On a late spring day in June my flight took off from Bergamo and we headed out towards the Dalmatian coast and Croatia, with me pressed with my nose and camera against the window marvelling at a thousand islands, destination Greece.
There were to be twelve of us wine-writer journalists, in the Circle of Wine writers group on a trip through the vineyards of Northern Greece with the irrepressible Ted Lelekas as our guide. Ted's enthusiasm for his country, its culture food and wines was hard to miss and we were all soon drawn in.
So it was that we started the first evening in the Palace hotel in the ancient city of Thessalonica with a tasting of the winemakers from some wineries and regions we would not visit. Places like Drama, Santorini, Pydn, Rodopi. With us on the organising-hosting team were Alexandra Anthidou from Wines of Northern Greece encompassing thirty nine different wineries and also Lily Dimitriou and Kiri Panagiotou of Tsantali.
Quite a few the grapes were rather new to me with-hard-to-pronounce names Assyrtiko, Agioritiko, Xinomavro and Mavrotragano.
Of course some I had encountered before such as the icon white grape Malagousia, with Limnio bring the oldest of the Greek reds. Northern Greece has adopted quite a number of international grapes being used either to blend with local grapes or to make as a single variety wine such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Gewürztraminer Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc.
Interesting to see producers in the Drama area using Italian grapes to experiment with Verdicchio, Vermentino and most bravely, Sangiovese and the Portuguese Touriga Nacional at Wine Art Estate we tasted their wines and also those of Kitima Pavlidis who produce Tempranillo wines. I noticed too Malvasia being used to blend with local grapes.
Up to now I had at least encountered the Retsina wine that Greece is most famed for and at the airport had a Moscofilero white from Boutari which was not entirely unfamiliar. Nothing however could prepare me for the finesse with which Eleni Kechri with her family's fourth-generation winery Stelios Kechris Domaine produces the famed Tear of the Pine and other Retsinas, along with the T brand wine a blend of Xinomavro, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. We also tasted a Muscat dry white, all designed to provide a perfect match with the fish, grilled cheeses, feta tomato and olive oil based Greek dishes.
The tasting was followed by a dinner with the winemakers in a local restaurant with a varied fish-based tasting menu followed by main courses all put together with great attention to detail with the wines, the food was delicious. We also enjoyed Maronia made from indigenous Mavroudi from the village of Maronia Thrace.
The stage was set and I retired to bed with Greece and its wines dancing around in my mind.
Our first morning in Greece we clambered onto a luxury bus designed to carry us and our equipment with Ted Lelekas to the far flung wineries we would visit mostly two or so hours apart. Our first stop was at Domaine Gerovassiliou in the Eponomeo region about half and hour from the city. The estate looks out over the bay and onto the snow-covered Mount Olympus and great way to get the geography and ancient history cogs going in the brain. The Oenologist Vangelis Gerovassiliou has laid out vineyards 56 hectares in extent producing Limnio, Mavroudi, Mavrotraano,Syrah, Merlot, Grenache Rouge, Assyrtiko, Malagousia, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viogner. The compa with a production capacity of 350,000 bottles produces ten labels and exports to twenty countries.
We were shown around the winery by Assistant winemaker /Oenologist Thass Giantsidis, who also shared the amazing corkscrew museum with a fascinating and amusing collection of corkscrews and wine making tools from every era and every part of the world. We then tasted the wines and there were excellent wines in each category, with my favourite being the Malagousia, with notes of fresh citrus and quince, which I determined from then on would become a project of mine. We shared a fabulous, light, fresh and expertly prepared lunch showcasing the wonderful fresh produce all around the bay and the local fish. The chefs are spoiled for choice and the wine pairing was simply great, all enjoyed in the beautiful modern restaurant-tasting room overlooking a wonderful view.
Back in the bus we drove around the bay and south to the foothills of Mount Olympus at Rapsani were we had a Safari four by four experience awaiting us organised by our hosts Tsantali. As we clambered out of the bus sporting our lovely white Rapsani branded Panama hats in the warm late afternoon sun, we were excitedly chatting about the journey up to the vineyards which cling to the mountains. Loaded into the shortwheel base land rovers we soon left the tar road and were bumping along a dirt road which became a track through virgin forests of oak and streams. At the vineyards we stopped and had a tasting of the famed Rapsani Xinomavro (meaning sour black) wines that I had met when having my birthday dinner at a Greek Restaurant in Italy, life is indeed serendipitous. We took photographs in the vineyards and then bumped along in the fresh air to visit a truly extraordinary small Orthodox church built during Ottoman and Turk occupation for the winegrowers above the village of Rapsani. We then visited the wine museum set up in the village of Rapsani and wandered from there through the houses built on the slopes to a taverna down in the village square where a traditional meat-based feast had been prepared for us. Three courses in and really enjoying the magnums of Rapsani Reserve wines from 1999 on to the 2009 (by then I wasn't taking notes) designed to pair with exactly these meat and tomato based dishes, some at the table who had arrived starving had to now throw in the towel. I soldiered on... Grilled lamb perfectly prepared will simply never be turned down by me. Plate after plate of food arrived, perfectly fried thick cut chips and Greek salads so fresh with huge hunks of the freshest feta cheese, I loved it all, Haloumi, vegetable relishes, I even tried the honeyed fruit preserves at the end. It was finger-licking food, and then came the lamb chops, and the sirloin.... We had magnums of wine to taste still and suddenly one understood the Xinomavro grape a little better, for without food and some age they are super tannic, but carefully made, blended skilfully, given age and paired with this food, yes! It was the perfect end to an action packed day. The sun had long sunk over the village square as we climbed aboard the bus and drove 45 minutes to a Spa hotel in the foothills.