Emmanuel Tresmontant - 2011-05-02
In the 19th century, the wines of Naoussa were considered to be the finest red wines of the Ottoman Empire. The empire had incorporated the entire north of Greece by that time, and Naoussa wines were served in the palaces of Istanbul as well as in Vienna, Russia and Egypt. Today, after a long period of relative inertia, these prestigious vineyards of yesteryear are back in the spotlight thanks to a new generation of young vintners. Using organic farming methods, they are producing wines of a very high quality: ambrosia that is worthy of being served with the best game meats.
On the trail of Alexander the Great
A journey to the vineyards of Naoussa leads visitors to the mountainous regions of northern Greece and the Macedonia of antiquity, still relatively off the beaten tourist track. Do not fail to stop at the village of Vergina, 80 km west of Thessaloniki. It is here, not far from the school that young Aristotle attended, that the ruins of the palace of Alexander the Great’s father, King Philip II, were uncovered in the 1970s and 80s. The royal tombs and their fabulous treasures have been preserved on-site in an archaeological museum built in the heart of the rock.
The finesse of Xinomavro grapes, the chilliness of the Balkans and the fragrances of the Mediterranean
Green and hilly, this part of Macedonia feels more like the Balkan mainland than the Greece of the Mediterranean. The Naoussa vineyards, which now cover some 1,000 hectares, are planted on the foothills of Mount Vermio between 80 m and 370 m above sea level. It is very cold in winter here, and once the rains which herald the spring have come and gone, water is usually scarce from June to October. The noblest variety of the region is the xinomavro (’sour black’), a grape which thrives in these soils rich in lime and capable of continuing to provide the plants with the moisture they require. As its name implies, this delicate and dark grape variety - as fragile and subtle as pinot noir - is transformed into wines of a deep and lovely red colour, rich in acidity, tannins and alcohol. When carefully cultivated for quality rather than quantity, the xinomavro of Naoussa has delightful tones of red berries, dried tomato and olive. It also makes wines that mature beautifully, as over the years they develop a bouquet of leather, truffles and sous-bois (undergrowth), perfect for bringing out the best of a lièvre (hare) à la royale, roasted woodcock or any of the other dishes prepared from the game that thrives in the forests of the Vermio Mountains.
The most characteristic vineyards
The wines of Naoussa were awarded the Greek OPAP label (Appellation of Origin of Superior Quality) in 1971. How to choose amongst the twenty domaines of the region? Having followed the expert advice of the famous sommelier Georgios Ioannidis and tasted a large selection of wines, we definitely prefer those from the Thymiopoulos Vineyards and the Dalamaras Winery produced by two young wine-makers who have been able to bring a new vision and a much more natural approach to their trade.
But we must also be sure to mention Naoussa’s most famous domaine: the Boutari Winery founded in 1879. Boutari are also among Greece’s most reputable wine merchants. Their Naoussa Grande Réserve, made from a selection of grapes from the region’s best vines, is a classic choice found on the lists of every fine Greek restaurant. The other must-visit domaine is Kir-Yianni, founded in 1997 by one of the Boutari Winery heirs. Located in the village of Yannakohori, what is doubtless the appellation’s most beautiful vineyard gives onto a panoramic view which continues uninterruptedly all the way to the city of Naoussa.
Two exceptional vintners from Naoussa
Apostolos Thymiopoulos, 31 years old, is without a doubt the rising star of Naoussa. His vines, cultivated according to biodynamic farming methods at an altitude of 180 m in the southern sector of the appellation, are blessed with a goodly amount of sunshine. The terrain is comprised of Naoussa’s most geologically complex soils, made of lime-rich marlstone, schist and granite. Thymiopoulos focuses on expressing the freshness of the grapes and giving each vintage a unique signature. He shuns filtering and extraction and his wines are aged in vats and barrels the old-fashioned way. His Ghi ke Uranos (’earth and sky’) elaborated from forty-year-old vines, is a magnificent and complex vintage with a bouquet of liquorice and mint and notes of cedar and dark berry fruits. His younger vines produce a delectable, silky wine that is wonderful with local sheep’s milk cheeses. Thymiopoulos is also Naoussa’s only vintner to produce a pure rosé using xinomavro grapes (the others work with blends using cinsault or syrah), resulting in an exceptional rosé with a brilliant salmon colour, a very fresh nose reminiscent of eau de vie, blackcurrant, pomegranate and strawberry and a suave palate carried by a profound minerality.
The small Dalamaras Winery proudly owns the only non-grafted vines in the region - some plants are well over a century old. The complex and highly mineral soil where schist and other layers rich with lime and crystals predominate are cultivated using organic methods. The wines produced by Yiannis Dalamaras, 26 years old (he learnt the tricks of the trade in Burgundy chez Trapet and Giboulot), are rich with freshness and easy to enjoy. They also have a lovely depth and generous tannins, making them good wines to store in the cellar for a few years. The top-secret Naoussa vintage from ungrafted vines is very dense and incredibly pure with intense aromas of fresh fruit. It is a wine-lover’s pearl which in itself merits a journey to Naoussa.
If you are not able to drop everything and hurry off to Naoussa, many reputable wine merchants everywhere carry wines from the region. You might contact the producers directly to inquire where the closest source is with regard to your location. If you happen to be in Paris, pay a visit to Georgios Ioannidis, a wine merchant who imports fine vintages from all over Europe, with a focus on the inimitable nectars of Greece.
Georgios Ioannidis – Oenos: Fruit, Pierre, Lumière
51, Rue d’Orsel
Tel: (33) 06 66 79 18 40
Tel: (30) 23 10 34 65 86
Yiannis & Katerina Dalamara
Tel: (30) 23 32 02 83 21 or (30) 23 32 02 60 54