Before embarking on my Grecian voyage my understanding of Greek wine was pretty limited. I’d tasted the odd wine here and there and while I felt mildly positive about the wines I had been introduced to, my understanding of the indigenous varieties was somewhat cloudy. Was I blaming the fact that I couldn’t pronounce them?
I now have a more solid understanding about the history and culture of the Greek winemaking scene. As wine writer Andrea Frost recently wrote on jancisrobinson.com.au:
‘Greece had been making wine for several thousand years (it was so deeply entrenched in their culture it had been embodied in the deity of Dionysus) when, in the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire took power. Over the course of 400 years, 4000 years of winegrowing legacy was all but destroyed. Such a blow to a talisman of their culture must have been devastating.’
We began in Athens, the most ancient of cities. A city that has a sense of grunge and edginess, set against a backdrop of history and heritage. Wishing to explore I instead spent two days doing an intensive Greek wine education course, which gave me a huge appreciation and understanding of the legislation, regions and varieties of the country.
After successfully passing my exam (phew!) we jumped on a plane down to the Aegean island of Santorini to visit the enigmatic Paris Sigalas – a man who has spent much of his life dedicated to the Assyrtiko grape, and strongly believes it is unlike any other variety on this earth.
The contrast of those famous picturesque white towns on the cliffs, alongside the harsh, arid, vast expanse of dry, volcanic land is somewhat startling. The soil is a complex volcanic matrix of ferrous rock, lava, limestone and schist alongside light-as-a-feather pumice stones. The soil’s sandy texture is the reason the vineyards have survived phylloxera (formation of tiny galls on the leaf), a fact that indicates Santorini has some of the oldest vineyards in the world.
The vines must be trained in the shape of a basket, or kouloura, so as to protect the delicate bunches from the extremely strong and unforgiving winds. The wines take on a sea salt, almost briny character and are driven by firm minerality and pristine acidity.
It was a truly magnificent place, and I was reluctant to leave – but to the north we flew, into the hip, chaotic and cultural town of Thessaloniki. A place that although strongly affected by recent economic crisis, remains full of vibrancy and positivity.
From there we travelled to Naoussa and Amynteo with Kir-Yianni, a family owned winery lead by brothers Stellios and Mihalis Boutaris, where the mountains are vividly green and wild with cherry and peach orchards dominating the landscape. They concentrate on the noble red variety of the north, xinomavro (which translates to black acid) and are similar to nebbiolo or even pinot noir, and make everything from delicate, dry rose to chalky, savoury reds.
To spend time with a family so focused and dedicated to creating truly great wines was inspirational and the Kir-Yianni winery is definitely one to watch.