Tag Archives: Travel

Discovering fine Greek wine

A visit to Tinos island and T-Oinos winery

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A classic Greek scene

Greek wine is exciting. I have been saying this for a while. This has been reaffirmed to me by a recent visit to T-Oinos winery on Tinos island, organised by my fellow MW and Greek wine ambassador Yiannis Karakasis.

 

Tinos is a moderately-sized island (194 square kilometres) in the Aegean Sea and part of the Cyclades group of islands. This group includes the famous Santorini and neighbouring party capital Mykonos. Like many Greek islands, Tinos is a bit of a geological wonder. It is home to a Unesco World Heritage site – hills covered in huge granite boulders, according to mythology they were cast down by the Titans. As all wine geeks know, granitic soils are great for vine growing. So far, so easy. Except not. Tinos is a beautiful island alright, sprinkled with those charming white-washed little houses and over 700 churches and chapels. As lovely as it looks bathed in the sunshine, Tinos is also a very windy, dry and desolate place and this is hard terrain for viticulture. It doesn’t quite rain enough and there isn’t enough water for irrigation. In fact, T-Oinos only just manage to collect enough water for one irrigation run a year, reserved for their youngest vines.

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Tinos has as many chapels as you can shake a stick at

T-Oinos winemaking consultant Thanos Fakorelis explains that when the vineyards of Clos Stegasta were first planted in 2000, high density of 11,500 plants/ha seemed the best option. Less canopy means less water requirement as well as less bunches per vine. Being so close together also helps protect the vines from the harsh Northern winds that sweep through this open plateau, which sits at 450m altitude.

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Clos Stegasta vineyard

Walking through the Clos Stegasta vineyard made me wonder how the vineyard workers manage. The sandy soils (on granite bedrock) on a blustery day, the granite boulders in the summer heat. It isn’t easy, else everyone would be doing it. This is unique terrain, like that of another planet and for such hardship you can expect an equivalent price tag.

 

T-Oinos farm 11ha of vineyards, planted to Malagousia, Assyrtiko, Mavrotragano and Avgoustiatis. The first commercially released vintage was 2008. I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by the wines. They have elegance and poise, a clearly defined line of saline ‘minerality’ runs through all the wines, white and red.

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The three quality levels

Their Malagousia is a far cry from the overtly aromatic and a little simple whites that you will find elsewhere in Greece. The winemaker deliberately picks this grape at below 13% potential alcohol in order to avoid excessive aromatics, which are found above this percentage. Here, we’re looking at 11-12% abv. The wine has a restrained, tight nose which focuses on stony, grapefruit and lime aromas and a saline, oyster shell expression on the palate. It’s a delicious wine.

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Rassonas vineyard

Where Malagousia is the ‘entry level’ white (though about £20-25 on the shelf), the top white Clos Stegasta focuses exclusively on Greece’s best white variety – Assyrtiko. We were lucky enough to be treated to a vertical tasting of this fabulous wine, vintages 2011 – 2015. The style varies as Tinos offers vintage variation much like any other place. The amount of oak used also varies, it can be a vintage decision or a purely practical one – in 2012 the volumes were so small (1000l only) that it neatly fit into two 500l French barrels. This vintage was not my favourite as I felt the oak was somewhat dominant here, hiding the character of the grape. Both 2011 and 2014 are vintages that clearly show Assyrtiko’s varietal character. This is not dissimilar to Hunter Semillon with its waxy lemon and citrus oil notes. Both wines saw a small amount of oak (10%) and I think this benefits Assyrtiko by adding a layer of texture without obscuring the grape. Saying that, I absolutely loved the 2013 Clos Stegasta white. One of my fellow MWs refers to it as the ‘Greek Coche-Dury’ and I would not disagree with that. The 2013 was fermented 70% in wood and 30% in steel and shows an outstandingly well-managed oak character – that cornmeal reduction and creamy spice really tempers Assyrtiko’s stand-out acidity. Granted, this may not be a typical Greek white, in fact given blind I would go straight to Meursault or a high quality Aussie Chardonnay, but there is no denying that this is a world class wine. I think quite a few people would be surprised to learn this wine comes from an island in the Aegean!

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Fermentation is now done partially in amphorae

Now onto the reds, focused on Mavrotragano. This is an indigenous variety to the Cyclades and most famously planted in Santorini, where it fetches higher prices per kilo than Assyrtiko. Mavrotragano is a highly tannic and rustic variety and not easy to temper. In fact, some people in Greece are of the belief that it does not at all work in the volcanic soils of Santorini. Here at T-Oinos it seems to thrive on the granitic soils and produces wines with rounder tannins. T-Oinos produce two reds based on this variety – Mavro and Clos Stegasta. The latter is a single vineyard wine from the amphitheatre-like Rassonas vineyard. At 400m altitude it is a slightly warmer, more sheltered spot from the main Clos Stegasta site. Standing there, I was reminded of the terraced vineyards of Priorat. My favourite from this tasting was the 2013 Clos Stegasta Reserve red. It has a very seductive nose, showing wild herbs and lavender, plush morello cherry and almost a hint of orange. The tannins are tempered if still chewy and pencilly but have this with food and they disappear. At 14.5% abv, this may not look like a slight wine, but it is so balanced by that fresh, saline acidity, that you don’t even notice it.

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Bottles in the vineyard

T-Oinos is doing a great job bringing attention to Tinos island whilst equally making some of the most exciting wines in Greece. They are available to buy in France and the U.K. (Via Wimbledon Wine Cellar and Handford’s). They may not be cheap but there is no doubt they are fine.

 

LENKA

 

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The wild side of Sardinia

Eye-opening. That is probably the best way to describe our recent trip to Sardinia. If you had asked me what sprung to mind when thinking about the island before we went I would probably have mentioned golden sands, bronzed tourists, clear turquoise waters and the superyachts of the rich and famous. Now that mental image has completely changed and instead of tourist Sardinia, my thoughts now turn to a more rugged, wild Sardinia.  A land where gnarly old vines grow within spitting distance of the sea, where wild chamomile and bitter herbs scent the air and where rocky limestone mountains soar over the land to create a spectacular backdrop. In other words, the sort of place we felt sure would produce some great wines – and we weren’t disappointed.

Sardinia

Sardinia

Our first day in Sardinia took us down into the Sulcis region in the southwest of the island. Only an hour’s drive outside the island’s capital, Cagliari, and yet this region felt completely undiscovered by the tourist trail. Little blink-and-you-miss-them towns were surrounded by open land full of wildflowers, scrubby trees and bushes and the occasional field of artichokes. Packs of stray dogs roamed the fields, pink flamingos posed one-legged in the lagoons and ‘fences’ of cactus were used to protect fields from wild boar. And yet here we also got our first taste of Sardinian hospitality and generosity – and the first inkling that Sardinian wine really is worth tracking down.

Sardinia

Sulcis, Sardinia

Luca Fontana from the winery Cantina Mesa was a delightful and generous host, not only treating us to a delicious lunch but also giving us some insights into the region, its people and the wines. Sadly much of this is unrepeatable “this is not for writing!” – but we did also get regaled with some wonderful Luca-isms, such as “there are two ways to know there is a God – bubbly wine and beautiful women”. A native of Milan, Luca moved to work in his uncle’s winery when it was set up 10 years ago, and whilst we got the feeling some aspects of Sardinian life were still an anathema to him, witnessing the pride and joy he took in showing us their vineyards and wines made it clear the importance this region now holds for him. It is not every export manager who will get down on his knees in a vineyard and lovingly caress the vines as if they were his own children.

Luca and the old vines

Luca and the old vines

Cantina Mesa’s vineyards were amongst the oldest we saw on the island, planted in the traditonal ‘albarello’ (bushvine) way. These were truly beautiful vineyards, right next to the sea and full of wild flowers and herbs whose scent hung in the air – and, as we later discovered, also scented the wines. These vines were Carignano – the local name for Carignan – apparently the only variety on the island that can grow this close to the sea. The Vermentino for Mesa’s white wine comes from vineyards further inland to protect it from the salty sea air, which can burn its leaves and grapes.

The old vines and the sea

The old vines and the sea

We tried 7 different wines at Mesa: 3 whites, a rosé, 2 reds and a passito red. Their Opale Vermentino was my pick of the bunch – and turned out to be one of our favourite wines of the trip. It is made from a blend of two vineyard sites: one in Sulcis on sandy soils to give elegance and one in the north of the island on calcareous soils to give more power. The result was a mineral, textured wine with a lovely weight and yellow-fruited core. We were also treated to the 2010 vintage (the current vintage is 2012) – and it was fantastic to see how well Vermentino can age, with an almost Riesling-like petrol nose and then a complex, honeyed palate with chamomile, ginger and still that intense minerality. As Luca said: “you usually give the shoulder to a white wine by ageing in oak” – but here it is that mineral core that gives the structure.

After the Vermentino it was onto the Carignano reds which seemed completely different to any Carignan I had tried before. Full of wild bramble fruit but always with an undertone of herbs and balsamic giving a savoury finish. The Meno Buio Carignano in particular was really delicious: unoaked to allow the primary fruit to shine through, and with a lovely smooth texture and bright acidity. Perhaps not as complex as the Buio Buio which sees some time in oak, but exceedingly drinkable.

Cantina Mesa's wines

Cantina Mesa’s wines

We left Mesa on a bit of a high, excited about what we had tasted and learnt – and looking forward to our visits to follow. The second winery we visited in Sulcis was Agricola Punica – and this proved to be a completely different style to Mesa, neatly showing how diverse the wines from this one region can be even when based on the same varieties.

Punica is a joint venture set up in 2002 between Santadi, a local co-op, and Sassicaia, one of Tuscany’s greatest estates. Instead of producing the more typical single varietal wines of the region, they decided to follow the Sassicaia model of making blended wines as their point of difference. So here the native Carignano and Vermentino are the main components and are blended with well-known international varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Syrah for the reds and Chardonnay for the white. As these grapes are not widely grown on the island, this involved replanting all of their vineyards between 2003 and 2007 and the 1000 year old olive trees in the vineyards now stand watch over neat rows of trained vines.

Agricola Punica

Agricola Punica

Perhaps aided by the association to Sassicaia, Punica is also unusual for the fact that it exports a full 80% of production (compared to 20% for Mesa). I am sure the inclusion in the blend of some well known grape varieties make these wines more understandable to overseas consumers. Indeed, Punica is the only Sardinian wine I had tasted prior to visiting the island – in my previous life at The Sampler we used to sell one of their reds.

The wines themselves were obviously well made: very polished and supple, powerful yet balanced and with a lick of sweet oak on the reds. Whilst for me they perhaps lacked the personality of the Mesa wines – with the inclusion of international varieties overshadowing the wild herbal complexity I had so enjoyed – I can see how these would be very popular wines. In particular the fresh, crisp ‘Samas’ white with only 12% alcohol would go down a treat whilst anchored in a bay in the summer. I wonder if perhaps in a few years once the vines get a bit older if the terroir of the region will shine through more and that herbal complexity may show itself in the wines?

The wines at Punica

The wines at Punica

I shall leave my fellow monkeys to fill you in on the rest of our trip when we tasted old vine Cannonau in a truly garagiste winery and discovered some new-to-us varieties: Bovale, Monica, Nuragus and Nasco. Sardinia was eye-opening in many ways and I now look forward to tracking down some of the wines over here and sharing them with other people.

Emma

If you fancy tasting any of these wines yourselves, Cantina Mesa is distributed in the UK through Liberty Wines and Agricola Punica through Armit Wines. You can search for stockists via www.wine-searcher.com