A grape odyssey

Photography: max allen

Crisis? What crisis? Here on the terrace outside my hotel room on Santorini, it doesn't look or feel as though Greece is in the middle of economic and social meltdown. In fact, it looks and feels a lot like paradise.

It's a perfect July day. Vast cruise ships slip lazily across the wide blue lagoon below; scudding wisps of damp cloud temper the sun, glinting in my glass of cold, crisp white wine. Yes, yes: cliché piled upon cliché. But all startlingly true.It's hard to reconcile this restful image with the scenes of anarchy beamed around the world from Syntagma Square in Athens a week before. But this is modern Greece: a country of extreme dichotomy (good Greek word, that).

I'm here on a whirlwind tour of Greek wine regions. And I'm fast discovering that the modern Greek wine scene is just as dichotomous as the country itself. There is, for example, extraordinary history here: grapes have been grown and wine has been made on Santorini for at least 3500 years (see my wine column on page 91). And yet the style of wine we readily associate with the island - dry, crisp, clean white made from the remarkable assyrtiko grape - is barely two decades old.

Here's another contradiction: there are plenty of high-quality wines made from indigenous Greek grapes such as assyrtiko emerging from the country's progressive wineries. But those few Greeks in Greece who care about wine (the market is mostly bulk booze, drunk from flagons or cask) prefer to drink international varieties such as sauvignon blanc or chardonnay.

No wonder the winemakers I meet on my trip have a quiet air of frustration about them. There is so much to be excited about here, but - what with the crisis and all - spreading that message is very hard.

My guide on Santorini is Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, founder of the Gaia winery, who looks and acts for all the world like George Clooney playing an articulate, urbane, enthusiastic Greek winemaker.

At the end of a long, hot day visiting vineyards and his seaside winery, we head to the town of Oia, on the island's northern tip, to watch the sunset - along with a few thousand tourists. It's a Santorini ritual. Paraskevopoulos leads me down a narrow lane, deep into the throng of sunsetters, a mass of humanity perched on walls and rooftops. And then, suddenly, he opens a gate onto a small private courtyard - his aunt's house, an oasis of calm with a perfect view. And as the sun slips over the horizon, chased by a tiny sliver of the new crescent moon, we drink rosé and he talks passionately about the wine industry he loves. "We Greeks have proved we can make wine," he says. "But we still have a long way to go. Greeks are very bad at marketing - we are extremely capable of hiding the good things we have, and incapable of showing our best."

The next day I leave Santorini far behind and head up to Epanomi, 25km south of Thessaloniki. The country couldn't be any more different: gently rolling fields of chocolate cloddy earth, wheat, olives, corn, cotton. The star grape here is the fragrant, textural malagousia, a variety that was rediscovered in a mountain village back in the 1960s, and later developed by winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou, who planted it here in 1981. Gerovassiliou is obsessed with the history and culture of wine: the cellar of his winery is home to an extraordinary museum of artefacts, from ancient Greek kylikes (the characteristic flat wine cups) to one of the biggest collections of corkscrews in the world (which, surprisingly, is far more fascinating and entertaining than it sounds).

But he's also extremely forward-thinking. As winemaker at the groundbreaking Domaine Porto Carras from the mid-'70s to the late '90s, Gerovassiliou championed "international" varieties in Greece, and still produces very good semillon, syrah and viognier at both his eponymous winery and the exciting Biblia Chora vineyard to the north. He's also involved in a joint venture vineyard called Escapades in Stellenbosch, South Africa. "You see, in Greece, we don't really have a real culture of wine," he says. "You have to remember that from 1453 to the early 19th-century Greece was occupied by the Ottoman Empire. We forgot a lot during that time."

And suddenly I realise that visionaries like Vangelis Gerovassiliou and Yiannis Paraskevopoulos aren't just involved in the business of making wine. They're trying to create a whole culture. Or rather, re-create a culture.

The next morning, I'm barrelling up the motorway to Alpha Estate in Amyndeon with winemaker Angelos Iatridis in his brand new Audi. Iatridis is the very model of the modern, high-achieving Greek winemaker: as we shoot past semitrailers loaded with retsina, he takes calls on his BlackBerry and his iPhone, shouting "Ne, ne, ne" into his Bluetooth earpiece as his secretary tells him about the latest scores awarded to Alpha wines by renowned wine journalist Robert Parker.

Alpha is a very new and extremely expensive venture. I haven't seen this much technology and attention to detail in many wineries anywhere: the ranks of gleaming stainless-steel tanks, the vast cellar with hundreds of barrels stretching away into the red gloom, single layer, like a top Bordeaux château. And out in the vineyard,atridis talks about the cutting-edge subsoil irrigation and infra-red mapping needed to ensure each square metre of active vine canopy produces an average of 1.2kg of red grapes and 1.4kg of white grapes.

But just as all this high-tech whizbangery is beginning to pall, we turn a corner and see the pigs that Iatridis is raising to provide sausages and other meat for the Albanian vineyard workers and their families. And the big piles of compost that are spread under the vines every three years. And a couple of blocks of fabulous old bush vines, the red xynomavro variety that this part of Greece is noted for. I can see that at the heart of the glitz and glamour is some soul, and not surprisingly, later, tasting through Iatridis's wines, it's the red produced from those old vines that impresses me the most, with its ethereal spicy perfume and dusty tannins, reminiscent of the sandy soil in which the vines are grown.

Xynomavro is my favourite Greek red grape. And there are few better examples than the xynomavro grown on Kir-Yianni's Ramnista vineyard in Naoussa, to the east of Amyndeon.

This is very different country again: it's hilly, even mountainous in parts. Damper, cooler. We passed apple trees, peaches and cherries on the way up here. And draped over one of those hills, surrounded by forest, under a glowering sky, is the xynomavro vineyard I'd been dying to visit.

Oenologist Antonis Kioseoglou - who looks like a slightly nervous and geeky Nicolas Cage - opens a few vintages of Ramnista for me, back to 1999, and I'm off on a romantic trip into the forest in my mind. To me, here, xynomavro tastes like good nebbiolo from Piedmont: not deep in colour, full of earthy, undergrowthy aromatics, and with tongue-hugging, savoury, woody tannins. It's mouthwatering stuff, so Kioseoglou and I indulge in a little food-matching one-upmanship: "This'd be great with game…" "There are lots of wild rabbits around here…" "Roast lamb perhaps…" "We like it with venison…" After this bucolic serious-wine ramble, it's a shock to wander into the cellar door and be met by an extraordinary collection of kitsch. Daggy calendars, weird figurines, crazy cuckoo clocks, golden frogs, lots of sequins, prancing horses. This collection is the pride and joy of the vineyard's founder, Yiannis Boutaris, arguably the most famous and important figure in the modern Greek wine industry. And as I learn later that night, it's a seeming contradiction that is typical of the man.

I'm having dinner back in Thessaloniki with Kir-Yianni winemaker Stellios Boutaris, Yiannis's son, at a pavement table outside a crowded restaurant near the waterfront. Stellios is telling me about the 120-year history of his family's wine company. "My father is a remarkable man," says Stellios. "As well as [being involved in] wine, he established a museum of modern art, he had a very public battle with alcoholism, he set up Greece's first rehab centre. On top of all that, now he is the mayor of Thessaloniki."

And then the mayor himself arrives, a slight but striking figure in his late 60s with white buzz-cut hair and John Lennon glasses, paisley braces and diamond ear stud, shaking hands with the diners, flirting with the women. "He often does this," says Stellios, smiling. "He likes to walk home from the office in the evening, to talk to the people."

The mayor joins us, takes a sip of the wine we're drinking, spits it out (he's a recovering alcoholic, remember), rolls up his sleeve to reveal a lizard tattoo and lights a cigarette.
I have to ask. In all the other wineries I've visited, the cellar doors and walls are adorned with certificates and trophies from critics and wine shows around the world. At Kir-Yianni there is kitsch. Why? Yiannis Boutaris levels his gaze at me, eyes twinkling, and says: "You can't appreciate the beauty unless you acknowledge the ugliness."





THE FINE PRINT

STAY
Aigialos Hotel
A collection of exquisitely converted traditional houses in a very old part of Fira. The perfect Santorini experience. Doubles from $390. Fira, Santorini, +30 228 602 5191.

Daios Hotel
Well-appointed, very smart hotel on Thessaloniki's harbourfront. Doubles from $235. Leoforos Nikis 59, Thessaloniki, +30 231 025 0200.

DRINK
Gaia winery
Visits by appointment. Exo Gonia, Santorini, +30 228 603 4186.

Domaine Gerovassiliou winery
Closed Saturdays and select feast days. Epanomi, Thessaloniki, +30 239 204 4567.

Alpha Estate winery
By appointment. Ayios Panteleimon, Amyndeon, Florina, +30 238 602 0111.

Kir-Yianni winery
By appointment. Yianna­kochori, Naoussa, +30 233 205 1100.

EAT
Selene Restaurant
Chef Yiorgos Hatziyannakis's modern take on traditional Santorini cuisine is full of invention and intense flavour. Pyrgos, Santorini, +30 228 602 2249.

Domaine Sigalas
This excellent winery and cellar door serves its organically-grown wines under vine-covered pergolas alongside classic regional dishes such as fava, the rich, earthy yellow bean purée, and perfectly ripe, thick-skinned cherry tomatoes. Oia, Santorini, +30 228 607 1644.

Seven Thalasses
A large and sleek-looking seafood restaurant a stone's throw from Thessaloniki's harbourfront. A huge, fat snapper-like fish comes simply grilled, dressed with thick green olive oil. Winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou carefully slices the fillets off, gives them to me and proceeds to suck the remaining flesh from the head and bones. Kalapothaki 8-10, Thessaloniki, +30 231 023 3173.

Kontosoros
This beautiful unassuming restaurant in the heart of the Florina countryside (adjacent to Amyndeon) provided the best meal of my trip. The food is all grown, foraged or sourced by the owners - much of it from the kitchen garden out the back - and there are more than 200 labels in the cellar with which to wash it all down, along with the xyno nero, the mineral-rich "sour water" unique to this region. Xyno Nero, Florina, +30 238 608 1256.



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