Rigas Doganis who immediately recognized the venue of Oenorama as the hangar for Olympic's Jumbos at the time. It had also served as the Olympic Fencing venue incidentally. Rigas knows his Greek wine but on this occasion even he was extremely impressed by the quality on show.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Greece's time will surely come

This Blog is 'A plea for Diversity'. We don't love complexity for its own sake but as Stockhausen would say, "Alles, was vielfach ist, ist schoen" - everything diverse is beautiful. So we love Italy where every region and every province has its own speciality. There are other countries where this is so. Portugal for instance. Even Switzerland. France to a lesser extent but still strong. Spain has it but it needs to be teased out because like Germany with Riesling the Spanish can't ever seem ever to have enough of Tempranillo. Things go a bit downhill from there. Hungary puts on a gallant show - then maybe Croatia too. but the New World? As we have pointed out, the Loire has more diversity than the whole of South America.

Among the most diverse of all are Georgia and Greece. Not surprising as they have had plenty of time to become so; perhaps 6,000 years' or more continuous winemaking. Both these countries are difficult for us in the West to get a handle on but we knew we would make the attempt one day and the opportunity to attend a Greek Wine Fair, Oenorama in Athens coincided with a trip to Budapest we needed to make. Well, Hungary is halfway there from the UK and there are some handy no-frills airlines offering cheap flights to Athens from Budapest which made it irresistible to prolong our trip by another couple of days.

In preparation we read the now outdated Mitchell Beasley The Wines of Greece by Konstantinos Lazarakis (2005). It is a fine book but considering the incredible speed at which the world wine scene is developing - and nowhere faster than in Greece we would suggest - 9 years is a long time, even without Greece's economic disaster so soon after publication which must have changed the scene a great deal.

Our visit to Oenorama was enormously instructive. A few things became immediately apparent. Wine production is obviously a bright spot in Greece's industrial activity. Apart from the successful international brands such as Boutari, Naoussa and Tsantali, there is a plethora of medium sized and smaller companies and co-operatives already making an impact internationally such as Gaia, Nemea Group, Semeli, Hatzimichali, Samos Coop, Cavino, Nico Lazaridi, Biblia Chora, Gerovassiliou and so forth.

But the obvious strength of Greek Wine is in the number and excellence of the small producers. These people are not peasants or country folk but typically those who have had or still have a profession with no connection to wine. They may be successful business people who have decided to return to the area where their family came from and buy some land or use land which may have come down to them through their family. Most are highly cultivated and speak English and no doubt other languages. They typically have only a few hectares and may buy in grapes from nearby growers on a similar acreage. Quite a few have studied Oenology themselves or have a family member who have done so. Quite a lot of these outfits are family affairs. When they don't have the expertise themselves they engage those who do. We got the impression they are highly indivdualistic and independent - thank goodness.

Oenorama had a large area given over to shiny equipment of all kinds,

corks, capsules,

barrels and even some dubious oak 'solutions.'.

One suspects winery standards are super-modern. Certainly none of the wines we tasted exhibited faults which might be associated with old fashioned practises or an unhygienic environment. One producer proudly went into detail about the quality of the corks he uses - the first time we have had a Cork seminar!

Practically none of these wonderful small producers had international distribution or sales. Some may have had an agency here or there but the fact that their production is small and then the sad fact that the time has not yet come for Greek wine leaves these treasures to the local market and to the tourists.

That local market is not large. Only 8 million Greeks in Greece and according to our sources, there are few independent wine merchants. People buy their wine in supermarkets.

We are infrequent travellers to Greece to say the least. We hadn't been there since well before the economic collapse. Driving along it is quite clear which businesses have survived and which haven't. On the coast road there was an entire Armada of sailing and motor boats for sale, having been marooned in yards for what looked like a very long time. Empty storefronts abounded. Goodness knows what they had offered. The remaining concerns consisted mainly of  food shops, ironmongery and petshops.

We discussed in a general way why the world was not yet ready to embrace Greek wine the way it embraces say Spanish wine. From the wines we tasted at Oenorama, we believe Greek wine is as good as Spanish wine and quite a bit more interesting for our taste. Supply is obviously going to be a problem with so very many small and diverse producers and then there is the image of the economic collapse which leads people to think there might be something wrong with the wine or perhaps it should be cheap.

The opposite seemed to be the case. Greek wine on this showing is what thy call a Premium Product. It is going to be a struggle to persuade people used to cheap Greek or Cypriot wine in Greek restaurants that they should spend the same as they would for any other kind of wine but hopefully shear quality will out and we will acquire a taste for Xerolithia, Mirambelo, Mavrotragano and Avgoustiatis.

An acquaintance or ours was the first to bring Australian wine to the British market in the early 70s. It didn't work out then and he had to turn to other things. In only a very short time, Australian wine arrived big time and it hasn't looked back. We are sure the same will happen to Greek wine. There have already been some false starts and rumblings. Oddbins were very enthusiastic not so long ago. They have reined in their range but are still active we're glad to say. Santorini seems to have broken through to peoples' consciousness in quite good measure. Now for the rest. What will it take? Certainly some major lobbying by the wine press and more of the kind of initiative Marks and Spencer have been taking recently by stocking some lovely Greek whites. One bright spark had a solution: "You give us the Elgin Marbles and we will send you wine!" Sounds fair.

Here is a list of Greek varieties taken from Lazarakis's book. almost 100 of them. Some (quite a few) are unknown to "Wine Grapes" at least to their first edition. To be fair, "Wine Grapes" has a number of varieties unmentioned by Lazarakis. No doubt there are many others unknown full stop. In fact the Greeks have a word for some of them: "Asproudes" (generic "whitish" grapes - any unidentified white variety)

Agrioglikadi (aka Glickerithra)
Amoriano (aka Mandilaria)
Ampelaitis (aka Valaitis)
Ampelakioritiko Mavro
Arahovas (aka Mavroudi)
Arahovitikos (aka Fokida)
Asproudi (see above. Some do have names however: Asprouda Mykinon, Asprouda Patron, Asprouda Ariloghi, Asproda Halkidos, Santorini, Zakyntho etc.)
Athiri Mavro

Begleri (aka Thrapsathiri)

Diminitis (aka Diminitiko)

Fileri (aka Moscofilero)
Fraoula Kokkini (aka Mavrodafni)

Glikerithia (aka Agrioglikadi)
Gustolidi (Robola, Thiako)


Kakotridis (also Kokkino Kakotrygis)
Kalambaki (aka Limnio)
Kaloniatiko (aka Chidiriotiko)
Karditsa (aka Rosaki)
Kondokladi (also Kontokladi)
Koumari (also Koumaria, Koumantari aka Xynisteri)
Koundouro (aka Kontouro = Mandilaria)
Kritiko Mavro

Lagorthi (the Verdeca of Puglia!)
Lesviako Krasostafilo

Mandilaria (aka. Kontouro/Koundouro)
Mavro Messenikola (aka Karditsa)

Opsimo (Opsimo Edessis)

Potamissi (aka Potainisi)
Potainissi Mavro

Robola Rouge (colour mutation of Robola)
Rosaki (aka Karditsa)

Skiadopoulo (aka Foriano)

Thiako (aka Theiako Mavro)
Thrapathiri (aka Begleri)
Tsardana (aka Romeiko)

Vafta (also Vaftra)
Valaitis (aka Ampelaitis)
Vertsami (also Vertzami)
Vlatiko (Vlachiko)
Voidomatis (also Voudomato)
Volitsa Mavri


Zoumiatiko (Dimyat in Bulgaria)