A land of myth and legend
The city of Naoussa, in Macedonia's Imathia region, is home to one of Greece's most important, distinguished and celebrated PDOs (Protected Designation of origin), the first region in Greece to get this official recognition. Located approximately 70 miles west of Thessaloniki (the largest city in northern Greece), Naoussa lies in the foothills of Mount Vermio with the great plain of Macedonia to the east. The mountain range extends and curls around the western side of Naoussa up towards North Macedonia, protecting the region from the bitterly cold southerly winds that are drawn down from the Balkan Peninsula, whilst also bringing in cool, damp winds from the Aegean coast resulting in a surprisingly cool growing area for one that's at the same longitude as Menorca and Basilicata.
Although the PDO of Naoussa, located up on the hills, is harsh and barren, the plains to the east are fertile lands. According to Herodotus, the great Greek historian, it was in the great plain that the legendary King Midas had his gardens, and just outside Naoussa was where the great philosopher, Aristotle, set up his school and taught the likes of Alexander the Great. So not only are these lands fertile, but they're also steeped in history.
The lure of Naoussa
It was in Naoussa where the northern Greek uprising against the Ottoman empire both started and finished. A brave force of Greeks, who were outnumbered four-to-one, heroically held off the Turkish armies before eventually succumbing after Ottoman reinforcements arrived. The fall and massacre of Naoussa signalled the end of the Greek revolution in central Macedonia and earnt the town the moniker 'The Heroic City of Naoussa'.
In more recent times Naoussa was famed for its textiles, but after most of the factories closed and a long battle with unemployment ensued in the area, the xinomavro grape and the delicious wine it produces, became the land's heroine. The city is home to the only PDO in the prefecture, with just over 300 hectares of xinomavro planted, with nine named villages on a patchwork of soils from sand and limestone to loam and clay, providing an almost unlimited number of differing terroirs.
Xinomavro is a capricious variety, with many describing it as the 'diva' of Greek viticulture, and it's easy to see why. Xinomavro suffers from a long list of potential challenges, including sensitivity to powdery mildew, downy mildew, and botrytis. It is low in anthocyanins (meaning the wines are often light in colour and brown easily), a potassium deficiency which manifests itself as a low pH, has numerous differing clones of various qualities and deficiencies, and all whilst needing to be planted at around 4,000 vines per hectare on infertile soils to restrict vigour and avoid vegetal flavours.
However, in the right hands it produces some of the world's most complex, aromatic and ageworthy reds. Wines that burst with flavours of cherry, sundried tomato, dark chocolate, nutmeg and clove spice, with a texture that's both sensual and severe.
The winemaker's craft
The winemaker plays a crucial role in the style of Naoussa xinomavro, with more traditional styles being picked earlier, with higher acidity, grippier tannins and less colour, whilst more modern examples are picked later, often go through a long cold-soak to extract greater colour, and are typically fuller, softer and richer in style. Then there are wines like those of Apostolos Thymiopoulos, a favourite amongst members, who has found the perfect balance between the two – someone who, a bit like King Midas, seems to turn everything he touches to gold.
The proposed 'crus' of Naoussa
This combination of the grape's capricious nature, differing clones, cool climate, numerous winemaking practices and patchwork of terroirs results in multiple different expressions of xinomavro. So much so that there's regular discussions about the differing 'crus' of Naoussa, and the possibility of these becoming written into legislature.
Trilofos – one of the low-altitude vineyards where the soil is richer and mesoclimate warmer, resulting in softer wines with lower acid and higher sugar levels.
Fitia – close to Trilofos but much higher in altitude where it's cooler giving later ripening, more perfumed wines.
Pola Nera – in the north of the region at a similar altitude to Fitia (circa 250 metres) but produces wines with less fragrance.
Yianakohori, Stranzta and Ramnista – all have similar terroirs but at descending elevations with Yianakohori producing the richest and most fruit-forward of the three. Perhaps proving that altitude is the key to Naoussa.
Gastra – this area produces the most tannic and unforgiving of xinomavros; like the Serralunga d'Alba wines of Barolo.
Paliokalias – possibly Naoussa's first 'single-vineyard' and arguably the region's own grand cru. Owned almost exclusively by the Dalamára winery it produces deep, concentrated and structured xinomavro.
However, there are very few wines from a single 'cru', so comparison between them all is difficult. For the moment the real skill is in the blending of fruit from across the region. Thankfully, with grape growing and wine production becoming a major part of Naoussan life, and a career that many aspire to, more and more of the younger generation are returning from studying abroad to work the lands and pour their newly gained knowledge into this incredible region.
The future is bright for Naoussa.
Indulge in some Greek-style dishes: Felicity Cloake's pork souvlaki