Hellfire vintage

Despite vineyards being lost to the summer fires, Greek producers are managing to remain upbeat about the future. Geoff Adams reports
27 August, 2008
Page 49 
Horrific fires devastated the countryside and ancient winegrowing regions of Greece during August this year. They started in the mountainous Peloponnese areas of Lakonia, Ilia and Messinia and high winds caused their rapid spread to lower cultivated lands. It is estimated that 250,000 ha have been burnt out, including dozens of villages and homes and, tragically, some 70 plus people lost their lives or are still missing.

The area of Messinia has several small wineries that have been severely affected. In Ilia, where the beautiful Mercoury winery has its vineyards, it has been reported that Foloi and the surrounding area, where many of these vineyards are concentrated, has been completely destroyed and other smaller wineries nearby have also been badly affected.

Forest fires also appeared in Korynth, but these were soon put out and, thankfully, the valley of Nemea has not been touched at all.

While there were no fires in Macedonia and northern Greece, the small new Tetramythos winery in the area of Kalavryta at the top of the Peloponnese has been totally burnt out, and it is understood that vineyards owned by Oenoforos and others in Aighialia have also been severely damaged.

The islands of Samos, Santorini, Crete, Rhodes and others were not affected.

Vineyard owners who have suffered at the hands of this disaster will be compensated during the next few years for loss of income, but there is some doubt as to whether wineries that rely on contracted growers only will receive any financial help from the government.

Former president of the Union of Wine Producers of Attica, Alexandros Megapanos , once said: "Greece has over 4,000 years of winemaking tradition, which cannot be ignored." But for all Greece's colourful history in the origins of winemaking, it is the here and now that matters to the world wine markets of today.

Greece's failure to make an impact on the world stage is due partly to its recent rather than its ancient past . Memories linger in the m inds of today's wine buyers and consumers of that dire period between the turn of the century and the late 80s when poor winemaking and rancid retsina were the norm.

Producers complain this is not helped by the way they are represented by those who hold the strings to their public purse - the government quangos and professional winemaking bodies of Greece. They say the fine wines of Greece are not being promoted in a fashion that will bring success or the recognition they deserve and any innovation or vibrant promotion is left to the importers and producers . Huge de listings have been seen across the board - the worst example could well be Oddbins in the UK, which listed 48 labels in 1999 but now has only around 11.

Waitrose supermarket in the UK, however, is starting to list some charming examples of Greek wine in the form of Hatzidakis' ground breaking Santorini Assyrtiko and Tsantali's delicious Organic Cabernet. How long will it be before more retailers have the foresight to delist their Greek dross and replace it with more of the good stuff from this wonderful region, even if it costs a little more, with other merchants hopefully catching on and following the lead?

Megapanos points out some other issues facing the producers of Greece in today's difficult market s. "Greek wine producers face high production costs for a variety of reasons: land holdings tend to be divided into small plots, making cultivation - a lot of which is done by hand - very costly, leading to high prices for grapes," he says.

A lot of the vineyards are planted with old, low-yielding vines and need to be replanted with varieties that can compete on the international market. Although international grape varieties are popular in the Greek market, a major trend is the promotion of indigenous grape varieties, of which there are many.

"Our priorities for the industry, and particularly for export, must be to create and promote brand awareness for Greece, and to support Greek grape varieties, which produce wines with character and typicity. Greece is a small country, and will never be able to compete with volume, so we need to create the image of a boutique wine-producing country with exclusive, quality wines. To achieve this we need long-term management and planning of our goals, and a concerted promotional strategy," he adds.

Greece's vineyards produce only a tiny amount of the world's wine - about 3.5 million hectolitres every year, of which 750,000hl is exported, while white grapes account for the majority of the 71,000-75,000 ha under vine (around 68 per cent). Even though production here is relatively small, the diversity of terroir and the various styles of wine are as broad as any other region in the world, if not more so. There is a vast wealth of indigenous grape varieties from which producers can choose ( some 300 or so, though only around 65 are significant), and myriad terroir types that var y from region to region - and, indeed, vineyard to vineyard - though it will take a huge amount of time and effort to instill in the consumer a basic knowledge about the various regions of the country. This is surely something which must be passed on through trained retail staff and sommeliers. Much is being made of the resurrection of once-thought extinct varieties, and Mary Pateras, director of UK wine importer Eclectic Wines, feels Greece's real wealth lies in its traditional indigenous varieties.

"It's the crisp white wines from indigenous Greek varieties, with good structure and balance of fruit and acidity, that seem to sell best in the key UK market," says Pateras. "They have to be realistically priced and preferably with some added value - for instance, the ancient vines of Santorini, possibly the oldest in the world; a touchy-feely story about a winemaker; a beautiful island etc. With this in mind I find Assyrtiko wines from Santorini have the greatest appeal as this variety seems to be fast outstripping other noble grape varieties and is becoming recognised internationally - Hatzidakis on Santorini is upping his production of Assyrtiko by 10 tons to meet demand from both the UK and US markets.

"Dessert wines from Greece also have a good image, good examples being the Muscats from Samos and Vinsanto, but fine sweet wines sell in smaller quantities. Red wines have sold slower than the crisp whites, but generally there is reasonable demand for the softly-oaked Nemeas (Agiorghitiko), although there is an interest in wines made from more esoteric grapes, such as Mavrotragano (Santorini) and Xinomavro.

"The English market, however, wants a point of difference and really appreciates the indigenous grape varieties and the unique flavours they have to offer. Many of these wines are great with hard-to-match food, for example tomatoes and artichokes. Special winemakers making great wine will ultimately be appreciated in the UK, but it does take time to erode old prejudices."

According to Dr George Tsantalis, vice president of the giant producer Tsantali, which has wineries all over northern Greece and exports to 48 countries , his wines fare better in markets other than the UK, especially when sold by well trained staff.

"It is fair to say every market is radically different and each has its own unique challenges," say s Tsantalis. "For example, the UK is one of the most demanding and difficult countries, as the market is very price-driven and emphasis is given to constant price promotions, making it difficult to match the prices set by New World countries. We have also found that in the UK the consumers are still unfamiliar with wines from Greece, which only sell considerably well when they are hand-sold and explained by the staff . Whereas in Belgium, for example, the market is more open as it is not dominated by big brands."

"In Canada," he adds, "the pace is set by the monopoly making it easier to reach the shelf. The Russian market has also been difficult to crack as the multiple grocers are full of wines, the competition is big and the listing fees are even bigger. The US market is difficult to enter as there is a lack of knowledge of Greek wines in a marketplace dominated by Californian and other US wines."

Tsantalis continues: "The ex-pat market still gives us a strong footing and is a very good asset. They tend to make the entrance to the overseas markets easier and they offer a good boost in sales. Greek gastronomy in ex-pat markets acts as an effective promotional tool as the restaurants can introduce the wines to their customers and convince them of the quality and character.

"In countries where Greek cuisine can be found, the demand for wines from Greece is generated automatically. In Germany, Austria, Holland and Belgium, Greek cuisine is widespread and there is also a liking of the Mediterranean lifestyle. This has resulted in multiple grocers wanting to stock wines from Greece.

"The common denominator in most markets is that wines from Greece face strong competition, not just from the Old World but also countries such as Chile, Australia, South Africa and so on, that spend serious money on promoting their wines, which gives them a competitive edge. However, the strong asset Greece possesses is global market diversity, new intriguing tastes to the palate and I believe we have the potential to be a formidable player in the middle price range ."

The 2007 vintage looks promising with regards to quality if not quantity. June saw a serious heat wave hit most regions, halving the crop yield in some areas - but early reports suggest the quality of what is left will be excellent. It is hoped that HEPO and other organisations deliver the service the wine producers of Greece have been waiting for - maybe then these winemakers will get the public recognition they deserve for their excellent wines .
----=== The Greek wine regions ===MACEDONIA - home to the Xinomavro grape variety (especially in Naoussa and Goumenissa), considered to be one of the noble red varieties of the country, which drink well with up to 25 years in the cellar. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and recently Assyrtiko do very well here too.

Thessaly - stretches from low-lying Anhialos to the slopes of Mount Olympos, where Rapsani's vineyards produce Xinomavro wines blended with Stavroto and Krasato. Fresh white wines from Savatiano and Roditis also feature strongly in this region.

Epirus - home to the apple-scented white Debina variety, which makes styles ranging from lighted bodied still whites to fruity sparkling wines. Cabernet and Merlot feature here too.


Attica and central Greece - the most ancient viticultural region producing high quality Savatiano, Malagousia, and Assyrtiko, as well as a raft of noble French varieties.

The Peloponnese - encompasses two of the most important districts for viticulture. Nemea - home of the Agiorghitiko variety, considered to be the other of Greece's two noble red varieties; and Mantinia - home to the aromatic white Moschofilero, the best of which is grown at altitudes of up to 800 metres. Sweet wine, such as Mavrodaphne of Patras and Muscat of Patras/Rion is also made in the northern area of the Peloponnese. Samos Cooperative is the only licensed producer on the island, and cultivates the Samos White Muscat only ; although light dry wines are made on the island, its true glory lies in its oaked and unoaked sweet white wines (made from sun dried grapes), some of which can cellar beautifully for literally generations.

Santorini and the islands of the Aegean - It is on Santorini that some of the most wonderful white wines of Greece are to be found. The volcanic soil and hot Meltemi winds force growers to train their vines using the "basket " method to protect the island's Assyrtiko grapes from drying out and dying on the stalk. The resultant dry and sweet wines from some of these oldest vines in the world can be truly stunning. Rhodes produces good, versatile wines from the white Athiri variety, but no real noteworthy reds, while Paros makes good uncomplicated whites from Monemvassia, and Limnos up in the north produces good serviceable Limnio red. Crete, Greece's hottest and most southerly island, produces very drinkable whites and reds in the guise of the island's indigenous varieties Vilana and Kotsifali.

Cefalonia - Robola is the primary variety of Cefalonia and the Ionian islands. At its best Robola produces firm, steely alcoholic wines with real depth and power, with a characteristic signature of limey fruit. It has also been successfully transplanted to central Greece and the Peloponnese.

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