Catherine Fallis, MS
Greece is home to some of the world’s most interesting grape varieties, yet the wines they produce have never received much fanfare. Even visitors to the country may not venture beyond a simple local white with a dish of freshly caught fish on a warm afternoon—or realize that there’s a diverse and serious industry here. For over 4,000 years, the rich, spicy red wines of the relatively frigid Macedonia region, especially those of Naoussa, have been highly regarded. Legend has it that Semele, mother of Dionysus—the Greek god of wine and fertility—called the area home.
Established in 1972, the Naoussa appellation, which covers 1750 acres on the slopes of Mount Vermion, was Greece’s first. Though Preknadi, a freckled local white grape, is making a small comeback, vineyards here are planted almost exclusively to Xinomavro, a grape that yields earthy, juicy, savory, tannic, and acidic reds. Like Southern Italy’s Negroamaro, which translates as “black-bitter,” Xinomavro means “acid black.” Neither translation makes for a great selling point in the mainstream market; the pronunciation of the latter doesn’t help (The first half of the word sounds like “casino” without the “a”: k-SEE-noh.) But for connoisseurs of Italian reds, Naoussa is a natural alternative. Greek wine expert Nico Manessis calls the appellation “our Burgundy. We should not worry so much about the high acid and light color of our wines; we have grand cru potential here.” But given Xinomavro’s Nebbiolo-like bite and grip, Naoussa could as easily be compared to Piedmont.
Similar monovarietal and blended wines from nearby Amydeon, particularly Alpha Estate, are worth seeking out. Chateau Carras, on the Halkidiki Peninsula, was at one time considered Greece’s best producer, though its wines are not made with Xinomavro. Once isolated, Macedonia is now much easier to navigate, thanks to the Wine Roads of Northern Greece (www.wineroads.gr), a tourist network of wineries, vineyards, natural and cultural landmarks, hotels, and restaurants. Roman ruins, Byzantine churches, snowbound mountain villages, kings’ tombs, and goddesses’ temples provide a stunning framework for understanding the history of Greek wine.
“Love begins from the stomach” is a famous saying here. Meze, an assortment of small plates, is served first: olives, fried goat cheese or batsos, dips like tzatziki and taramosalata, skewers of grilled meat, meatballs (keftedes), deep-fried calamari, lentil or pumpkin soup. The meal that follows is served family style, with platters of cheese, vegetables, salads, and fire-roasted or baked fish, game, and meats dressed with olive oil and lemon juice. Dandelion or other wild greens (horta), eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and fava beans are in abundance. Rustic, freshly baked “dirty bread” topped with olive oil and oregano is everywhere. The locals fill up on produce; take small, infrequent bites of the rich cheeses and meats; smoke like chimneys; and constantly sip wine. The local wine is ideal of course, its savory notes pairing beautifully as its rich tannins and acids cleanse and refresh the palate. But how does Greek wine work with other types of cuisine?
Haroula Spinthiropoulou is an agronomist, the owner of Argatia Winery and the consultant for Kir-Yianni Estate, and an expert on the Naoussa appellation. According to him, “Xinomavros can pair with any cuisine from around the world. Naoussa wines go very well with meats that are barbecued or served in sauces based on peppers and onions, as well as with dishes containing mushrooms, such as risotto.” Adds Markus Stolz, owner of Greek-wine website Elloinos.com, “These wines have an amazing ability to age gracefully for many decades, much like top Bordeaux. The price points [about $12-36 in the U.S. market] are very attractive compared to top Pinot Noirs or Nebbiolos, the food-pairing ability is there, and the harsh tannin structure in young wines mellows after 5-10 years of bottle age.” The bottom line is that customers who are looking for something that will enhance the enjoyment of their meal will appreciate Naoussa, and I highly recommend it for the bottle list, though I would not sell it by the glass in most instances.
Naoussa is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which is Greece’s highest quality level; below it is the regional Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) designation, similar to Italy’s IGT. PDO replaced two previous categories, OPAP and OPE, bringing the country’s classification system more in line with EU standards, which basically consist of wines of quality with an origin (from the vineyard to the regional level) and wines with no origin. PDO and PGI therefore fall into the quality-wines category.
Naoussa PDO wines are made in dry, medium-dry, and medium-sweet styles; only the dry reds are exported to the United States. From the town of Naoussa, one can see the Gulf of Thermaikos, the city of Thessaloniki—Greece’s fashion capital—and the Halkidiki Peninsula. The climate, aspect, and soils vary across the appellation, so its 18 producers are able to present Xinomavro in a range of lights. On a visit in 2005, many of the wines I tasted both in Naoussa and at a wine fair in Thessaloniki had biting tannins and acids; their rusticity would not be acceptable by today’s standards. Most of the current releases are much softer—though they still have the bright, juicy acidity and grip that make them so appealing with food. Explains Spinthiropoulou, “In recent years, several producers, like Thymiopoulos, have begun turning toward modern-style wines that are easier drinking; they do not necessarily remind you of the classic Naoussas. Then we have wineries that fall somewhere between the modern and classic styles, like Kir-Yianni Estate.”
Hiram Simon, principal of California-based importers WineWise and The Vienna Wine Company, is “pleased that we have sold Naoussa wines to a wide array of restaurants and wine bars in both northern and southern California. One well-regarded restaurant in the East Bay has plowed through more than 30 cases of Kir-Yianni Ramnista in the past 18 months alone. Vaeni, which dominates production in the region, can be numbered amongst the top co-ops in the world, offering really fine and well-aged bottles at absurdly low prices. We believe that, once the wider wine community discovers the uniquely fine quality of Xinomavro as grown in Naoussa, they will embrace it as one of the world's truly rare bargains in the realm of high-class, ageworthy red wine.”
2nd klm Amyndeon, Ag. Panteleimon
Importer: Diamond Importers
P.O. Box 6
Importer: Sonata Wine
Importer: Terlato Wines International
59200 Ana Gastra
Importer: Diamond Importers
Importer: Nestor Imports
Importer: Hellas Import Ltd
Importer: Athenee Importers & Distributors
outstanding recent releases
Alpha Estate Syrah-Xinomavro Axia, Florina PDI 2009 $17
I first visited this estate when the vines were still very young. Even then, the wines—a blend of local and international grapes— impressed me (see also Winery Spotlight, Feb. 28, 2012). This one has a dark, sultry, Rhône-ish nose: black cherry, white flowers, vanilla, toast, smoked meat, bacon, and an earthy, tarry minerality. It is medium-bodied, with notes of brown mushroom and bright fruit, including rhubarb; high tannins (decant or age it); and a lively, cleansing finish.
Boutari Grande Reserve 2007 $20
Representing a tradition of long aging before release (two years in barrel, two in bottle), the Grand Reserve is mellow—almost laid back—with notes of cherry, red apple, heirloom tomato, spearmint, licorice, fennel, black olive, cheese rind, and maple. Tannins are softly chewy, and the finish is tart.
Diamantakos Xinomavro 2007 $36
Very compelling, with notes of black cherry, mulberry, cassis, fig, raisin, mushroom, turned earth, saddle leather, and sweet oak spice. Plush on the palate, with an intense vein of earthiness. Tannins then proceed to dominate, while generous acids provide a long, tart finish.
Diamantakos Preknadi PDI 2011 $TK
This Preknadi came as a bit of a surprise. Expecting a crisp, citrusy, and deeply flavored white comparable to Kir-Yianni’s Samaropetra—a Roditis-Sauvignon Blanc blend from Amyndeon—I found instead a unique yellow-gold wine with notes of slivered almond, lemon curd, quinine, poppy-seed bagel, hay, dried chamomile flowers, and arugula. It was balanced and creamy and had a tart, dry, chalky finish.
Domaine Karydas 2009 $26
From the Ano Gastro vineyard—a jewel in Naoussa’s crown—this is a longtime favorite of mine. It captures the essence of the appellation perfectly with its vibrant, Syrah-like dark-berry fruit, as well as oregano, Fernet Branca, earth, and black-licorice notes; understated grip; and juicy, mouthwatering acidity.
Estate Chrisouhoou Xinomavro 2008 $16
From an estate in Strantza on the southeastern slopes of Mt. Vermion comes this inviting, perfumed wine. It has pretty cherry, strawberry, and sangria notes, along with shiitake, bacon, mocha, and cedar. It is medium bodied, with rich but fine tannins and pleasantly forward acidity.
Katogi & Strofilia Averoff Naoussa PDO 2008 $TK
With a bit of age, this wine shows an incredibly complex range of flavors: cherry pie, strawberry compote, sarsparilla, red and black licorice (Italian or Australian), singed meat, mushrooms browned in butter, dried herbs, and soft cedar. On the palate, it’s quite round and supple—almost plump—at first, with notes of cherry cola and sundried tomato. Then, it turns lean and austere, with merciless grip and drying tannins assuaged only by continual bursts of wild strawberry.
Kir-Yianni Rosé Sec Sparkling Akakies Amyndeon PDO 2011 $TK
Soft and subdued on the nose, with telltale varietal aromas of cranberry, strawberry, plum, and crushed oregano. Chalky and yeasty autolytic notes add complexity to the more muscular palate¸ and the mousse is very fine.
Kir-Yianni Xinomavro Ramnista 2009 $21
Kir-Yianni translates as “Master John” in reference to Yianni Boutaris, who worked with his brother Konstantinos at the family company, Boutari, until 1996. Today they make some of Naoussa’s best wines, including this one from the Ramnista Vineyard. It is earthy, smoky, and meaty, displaying notes of dark chocolate, strawberry, mint, thyme, oregano, and basil on a full, almost powerful body, with gripping tannins and vibrant acidity.
Thymiopoulos Vineyards Uranos 2009 $29
Here the Xinomavro speaks loud and clear. This wine has it all—red fruit, orange rind, thyme, sage, sundried tomato, some cedar; a sinewy, chewy quality; slightly gripping grape and oak tannins; and, to finish it off, a gushing natural acidity.
Thymiopoulos Vineyards Young Vines 2011 $15
Pretty, Pinot Noir-like notes of strawberry jam, cherry, cranberry, orange zest, button mushroom, and white flowers, plus only-in-Naoussa notes of red licorice, thyme, sage, daikon, fennel seed, and sundried tomato, give this wine a feistiness that belies its elegant presentation and contrasts with its unique, minty finish.
Vaeni 2007 $9
This is one of Naoussa’s more delicate offerings, with notes of sour cherry, strawberry, and white mushroom, plus a streak of cured meats. It is initially soft and light; then the tannins get more firm, especially on the long, flavorful, tart finish.
Planet Grape’s popular and entertaining speaker and host for corporate and private events, Master Sommelier Catherine Fallis, aka grape goddess, is also a professional Champagne sabreuse, a Contributing Editor of Sommelier Journal, the San Francisco Champagne Examiner for Examiner.com, the drinks columnist for Basil Magazine, a frequent contributor to CNBC’s WinePortfolio.com and Nation’s Restaurant News, a French Wine Scholar, and an instructor at the San Francisco Wine School. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/planetgrape and follow her on Twitter @planetgrape.