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Chief Varieties Employed in the Commercial Production of Red Wine




 


The
success of Greece's red wines in export markets is often thought to hinge on just a couple of red wine grapes; Agiorgitiko and Xynomavro. At just the time these varieties have begun being taken seriously outside of Greece, however, the cultivation and vinification of more obscure cultivars are stealing some of the spotlight. This only adds to the intrigue.

This page includes descriptions of a number of cultivars, most of which are included due to their obvious commercial significance. Others may be of less commercial importance, but still represent important traditions. Also noted are the relatively obscure varieties that are experiencing successful revivals at the hands of forward-thinking vintners.

Photographs courtesy of The Greek Vitis Database.


Agiorgitiko
Agiorgitiko is one of two red cultivars (the other being Xynomavro) on which the hopes of many Greek winemakers rest. These hopes are not so ambitious or unrealistic as to expect a major international role for the grape—only some acceptance, an appreciation for its wines and the opportunity to create export markets that support the significant element of the industry centered around it. Agiorgítiko is certainly within the class of grapes to which Mihalis Boutaris refers when he speaks of the potential of heat resistant cultivars from Greece for warm-climate New World producers [see These Old Cultivars].

Agiorgítiko has at least one advantage over some other important red cultivars from Greece: it does not defy comparison to more familiar varieties. A poll of winemakers in Nemea, the region in which the grape is traditional and reigns supreme, solicited near-universal agreement that Agiorítiko compares most readily with Merlot. This is not to imply, however, too many specific exact attributes in common, but rather the kinds of characteristics one would employ in making decisions, for example, concerning where its wines would fit on Western wine menus. It is certainly similar in its range of stylistic expression and blending potential. At their best Nemea and other Agiorgitiko wines display "good" tannins in abundance. As a result they are outstanding candidates for both graceful barrel aging and carbonic maceration. Fruit and aromas can vary from medium cherry to dark berry.

Agiorgítiko lends itself to both personal expression and serious volume production. The differences between low-yield and high-yield fruit being considerable and distinguished in the main part by vineyard elevation, there has been a call for a super-appellation, High Nemea, to make these distinctions within the Nemea appellation zone more clear.

More information on Agiorgítiko can be found in the Regions section of Greekwinemakers.com under Peloponessos.

Kotsifali

Kotsifali is the underdog of Greek red cultivars. Outside of Crete it doesn't seem to garner much attention or respect. This mirrors a tendency in Greece to overlook Crete in favor of regions that have experienced more rapid and exciting viticultural growth. It may reflect, too, a market-driven shift in taste towards the "cosmopolitan" varieties associated with France and the New World. Indeed Kotsifali belongs to a more Mediterranean and perhaps more eclectic, class of grapes. Kotsifali, however, may well be Crete's secret weapon. In 1974, Phylloxera began a gradual incursion on the island's vineyards. by the end of the 1980s, during precisely the era in which momentum was building towards a modern wine industry, many growers (who had at least had time to graft vines to new rootstalk) found themselves tending brand new vines. The effect on Kotsifali wine in the Peza and Arhanes districts was severe. While Kotsifali had been promptly replanted, its best features are displayed mainly in fruit from older vines. For producers without access to old-vine grapes, quality took a huge dip. Yield management has been another factor contributing to the low status of the variety. Growers in Crete, often locked into cooperative economies, have been slow to explore the potential of low-yield farming. Those who have applied modern vineyard strategies have been rewarded with superior wines.

Appellations in Peza and Arhanes stipulate that Kotsifali be blended with some Mantilaria. Proportions of between 80/20 to 60/40 are common. For Kotsifali, Mantilaria is a particularly fortunate améliorateur. Miles Lambert-Gocs writes extensively on the subject in his 1990 book, The Wines of Greece.


Greek wine professionals tend to liken Kotsifali wine to Bordeaux, which is not to draw a comparison of the variety with Cabernet Sauvignon in any strict sense. Rather they have the make-up in in alcohol, acidity and extract by which Kotsifali can benefit by from years of maturation in bottle... [At] the end of that time the texture and the overall feel of the best Kotsifali wines may be reminiscent of Nebbiolo and Brunello. In specifics of bouquet, however, they are quite unique.

In speaking of the Kotsifali in connection with Bordeaux, it also ought to be emphasized that the variety is not without tendencies that beg correction... [In] addition to augmenting tannin content, lowering acidity, and tempering alcoholic degree in Kotsifali–all to the real advantage of the wine–the Mandilaria also deepens color and makes it more stable...


Lamberts-Gocs' assessment of the advantages of bottle-aging Kotsifali/Mandilaria is not overstated. The 1988 Arhanes (Arhanes Cooperative)–full of sediment and a magnificent contrast of plum and orange hues–was especially soft and refined in 1996 (although it was produced from pre-Phylloxera grapes).

The fortune of Kotsifali is overdue for change. Its wines (though not yet its status) are on the rise. The two regional Cooperatives (Arhanes and Peza) produce appellation reds of increasing quality. Two fairly large producers, Miliarakis and Creta-Olympias, both of whom have met with success creating and meeting demand among tourists and Germans, have augmented their portfolios to include conscientious, upscale versions. Lyrarakis, who produces three Kotsifali wines, the first a Peza Appellation with Mantilaria, the second a Kotsifali/Syrah blend and third a blend with Mantilaria and Carignane. reveals the true potential of the grape in both modern and traditional styles


Krasato
Krasato is native to Rapsani in Thessaly where it is a component with Xynomavro and Stavroto in Rapsani Appellation red wines. Suitable for blending, but lacking in anthocyanins and alcohol, it is not vinified, at least commercially, in mono-varietal form. This cultivar is not widely grown but can be found farther south in Magnisia and sporadically in Makedonía.

Liatiko
Liatiko is an early-ripening grape (its name derives from the Greek word for July) found mainly in Eastern Crete, but also on Milos in the Kyklades Islands. On Crete its commercial production is centered in Sitia, where the Sitia OPAP appellation requires a blend of Liatiko with with 20% Mandilaria. A slightly different, more productive clone is one of the only traditional red varieties grown in Dafnes, just south of Iraklio city. Wines qualifying for the Dafnes OPAP appellation consist of 100% Liatiko. It is believed to have been a traditional component (one of the few red grapes) employed in Malvasia. Liatiko is a distinctly red grape, but produces wines of notably orange hue, more so even than Kotsifali (see above). According to Miles Lambert-Gocs, Liatiko is a "variety whose lineage goes so far back that Greek ambelographers regard one variant of it as the ancestor of the Corinthian grape used in Greece since ancient times to make currants." The two main producers of Liatiko wines are the Cooperatives of Sitia and Dafnes. Yannis Economou, one of Crete's promising new breed of winemakers, produces a highly regarded appellation version, a complex wine whose modern treatment discloses the true nature and potential of the grape.

Limnio
Limnio is universally believed to be the ancient variety Limnia, mentioned by both Polydeuctes and Hesiodos. The name denotes its origin on Limnos (where it has the local synonym Kalabaki or Kalambaki) in the Aegean Islands. On Limnos itself, the grape diminished in importance with the rise in dominance of Moskhato Alexandrias, the only cultivar on the island to achieve appellation status. Limnio plays a more significant role in the local wines in the Rapsani district of Thessalia, where it is known as Limniona. Limnio vines are are hardy and late-ripening, producing herbaceous wines of considerable body (alcohol) and extraction. Modern vinifications include its blending with Cabernet at Domaine Carras in Halkidiki and in the Meritage wines of Niko Lazaridis and Kosta Lazaridis. Limnio also ameliorates Cabernet in Tsantali's Metoxi Chromitsa from the their Mt Athos vineyards.

Mandilaria
The most widely planted red variety in the Aegean, Mandilaria leans towards the tannic (mildly astringent, unless aged) and is generally–but not always–low in alcohol. On most of the islands where it is grown, including Crete, Mandilaria has a tendency to produce wines of insufficient alcohol level to justify mono-varietal vinification.

In conformance with requirements for Peza and Archanes district Appelations on Crete, 20%-40% Mandilaria is blended with Kotsifali in order to create red wines that benefit greatly from ageing. The addition of Mandilaria reinforces tannin structure, moderates Kotsifali's considerably higher alcohol levels and reddens, somewhat, Kotsifali's characteristic orange hue (see Kotsifali above).

On Rhodes, where there is an
OPE red based on the variety, Mandilaria vineyards are planted at low elevation but often with northern exposure and exposure to ocean wind. The grapes are thereby subject to a long growing season during which alcohol achieves favorably high levels in concert with favorable acidity.

On
Santorini, Paris Sigalas blends Mandilaria with the riper Mavrotragano to produce a rich and smoky wine competitive with New World Zinfandel and Syrah for its boldness and concentration.

On Khios, Mandilaria grapes are sun dried for a week, pressed and vinified into a sweet mavro (black) wine, known locally as "Kourouniotiko".

On Mykonos,
Nicos Lazaridis produces two versions blended with the white Monemvasia; an off-dry red and dry rosé.

Mavrodafni
Mavrodafni may be the best-known Greek red cultivar in Europe. Indeed, the story of the rise in prominence of this variety has an important European angle. Although Mavrodafni likely originated in the Ionian Islands, it was a Bavarian, Gustav Clauss, who, having established a winery in upland Patras in 1854 , first tapped the potential of the grape. Achaia Clauss operates to this day, albeit with no monopoly on the production of Mavrodafni. The winery continues as one of Greece's largest, the single largest exporter of wine from Greece and undoubtedly the standard against which most Mavrodafni wines are compared.

The most well-known and common Achaia Clauss Mavrodafni is its Imperial label, a fortified sweet wine of usually 15% alcohol, aged for about six years, rich, raisiny, pleasantly bitter and red-leaning-towards-dark-amber in color. Comparisons to other fortified wines are neither particularly helpful nor fair, because it occupies a fairly unique location within the taste-spectrum of such wines. Despite considerable controlled oxydation through barrel age, it displays obvious varietal integrity. As a result, it is distinctly on the wine side of port. Even viewing it from its port aspect, distinguishing between ruby and tawny becomes more difficult with thoughtful examination. Its strength, complexity and cocoa make it too eclectic to fit easily into the dessert wine category—a real challenge for the novice palate and in that respect it is decidedly on the port side of wine. A 1979 special release we tasted (Achaia Clauss is full of barrels dating as far back as the 1860s) was luscious but still tart, heavily caramelized and rich.

The
Mavrodafni of Patras Appellation was one of Greece's original designations. In certain respects, however, the law is generously vague, making neither specification for fortification nor for exclusive use of the Mavrodafni grape. The appellation does require that wines consist of at least 50% Mavrodafni, but Mavri Korinthiaki, the black currant grape, can be used as well. This reflects winemaking traditions that predate the existence of the Achaia Clauss winery. It also means that great variations in the use of the variety are not discouraged. Since Achaia Clauss is not, by any means, the only producer of Mavrodafni within the zone, this means that one can shop for various styles from a number of local producers in addition to producers from outside the appellation area. Likewise, Mavrodafni does not lend itself exclusively to sweet wine production: dry vinifications produce notable results most frequently in varietal blends, especially in the Ionian Islands.

Mavrotragano
Near extinction not long ago, Mavrotragano is local cultivar on Santorini that is in the midst of revival by some of that Island's most earnest producers. Like Cabernet, its bunches contain small grapes. The variety, because it naturally achieves high sugar levels, was traditionally used in the production of sweet wines. Because low yields are inevitable (no other option exists on Santorini), quality is easily maximized. Still, serious wine from this variety was no foregone conclusion. Paris Sigalas has been experimenting with the grape for 4 years. He has produced an impressive Zin-like blend of Mandilaria and Mavrotragano (50/50), but sees his future efforts dedicated to a mono-varietal approach. A taste of 100% Mavrotragano (2000) from a barrel in his cellar indicates why. For an Aegean red, this wine is arresting (to say the least) with good tannin structure, characterful, but pleasing in its youth and clearly suitable for aging. According to Sigalas, "this year I finally achieved the alcohol level I have wanted. I figured out how long the fruit needs to mature on the vine, not only to develop alcohol, but tannins as well. This is an approach that cannot be used with Mandilaria." Haridimos Hatzidakis, a young Cretan winemaker on Santorini, is also at the final stages of experimentation with the grape. A version from Hatzidakis can be expected soon. There is no

Negoska
Negoska (or Negotska), an important variety in Makedonia, derives its name from the Slavic word for Naousa, Negush, and is believed to be a close relative of Xynomavro. Negoska is nevertheless associated at present more with Gomenissa, where its higher sugar content and riper, berry-like fruit are ideal for rounding out the more austere Xynomavro in Goumenissa OPAP reds. The appellation stipulate an admixture of Xynomavro with a minimum of 20% Negoska. Christos Aïdarinis, a pedigreed Goumenissa winemaker of considerable vision, employs 30% Negoska to his OPAP red, in which conscientious modern farming and vinification are employed to capture the best features of the variety with no sacrifice of traditional feel.

Stavroto
Stavroto is found mainly in Rapsani in Thessaly, where it is a component with Xynomavro and Krasato in Rapsani Appellation red wines. A cultivar of little character it is suitable for blending only. It is not widely grown and is at the northernmost of its traditional range of cultivation in Rapsani. Its lower range ends in Magnisia, just north of the island of Evia.

Sykiotis
Sykiotis comprises 10-15% of plantings in Anhialos, Thessaly. Elevation at this location is nearly at sea level and wines are typically "parched" (to borrow a description from Miles Lambert-Gocs). The name of the grape derives from the Greek word for fig. Sykiotis can also be found in Makedonia and Evia.

Xynomavro

Xynomavro is one of the two most highly regarded of the Greek red cultivars (Agiorgitiko being the other). It is ubiquitous in Makedonia, but is best known for the role it plays in the wines of Naousa. It is the sole variety permitted under the Naousa and Amyntaio (OPAP) appellations and one of two (with Negoska) under the Goumenissa appellation. Even the best wine writers have difficulty finding a suitable Western frame of reference for the grape, not because reasonable comparisons do not exist, but rather, because too many come too quickly. The name Xynomavro is the conjunction of the Greek words for acid and black, a fact that hints at some characteristics of the variety, but at the exclusion of most of the charismatic manifestations of what is a decidely multifarious personality. Nico Manessis finds the aroma of aged Xynomavro "reminiscent of great Burgundy reds." The ever circumspect Miles Lambert-Gocs delves more deeply into the conundrum:

The early ninteenth century French traveller Boué called Naousa 'a red wine somewhat resembling Bordeaux with its acidity'. Well over a century later, the Greek enologist Georgakopoulos confirmed with laboratory data that there exists a most striking similarity between the detailed acid content of Macedonian Xynomavro wines and those of Bordeaux. That is not to say, however, that everyone tasting Xynomavro wines will always think that Bordeaux is the correct association to make, not even if restricting the comparison to the feel of the wines. Some people find that the acidity in certain young Naousan wines remind them of one or another of the grand crus of Beaujolais. Other tasters think of certain Chiantis when they push Goumenissa around the mouth. But there was a reporter of the inter-war period who was reminded of Chianti by a Naousan wine. When tasting Amyntaio wines, some people make mention of the northernmost Italian reds, like Carem, perhaps in order to suggest an austerity of feel. As to the aromatics of Xynomavro wines, thoughts turn in other directions. Greek enologists, among others, speak of pinot noir, an association I am afraid will come to mind all the quicker after tasting the sparkling wines of Amyntaio. I have thought of certain Hungarian kadarka wines, such as Szeckszardi, in smelling some bottle-ready Naousan wines. Then there is the matter of colour, in which case none of the above associations will do. Rioja, perhaps, would make a pertinant comparison in that respect. One could think there is hardly any reason to have Xynomavro, yet the fact is when one gets down to a glass of one of these Macedonian wines, they defy comparison, which is saying quite a lot.

The resemblance between Xynomavro and Pinot Noir is sufficiently compelling that a certain Greek winemaker once asserted to me, "Xynomavro is Pinot noir." Since the similarities can be strong and because differences between the two varieties could be accounted for by differences in location, climate and terroir—not to mention minor genetic variation or adaptation—such assertions are understandable, though apparently untrue. Still the two grapes have a few important characteristics in common: they generally have small grapes in tight clusters, they have reasonably high acidity and they are more fickle than many grapes of less complex nature.

Indeed the Xynomavro is regarded as the most unwieldy of the major Greek cultivars. Tempermental and unforgiving, its wines are greatly affected by weather, so that vintage often means more in regard to quality of Xynomavro than to most other Greek wines. When asked to remark upon the axiom that weather creates wild swings in the quality of Naousa wines, winemaker Dimitris
Markovitis confirmed it with a smile, saying, "it absolutely does. Wines from Xynomavro can be superb one year and only very good the next." To be sure, Naousa has evolved into a region having probably the highest concentration of producers of quality wine in Greece. That notwithstanding, Xynomavro has at least been known to fray some nerves. Quiet efforts by a few producers to hedge bets via the judicious blending with suitable varieties to create vins de pays—despite the prestigious appellation—have been successful, if not considered sacreligious.

Keimi Chrisohoou, a major Naousa producer is one who prefers to have it both ways. He justifies the blending of Xynomavro with Merlot in some wines on the basis of the resulting high quality of the product as well as the fact that the Naousa name, though still important, has yielded some sovereignty, in the eyes of consumers, to the nature of the wines themselves. According to Nikos Bersos, vineyardist, enologist (and brother-in-law) to Chrisohoou, at its most austere, "Xynomavro is like a skeleton. Merlot fills in the body."

Most Naousa producers favor working within the appellation. Some, like
Vaeni, the very forward-thinking local cooperative, stand with one foot in the future and one foot in the past, producing Xynomavro in both modern and traditional styles. Others. especially the Melitzanis brothers and, to some extent, Markovitis, lament the gradual shift away from tradition. Appellation laws in Greece have their own variation of reserve and Grand Reserve options for winemakers. Requirements for Reserve Red are: 3 year aging (minimum: 6 months in barrel, 6 months in bottle). Requirements for Grand Reserve Red are: 4 year aging (minimum: 2 years in barrel, 2 years in bottle). One suspects these options were created specifically with Naousa producers in mind, for 1) they continue the local tradition and 2) they have been put to good and consistent use. The existence of these requirements for Reserve and Grand Reserve Naousa, however, raise an interesting problem concerning the definition of tradition. In the view of the highly-opinionated Antonis Melitzanis, Naousa has two traditions—one that begins with the introduction of oak barrels, which is fairly recent, and that which he considers the real tradition, namely the use of local woods like walnut that impart no flavor, contributing only to a highly desirable, controlled oxidization of the wine.

Echoing a recurring theme among certain Greek winemakers, Melitzanis and his brother, Agamemnon, believe, inarguably really, that oak became the French standard for barrel construction because it contributed something the French wines themselves lacked. "For a grape such as Xynomavro, full of character—acidity, fruit, terroir and, if properly farmed, high alcohol—oak robs the wine of its varietal distinction." For them old oak is a mantra (unless they decide to take the bold step of reverting to walnut). They devote much of their energy to insuring the production of must that guarantees wines of good extraction and strong alcohol that will fare well in barrel with no loss of varietal character.

The wines of Melitzanis and Markovitis present the more traditional and organic side of Xynomavro. New World efforts tend to reveal the rounder side, especially from winemakers using new oak who nevertheless eschew the appellation standards in favor of shorter contact.

The winemakers mentioned in this piece were chosen for the relevance of their philosophies to the discussion of the Xynomavro grape. A great number of other producers from several regions produce wine from this variety. Of them, many produce exceptional wines from this and other cultivars. The story of Xynomavro begins on this page but additional important information concerning the grape and its producers can be found by following links above to the
Regions section or by searching the Winemakers section of Greekwinemakers.com





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