Sex, drama & family feuds in Greece

It’s nothing if not exciting travelling around the vineyards of Macedonia in northern Greece – and the wines are a revelation too.

I’ll get the sex part over with first. I have discovered the existence of a commercial vineyard that I will never, ever be able to visit, however many strings I pull. The vineyard is leased out to Greece’s largest exporting wine company, Tsantali and is situated on the Holy site of Mount Athos, an area with 22 monasteries that is banned to all females. Some desperate Greek women have tried to smuggle themselves in dressed as men, but all have failed. But, one vineyard is just like another, isn’t it? Well, no, actually.

xOne beautiful Tsantali vineyard that I did visit is on the foothills of the historic Mount Olympus, near the village of Rapsani. Here the traditionally farmed vineyards have low, free-standing bush” vines up to 50 years old. Three grape varieties are mixed together: Xinomavro, Stavroto and Krassato. Sadly, the farmers want to change to higher yielding and easier-to-manage trellised vineyards so old traditions may die, even here in Greece. Tsantali’s Rapsani Reserve is aged for around a year in 300-litre barrels producing a well-balanced red, with plummy, spicy flavours and soft structure.

The Boutaris family established the Boutari Wine Company in the 19th century and are today one of the largest Greek wine producers with an excellent range from all over the country. Their main winery is in the appellation of Naoussa. Here too, is Yiannis Boutaris, who split from his brother a few years ago to start his own venture, Ktima Kyr-Yianni (“The estate of Master Yianni”). Having secured some of the family’s best vineyards, he concentrates on small quantities of top-level wines. A highly respected consultant oenologist in Greece, Yianni’s elegant Syrah is world class.

Fifteen years ago, I remember being given a fine warm-climate Cabernet blend Château Carras in a blind tasting. To discover that it was Greek was extraordinary at a time when we thought that Retsina was the only wine produced in Greece. Domaine Carras still exists, but only just. When the Carras family went bankrupt a decade ago, the banks took control and the fabulous 450-hectare terraced vineyards were left to struggle with only an annual winter prune and a harvest of whatever grapes the local goats had left. New owners are in place, but it will take several years before there’s any hope of real recovery.

Fortunately Greece, and the region of Macedonia in particular have several worthy successors to Carras. An ex-oenologist from Carras, Evangelos Gerovassiliou set up on his own in 1988 and now has a state-of-the-art boutique winery just south of Thessaloniki. Much in demand as a consultant, Gerovassiliou’s wines are some of the most consistent and best in Greece. He has revived an obscure aromatic white grape, the Malagousia and makes an excellent estate red from 85% Syrah and 15% Merlot.

xAnother star winery is Constantin Laziridi, based outside the town of Drama. From an estate of over 100 hectares and a large modern, marbled winery emerges a great selection of wines. The successful Amethystos range owes its name to the legend that anyone who drinks whilst holding an amethyst will not get drunk. The Drama region seems particularly promising, encircled with hills and with coastal influences from the Aegean, it has a northern continental climate allowing a large range of grapes to be grown. Other producers to look out for here are the small Wine Art Estate at Microchori as well as a huge new venture named Biblia Chora from Oinopedian, a group of investors and winemakers including Gerovassiliou.Like most of Greece, the Macedonia region is steeped in history and there are archaeological sites near many of the roads that lead from Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city.

xA group of the most switched-on wineries have got together to form the Wine Roads of Macedonia. This organisation provides tourists with maps and leaflets guiding them to wineries that welcome visitors and indicating nearby archaeological sites.
Although some parts of the wine industry in this Old World country are slow to change, examples of New World thinking are plentiful. Funds have been obtained to revive and improve old vineyards, establish new ones, study indigenous grape varieties and re-fit cellars with gleaming new equipment. The results can be tasted in the wines, which each year come closer to competing with the rest of the world in terms of quality, yet retain their own individuality. Why else would Steve Daniel, chief buyer for Oddbins, have taken such a shine to them? If you haven’t yet tried these wines, do … and if you holiday in northern Greece, don’t fail to visit a couple of wineries.