G. Ioannidis - 2009-10-20
Made from three hundred native grape varieties, some of them dating back to ancient Greece, Greek wines are, due to their specific characteristics, aromatic freshness and mineral finesse, the great revelation of the last ten years! From the island of Santorini to the snow-covered slopes of Mount Vermio, in the north of the country, sommelier Georgios Ioannidis takes us on a fascinating journey through these somewhat forgotten vineyards, rooted in the humus of our civilisation…
A former primary school teacher who converted to the cult of Dionysus in his youth, forty-something Georgios Ioannidis is totally devoted to the Greek vineyards, whose origins date back to the 17th century BC.
For Georgios Ioannidis – once sommelier at the famous Mavromatis restaurant in Paris – the new era of Greek wine began in the 1980s when Greece benefited from European Community subsidies. “At that time the vineyards were improved and restored to their original lands. The rationalisation, begun in the 1970s, was completed and includes 29 separate controlled appellations of origin. Important wine merchants, such as Boutari and Kourtakis, created modern wine cellars and the emergence of a cultured middle class provided these new wines with a demanding clientele. But the real turning point came with the work carried out by a few outstanding winegrowers over the last ten years: suddenly people realised that Greece had some extraordinary terroirs and that its most sophisticated wines were like no others in the world!”
Journey through the Greek vineyards
First stop: Santorini
“The sublime volcanic island of Santorini, in the middle of the Aegean Sea, is home to the oldest vineyard still in existence, with a 3,500-year history!
“Thanks to its sandy, arid, volcanic soil, the vines have never been affected by phylloxera. The local grape variety, Assyrtiko, planted in ancient times is – according to expert opinion – one of the greatest white grape varieties there is, on a par with the Chardonnay of Burgundy and the Riesling of Alsace and Moselle. Grown according to an ancestral method of “basket” pruning (the long vine branches are curled up on the ground to protect the grapes from being burnt by the sun), it produces wines that are both lively and smooth, of exceptional aromatic purity.
Three enthusiastic winegrowers have made the Assyrtiko of Santorini one of the greatest white wines in the Mediterranean:
Firstly Haridimos Hatzidakis of Crete, a fan of organic farming, produces seven different cuvées, each corresponding to specific parcels of land, in the district of Pyrgos, at an altitude of 300 metres. His Mylos 2005 Assyrtiko, made from vines over two centuries old, is wonderfully complex, with spicy notes and salty, iodine-rich aromas (sea mists sometimes deposit an infinitesimal amount of salt on the skin of the grapes).
In Oía, reputed to be the most beautiful village in Greece, the other great figure of Santorini is Paris Sigalas, a former maths teacher whose white wines, with their beautiful straw-gold colour, have the elegance, clarity and power of a Thales axiom! His 2006 Assyrtiko, matured in a stainless steel vat, gives off an explosive bouquet of citrus fruit and honey and is very fresh to the palate: a great wine for keeping, which will become increasingly smooth with time.
The Argyros family, for their part, is one of the oldest and most respected on the island. Their Vinsanto, matured and aged in a cask for seventeen years, is a pure joy! Let’s not forget that Vinsanto is one of the oldest wines in the world, made from grapes left out to dry in the sun on straw for two or three weeks after harvesting. It is a sugar-rich nectar with a low alcohol content that should be drunk chilled as an aperitif or with dessert. The 1987 vintage is fascinating for its bouquet of dried fruit, chocolate and tobacco: a great liqueur-like wine to be kept for very special occasions!”
Second stop: Kefalonia
Georgios Ioannidis is also a great fan of the wines produced on the limestone island of Kefalonia, opposite the legendary Ithaca, homeland of Ulysses…
“Here, the traditional white grape variety Robola, grown at an altitude of 800 metres, produces wines that are at once lively, round and harmonious. Compared to the wines of Santorini, they are of a less “masculine” and explosive style – these nectars are full of sensuality, typically Ionian!
The benchmark wines are those made by the Gentilini family, of Venetian origin, who settled on the island in the 18th century.
I am also particularly fond of the organically produced wines from the Sklavos estate, where other local grape varieties are grown, such as Vlostilidi and Moscatela: energetic white wines with a sharp minerality, which stand out from all the international grape varieties currently in fashion!”
The wines of the Peloponnese
“East of Kefalonia, the Peloponnese Peninsula is the cradle of ancient Greece, as witnessed by its numerous archaeological sites surrounded by age-old olive groves: Olympia, Mycenae, Epidaurus, Mistra, Sparta… On account of its magnificent coast, captivating scenery and proximity to Athens, the Peloponnese has become the most famous winegrowing region in the country.
For me, the absolute benchmark remains Athanasse Parparoussis, a winegrower in the north of the Peloponnese who, for thirty years, has grown only native grape varieties such as Athiri and Assyrtiko for the whites, and Mavrodaphne and Agiorgitiko for the reds. His white wine, “Gifts of Dionysus”, has a delightful mentholated freshness! As for red, his Nemea and Taos are impressive for their aromatic complexity, deep tannins and length on the palate: wines that are somewhat similar to the great Côtes-Rôties of the Rhone Valley!
But the nectar of Athanasse Parparoussis is his Rio Patras muscat, a naturally sweet white wine with aromas of dried fruit and white flowers that is extraordinarily delicate and fresh to the palate…”
The wines of Naoussa
“Heading up towards northern Greece, in the region of Macedonia, you reach Naoussa, ancient capital of the Macedonian kings, headquarters of the school of Aristotle, and first Greek appellation, created in 1971. In winter, the mountains are covered with snow. In summer, they are so dry that they require irrigation. The clayey limestone soils located at an altitude of between 150 and 350 metres are good for the red grape variety Xinomavro, which was introduced in the 17th century. At that time, Naoussa was considered to be the finest red wine in the Ottoman Empire. The absolute benchmark, winegrower Yannis Boutari from the Kyr Yianni estate is one of the pioneers of the Greek vineyards revival. His Naoussas, made from the Ramnista parcel, can acquire a bouquet as obsessive as that of the best Barolos in Italy: notes of black truffle and wild raspberries, structured tannins that give a hint of noble bitterness… A great, gourmet wine that should be accompanied by a dish of game or a leg of lamb.”
A nod to retsinas
To finish this journey to the land of Dionysus on a high note, how could we not mention the retsinas which, despite their poor reputation, remain the most typical of traditional Greece?
So forget about the oxidised retsinas served in the tourist tavernas!
According to Georgios Ioannidis, “the “Pine Tears” cuvée from the Kechris estate, in northern Greece, is a little gem. As its name suggests, pure Aleppo pine resin has been added, which in addition to its protective properties gives the wine subtle aromas of eucalyptus, mint and scrubland.
It is voluminous and fresh to the palate, a fine wine to accompany a meal of grilled grouper!”
Where to find these exceptional wines
You could start off by contacting Georgios Ioannidis:
Oenos Fruit Pierre Lumière
51, rue d’Orsel 75018
Tel.: 06 66 79 18 40
As for restaurants, the great Japanese chef Hissa Takeuchi has just added these wines to his winelist; they go wonderfully well with his creative cuisine.
7 bis rue André Lefebvre
(Hissa has also just opened a new sushi bar on the Champs Elysées.)
Good Greek restaurant Evi Evane offers these wines on its winelist.
10, rue Guisarde
Tel.: 01 43 54 97 86
As for wine cellars, you can go to Caves Augé, Lafayette Gourmet, Caves Dargent and Vin en tête in Paris, as well as Décanteur in Montrouge.