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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.