Tag Archive for: Greece

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.

Wine dark sea. I’ve always loved that enigmatic go-to phrase of Homer. Hard to pin down its exact meaning until one sunset stroll along the vast esplanade of Greece’s second city, Thessaloniki. Nikis Avenue and its continuation doesn’t bother with fencing off the Thermaic Gulf. One stumble and you could plunge into Poseidon’s salty realm.

Sunset over the Thermaic Gulf viewed from our Thessaloniki hotel room

The home of the Gods, Mount Olympus, is a distant silhouette to the south west; the wine of the Gods undoubtedly springs from Naoussa, 75 mountainous miles north. Thessaloniki gave us so much but the taste for Xinomavro may be the most lasting legacy. Along with the view from our seafront hotel, but more of that later.

Xinomavro (pronounced ksee-NOH-mavro) is a red grape found all over Northern and Central Greece. Traditionally it’s challenging, tannic with high acidity, often compared with Italy’s Barolo grape, Nebbiolo. We were recommended it to accompany a herby lamb stew in Thessaloniki’s hip former Jewish quarter, Valaoritou.

We were immediately smitten, but that introduction didn’t yell Barolo. Back in Manchester, we unearthed a bottle that did – a Markowitis Xinomavro from 1999 on the list at the wonderful erst, Ancoats. That substantial bottle age delivered an enticing scent of violets and truffles. It tasted waxy, slightly nutty, the tannins having smoothed out without compromising the essential acidity. Very like a mature Barolo or Barbaresco. The wine is no longer available at erst but another seasoned vintage can be found at Wine & Wallop, Knutsford.

Since then I’ve deluged myself with various Xinomavros from Naoussa and the three other appellations across Macedonia. Earlier this year The Wine Society offered a toothsome special introductory case of six for a while and still offer a varied selection. I’d recommend as an introduction two contrasting bottles from the doyen of Xinomavro winemakers, Apostolos Thymiopoulos. His Jeune Vignes 2019 (£11.50) is all accessible bright red fruit and herbs, while from older grapes the Xinomavro Naoussa 2018 (£14.50) is more structured but with delicious ripeness. Almost a feel of Pinot Noir in there.

Note: you have to make a one-off modest payment to join the Society for life (membership numbers and sales have swelled dramatically during lockdowns). If you’d just like to try the 2018 without committing it’s available too at Majestic Wine.

There’s also an accessible £9.50 introduction in M&S’s new ‘Found’ range, where Thymiopoulos has blended 70% Xin with 30% Mandalaria grapes from distant Santorini.

If Xinomvavro is still under the radar with the wine-buying public – still too much in thrall to the mixed blessings of Malbec – it’s certainly a wine trade favourite. The great Tim Atkin MW raves about it in his blogs and in the engagingly maverick Noble Rot: Wines From Another Galaxy (Quadrille, £30) co-authors Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew pin its appeal down perfectly: “To think of it just as a Barolo-alike is to do it a disservice. Notes of dried herbs, tomato and olive unfurl with age, which contemporary vignerons balance by emphasising the primary fruit characters and taming its jagged tannins.”

There is a chance modern techniques could subdue the wildness of the grape. Over-oaking i happening. That’s not the case with the best example from Thymiopoulos, his award-winning Rapsani Terra Petra 2018 (Wine Society, £22), where sweetly fruited Xinomavro is blended with indigenous Krassato and Stavroto to add extra richness. It comes from a warmer climate, long-neglected vineyard on the slopes of Olympus. Told you it was the wine of the Gods.

These are real icons melding Greek Orthodox religiosity and the tourist buck


Let’s now banish the Gods and return to Greece’s culinary capital and its liveliest city. It has ancient roots and by the late 19th century was perhaps the most multicultural city in Europe with an Ottoman heritage co-existing with Greek Orthodox, the large Jewish population a catalyst for its prosperity. An essential guide to Thessaloniki’s turbulent history is Salonica City of Ghosts by Mark Mazower (Harper pb £14.99).

Yet today’s city, with a population of 800,000, is shaped by the 20th Century – or to be more specific one particular day, August 18, 2014. Over several hours the Great Fire wiped out that rich past, destroying 9.500 houses and leaving 70,000 homeless. So the city centre you see today with its elegant French style boulevards is the result of the rebuild. 

Expect no concessions to visitor squeamishness on city market stalls

A few significant remnants survive – the old city walls high above in the old town, alongside the tranquil Vladaton Monastery, the atmospheric churches of St Demetrios and Aghia Sofia, the Byzantine Thermal Baths – but essentially it is a city to stroll around and relish the essence of modern Greekness, the bars, markets and old-fashioned shops. It’s all a bit cluttered.

The Jewish Museum in Agiou MIna Street traces the rich culture of the community, which was wiped out when 60,000 were deported to the camps by the Nazis . Valaoritou, once home to the fabric shops of working class Jews, is the coolest place to be after dark as clubs and bars slowly restore its disused buildings.

The esplanade, which passes the White Tower, a 15th-century curiosity that is famous throughout Greece, is a spacious boon to cyclists and pedestrians. New public sculptures, including the much-photographed Umbrellas opposite Anthokomiki Park, are witty and attractive. Almost every month there’s a different festival – food, music, jazz, films, wine. There are book fairs and an LGBT Pride parade in June. The Greek word most associated with Thessaloniki is “xalara” which means “laid-back” or “cool” and you really feel it as you begin to explore.  

The White Tower is visible from seafront rooms at Daios Luxury Living

We had the perfect base, Daios Luxury Living, at Nikis 59, along from the White Tower. Our fifth floor room with balcony looked down onto the seafront with exhilarating views over the Gulf, with epic sunsets and then a glorious pale moon. It was so tempting to stay put with a glass of Assyrtiko (my favourite Greek white, but that’s another story) but beer called!

At the nearby Hoppy Pub owner George Alexakis, perhaps Greece’s foremost craft beer fanatic, holds court, discussing the merits of Magic Rock and the ascendancy of Cloudwater. He and fellow pioneers even brew their own beer; the Flamingo Road Trip IPA was delicious.

On his recommendation we ate at a new, acclaimed Cretan restaurant called Charoupi. The name means ‘carob’, that chocolate-like pod some see as a superfood and is certainly a symbol for Crete. Charoupi’s menu reflects the rustic food of the island (bone-in rabbit stew, goat cheeses), but it was a carob-driven dish that astonished – a pie made not with white flour, but with carob flour and topped with black and white sesame seeds and carob honey. Alas, not a Xinomavro on the wine list.

Getting there:

It’s a two hour flight with jet2.com from Manchester. We combined Thessaloniki with staying as guest of the highly recommended Eagle Villas resort two hours south in Halkidiki, near the gateway to Mount Athos. We could see the Holy Mountain, mantled in cloud far down the coastline. Iconic is an over-used term (and obviously real icons are everywhere here) but apt for the sealed-off realm of 20 Orthodox monasteries, clustering in its shadow. 

For a thousand years the barriers have been up. Present yourself for one of the strictly controlled three-day permits at the basement border post in the nearest town, Orianopoulis, and you might well fail to convince them of your suitability. It’s simpler for a woman. You’re absolutely forbidden entry into this 300 sq km male-only dominion, home to some 2,000 monks and stunning treasures.

We enjoyed a vicarious peek at the clifftop monastic fastnesses from a catamaran we hired, picnicking on board, surrounded by a school of playful dolphins. Feeling gloriously heathen.