The Greek alphabet begins with A and finishes with X. The names of two of the countries greatest red grape varieties also begin with these letters, namely Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro. Both are responsible for some of the most stunning and exciting red wines produced. But at the same time, both are complete opposites.
AgiorgitikoAgiorgitiko’s true home is the area of Nemea, in the northeast of the Peleponnese. It is also cultivated in other parts, but think of Nemea as a synonym to Agiorgitiko. With about 2800 hectares under vine, it is the largest red wine appellation in Greece. The climate is typical for the Peloponnese with mild winter and scorching summers. The altitude of the vineyards varies from approximately 750 up to 3000 feet. As with many other grape varieties, Agiorgitiko produces the best results when struggling to grow on poor soil. I have seen vineyards in Nemea where large rocks were blasted to make room for vines. Nothing else could possibly grow in such a poor and harsh environment.
I believe Agiorgitiko is best suited to introduce a consumer to the red wines from Greece. I have yet to find a person who was not immediately taken over by it. Its deep colour, extremely open nose of cherries mixed with sweet spices, and rich but finely layered palate ensure its success. It has the Jennifer Aniston effect on people – it is hard not to like her. Agiorgitiko is a charmer with a distinct personality that wins the crowd over. It is never exhausting and can be enjoyed without effort.
The variety produces wines that come in a range of styles: Fresh nouveau wines that are loaded with fruit aromas, medium bodied wines that are soft and charming, and blockbuster masculine wines that are tannic without compromising the fruit character. The majority of Agiorgitiko wines can be kept easily for 3 to 5 years, the top wines will certainly improve for a decade.
XinomavroXinomavro is grown in four appellations in northern Greece, out of which Naoussa is best known. This area is a half an hour to an hour drive away to the west of Thessaloniki, which is the second largest city in Greece after the capital Athens. About 700 hectares are under vine. The climate is cool for Mediterranean standards, with severe winds that also have a cooling effect. Vineyards are located at altitudes between 500 and 1500 feet. Greek MW Konstantinos Lazarakis has famously dubbed Xinomavro as one of the great divas in the vineyard, as it is quite difficult to deal with.
Xinomavro means “sharp and black” in Greek. Is often compared to the fickle Pinot Noir or the robust Nebbiolo. This gives only a very general idea of what can be expected from the wine. Xinomavro is unique; there simply is no other wine similar to it in style. The colour is always fairly pale with tawny hues, the nose intense and dominated by the scent of fresh, ripe tomatoes. It is not a fruity wine, rather a spicy and herbal one. It starts opening up tremendously after three hours in a decanter. It takes effort getting used to and is the exact opposite to the global blockbuster wines we are all so used to. Finesse is the key – there is so much going on that one can literally spend hours analysing it. It keeps changing in the glass for many hours. There are not many wines in the world that are capable of offering this experience. It is an exciting and fascinating grape variety. The wine pairs almost perfectly with a wide range of food; it has high acidity levels and is always tannic. One word of caution though – poorly made Xinomavro wine tends to be nothing but aggressive juice. It takes a talented and good vintner to master this variety.
In general, there are two styles of Xinomavro, traditional and modern. The former can often be a little rustic, offering authenticity that has remained more or less unchanged for the last 2 centuries. The latter is driven by the desire to produce a more elegant, softer wine. In my opinion both work well, it is fascinating to see that a new generation of vintners is bold enough to experiment carefully with some modern approaches of winemaking.
Xinomavro wines can have an amazing lifespan – already most basic bottlings can be kept for 5 years. A large percentage should be drunk after a 10-year maturation period, the top wines will last for decades, similar to top Bordeaux wines. The tomato aromas become even more evident over time, and it is a treat to indulge on old vintages from the top producers.
These two grape varieties really show off their different characteristics. But both are capable of producing exciting wines that will capture your attention. They do have a few things in common: The best examples are true terroir wines. Trust me, Greece has an abundance of amazing soil structures, but only in recent years has the quest begun to properly match vines with it. Also, the winemakers have an almost obsessing passion for their work, willing to go that extra step. To do this, it does not matter if you plant A or X. I encourage every reader to sample these wines – I look forward to receiving your comments on them.
Markus Stolz is a Greek wine insider based in Athens, Greece.