What is the Greek for to over-enthuse? I caught up with Jamie Oliver on the box the other night. Primarily because his new Channel 4 series on Mediterranean food kicked off in Thessaloniki, a city I developed a deep love for after a random visit. Out of it arose an obsession with the country’s flagship red variety, Xinomavro, whose spiritual home is 75 miles north in mountainous Naoussa.
Greece’s second city got 10 minutes of Oliver attention before he heeded the pukka siren call of the Islands and was ferried south. There was no name check of the wine that accompanied the seafront fish platter Jamie gushed over. It may well have been the high profile white equivalent of Xin – Assyrtiko.
Aldi put it on the supermarket map with a £6.99 version, described by one critic as “like Chablis with super powers”. A snip from a high altitude, sustainable single vineyard, this mainland version ticked lots of boxes – herbaceous, floral, citrussy, a hint of pepper, supple – without ever attaining the saline minerality and complexity, at a premium price, associated with examples from the volcanic vineyards of Santorini, that dazzlingly white holiday haven.
(Those Santorini selling points may soon be in short supply or hiked up in price – the difficult 2023 harvest is likely to yield only 30 per cent of the normal output).
At a Wines of Greece tasting in Manchester, the day after Jamie’s telly Odyssey, there was a plethora (word of Ancient Greek origin) of Assyrtikos from assorted regions, influenced by widely differing terroirs, but remarkably few Xinomavros. There were some 90 wines to sample at Blossom Street Social in Ancoats, so maybe I had been distracted by the whites – Malaqousia, Savatiano, Kydonitsa and the like. Among the reds, though, the stand-out grape turned out to be Agiorgitiko, which is Greece’s most widely planted red varietal. Its origins, though, are in the deep south of the the Peloponnese.
Its nickname is apparently ‘Blood of Hercules’. It doesn’t take a Herculean effort to appreciate its qualities. It reeks of mountain herbs and tastes of blackberry and cherry, usually with some oak spice involved. A beautiful expression on the day was the Nemea Grande Cuvee 2019 (£29.40) from Domaine Skouras, established almost 40 years ago by the redoubtable, Dijon-trained George of that ilk.
Matching it stride for stride, from young tyro and Nemea neighbour Evengelia Palivou, was Palivou Estate Nemea 2020. It has years ahead of it but already it is a rich expression of cherry, chocolate and vanilla flavours. She and her sister Vassiliki have taken over the running of the 40 acres or organically farmed vineyards. They and the rest of a new, more open generation are the reason Greek wine is suddenly on a surge. Promoting indigenous grapes, rather than pandering to ‘international’ varietals.
A lovely Palivou mission statement of this was on the table. La Vie en Rose is made from 100 per cent Moschofilero. A colleague detected Turkish delight on the nose; I loved the lemon and pear flavours unusual in a pink.
My third and final winery tip from the tasting is Estate Argyros, the largest vineyard owner on Santorini with more than 120 hectares of ungrafted vines up to 200 years in age. It’s now in the hands of fourth generation family winemaker Matthew Argyros and the trio of wines created from his new 2015 winery demonstrated the voluptuousness Assyrtiko can attain.
Expect to pay £50 for the Cuvee Monsignori, 14.5 per cent but beautifully balance packed with flavours of preserved lemons and wild herbs. At twice that price, offering a unique tatse of old Santorini, Assyrtiko combines with fellow native varietals Athiri and Aidani for the heavenly, honeyed Vin Santo Late Release 2002. Sourced from 200-year-old vineyards and aged for at least16 years, it’s very special.
Fenix on the rise in Manchester
Leaving aside perennial reservations about rough taverna retsina, Hellenic wine’s profile has been hindered by the absence of top end Greek restaurants. That will be remedied soon in Manchester by the arrival of Fenix. It’s a complete change of tack from the brothers behind the Modern Chinese fusion brand Tattu.
Fenix’s wine list offers a global roll call of crowd pleasers but the Greek element is shrewdly chosen from some of the country’s highest profile wineries – Thymiopoulos, Gaia, Hatzidakis, Alpha and that aforementioned Skouras Grande Cuvee (it will cost you £67, not a dramatic mark-up). More approachably priced are a series of blends from the Cretan winery Karavitakis, championing that island’s indigenous grape varieties such as Vilana, Vidiano, Kotsifali Mandilari and Liatiko.
Apostolos Thymiopoulos (above) is the king of Xinomavro in all its styles and an ambassador for all the new wave Greek winemakers. His own wines are widely available (try the entry level ‘Jeunes Vignes’ Xinomavro), An equally charismatic figure was Haridimos Hatzidakis, his life cut short aged just 50 in 2017. Born in Crete, he is credited with putting Santorini wine on the world map after replanting a vineyard abandoned after a 1956 earthquake and releasing his first bottles in 1999. Century-old indigenous vines from volcanic terroir, organic farming and minimal intervention in the winery. Result: Assyrtikos with a challenging saline minerality that I loved from my first sip. Noble Rot’s Shrine to the Vine online shop stocks the family’s single vineyard wines. Start with the Nykteri 2020.