It wasn’t long after Evan Turner landed in Thessaloniki that he knew he’d found a second home; while his stepfather taught college English, he drank up the culture and cuisine. “My mom said to me recently, ‘You took to Greece like a duck to water.’” In his seven years there, however, he didn’t get to taste much wine; he left when he was barely 18.
That changed a few years later, back in the US: Finding work in Greek restaurants like Periyali and Thalassa in NYC, he came across Boutari Grand Reserve. “I was stunned by how beautifully complete it was,” he recalls, “tannic, great acidity, and how it evolved in the glass so beautifully. The next day it seemed to be even better. That saying, a fist in a velvet glove? It fits the wine so well.”
That wine is from Naoussa, about an hour and a half west of Thessaloniki, and made solely from xinomavro, a grape that became one of Turner’s obsessions. “As I explored more, I began pouring them by the glass, and found that, even at non-Greek restaurants, people found it incredible,” he says. “And depending on where it’s grown and who’s making it, the wines can be so different.” In its native Macedonia in the cool, northern reaches of the country, the locals make it into everything from sparkling whites and still rosés to bistro-weight reds and tannic, ageworthy heavyweights.
Today, Turner offers an extensive selection of Greek wine at Helen Greek Food & Wine, a restaurant he opened in Houston, Texas, last year with a Greek list second only to Kamal Kouiri’s at Molyvos in NYC. But when it comes down to it, he says, “With all due respect to agiorgitiko, mavroudi, mavtrotragano and all the other great Greek red varieties out there, xinomavro to me is just the bee’s knees—the most expressive, most varied, the most interesting.”
1. Kir-Yianni Naoussa Ramnista Xinomavro
“If you’ve never had xinomavro before, this does an amazing job of being varietally correct and honest to the region,” Turner says. Yiannis Boutari planted this estate in Yiannakahori, the highest point in Naoussa at 1,082 feet, back in the early 1970s, when he was working for his family company. Ramnista is a selection of those vines, a variety of clones planted at high density, the wine aged 18 months in small and large-format French and American oak casks. “We’re in the modern age—there’s definitely lushness and ripe fruit,” Turner says about the wine, “but it also has all those wonderful details of xinomavro—Assam tea, dried rose petals, violets. And it’s xino-mavro—acid-black; the acidity is just glorious, the tannins well integrated, not hard or unforgiving,” he adds, highlighting the main challenge this variety offers.
2. Chrisohoou Naoussa Estate Xinomavro
“Chrisohoou is so unbelievably old-school,” says Turner. “If you wanted to mess with someone and you plopped this in front of them, if they didn’t get nebbiolo, it’d be a shock. Everything screams dried: roses, violets, cherries.” The structure is also markedly different from the Kir-Yianni: “The tannins feel almost like they’ll rip the enamel off your teeth,” Turner says. “But put this with any kind of high-protein, high-fat meal: It’s graceful, even elegant with food. It needs time; for a while I had the 2005 on the list; my current is 2007.”
3. Dalamara Naoussa Paliokalias Xinomavro
“The Chrisohoou takes some getting used to,” admits Turner. “This one, there’s none of that. It’s regal, sophisticated, elegant, complex, mesmerizing wine, seeming to change in the glass minute by minute.” It comes from one of Naoussa’s oldest estates, producing wines since the 1840s, but what sets it apart, Turner says, is the freshness of the wine—perhaps a function of altitude (the estate sits at about 900 feet up the side of Mount Vermion), old vines (the oldest nearing 100) or winemaking (hands-off, no inoculations or filtering). “It has the hallmarks of great xinomavro—tea, cherries, roses—but both dried and fresh. Plus there’s this earthy, primeval component, like walking through a forest after a rain.”
4. Alpha Estate Amyndeon Old Vines Reserve
Amyndeon is one of Greece’s coolest growing regions, a plateau at some 2,100 feet in altitude about an hour west of Naoussa. “The vineyards here are ninety to a hundred-and-ten years
old, sandy loam, backed by mountains, like in Alsace, giving the area a longer, drier growing season [than Naoussa],” Turner explains, along with a fruitier, suppler take on the grape. “Just the other day, I was tasting wines by G. D. Vajra, and we had the 2011 Barolo Albe—an old-school Barolo in that it’s blended from a variety of vineyards in the commune, like they did before they became obsessed with single vineyards. It had just wonderful round, silky tannins, dried and fresh cherry fruit, ripening red to black. I stopped and pulled a 2011 of this wine off the shelf, and poured the winemaker a taste. He said, ‘They are making our wine in Greece.’ It manages to have lushness and silkiness that you don’t often experience in Naoussa.”
5. Karanika Amyndeon Brut Rosé
“You can take your Provençal rosé and your lovely rosés from Spain or wherever else; I think xinomavro makes glorious rosé,” Turner says. This one comes from a biodynamically farmed winery started by a Dutch couple, Laurens and Annette Hartman, who apply the Champagne method to xinomavro rather than use the more common tank method. Turner finds it particularly true to the variety. “It’s lean to the bone, and that lets the floral parts and dried citrus notes shine through along with the strawberry and dried-cranberry fruit,” he says. “It’s just glorious. Line it up, next to Champagne, or anything sparkling; I’d put it up against whatever you got.”
6. Katsaros Krania Valos Xinomavro
“Xinomavro from Thessaly?” says Turner. “It’s not traditional here, but it’s right down the road from Rapsani, where they blend xinomavro with stavroto and krasato, and that’s amazing wine.” Evripidis Katsaros specializes in French varieties at his estate in Krania, in the foothills of Mount Olympus, so xinomavro takes him in a new direction—Turner points out that valos means ‘to go over a threshold.’ “Certainly the vines are young, and it’s warmer [than Naoussa or Amyndeon] during the growing season, but drink this side-by-side with cousins from the north and it’s obvious that it’s xinomavro—only it has beauty to it that xinomavro from the north doesn’t. The tannins and acidity aren’t as pronounced. It feels a lot more pinot-esque than nebbiolo-like.” Turner finds the wine brazen in spirit—“It’s like doing covers of Marvin Gaye songs—you just don’t mess with stuff like that,” he says. “But every once in a while you catch someone on YouTube and you’re stunned by how amazing their rendition is. For that reason, this wine makes my list: It’s what’s happening, it’s what’s new. And while we wine geeks are too quick to go to what’s new, this wine richly deserves the attention.”
This article first appeared in W&S Fall 2016.