Greece is the word

Ktima Gerovassiliou (Photo: Asia Import News)

“Zeus is being a grumpy old man today,” said Evangelos Gerovassiliou, as we lunched on his winery verandah in Epanomi, northern Greece. Black clouds were gathering over Mt Olympus, which dominates the horizon, and is said to be the home of Zeus – he of the thunderbolts and lightning.

Sure enough, we’d scarcely finished our may-fish with olive oil and lemon sauce, simple but delicious tomato/onion salad and eggplant with garlic. Down came the torrent, and we took the remnants of our assyrtiko white wine indoors. Greeks love to eat and drink, and as we know, neither bad weather (which is rare) nor bad economic news (less rare) are allowed to interfere.

Indeed, it’s not all bad news coming out of Greece: the country’s wine exports are bubbling along quite happily. Some say that Greece is the world’s oldest new wine region. While it is the world’s oldest wine-producing culture of note – and it was the Greeks who introduced the ancient Romans to the vine – the Greek wine industry has been re-born in the last 20 years.

The Greek wine revival parallels similar revivals in most parts of the wine world. What’s giving it an extra kick along, I suspect, is the relatively recent but widespread fascination with indigenous (or autochthonous, as the Greeks say) grape varieties. The Greeks have about 300 of those, of which several are likely to travel. That’s travel in two senses: the wines are being exported and so are the vines. Jim Barry Wines in the Clare Valley has recently produced an assyrtiko, the lip-smacking dry white seafood wine grown in hot, dry, windy conditions on the Santorini island.

Santorini assyrtiko is one of the most terroir-driven wines I’ve ever tasted. It actually smells of the volcanic ash, or pumice, that is what passes for soil on Santorini, an island blown apart by one of the world’s most violent volcanoes. It doesn’t sound very appetising, but it is dry, crisp and a great fish accompaniment.

The best assyrtikos I’ve tasted were made by these producers: Gaia (pronounced Yair), Argyros and Domaine Sigalas on Santorini; and up north in the province of Macedonia, Domaine Gerovassiliou. All are imported and all are in the AUD $25 to AUD $39 price-range. The statement about terroir and assyrtiko is no hollow claim: in Macedonia’s Amyndeon and Epanomi regions they also make lovely assyrtiko, but it tastes quite different from Santorini’s ‘volcanic’ version.

“The difference has to be the terroir,” says Gaia’s Yiannis Paraskevopoulos.

The Greeks do grow the ‘international’ varieties chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, but the world is more likely to be intrigued by their autochthonous vines. In whites, there’s roditis, malagousia, aidani and moschofilero as well as assyrtiko, and in reds, mavrotragano, xinomavro, mavrodaphne, limnio and agiorgitiko. Hard to pronounce, let alone remember, but it helps to know mavro means black. And ‘g’ is pronounced ‘y’. Say ‘aye-your-yittiko’ 20 times over to yourself.

I’ve tasted beautifully clean, modern, well-made wines from all these grapes, but I’m sure I had a vetted selection and that some pretty ordinary stuff also exists.

The local hope is for xinomavro, which is perhaps the most distinctive and interesting of the black grapes, although it is a high-vigour vine which must be strictly controlled to produce good wine, and is prone to a weak colour, high acidity, and rather hard tannins – except when low-yielding vines achieve full ripeness. This is a hard ask. But the best wines I tasted did bear out the local catch-cry that xinomavro is the Greek pinot noir, or perhaps the Greek nebbiolo.

The degree of difficulty is high but the rewards are there. The Kir-Yianni winery, in the Macedonian region of Naoussa, is putting major effort into xinomavro and is producing the best results. The 2011 vintage, indeed all their 2011 reds, are stunning and worth waiting for.

Of the finished reds I tasted from xinomavro, the best was an ‘old vine’ bottling off 87-year-old bush-vines growing on pure sand, made by Angelos Iatrides at his Alpha winery in Amyndeon: the 2008 Alpha Old Vines Xinomavro. This had fleshy richness, velvet smooth tannins, sumptuous dark cherry flavours and real gravitas.

But without a doubt the more ‘international’, easy to appreciate and enjoy indigenous black variety is agiorgitiko. This can be a marvellous wine, especially in the hands of the Gaia company – which has a second winery in the southerly Peleponnese province which specialises in this grape. Dark coloured, rich, fruit-sweet and balanced, without excessive acid or edgy tannins, it is a wine that most red-wine lovers everywhere would instantly warm to. The best I tasted were under the Gaia Estate label (the 2006 is AUD $60 in Australia), but the younger, earlier-drinking 2010 Agiorgitiko by Gaia (AUD $27) is a delicious and affordable entrée to this exciting grape variety. Gaia partner and winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos also lectures in wine science at the University of Athens, so he knows his stuff. A man whose talent for winemaking is matched by his ability as a communicator, he’s playing a key role in getting the word about modern Greek wines out into the world.

Agiorgitiko also makes some splendid rosés, none better than Gaia 14-18h Rosé, (the 2011 is AUD $22). It’s light, soft, beautifully balanced and more-ish.

And talking of pink wines, against all expectation I tasted a sparkling xinomavro at the tiny, family-owned Karanika winery in Amyndeon, which was truly excellent. Here, xinomavro is used in much the same way as pinot noir in Champagne. Karanika’s organically grown and hand-made Brut Cuvée Speciale was a 2010 vintage that had been aged on lees for 12 months. With a shrug of the shoulders, Karanika’s owner/winemaker Laurens Hartman said:

“No matter how hard the crisis hits, we have sparkling wine every day!”

*First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 10/7/12. Prices may have changed

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