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The Key to Greek Wines

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I’ve written an article for oenopole‘s new Boire vrai blog: The Key to Greek Wines.

 

Written by carswell

June 30, 2017 at 11:50

Posted in News, Wine travel

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Greek winery tour: Mercouri (Elis)

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[Hover over pics to display captions and credits; click to embiggen.]

In so many ways – historically, climatically, viticulturally, architecturally, culturally, even scenically – the Mercouri Estate stands apart from the other wineries we visited and quite possibly from all wineries in Greece.

Created in 1864 by merchant Theodoros Mercouri, the estate is one of the oldest in the country. Wine-growing began in 1870, when Refosco vines imported from northeast Italy, where Mercouri had trade ties, were planted. The resulting wine soon gained a reputation and was not only consumed locally but also exported on ships that docked at the estate. Such was its renown that the Refosco grape came to be called Mercoureiko in Elis (aka Ilia). New wine-making facilities were built in 1930. Production more or less ceased between World War II and 1985, when Vasilis and Christos Kanellakopoulos, the fourth generation of the family, began revitalizing the estate and its wines. These days, Vasilis’s two sons are taking the helm, Dimitris as the oenologist and Labis looking after the business and marketing side of things. To all appearances, the estate’s future is in good hands.

Set like an emerald on a small bay to the west of Korakochori, the estate enjoys a unique micro-climate. The Ionian Sea has a tempering effect and, as rain clouds in Greece tend to travel from west to east, the average annual precipitation and relative humidity are higher than in the rest of the Peloponnese, though paradoxically the summer and fall are drier than areas further east, a boon for grape health and harvest. The danger of frost is very low.

The mix of grape varieties grown in the 40 hectares of vineyards is as unparalleled as it is cosmopolitan, and includes the Greek Agiorgitiko, Assyrtiko, Avgoustiatis, Korinthiaki, Malvasia, Mavrodaphne, Rhoditis and Robola as well as the extra-Hellenic Mourvèdre, Negroamaro, Ribolla Gialla, Syrah and Viognier. The winery also reportedly has or has had experimental plots of Albariño, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot, Sangiovese and Sauvignon Blanc.

Several of the buildings, including ones still in use, are little changed from when they were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many are built from local stone. Several have steeply pitched tiled roofs. Parts of the winery have been preserved as if in amber, with the original furnishings, paintings and equipment intact. Walking through the front door is like stepping back in time, a feeling only increased by a visit to the estate’s small museum with its collection of old presses, tools and photographs, among other things.

While Greece is rightly seen as a meeting place between the western and eastern Mediterranean cultures, the estate feels closer to the west than the east, seems to have one foot in Greece and the other foot in Italy. Take the grape varieties, for example. Take the now abandoned owner’s mansion, which is depicted on the label of the estate’s flagship reds and wouldn’t be out of place in Brindisi or Bari. The Italian feel even extends to the park-like grounds. With its lush foliage, huge trees, expanses of lawn, gentle inclines and pristine shore, the landscape is uniquely pastoral and bucolic.

However present the past may be at Mercouri, the wine-making is resolutely modern, which is not surprising for an estate that has been crafting wines from local and foreign varieties for close to a century and a half. Even the wine labels seem to express this embrace of new and old; the flagship dry whites, Lampadias rosé and Antares red feature reproductions of colourful stylized or abstract paintings; the flagship reds’ labels are far more traditional; the newer reds’ labels live in both eras, with modern typography and an old photograph of young members of the family.  The kicker is that all the bottlings, whether old or new and especially the reds, are among the most elegant Greek wines I’ve tasted.

You’ll find my notes on all the Mercouri wines after the jump. For details about where we stayed and ate and what we ate and saw, see the Day Three report on carswelliana.

INTRODUCTION
PAPAGIANNAKOS (ATTICA)
TSELEPOS (ARCADIA)
♦ MERCOURI (ELIS)
TETRAMYTHOS (ACHAEA)
THYMIOPOULOS (MACEDONIA)
ARGYROS (SANTORINI)

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by carswell

June 29, 2017 at 15:01

Greek winery tour: Tselepos (Arcadia)

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[Hover over pics to display captions and credits; click to embiggen.]

One of the leaders of the Greek wine renaissance and the modern day king of the ancient Moscofilero variety, Yiannis Tselepos is a phenomenon. A Cypriot by birth, he studied oenology at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon and, after graduating, spent a couple of years working at several Burgundy estates. He then moved to Arcadia in the eastern Peloponnese, where he found employment as a consulting oenologist, married a local girl, Amelia, and with her founded the eponymous winery. The Tseleposes currently own two estates and have an interest in a third.

Located in Rizes, central Arcadia, Ktima Tselepos is the larger and older of the two estates, dating back to 1999. It sits on a plateau on the eastern flank of Mount Parnon. While the main buildings are surrounded by 30 hectares of vineyards, the estate’s holdings actually total some 240 hectares. The soil here tends to shale and rocky clay and the average elevation is 750 metres, helping ensure the all-important wide difference in day and night temperatures. The handsome winery is built in the traditional local architectural style; less flashy and touristy than some, it feels like a facility whose main vocation is wine production. Although around two-thirds of its output is devoted to Moscofiliero, the estate makes a wide range of wines, from sparklers to still dry reds and whites to sweet wines, from international as well as local grape varieties. With a total annual production of 350,000 bottles, half of which is exported, this is no small operation.

In 2003, Tselepos acquired a second property, Ktima Driopi, an 8.5-hecatre plot of 50-year-old vines rooted in steep clay soil in Kousti, near Nemea, about an hour’s drive to the north-northwest. The estate specializes in Agiorgitiko, another ancient indigenous variety. A small winery has since been built to handle the estate’s output. The estate’s striking labels, as classy as its wines, feature a dormant tree in silhouette.

Tselepos’s latest project is a joint venture with the Chryssou family on Santorini. The Chryssous provide the grapes (from 12 hectares of ungrafted 50- to 100-year-old vines in Pyrgos and Emporio) while Yannis provides the wine-making expertise. Dubbed Canava Chryssou Tselepos Santorini, the estate currently produces around 12,000 bottles a year of a single wine, a 100% Assyrtiko.

At all three estates, the viticultural practices are enlightened without being full-bore organic. In Arcadia, the vines are trained on wires, a virtual necessity in the region’s humid climate. On arid, wind-blasted, sun-stroked Santorini, the vines are coaxed into nest-like spirals that lie close to the ground, the better to protect the fruit and preserve precious water. Irrespective of the estate, the grapes are manually harvested in the cool of the early morning and transported to the winery in small crates. Though the facilities are outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment, Yiannis views technology as limited to a supporting role. “Good technology makes for good wine, but only the right vineyard will yield a great wine,” he says.

One aspect of this balancing act between technology and terroir was the focus of an interesting exchange during our technical tasting. A member of our party, a professional sommelier with an impressively acute palate, wondered why Tselepos used selected instead of indigenous yeasts since, he felt, the former scalp and compress wines. Yiannis countered with “I have 17 families besides my own who depend on the winery’s success. I’m not going to put their livelihoods at risk.”

I can see both sides of the argument. Obviously, indigenous yeasts – the yeasts native to a place – are a factor in terroir. And many other winemakers have shown that fine wines can reliably be made using them. So it seems a little paradoxical that the winery, which proudly describes its central wine-making philosophy as “to grow Greek varieties within their specific native ecosystem” and which, as the following notes show, does indeed make terroir-expressive wines, doesn’t go all the way down the terroir path.

Then again, Yiannis is clearly more than just a winemaker. He’s also a successful businessman, a player in the local community and a standard bearer for the wines of his region and country. His Moschofileros and Agiorgitikos are widely viewed as models for what the grapes can achieve. His Mantinias have almost single-handedly put that appellation on the map. One of the reasons this has happened is the wines’ consistency. Why, then, tinker with a winning formula? Why introduce another variable into the process? Why do anything that could undermine the livings of so many and the reputations of a business and a region?

More than just a winemaker? Yes. But still a winemaker at heart, as the following story shows. At one point, Yiannis told us how he came to chose oenopole to represent his wines in Quebec. One day this Greek-Canadian showed up, introduced himself as Theo Diamantis and explained that he was setting up an agency dedicated to selling “real,” terroir-driven wines with a high drinkability quotient, wines made not by industrial producers but by vignerons. Which was why he wanted Tselepos in the portfolio. “It was the first time anybody called me a vigneron,” Yiannis beamed, “and it was all I needed to know. I was ready right then to sign on the dotted line.”

You’ll find my notes on all the day two wines after the jump. For details about where we stayed and ate and what we ate and saw, including some of Tselepos’s vineyards, see the Day Two report on carswelliana.

INTRODUCTION
PAPAGIANNAKOS (ATTICA)
♦ TSELEPOS (ARCADIA)
MERCOURI (ELIS)
TETRAMYTHOS (ACHAEA)
THYMIOPOULOS (MACEDONIA)
ARGYROS (SANTORINI)

Read the rest of this entry »

Greek winery tour: Papagiannakos (Attica)

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[Hover over pics to display captions and credits; click to embiggen.]

Papagiannakos Winery (photo: E. Lebel/oenopole)

Located a 20-minute drive southeast of Athens International Airport, the Papagiannakos Winery sits on the northwestern edge of Porto Rafti in Markopoulo. Shoebox-shaped with a sloping roof and prominent girders that, in profile, look like a giant Π (pi, the first letter of the family name), the current structure was built in the mid-2000s. It is, in a word, gorgeous: clean and modern in design, integrated into the surroundings, eco-friendly and featuring extensive use of local materials, in particular stones. The equipment is state of the art, the compact barrel cellar houses Allier and Nevers oak casks. A glass wall under a large overhang faces south providing ample daylight while, on the north side, a row of clerestory windows runs above the tall stone wall ensuring good airflow and an escape route for warm air. At the far (west) end of the building are found, on the lower level, a large tasting room and, on the upper level, a beautiful, high-ceilinged event space with a sweeping view over the valley to the ridge separating the region from Athens, with the airport’s control tower just visible over the intervening hills. Carefully chosen artwork adorns the walls. In short, it’s a feel good place.

The Papagiannakos family has been growing grapes and making wine in Markopoulo since 1919. In the 1960s, the second generation upgraded the winery and improved the quality of its output. The current, third-generation owner-winemaker, Vassilis, took over in 1992, and almost immediately began the process of bringing the winery into the 21st century.

Vassilis in his barrel cellar (photo: E. Lebel/oenopole)It may be a conceit but I’ve often found winemakers to resemble the wines they make. In any case, it’s true for Vassilis: classy yet down-to-earth, generous yet reserved, rooted in the past yet forward-looking, attached to a place yet also aware of the world. Speaking about his wines, he rightly said “they don’t shout,” but he could equally have been talking about himself (or his winery’s handsome labels, for that matter).

Papagiannakos has several vineyards, some around the winery and others – including ones under contract – scattered throughout the environs. Though the soil varies from parcel to parcel, it is generally rocky and infertile over a limestone base. The area receives no rain to speak of from May or June through October, so the vines are grown in low bushes; rot isn’t a problem here, in contrast to, say, the Peleponnese, where grape vines are usually trained on wires. The dry, breezy conditions also mean there is no need for insecticides or fungicides. On the other hand, irrigation (drip to conserve water) is a necessity, especially for young vines.

Savatiano vines (photo: E. Lebel/oenopole)The winery has specialized in Savatiano since its founding. Actually, it was the only grape variety grown at the estate until Vassilis took the helm. He soon began playing with the newly resuscitated Malagousia variety and then red grapes. He also has several experimental plots, one of them Greco di Tufo, the first real vintage of which will be the 2016. “Italian grapes,” I exclaimed, unable to hide the surprise in my voice. With a shrug of the shoulders and a wry smile came the reply: “Well, as the name implies, it’s probably Greek.”

After a tour of the building, we gathered in the event room for a technical tasting with Vassilis and members of his family, including his children, affable, knowledgeable and articulate young adults who will eventually take the reins from their father. You’ll find my tasting notes after the jump.

For details about where we stayed, where and what we ate and what we saw, including some of Papagiannakos’s vineyards, see the Day One report on carswelliana.

INTRODUCTION
♦ PAPAGIANNAKOS (ATTICA)
TSELEPOS (ARCADIA)
MERCOURI (ELIS)
TETRAMYTHOS (ACHAEA)
THYMIOPOULOS (MACEDONIA)
ARGYROS (SANTORINI)

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by carswell

November 6, 2016 at 16:19

Greek winery tour: Introduction

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In early July, a group of seven Montreal wine and food geeks, including me, travelled to Greece to visit six wineries in as many regions in seven days. The trip was arranged and paid for by the wineries concerned with assistance from the European Union and the Greek government; I offer all of them – especially the wineries – my warmest thanks.

In the weeks to come, I’ll be posting reports here on the estates visited and many wines tasted and on where we stayed, where and what we ate and what we saw on my other blog, where a first post offers a few travel tips.

♦ INTRODUCTION
PAPAGIANNAKOS (ATTICA)
TSELEPOS (ARCADIA)
MERCOURI (ELIS)
TETRAMYTHOS (ACHAEA)
THYMIOPOULOS (MACEDONIA)
ARGYROS (SANTORINI)

Written by carswell

October 17, 2016 at 14:26

Posted in Wine travel

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