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Articles May, 2009

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Greece's Northern Territory: Project Xinomavro

In Greece, the “big four” indigenous grapes are pretty clear—Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro and Assyrtiko. Of that group, the whipping boy is often Xinomavro, which, like old style Barolo, can be earthy, acidic, stringent and rustic. While the other red grape in the Big Four (Agiorgitiko) makes crowd pleasing wines that might remind you a bit of fine Gamay without carbonic maceration, Xinomavro can be an acquired taste, not as likely to have mass market appeal. In the long run, however, it may well be that Xinomavro becomes regarded as Greece’s best indigenous red grape, as it also ages beautifully and has complexity and character. Even inexpensive Xinomavro can age surprisingly well. Boutari, the long established Greek winery, proved it to me with a vertical beginning with the 1968 at the winery. The potential is considerable. I can foresee it becoming a geek favorite.

Photo: The vineyards at Kir-Yianni

The epicenter for Xinomavro is Greece's North, particularly Naoussa, where Xinomavro is enshrined by appellation law. Nearby or related appellations include Macedonia, Amyndeon and Goumenissa. You can start from Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city. Start driving. There can be a lot of it. It is not always so easy to explore this area of Greece. It is a hike from Athens and a destination in and of itself.  

One fascinating development is the emergence of great, little Xinomavro boutiques, wineries like Alpha Estate, Thimiopoulos and Domaine Karydas. These are folks who are taming the rustic tendencies of the grape.  There is a risk, to be sure, that they will also create that “old style” versus “new style” dichotomy we see in Piedmont. At the moment, everything is still in development, and there are virtues to all visions. Alpha Estate’s Xinomavro is so elegant it sometimes seems more reminiscent of Pinot Noir. The owners say the style is different because the Amyndeon terroir is different than Naoussa, likely to produce more red fruit, less tannin. Thimiopoulos extracts its Uranos bottling for 40 days, and makes Xinomavro with fine aromatics and relative richness. I loved the texture from Karydas. When I poured a Karydas for a Greek restaurant owner, he simply broke into a smile. It was well priced, too.

Photo: Start in historic Thessaloniki. Mosaic, 250 A.D., Archaeological Museum

There is much more to the North, to be sure, than Xinomavro, as many wineries focus on other grapes, including international ones. But if you are interested in Xinomavro, Northern Greece is where you have to go. This is an interesting time in Greece and in the development of this grape. The best, I think, is yet to come, as experimentation is well under way. In the meanwhile, some wineries to look for:

ALPHA ESTATE  (Amyndeon)
This fine little boutique is poised to become one of Greece’s best red wine producers. Although they experiment with many international grapes, including Syrah and Pinot Noir, the old vines Xinomavro (300 cases, about 50% made from very old vines in excess of 50 years) is superb and a harbinger of special things to come.

BOUTARI (Naoussa)
This old line winery, dating back to the 19th Century, is a familiar name in many regions now.  Naoussa is a signature appellation, and that means Xinomavro. The track record here goes back a long, long way and the wines age very well. The basic wines are often relative bargains.

This boutique, a family run operation, produces only around 20,000 bottles total. They make nothing but Xinomavro. The prices have been quite reasonable and the quality can be quite high.

KIR-YIANNI (Naoussa)
An offshoot of Boutari, this winery has some old vineyards and makes powerful wines that need a long time in bottle. It was founded by the grandson of Boutari's founder and has been a force in the Naoussa appellation. Patience, patience.

PAVLOU (Amyndeon)
This relatively new winery was just completed in 2006, although it possesses some very old vines. There is some interesting potential here, as yet unrealized.

TATSIS (Goumenissa)
The Xinomavro wines here are likely blended with Negoska, another grape no doubt obscure to American consumers. The result can be a little earthy and rustic, but this old line winery, dating back to the 1920s and making wines from the Goumenissa appellation since the appellation’s founding, has some new potential.

This little family run boutique is rounding into form with its relatively new and very interesting “Uranos” bottling, combining intensity and richness. They produce about 30,000 bottles total.

This big co-op takes a large part of the grapes produced in the region. It provides some value for the money, making honest wines that have some earthy complexity at pretty good prices.


Reviews of the wines and wineries mentioned herein are in Issue 180 of the Wine Advocate (or linked online overflow). All photos by Mark Squires.


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