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The wines of Macedonia September 27, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Mainland, Wine And Spirits.
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Greece may not have invented winemaking but Greek vintners were certainly among the first to domesticate vines and control the fermentation of grapes. It is generally believed that the first vineyards in Greece were planted in Philippi, in Eastern Macedonia.

For hundreds of years Greek wines dominated the market, both at home and abroad.

The basis of Western civilization was forged over goblets of wine at the gatherings (symposia) where Greek intellectuals met to discuss philosophical concepts. Ships plying clay amphorae of Greek wine crisscrossed the trade routes of the Mediterranean, and fortunes were made by merchants selling these wines throughout the ancient world.

But centuries of wars and migration gradually brought the overall quality of Greek wine down. Indeed, most of Greece’s post-World War II was plonk.

Adding insult to injury, a hefty portion of it was further demeaned by being flavored with pine resin. Tourists, convinced that they were participating in time, honored tradition, may have lapped up this retsina by the gallon, as did local villagers (for the same reason), but few critics ever suggested that resinated wine was anything more than an oddity, a pleasant beverage to swill on a summer evening in a seaside cafe along the Mediterranean.

In the past couple of decades, winds of change have been blowing across the wine regions of Greece. Vineyards ravaged by disease and neglect are being replanted. Modern Greek vintners now hone their palates and their technological skills in the prestigious enology programs at universities in California and France. Bolstered by serious domestic and foreign capital investment, 4,000 years after its birth, the Greek wine industry can now boast that its finest output is on a par with the world’s best.

The modern renaissance of Greek wine may be seen in every section of the country’s wine-growing regions, not just in the ancient land of the Peloponnese and on the sunny Aegean and Ionian Islands, but all the way up north as well, in Macedonia, where it all began.

Naoussa, the heart of Macedonia’s wine region, nestles up close to the Bulgarian border. Remote, and considerably less frequented than the islands and the Peloponnese, it is an area that has not yet fully geared up for tourism. Finding lodging in this far-off place can present a challenge, but my own overnight stay at the rural Vermion Hotel was pleasant enough to make me regret not having more time to spend there. Reminiscent of a Swiss chalet in both appearance and in its somewhat Spartan amenities, the hotel lies in a bucolic alpine setting at the base of the rocky Vermion Mountain. I’d have liked the chance to explore some of the adjoining hiking trails, some heading up the mountain, others off into the St. Nicolas Woods, but I had time only for a short morning walk around the hotel’s own park before heading off for a peek at Macedonian wineries.

Macedonia boasts 30 wineries, 12 of them in Naoussa. My aim was to visit enough of them to at least get a glimpse into the spirit and scope of modern Macedonian winemaking. Driving down from the peaks of Vermion Mountain after my morning stroll, I entered a narrow valley where puffy pink clouds seemed to have settled down on the land. But no, as I drew closer, it became apparent that these were cherry trees in full spring bloom, their lavish display intermingling with neat rows of vines.

My first appointment was at Karydas Kostas, one of Macedonia’s most respected contemporary Macedonian wineries (in Greece, it’s always advisable to make an appointment in advance, especially at smaller wineries, for visitors who simply show up unannounced may well find the door locked). As I headed down its driveway, winemaker Petros Karydas and his parents, Constantine and Vasiliki, emerged from their pristine whitewashed winery.

When greetings and handshakes had been exchanged all around, I followed the sturdy, soft-spoken Petros into the cellar to sample some of his wines. His wines speak for themselves. High in acids, hard edged and loaded with big tannins, the wines nonetheless engage the senses with their depth, structure, complexity and long finish.

Karydas wine is made from the fruit of 23-year-old xinomavro vines. High in acidity and inky in color, Xinomavro (translated roughly as “black acid”) is the dominant red grape of Macedonia, producing bold wines that have a great potential for aging.

The members of the Karydas family do all the work in the vineyards and winery themselves, but boundlessly hospitable, they took time off from pruning and other seasonal vineyard duties to offer me a mid-morning mini-feast featuring tiropita (cheese pie) and spanakopita (a similar pie with spinach). With food, the wine undergoes a transformation, relaxing on the palate and infusing the taste buds with dense, fruity flavors. These earthy, no-nonsense wines have acquired virtual cult status among the cognoscenti of contemporary Greek wine, but, alas, only a tiny amount is produced each year (fewer than 250 cases make it to the United States, for example).

From this exemplary artisanal winery, I traveled next to a family-run estate of another kind. At Ktima Kir Yianni I met brothers Stelios and Michali Boutari, whose great-great-grandfather Yiannis Boutari founded an eponymous wine estate in 1859. In 1996 the brothers’ father, also named Yiannis, broke off from what had become the family’s large, commercial establishment to found Kir Yianni, a smaller boutique winery. Today the operation is run by Selios and Michali, who produce about 10,000 cases of both red and white wine.

On a map of the property, Michali Boutari showed me where the different vineyard plots are located: here the merlot, there the cabernet, in this pink section on the map the xinomavro. A few miles away from the winery, in a cooler region with limestone and clay soils, grow the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc vines. The climate there, Boutari told me, is not unlike that of Mendocino or the Anderson Valley in California, and rainfall patterns are similar.

Michali Boutari, a University of California Davis graduate, practices mostly organic farming. He uses only drip irrigation (sparingly, at that), and hasn’t plowed the vineyards for five years. All of this, he says, has resulted in the kind of greatly reduced grape crops that premier vintners across the globe aim for.

Boutari led me into the attractive red brick winery to taste a wide range of wines. Highlights included lean and beautifully balanced chardonnay, wonderfully crisp sauvignon blanc and Samaropetra, an enchanting blend of roditis (a popular native grape) with small amounts of sauvignon blanc and gewurztraminer. Among the stand-out reds were the smoky, spicy Yianakohori (xinomavro blended with a measure of merlot) and a meaty Rhenish Syrah.

Tasting a range of wines made from 100 percent xinomavro, I found my favorites to be 1994, which is Burgundian in an earthy, mushroomy way; the ’97, with lots of anise and spice characteristics; the delightfully floral ’99; and the jammy, nicely round and soft 2000, which finishes with a jolt of ripe red fruit flavors.

In the Epanomi wine district a few miles southwest of the Macedonia’s urbane capital Thessaloniki, lies the state-of-the-art Domaine Gerovassiliou. At the edge of the hazy skyline beyond the estate’s vineyards I could just make out Mount Olympus in the distance. Inside the winery, I admired a small museum collection of old wine presses and corkscrews, and hundreds of bottles of wine maturing in a beautiful stone and brick-lined cellar.

Founded in 1996 by Evangelos Gerovassiliou, this is a very modern winery dedicated in large part to saving ancient indigenous grapes. One of these is malagousia, whose gentle wine tends to have a distinctive mellifluous flavor and a long, briny finish. The domaine also produces wines from international grapes, “just to show what Greece can do with these varietals,” explains Gervassiliou. He, at any rate, can do quite well with them, as the big, lush Syrah proves. If the gods were still holding court on nearby Mount Olympus, Gerorvassiliou wines Blanc and Syrah would likely be among their favorite nectar.

Evangelos Gerovassiliou recently teamed up with Vassilis Tsaktsarlis (also one of Greece’s most respected winemakers) to create Macedonia’s newest high-end winery, located on the barren slopes of Mount Pangeon. The first of Biblia Chora Estate’s organically grown vines were planted in 1999. Biblia Chora’s fragrant, smooth white wine is a blend of sauvignon blanc and assyrtiko, a native grape whose mild character tempers the natural aggressiveness of sauvignon. Biblia Chora red is an engaging, spicy, cabernet merlot blend. Like most of Macedonia’s leading labels, these are wonderful wines to bring to the table as their well-balanced bright flavors make them unusually good partners for a wide range of foods, from traditional Mediterranean fare to contemporary international cuisine.

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