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Greek Wines Go Native in the Peloponnese

 Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, Gaia’s brilliant winemaker who is also enology professor at Athens Technical Education Institute, surveys the estate’s vines in Nemea.

It seems incongruous that Greek wines are just beginning to impact the psyches and palates of US restaurateurs and their guests. In truth, many Greek wines were not of export quality until the last two decades or so. The founding of what is now the European Union provided the political, economic, and organizational momentum to wake up the Greek wine industry. The infusion of capital, both material and human, helped Greece develop homegrown producers, enologists, and viticulturalists with the drive and vision to make Greece a player in the global wine market. Among the Greek wines finding the most friends on this side of the Atlantic are those produced in the Peloponnese—especially wines made from indigenous varieties such as Agiorgitiko, Moschofilero, and Roditis.

Long Wine History

The Peloponnese, the “hand” of Greece, almost cut off from the rest of the Balkan Peninsula by the Corinthian Gulf, has “fingers” that plunge deep into the Mediterranean. This land of the mighty Spartans and of the first track and field events in Olympia is also where wine grapes have been cultivated for at least 4,000 years—perhaps almost twice that long.

Early on, wine was an important regional export product, and during the Middle Ages the Peloponnesean port of Monemvassia became a center of a thriving business in Malvasia. Wine trading throughout the Mediterranean continued through the sixteenth century, until the Ottoman rulers suspended wine exports. The fall of the Ottoman reign in 1828 led to a rise in raisin production in the Peloponnese. Raisin grapes, particularly the Corinthiaki variety, thrived in soils that were also the best sites for wine grapes, thereby stunting wine viticulture in the region. Phylloxera also devastated what little wine production remained, and even after its eradication, real growth in Peloponnesean commercial wine did not occur until after World War II. State-of-the-art wineries are now found in the most important appellations, but most of the many small vineyards remain family owned and operated, and a good proportion of grapes go into making home and cooperative wines.

Climate, Soils, Terroir

Like much of Greece, the third most mountainous country in Europe, the Peloponnese has terrain marked by many tight valleys among steep-sloped hillsides and mountains (seven peaks are close to 6,500 feet in height). This hilly landscape with few open plains contributes to a number of site-specific mesoclimates. Overall, the region enjoys warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters, the climate being moderated by surrounding seas. Prevailing west-to-east winds lead to higher annual rainfall in the west (in Pyrgos, 36 inches) than in the east (Mantinia, 31 inches; Nemea, 16 inches). Most of the soils are sedimentary, often rich in limestone, but poor and thin overall—good soils for cultivating wine grapes; deeper clay and alluvial soils are found in some of the narrow valleys.

Lion’s Blood

Peloponnese is home to Agiorgitiko (ah-yor-YEE-ti-ko, translated as St. George), arguably Greece’s best red wine grape. In the region’s red-wine appellation, Nemea, Agiorgitiko (locals refer to it as “lion’s blood” after the Herculean trial) reaches its maximum expression, displaying an appealing saturated dark red color, ripe bright red berry fruit, sweet spices, moderate tannins, and good affinity for oak. All wines bearing the Nemea designation must be 100 percent Agiorgitiko, but there are several styles: unoaked Beaujolais-type quaffers; soft, lightly oaked easy-drinking wines; oak-aged beauties that develop finesse with bottle age; and recioto-like off-dry wines made with sun-dried grapes. Unaccountably, the irresistible rosés made with the grape cannot carry the Nemea name.

      Nemea’s mild winters, warm summers (some days exceed 104ºF), and extended autumns, and the region’s poor, well-drained soils provide an ideal milieu for Agiorgitiko. Because of Nemea’s variety of mesoclimates, soils, and altitudes, the harvest season is extended, usually commencing in mid-September and lasting until late October. Rains in October can play havoc with the harvest; September rains can be devastating (downpours wiped out much of the 2002 vintage).

Agiorgitiko is grown in three zones within the appellation: the valley floor (750 to 1,500 feet), mid-altitude (1,500 to 2,100 feet), and high altitude (2,100 to 2,950 feet). In general, valley-floor soils are heavier and laced with clay, and temperatures are warmer; harvests are earlier, and wines are softer and rounder.

Near the top of the middle zone is the village of Koutsi, a name associated with high-grade Nemea. No common wines are made at Gaia (YEAH-a) Estate by enologist Yiannis Paraskevopoulos and viticulturalist Leon Karatsalos, including their flagship Nemea, Gaia Estate , which is made with grapes sourced from their 44-acre high-density estate vineyard, and their brilliant retsina, Retinitis Nobilis. Nearby in Koutsi is Domaine Helios, part of Semeli Wines, a twenty-first-century winery on a spectacular site high above the valley floor. Most impressive among a range of well-made wines is their Nemea Grand Reserve, made from estate grapes, and Semeli Red, a 70/30 blend of Agiorgitiko and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Lafkotis, established in 1960 and with a family history of three generations of winemakers, is one of the oldest high-grade wineries in Nemea. Its top wine, Agionym, is a rich and complex 100 percent Agiorgitiko sourced from Koutsi, but the winery makes an everyday, fruit-forward Nemea with grapes from vineyards at lower altitude. In the town of Ancient Nemea, Palivos Estate gathers its fruit from a north-facing 37-acre (large for Nemea) vineyard on a relatively steep slope at 1,175 to 1,575 feet. All of the winery’s red wines show good balance and structure, including a Merlot, a Syrah, and Ammos, an Agiorgitiko sourced from ungrafted vines planted in very sandy soils. Also in Ancient Nemea is Papaioannou Vineyards, where vine-growing maestro and Nemea pioneer Thanassis Papaioannou and his enologist son, Giorgos, make elegant, silky wines. All of Papaioannou’s wines are high quality, including an ageworthy Nemea Old Vines.

Near Argos, George Skouras opened Domaine Skouras, a state-of-the-art winery and visitors’ center in 2004. The charismatic Greek wine ambassador believes that “small details make a difference,” and the proof is in the aromas and freshness of his white wines. (the partially oak-aged Viognier Cuvée Larsinos is stunning) 

Two new major players in Nemea are Driopi Estate in Koutsi, founded by Cyprus-born, Dijon-trained Yiannis Tselepos, and the Agiorgitiko-only Domaine Vassiliou, which purchased 25 acres of mature vines in the middle-elevation area of the appellation. Both Driopi’s and Vassiliou’s initial wines, elegant and age worthy, promise to add luster to the growing reputation of Agiorgitiko and Nemea.

Aromatic White

Nearby Nemea, to the southwest, is Mantinia, an appellation of roughly 1,500 acres on a high plateau sandwiched among higher peaks. Here a remarkable white grape with a pink skin flourishes above 1,800 feet: Moschofilero (mos-co-FEE-le-ro). The grape comprises 85 percent of vineyard plantings, and quite logically, a Mantinia wine must be 85 percent Moschofilero. At its best, Mantinia wines express lovely floral, stone fruit, and citrus aromatics, coupled with crisp acidity.

      Domaine Spiropoulos is a leading winery of the region with nearly 100 acres of certified organic vineyards. The winery’s history dates from 1860, but the modern era began when Nondas Spiropoulos replanted the vineyards using a modern trellis system in the early 1970s, concentrating on Moschofilero. Spiropoulos opened a new winery in 1990 with Gaia Estate’s Paraskevopoulos as enologist. Now Nondas’s UC Davis–trained son, Apostoles, makes the wine; among his creations is a crisp unoaked Mantinia made with estate grapes. At their new winery in Ancient Nemea, where the family owns 25 acres, Spiropoulos makes a number of stylish reds.

      Another winery that put Mantinia on the world wine map is Domaine Tselepos, led by Burgundy-influenced Yiannis Tselepos. The winery’s three textbook Moschofileros—a méthode champenoisesparkler, a stainless-steel-fermented beauty, and an oak-fermented cuvée—are concentrated and expressive examples of the variety.

Boutari acquired the venerable Cambas winery and vineyards in Mantinia in the 1990s, with 175 acres of relatively old vines at 2,000 feet, and the winery makes a clean, bright, aromatic Moschofilero that shows off the grape’s irresistible characters.

Skouras sources Moschofilero outside the appellation, and the grapes go through a six-hour maceration in dry ice that preserves the variety’s aromas and flavors and results in an excellent example of the wine. The grapes for the admirable Moschofilero from Lafkotis come from Mantinia vineyards that the winery manages. 

Fox and Donkey

In Patras in northwest Peloponnese, the best dry white wines are made with the prolific Roditis (ro-DEE-tees), a grape that makes dry lemon-scented wine with honeyed melon flavors, and the sparsely cultivated Lagorthi (la-GOR-thee), which makes a crisp, low-alcohol, delicate wine. Patras is also home to Greece’s best-known sweet wine, Mavrodaphne (mav-ro-THAF-nee) of Petras, made with the eponymous grape and up to 45 percent of the Corinthiaki raisin grape.

Patras is a large and varied grape-growing area with considerable disparity in grape quality. The best Roditis is made with small-clustered subvariety Alepou (“fox” in English) in low yields and in vineyards above 1,000 feet on the northern slopes of a mountain chain that shields the vineyards facing the Corinthian Gulf and Gulf of Patras from the hot African winds. Another high-yielding, large-clustered subvariety, Gaidouroroditis (“donkey Roditis”), makes a wine that is apt for its nickname.

      Two wineries in the region, Antonopoulos Vineyards and Oenoforos, have assumed the leadership position once held by the historic Achaia Clauss winery, the creator of the sweet style of Mavrodaphne. Founded in 1987 by Lagorthi’s champion, the late Constantinos Antonopoulos, the winery that bears his name is now in the hands of Yiannis Halikias, who continues the founder’s pursuit of wine excellence. The Antonopoulos portfolio includes well-made bottlings of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and red blends (Cabernet Sauvignon–Cabernet Franc and Merlot-Syrah), but wines made with Greek varieties seem more compelling. The best are the crisp and balanced Adoli Ghis, a white blend made with 65 percent Lagorthi and other varieties, including Chardonnay; a fresh, lively, acacia-scented Mantinia (100 percent Moschofilero); a rich, medium weight 60/40 red blend of Vertzami and Cabernet Franc; and modestly sweet and chocolaty Mavrodaphne of Patras, made exclusively with Mavrodaphne.

      Founded in 1991, Oenoforos has been co-owned since 2004 by Greece’s largest wine company, Greek Wine Cellars (formerly known as Kourtaki). At the spectacular five-level, gravity-fed Oenoforos winery, a number of wines are expertly made from native and foreign grapes sourced from the region’s best vineyard sites. The winery’s 100 percent Roditis Asprolithi and 100 percent Lagorthi Mikros Voriasdemonstrate that these Greek white grapes can make delicious single-variety wines. High-value wines that showcase the region are Kouros Patras, a white made entirely from Roditis, and Kourtaki Mavodaphne of Patras.

West Coast Wonder

No story about the wines of the Peloponnese would be complete without a mention of the beautiful and historic Mercouri Estate, bordering an inlet near Pyrgos on the west coast and not far from Ancient Olympia. Established in 1870, the estate was planted with olive trees and Refosco, the Italian grape, and some old ungrafted vines have survived and still produce. Following World War II, the family resuscitated the vineyards, and now 15 wine-grape varieties are planted on the estate’s 25 acres. Mercouri’s flagship wine, Domaine Mercouri, a blend of 85 percent Refosco and 15 percent Mavrodaphne, is a marvel of elegance, complexity, and ageworthiness.

As American diners taste more wines from the Peloponnese, these food-friendly wines will be accepted. But George Skouras, who has a well-cultivated view of the global wine market, cautions about introducing too many unfamiliar wines too quickly: “We don’t have all the respect yet. We have to go slowly, step-by-step.” Sofia Perpera, an Athens-educated enologist and director of US-based All About Greek Wines, a business that promotes Greek wineries and wines, has seen Americans embrace Moschofilero and envisions a bright future. “The Peloponnese is one of the largest wine-producing areas in Greece,” she remarks. “This ability to produce volume should help in establishing the main varieties such as Agiorgitiko, Moschofilero, and Roditis in the mainstream.”

What Is a Peloponnese Wine?

General Characteristics

Moschofilero, a pink-skinned variety from Mantinia, is an aromatic, crisp white with floral and citrus notes; the roses are particularly appealing. Roditis, from Patras in the northwest expresses lemon-scented aromas and honeyed melon and citrus flavors with moderate acidity. Agiorgitiko, a crowd-pleasing red wine with saturated red color, bright berry fruit, and moderate tannins, is made in a variety of styles, from light rosés and Beaujolais-like quaffers to rich, age-worthy red-meat wines.

Aging

Except for the best of the dessert wines from Patras and a few oak-aged Chardonnays, most whites from the Peloponnese should be consumed upon release to enjoy their fresh aromas and flavors. The reserve reds made with Agiorgitiko and minor percentages of Bordeaux varieties can improve with bottle age for four years or more.

Peloponnese Wines on Premises

Will an increasing number of American diners at mainstream restaurants order Peloponnesean wines made with Agiorgitiko, Moschofilero, Roditis, and other tongue-twisting names? Sofia Perpera, director of All About Greek Wines, notes, “We have seen a growing excitement from mainstream restaurants regarding Greek varieties, in spite of their pronunciation. Many have indicated that customers still have problems with foreign names, including French, and that Greek names do not pose any different challenge.”

When Perpera presents Greek wines to on-premises staff, she casts them in the context of history and culture, including the story of the modern Greek wine industry. “Many in the trade see the unique indigenous varieties, the great quality-to-price ratio, and the fact that Greek wines are very food-friendly as a big marketing advantage,” she offers. “This gives sommeliers and servers something different to talk about.” Michael Weiss, professor of wine at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York, who reviewed wines for this story, believes that restaurants must take a proactive approach. “Greek wines need to be promoted,” he insists. “This can be done by either suggesting them on the menu with specific foods or including them in a tasting or prix fixe menu.

“The flavors of [the Peloponnese] varietals could be an ideal partner for a traditional dish or fusion fare,” continues Weiss. He likes Moschofilero with spicy ethnic fare and adds, “[The wine’s] refreshing acidity allows it to be a foil for fried seafoods with tzatziki.” He considers Roditis “a simple wine that can be a good backdrop for mezze, calzones, or salads.” Finally, Weiss sees Agiorgitiko with its many styles as versatile. “I enjoy cold cuts or grilled salmon with the lighter styles and opt for moussaka, rack of lamb, or vegetarian dishes with eggplant, tomato, and olives with the full-bodied wines."

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