Apolavi: roughly translated as ‘enjoyment’ and the answer from my taxi driver, Alessandro, when asked to summarise Greek wine in one word.
Within 40 minutes, Alessandro left me with two local insights:
1) Road lanes act as ‘loose guides’
2) Most Greeks have never consumed wine produced beyond their frontier
The dialogue that followed was not dissimilar to the scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Do you remember the one when Ian discloses he is vegetarian? To quote Aunt Voila “what do you mean he don’t eat no meat?” [audible shock in room] – simply replace ‘eat’ for ‘drink’ and ‘meat’ with ‘Barossa Shiraz’. Ha. I’m the proverbial pot.
It appears the delusion of a 24-hour transit, near missed connecting flight, and domino of airport bollards left in my wake were ingredients for this parochial monster. Nonetheless, “a drunk mind speaks a sober heart”. So how did we get here? Is it contentment, or complacency, that has prevented us discovering varietals we can’t pronounce?
So as the pot to the kettle, let’s call it black or mavro in Greek and the perfect segue to Xinomavro. Pronounced like Casino (without the ‘a’)-Mavro, Xinomavro translates as ‘sour black’ and is Greece’s noble grape. In the glass, a roulette of red and black fruits, locomoted by the varietal’s characteristic olive tapenade, sun dried tomato, and sweet tobacco bouquet. Often referred to as the happy medium between Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir, Xinomavro is the fashion equivalent of denim. Versatile. A vinous chameleon shifting between forms; red, white, blends, passito, grappa and sparkling. However, only as a 100% table red can the varietal be labelled Naoussa DOC. No different to Barolo (100% Nebbiolo) or Vosne-Romanée (100% Pinot Noir).
The way I see it, wine is like a family – the forementioned are the eldest – raised with an authoritative parenting style whilst their New World siblings (ie. Australia and California) experience the laxed evolution of parenting practices. Despite winemaking origins spanning back 6500 years, and disciplinary methods of an iron fist, Greece displays tell-tale signs of a middle child. Flying under the radar to achieve innovation and excellence, some of history’s greatest trailblazers were middle children – Nelson Mandela, Charles Darwin and Madonna. Greece is in good company.
In three days I can attest, Naoussa is generous, unassuming and unexpected. It is an embodiment of the Greek culture with a disarming level of hospitality. Complimentary biscuits with coffee, in-house grappa to chase lunch and a guaranteed Greek sweet post dinner. In a world where we are taught that “nothing in life is free”, one cannot help meet such generosity with cynicism. Shamefully, I googled whether this was custom, and was directed to the verbatim titled article “Why do you get free desserts in Greek restaurants?”.
It appears I had stumbled across a Greek phenomenon. The art of ‘kerasma’. ‘Treat’ or ‘to be treated’, kerasma was summed up beautifully as a “culinary kindness not erased in this ruthless bottom-line age”. You only have to look around to see the ruins of a decade-long debt crisis. And despite the oppression of tax rises, high unemployment and shrunken living standards, for Greeks, altruism is inherent. It is a humbling experience and perhaps validation that the best things in life are free. Kerasma goes beyond service, down to the contents of the glass. For Naoussa DOC there is generosity with each sip – rich tannins, abundant fruit, mouth-watering acidity and, thanks to its ageability, a hospitality that is long-lived.
The region’s low-profile is its upper hand, “no expectations, no disappointment”, a motto applicable to more than just first dates and comedy acts. For Naoussa, it is the pleasant surprise that proceeds this lack of expectation. A dopamine hit each winemaker waits in suspense to witness. That is their reward and, I predict, motivation, as this is one fickle variety. Relentless in both vineyard and winery, Xinomavro is not for the faint hearted.
George Diamantakos, third generation viticulturist and winemaker, knows this all too well as he combats high yields with canopy management and vine repositioning. In the barrel room, George mirrors a chef in their kitchen. Equipped with oak as his seasoning, he is aware of its potency. Too much and you mar the wine. Too little and you risk being dull. Using the valenche as a tasting spoon, we are invited to sample his work, his ever-evolving recipe for Naoussa DOC.
Despite producing ten different expressions of Xinomavro, Apostolos Thymiopoulos, of the eponymous brand, follows one recipe. A formula of purity, authenticity and like Diamantakos, one not overwhelmed by the impact of barrel. Apostolos has devoted himself exclusively to Xinomavro, and in doing so has been dubbed the ambassador for Greek wine. Decanter’s 2022 Rising Star explains that the varietal “leaves no room for mistake”. Whether a perfectionist or masochistic, the gallant Apostolos Thymiopoulos has pioneered a million-bottle per year export market.
It seems that, in the world of Xinomavro, to master tannin is to conquer approachability. From the foudre vats at Kir-Yianni to the lower ferment temperatures at Louissi, each of the twelve wineries we visited were taking action. Ironically, the solution was right in front of us. A plate of Kritsinia (Greek bread sticks), feta and homegrown cherry tomatoes at Kokkinos. And salami with tiropita (Greek cheese pie with feta) at Kelesidi. Food is the varietal’s greatest ally.
They say the greatest rewards are born from the greatest challenges. It is the comfort given to my parents as they flashback on the trauma of my teen years. And what, I suspect, motivates Naoussa winemakers as they savour the plushness of an aged Xinomavro that has absorbed the complexities of time. Naoussa is not Barolo. Naoussa is not Burgundy. Naoussa is its own, with a charming rusticity that modestly downplays its potential. What I have attempted to do in an article, our friend Alessandro has managed to do in one word, ‘Apolavi’. For enjoyment is the essence of Naoussa.