Greek Xinomavro: figuring out the terroir

Greeks refer to the Xinomavro grape as a ‘she’, nicknaming it ‘an erratic diva’ or ‘a capricious lady’. To me, Xinomavro is definitely a ‘he’. Xinomavro has a muscular body and can be rough, headstrong, and temperamental. However, education, discipline and age can do wonders to this ‘rogue’, turning him into a charming and seductive gentleman (with some muscle behind the charm, of course).

If you’re intrigued by this gentleman as much as I do, follow me to his breeding grounds in northern Greece’s four appellations. This post is part two of my Xinomavro exploration, following up on “Greek Xinomavro: Taming of the Shrew”.

 

Sense of place

Xinomavro grape, as we heard during our visit to the northern Greece wine region, makes terroir wines, i.e. wines with a great sense of place. Most Greek winemakers we met agree on stylistic differences between appellations; some even talk about finer distinctions between vineyard blocks.

“In light acidic soils Xinomavro is good for color and aromas”, says Stellios Boutaris, Managing Director of the Kir-Yianni Estate and the 5th generation of the famed Greek wine family. “In heavier soils you get bigger wines. In more calcareous soils you get even better wines.”

Kir-Yianni’s vineyards are in two appellations, Naoussa and Amyndeon, where Xinomavro is the only allowed grape variety. There are two other appellations, Rapsani and Goumenissa, in which Xinomavro is a required part of the blend. All four appellations, or Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs*), are in northern Greece, where the grape originates from.

In a few days spent visiting the region we tasted about 40 Xinomavros, including some older vintages and verticals. We tasted a few more wines at the DWCC masterclass with Yiannis Karakasis, the newest Greek Master of Wine who wrote his research paper on Naoussa.

While a lot of stylistic differences, in my view, could be be attributed to winemaking techniques and vineyard practices, and the sample wasn’t big enough to draw definitive conclusions about the soils impact, some regional differences emerged:

  • Xinomavros from cooler Amyndeon are leaner and lighter, have a typical floral nose, and are a little easier to drink in their youth;
  • Xinomavro blends from warmer Rapsani are softer and riper with a characteristic aromatic lift, they benefit from a few years of aging;
  • Naoussa wines are fuller-bodied, more tannic, highly structured, and very age-worthy, but might be hard to drink when young;
  • The style of Goumenissa wines is somewhere in between Naoussa and Rapsani, but I need to taste more wines to get a better idea of the appellation.

Amyndeon: lighter, leaner, floral Xinomavro

Angelos Iatridis of Alpha Estate, Greece,, shows us great views from the highest point of his vineyards
Angelos Iatridis of Alpha Estate, showing us great views of Amyndeon vineyards

“What you see is a very classical view for the area,” says Angelos Iatridis, partner and winemaker at Alpha Estate, standing at the highest point of his Amyndeon vineyard and showing us around. “The plateau is at about 750 m above the sea level; it used to be a giant lake, so the soils are alluvial. The top soils are sandy soils over the limestone, which is the basis of the alluvial soils. The [cool] climate is temperated by two lakes that are close to the area.”

In addition to Alpha Estate, a significant producer in the region, six other wineries make Amyndeon PDO wines, and Xinomavro is the only permitted grape variety used for rosé (still and sparkling) and red wines.

In the appellation’s light, nutrient-poor soils, cooler climate and higher average altitudes, Xinomavro produces lighter, leaner wines with a brighter fruit and floral character, which I think are easier to drink in their youth.

Kir-Yianni Akakies 2014 is a good example of an Amyndeon rosé – fresh, vibrant, food-friendly and charming. Dark pink in color, it has aromas of raspberries, strawberries, rose petals, a herbal note, and a nice lemony acidity. The wine was made using skin contact for up to 48 hours (90%) and saignée method (10%) to overcome Xinomavro’s color instability problem, and spent 3 months on the lees. Price: from $12 in the US**.

Thanks to Amyndeon’s sandy soils, some old vineyards with ungrafted vines have survived phylloxera. We tasted two vintages (2010 and 2011) of Alpha  Xinomavro Reserve Vieilles Vignes made from 90 year-old bush vines, and both were good.

The 2010 vintage spent 8 months on the lees,  was aged for 18-24 months in French oak and further 18-24 months in the bottle with no filtration before bottling. With aromas of red fruit, plums, violet, spices, and vanilla, and solid but smooth tannins, this is a wine of great concentration, full body, and an excellent structure. While I wouldn’t call the wine particularly lean or light, it is definitely friendly and approachable. Price: from $24.63.

Rapsani: softer, more aromatic Xinomavro

Lying on the foothills of Mount Olympus, Rapsani is the warmest and most southerly region of the four. According to the PDO rules, wines have to be a blend of 1/3 each of Xinomavro, Stavroto and Krassato – all indigenous Greek varieties. Stylistically, the wines are softer and riper compared to Naoussa (Stavroto and Krassato smoothen Xinomavro’s tannins), with a characteristic aromatic lift.

George Salpingidis of Tsantali company, Greece, is talking about efforts it took to revive Rapsani PDO
George Salpingidis of Tsantali is talking about efforts it took to revive Rapsani PDO

Almost abandoned by grapegrowers during harsh economic times, the region of Rapsani owes its rebirth in the 1990s to Tsantali company. “There’re four producers in Rapsani including us, but we make 99% of all the Rapsani wines”, says George Salpingidis, director of viticulture at Tsantali.

The average rainfall in Rapsani is around 900 mm per year, which is three times as much as in Amyndeon, so Tsantali doesn’t need to irrigate its vines. The soils are clay loam over the schist-based subsoil, and the vineyards are divided into three zones according to altitude.

We tasted the vertical (from 1997 to 2011) of Tsantali Rapsani Reserve, made from grapes growing in the 2nd zone, at 250-500 meters altitude. I especially enjoyed the vintages between 2000 and 2007, which seemed to have reached full maturity.

The 2004 vintage is particularly lovely, with complex aromas of cherries and raspberries, raspberry jam, sandalwood, cedar, a hint of liquorice, and sweet spices. On the palate, the wine has velvety tannins, nice acidity, and a long finish. Price: $44.99.

Designated vineyards for Tsantali Rapsani Grande Reserve 2009 are in the 3rd – the highest – zone of the appellation, at over 500 meters. This particular vintage still tastes a little young: the tannins are quite drying, but the structure, concentration, acidity, and the rich nose (lots of ripe red and black fruit, violets, and sweet spices) hold a great promise. Price: ca 20 euros in Greek retail, $40 for the 2005 vintage in the US.

Goumenissa: softer, broader, fruitier wines

In the warmer-climate Goumenissa PDO, Xinomavro must be blended with min. 20% Negoska, another indigenous variety. The style of wines is somewhere in between Naoussa and Rapsani: softer, broader, a little lighter on the palate compared to Naoussa and with a quite intense fruit character.

We didn’t visit the appellation, but during the masterclass with Yiannis Karakasis we tasted a PGI wine from the region – Tatsis Estate Old Roots 2011, PGI Macedonia, classified as such because it’s a 100% Xinomavro. Made from 60 year-old organically-grown vines, the wine was aged 12 months in oak and was unfined and unfiltered. It is a traditional-style Xinomavro – highly tannic, acidic and structured, and with a complex nose of ripe black cherries, earthy and herbal (sage) notes, sweet spices from aging, and a hint of tar and leather. I’m not sure how typical the wine is for Goumenissa (it doesn’t fit my perception of softer and broader wines) but, according to Yiannis Karakasis, it shows the potential of the region and is “quite representative of what a great Xinomavro can be”. Not available in the US, 18 euros in Greek retail.

Naoussa: fuller-bodied, highly structured, age-worthy wines

Stellios Boutaris of the Kir-Yianni Estate is talking about terroirs of Naoussa, Greece
Stellios Boutaris of the Kir-Yianni Estate is talking about terroirs of Naoussa

To further complicate terroir comparisons, Naoussa PDO, considered to be the heart of Xinomavro, presents a variety of altitudes, soils and micro-climates, and produces Xinomavros with quite different personalities. “This is a vineyard-driven appellation, not village-driven,” says Stellios Boutaris of the Kir-Yianni Estate. Out of four PDOs, Naoussa has the largest amount of producers – around 20, and therefore a wider variety of wines to taste.

In general, Naoussa wines, which have to be 100% Xinomavro, are considered to be fuller-bodied, more tannic and highly structured and, hence, to have the greatest aging potential.

Not all the wines fit this generalized description. Thymiopoulos Vineyards “Young Vines” 2013 is an unusual example of a modern, fruit-forward Xinomavro with no oak influence. Fruity and spicy, with aromas of strawberries and a raspberry compote, this delightful, easy-drinking Xinomavro has a medium body and tannins, great acidity and a lot of freshness. Price: from $12.45.

Thymiopoulos Vineyards, Earth and Sky Xinomavro 2012 is another example of a modern fruit-forward Xinomavro but with body, structure and aging potential typical of Naoussa. It is made from 37-42 year-old vines growing in a rocky-soil organic vineyard and is aged 12 months in oak. In addition to a lot of sweet ripe fruit, it has some vegetal notes (tomatoes), floral and savory notes, a full body, ripe but still youngish tannins and at least 10-year ageing potential. Price: from $27.99.

Foundi Estate Naoussea 2009 is an example of a traditional-style Xinomavro (and a nice one as such) with aromas of tomatoes and olives, and savory notes on the palate. While tannins are apparent, the wine tastes quite smooth and soft. Price from $14.99.

Kir-Yianni Ramnista 2011 is a well-structured, quite tannic and complex wine with lots of dried strawberries and sweet spices (clove, cinnamon) on the nose, as well as vegetal notes. It was aged 16 months in a mix of French and American oak and another 6 months in a bottle. Price from $21.92.

Two older vintages of the same wine – Ramnista 2008 and Ramnista 2005 – show how Xinomavro develops over time. The 2008 vintage offers aromas of truffles in addition to ripe cherries and vanilla, and mellow tannins. With three more years on its back, Ramnista 2005 is even smoother, with aromas of coffee, dark chocolate, mushrooms, wet leaves, and olive brine.

1879 Boutari Legacy 2007 is for now considered to be the only single-vineyard super-premium Naoussa Xinomavro. It is named after the year Boutari was established in Naoussa, where the company played a significant role in preserving Xinomavro and establishing the PDO zone itself. This complex, well-structured, rich, yet fresh wine has a lot of ripe cherries and plums, truffles, savory, earthy, and spicy notes. A note to collectors: 2007 is considered to be a great vintage in Naoussa. Not available in the US, Greek retail: 35 euros.

Grande Reserve Naoussa Boutari 1999, the oldest 100% Xinomavro we tasted, shows what aging (in addition to terroir and careful winemaking) does to the variety. Rich, concentrated, and velvety, with aromas of strawberry jam, dried figs and sweet spices, it was excellent. The wine is sold at the winery upon request at 40 euros.


* PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin means, in accordance with the EU regulations, that the wine comes from a legally-defined vine-growing area, is produced from permitted varieties for that area, is vinified using the area’s traditional techniques, and has specified organoleptic characteristics. More information on Greek PDOs can be found on New Wines of Greece and Wines of North Greece websites. 

**Source of prices and availability: wine-searcher.com

Note: Press trip to the North Greece wine region was part of the Digital Wine Communications Conference and was organized and sponsored by the “Wines of North Greece” Association.


Related post: Greek Xinomavro: Taming of the Shrew