Back in November 2021 I was finally able to make it out to Greece to get amongst the vines and speak face-to-face with the producers I’ve been working remotely with since I took over buying for Greece in April 2020. There’s a real ‘buzz’ around Greek wine at The Society currently, and you, our members, can’t seem to get enough from this most ancient of wine-producing countries. While it’s been a joy sourcing wines remotely, nothing quite beats getting your feet amongst the vines and tasting in situ. And although a week to explore might sound like enough time, eight flights in seven days meant I barely scratched the surface.
Naoussa – a winemaker’s paradise
The trip started in the north, in the hills of central Macedonia, with a visit to member favourite, Apostolos Thymiopoulos. His winery is currently undergoing a pretty serious expansion, with a huge gravity-fed cellar being cut into the hill behind his family home, a project that will see his capacity for production and storage at least double over the next couple of years.
We then sat down overlooking the vines and tasted through his range, sampling new vintages and a few older bottles which he was kind enough to open. The highlight for me was the 2019 Alta Xinomavro from the granitic soils of Fyteia, the highest-altitude village of Naoussa, aged in 3rd, 4th and 5th-use barrels to promote ethereal aromatics and pure fruit. Another highlight was his 2011 Xinomavro Rosé which just proved the ageing capacity of his ‘standard’ rosé. We also tasted his three single-vineyard wines, Aytorizo, Kayafas and Vrana Petra all from 2017, each showing incredible nuance and class. The Aytorizo is dark-fruited and spicy and very oak-forward currently. One to age, certainly. The Kayafas is broader, richer, softer on the palate with more red fruits, like cherry and strawberry, and delicious now. The Vrana Petra is the jewel in the crown, with a stony, mineral edge and sweet red fruit on the broad, structured palate. One that’ll last for decades.
Apostolos is also a keen advocate for Naoussa as a region, and was more than happy to take me on a quick tour to visit the other producers we work with (he knows everyone and is the poster boy for the region). We stopped in on Ktima Foundi whose ‘Naoussea’ has proven extremely popular with members, and Domaine Karydas whose site in Ano Gastra is unique in that it’s one of the only north-facing vineyards in the region, giving wines with real structure and intensity.
The rolling hills of Naoussa are a winemaker’s paradise; there was more than one mention of its similarity to Barolo whilst driving through the vines. The issue is that hardly any of the land is planted to grape vines – something Apostolos is desperately trying to change, paying above the average rates for grapes or land, and trying to push people away from peach production to viticulture. He’s also a keen advocate of organic viticulture, ensuring that all of his own vineyards are fully converted and approved, as well as any that he purchases grapes from.
Keen to show me his Rapsani vineyards (Rapsani is a separate region just to the south of Naoussa next to Mount Olympus) we jumped in the car and dashed down the motorway before my flight to Athens. It’s a simply stunning wine growing region, with steep hills and numerous aspects providing outstanding growing conditions for the three grapes of the region – xinomavro, stavroto and krassato. Though it’s a similar story in Rapsani to Naoussa, too few vines as proven in this picture of Apostolos’ Karavas vineyard – it’s roughly the size of a football pitch but looks like a postage stamp against the woods that surround it.
Another visit that I was keen to make happen was to Kostis Dalamara, another of the most exciting young producers in the Naoussa region. When I mentioned this to Apostolos his reply was exactly what I’d come to expect – ‘Kostis is my best friend. Leave it with me’. After a few quick phone calls we were on our way to Dalamara, and Apostolos had arranged for his favourite restaurant in the town to open especially for us (at least that’s what he said!). Kostis and Apostolos are the epitome of what is exciting in Naoussa – young winemakers who grew up amongst their family’s vines, have travelled extensively, studied abroad and have returned to drive xinomavro into the limelight with outstanding estate wines. Dalamara’s straight Naoussa is one of the most opulent expressions of xinomavro you’ll find, and his Paliokalias bottling, which is only made in exceptional years, sits at the very pinnacle of Greek red winemaking.
After another full day exploring the vineyards of Naoussa and Rapsani it was back on a plane to fly to Athens for the night. The next day was a busy one, an early start to fly to Santorini where we would spend approximately four hours before flying back to Athens in order to catch our connecting flight to Crete. I’d never been to Santorini before so I was obviously excited. Clear blue skies, black sandy beaches and white-walled houses – what more could you want?
Santorini - picture-postcard perfect?
While the islands were as impressive as I’d always imagined, the weather was hardly ideal, with billowing winds and an intense temperature drop at about 4pm. Our first visit was to Hatzidakis who we’ve been supporting at The Wine Society for many years. The winery is an impressive sight, two tunnels each about 10 metres high cut into a hill in the south of the island. It was Haridimos’ master creation, but one he’d never see finalised.
After a quick tour with new head winemaker Stella Papadimitriou, we tasted some of their latest releases including an amazing vertical of Skitali, the wine created to commemorate the life of Haridimos and to signify the passing on of the baton (literal meaning of skitali) to the next generation. It was also the first time I got to try the oaked Skitali – effectively a nykteri (oak-aged assyrtiko) this was powerful (14%), nutty and incredibly long.
The next stop was Artemis Karamolengos, producers of our newly released Exhibition Santorini Assyrtiko which has been extremely popular with members for its refreshing citrus and saline style and incredible value. After the obligatory winery tour, we tasted in their gorgeous restaurant, with highlights being their single-vineyard wines, in particular the Papas 2017 which I was assured was produced in tiny quantities. After a quick lunch and a much-needed beer it was back on the plane to return to Athens to catch our flight to Crete.
Crete – Greece’s largest island
The following day, after an early morning stroll through the gorgeous harbour town of Chania where we’d stayed the night before, we headed up into the hills to visit Karavitakis winery. Crete spans 160 miles from east to west, within which are six different mountain ranges and 12 peaks all higher than the UK’s tallest, Ben Nevis. This natural barrier separates the island east to west and blocks the intense heat coming up from north Africa, as well as providing amazing aspects for mountain viticulture. Our first stop was Nikos’ new project, a hill south of Chania that’ll soon become Crete’s largest single-vineyard site at 11 hectares.
Back at the winery we went through an extensive tasting of new vintages, including their popular ‘Kompsos’ range, the Nomas assyrtiko and a few of their more premium wines. 2021 was a warm year across much of Greece, but thanks to Crete’s high altitudes and ample rainfall on the north side of the island, the wines have retained great freshness and purity. Karavitakis ferment all of their parcels separately, meaning I was able to take a pick of my preferred tanks from across the range we buy – a real benefit of The Wine Society and another reason I’d encourage you to try Nikos’ 2021s.
Back on the mainland
After eating far too much at lunch we headed back to the airport and returned to Athens for a welcome cup of tea and an early night. The following morning we were heading to Nemea, firstly to visit Seméli. The drive from Athens into the Peloponnese takes approximately two hours and is one that shouldn’t be missed. Cancel out the almost endless power stations and you cross the Corinth Canal past the Acrocorinth, a monolithic rock overseeing the ancient city of Corinth. There’s something incredibly permanent about the Acrocorinth, and it’s clear to see why it was such an important vantage point throughout its history.
Seméli winery is one of the most beautiful in Greece, occupying a commanding view out across much of Nemea above the village of Kisi (where some of the finest agiorgitiko comes from). The money spent on the hospitality side of the business is clear to see, with a stunning dining room and infinity pool at the front taking full advantage of the wonderful views. Sadly, there was no time for a dip. We were here to taste! The hugely popular Society’s Greek White was made at Seméli winery up until the 2021 vintage. But after head winemaker Leonidas Nassiakos left we decided to follow him (he owns the vines which are used to produce our own-label white) rather than stay with Seméli, so this was a good chance to meet the new winemaker and learn more about future plans. While too early to see genuine change, I was hugely impressed by the red wines and have stocked a few since. They have great purity and richness of fruit and aren’t over oaked. A celebration of the indigenous variety rather than foreign wood.
The next visit was to see Leonidas in order to blend the 2021 vintage of Society’s Greek white at the Kintonis Winery in Aigio. Longtime supporters of our Greek range might remember the Ionos white, a non-vintage blend of indigenous and international varieities which was made at Kintonis. The winery owner, George Kintonis, was only too happy to give Leonidas free reign to produce our Greek white at his winery while he starts work building his own. The final wine was almost an identical blend to the first iteration of this wine, around 55% moschofilero and 45% roditis, and is richer in fruit and weight thanks to the warm 2021 vintage. A delicious wine and a Wine Champion in our 2022 blind tasting.
On to Tetramythos – trailblazers in sustainability
Our next stop was one of the highlights of the trip. Tetramythos are one of the world leaders in sustainable viticulture and natural winemaking. Despite Greece being Europe’s third most mountainous country, the majority of vineyards are at relatively low altitude (certainly below 500 metres), but Tetramythos are an exception. Whilst following the Gulf of Corinth coast along the 8A road from Athens you suddenly turn off the coastal road and start heading up. And up. And up. And after about two miles of road, you’re at approximately 800m. In fact, go a bit further and you’re at the Kalavryta Ski Resort.
This area of Greece benefits from the lowest light pollution in the country, as well as its beautifully pure water which the vines love. Tetramythos have been certified organic since 1996 and are champions of low-intervention winemaking. All of their wines are spontaneously fermented (that means no yeasts are added), and with their ‘natural’ range, they take it one step further by starting the fermentation outside the winery so that the ferment isn’t contaminated by the winery’s native yeast cultures. They’re also keen purveyors of the concept of terroir, making sure even their PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) wines are labelled with the vineyard/region they come from. Even the resin used for their retsina is taken from pine trees in the same vineyard as the roditis grapes.
In a warm year like 2021 Tetramythos’ high-altitude vineyards have been a huge success, providing wines of real freshness. Their malagousia and roditis were real stars and I was keen to make them available to members as soon as possible. Winemaker Panagiotis Papagiannopoulos also opened up a bottle of 2011 Malagousia which was simply sensational, having moved from the light orange-blossom lift of its youth to a toasty, biscuity and tropical wine in its maturity, proof these wines can age wonderfully.
Nemea – where agiorgitiko reigns supreme
Our final visit was to Skouras, a winery well-known by Wine Society members and a big player in Nemea. They produce a wide range of wines from aromatic whites to big, rich, oaky reds, and also own one of the most scenic vineyards in Greece – Megas Oenos. Nemea the region is home to the agiorgitiko grape, with Nemea PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) wines needing to comprise exclusively of this versatile red grape.
The region itself is a series of valleys, opening and closing like the bellows of an accordion across the landscapeMatthew Horsley
The region itself is a series of valleys, opening and closing like the bellows of an accordion across the landscape, of which Skouras are in the most southerly. I was shown around by Dimitris Skouras, the son of owner and founder George Skouras, who trained in Marseille before working at La Fleur Pétrus in 2016. The tasting was a great chance to get an idea of the Skouras style and to see the thoughts of Dimitris who, I imagine, is being lined up to take over in the future. The wines are certainly impressive, but much of Skouras’ exports are to America, and the wines reflect the more opulent, oaky style popular in that market. Some are too much, in my opinion, but others, such as their Grand Nemea, have just about the right balance. Dimitris was kind enough to open up a bottle of 2006 Grand Nemea alongside the 2016 which was absolutely ‘à point’ and would have fooled many into thinking it was aged claret from a warm year.
Whilst it was a shorter trip than I’d hoped it was great to finally get out to Greece and get a lay of the land. While I feel I’ve learnt a lot about Greece since taking over buying from this fascinating country back in April 2020, you really can’t hope to master a region without going there in person; to see the landscape, feel the soil, experience the weather and, most importantly, talk to the people. Greece is now an essential part of our offering at The Wine Society and I can’t wait to continue to discover more wines for our members to enjoy.
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Read Matthew’s in-depth guide to Greece