Ambitious Greek Winemakers Take to the Mountains

Greece's new generation of winegrowers is moving on up, growing grapes at higher altitudes to make fresher, more natural wines, as Simon Werner reports.

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Plagies Aigialeias
Plagies Aigialeias

 

  • A new generation of winemakers eager to promote their terroir are producing lean, high-altitude wines on the steep slopes of Greece’s mainland and islands
  • Predominantly organic vineyards of autochthonous and international varieties thrive in the cooler temperatures at altitudes above 1,000m
  • Tending the steep bush vines requires a lot of hard manual labour, warranting the promotional campaigns for “heroic viticulture”
  • Fresh, elegant, low-intervention modern wines inspired by trends abroad herald a new era for Greek wine
  • Even cooperatives are on trend: a range of dry organic "untouched wine" from the steep slopes of Samos now exported
  • Optimal interplay between cool-climate terroir, young winemakers and market demand

 

Around 80% of the Greek land mass consists of mountainous landscapes, which means that the country has much more to offer than the usual holiday clichés of whitewashed houses, deep blue sea and cheerful taverna scenes. Pindos, Parnassus, Taygetos - Greece's mountainous regions have long been known to philologists, archaeologists and geographers. Now they are reaching a wider audience as energetic winegrowers grow vines on the steep slopes of the mainland and the islands. Sometimes these plots are even higher than 1,000m, an unusually lofty altitude for European viticulture.

As in Spain or Italy especially on Etna, these wines are increasingly making a name for themselves among enthusiasts for wines with a leaner style.

Cool Climate Greek Wine

On the Peloponnese peninsula, the "Island of Pelops", which has only been an island since the construction of the Corinth Canal at the end of the 19th century, a hub of modern Greek high-altitude wines has developed. This applies not only to Cavino's Domaine Mega Spileo, whose vineyards are located at around 800 metres, but also to other dynamic wineries run by a growing number of young pioneering winemakers.

East of Patras, in the north of the peninsula, lie the Slopes of Aigialeia PGI, a region of about 5,000ha. According to Melitini Xenaki, the oenologist of the Teramythos winery, this is where the highest proportion of organic vineyards in Greece are to be found.

This is explained by the constant air circulation on the steep slopes, where the vineyards reach altitudes of up to 1,100m. 

The cool breeze blows in from the nearby Gulf of Corinth and ensures healthy grapes. Water can be scarce in the dry summers, forcing the vine roots to dig deep into the stony soil, but in the spring they are refreshed by the melting snow. The temperature is relevant too. At 1,000m, it is around 7°C cooler than down in the Gulf, explains fellow winemaker Theodora Rouvali from the Rouvalis winery. At this height, even an imported grape variety such as Riesling can feel at home.

"People are always surprised that there are cool-climate wines in Greece," sats Anastasios Liolidis of mygreekwine.de.

Both Rouvalis and Tetramythos work organically and rely on autochthonous grape varieties such as the late-ripening Roditis as well as international varieties including Sauvignon Blanc.

Viticulture in Aigialeia is demanding. Due to the predominance of vine bush cultivation, a lot of manual labour is required, and the vineyards are small, steep and difficult to access. But producers like Theodora Rouvali believe the effort is worthwhile, which is why she has joined the CERVIM association, alongside Italian, French and Spanish vintners, in order to collectively promote the preservation of these extreme sites and the 'heroic viticulture' associated with them.

CERVIM

Heroic Viticulture

CERVIM ('Centro Ricerche sulla Viticoltura di Montagna') - is an association and research center for mountain viticulture. The network was founded in 1987, is based in Valle d'Aosta, Italy and created the 'Viticoltura Eroica' - heroic viticulture - as a slogan.

In addition to wineries, authorities or universities are also part of the network.

The extreme locations are defined as follows:

  • Vineyards at an altitude of more than 500 meters
  • Slopes of more than 30 percent
  • Terraced vines
  • Viticulture on small islands

Rouvalis is the only Greek member of CERVIM. Most members are in Italy, France and Spain. In Germany, Geisenheim University and the DLR Mosel are affiliated.

Young Winemakers, Modern Wines

To convey the terroir of Aigialeia to the bottle, both wineries rely on as little winemaking intervention as possible. So, yeasts are native, not commercial. sulphur additions are low, and filtration minimal, if used at all. The Rouvalis winery is also built on six levels allowing wine to be moved by gravity.

If the new generation of winemakers like Rouvali and Xenaki are adopting old and simple techniques, they do so with a background of often having studied and worked abroad. Their aim is to make modern wines with lower alcohol levels. "You notice that the style of the wines is also changing due to the generation change. They are fresher and more elegant," says Haris Papapostolou.

High Altitude, Cool Climate, Low Intervention

"Greek winemakers have not received the recognition they deserve for a long time. The new generation is now tapping into that potential," explains Anastasios Liolidis. Greece's winegrowers are adopting the mantras of modern wine: High Altitude, Cool Climate, Low Intervention.

At the same time, another trend is emerging in Aigialeia: dry Mavrodaphne. Once known as a fortified wine from Patras with a dubious reputation, the grape is now being skilfully vinified to produce a dry, sophisticated red wine..

A Different Kind of Cooperative

Far away from the Peloponnese, off the Turkish coast, lies the island of Samos, known in wine circles for its sweet wine made from Muscat grapes. For some time now, however, the cooperative, the largest producer on the island, has also been making dry wines. A new addition to the portfolio is a high-altitude series called Athiktos Oinos, with a distinctly natural touch. The name actually means 'unscathed wine'.

Prophitis - the Prophet - comes from 450m above sea level. Erimitis - the Hermit - comes next, at 600m and, above that, at 1,000 metres is Vounitis -  the Mountain Climber. The Samiot vineyards are also often terraced and thus hard to work. For their organic portfolio, the cooperative works with long-term contract growers whose grapes are vinified separately in small batches.

Unusual for a cooperative, the wines are matured in used wood and concrete eggs and then bottled 'unadulterated', unfiltered and unsulphured. The first bottling was in the spring of 2021. According to the company, the response in export markets, including Germany, has been very positive. These sales are handled Greek Wine Cellars (GWC), which also hold the majority shares in Rouvalis.From Myth to Reality

Northern Greece

Whether in the Epirus region (see box) or in Amyndeo - there is no shortage of high-altitude vineyards in northern Greece either. To the south  west of Thessaloniki, beyond the Thermaic Gulf - also known as the Gulf of Salonika -  lies the PDO Rapsani, on the foothills of Mount Olympus. 

With an altitude, at its peak, of 2,918m, this is, of course, home to the ancient gods, a factor which is naturally exploited by winery marketers. 

"Coming from Olympus with the mythology associated with it, the wine sticks in the minds of the guests," states Jannis Simeonidis, export manager at Tsantali. With a turnover of €24.3m in 2021 and vineyards in a number of regions, the company sells its Rapsani wines predominantly to restaurants. 

Rapsani is the southernmost appellation in which Xinomavro is traditionally grown but the variety shares its role in a field blend with two others: Krassato and Stavroto. As Simeonidis says, the classic cuvée is both unique and typically Greek. The vineyards are up to 800 metres high. From about 450 metres, bush vines dominate. With a typical ABV of 12.5 % vol., the wines are light and refreshing

 

Optimal Interplay Between Terroir, Market and Vintners

Theodora Rouvali
Theodora Rouvali
Katogi Averoff - Mountains and Bears

In Metsovo, a village in the mountainous region of Epirus (north-west Greece), in the middle of the Pindos Mountains, lies the Katogi Averoff winery The vineyards are at an altitude of around 1,000m, making them some of the highest in the country.

Evangelos Averoff planted vines in the 1960s more as a hobby than as a source of income, and was the first person in Greece to grow Cabernet Sauvignon. The limited-edition Cabernet Sauvignon is labeled as Mare Ursa, the Romanian for 'big bear', in recognition of the fact that the Romanian language is still used in this remote area which is also home to brown bears.

Curiously, these creatures ignore the Cabernet Sauvignon and numerous Greek and international varieties in the winery's portfolio, but consume almost a third of the annual Gewurztraminer crop

 

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