The New Naoussa: Redefining Greece's Classic Red

Of all the regions in Northern Greece most associated with xinomavro, Naoussa is the foremost. And it's also the deepest in crisis. Not only is the Greek economy on the skids, but few people are interested in drinking a tannic, acidic, lightly colored red that requires aging—particularly in Greece, where people want rich, smooth reds.

By Tara Q. Thomas

But ignoring Naoussa is folly: Never has the region's wine scene been so exciting, as the locals work to transition from an economy based on grape growing to one based on wine growing. Between the new players that have entered the field and the established producers refining their approach, Naoussa is at a crossroads, redefining itself.

From Thessaloniki to Naoussa, it's a gradual climb up a broad plain that eventually rises into the Vermio Mountains, a range high and snowy enough to support a downhill ski industry. The town of Naoussa backs up into the foothills of the mountains and the vineyards nestle into the hills along its eastern side, cascading from elevations of 1,300 feet down to a few hundred. As the main road winds its way out of town, vineyards share space with orchards—particularly peaches, which sustain a major canning industry.

I'm lucky to have as my tour guide Haroula Spinthiropoulou, one of the most esteemed viticulturists in Greece. This is her stomping ground, where she began her career as a research agronomist, and continues today as a consultant; she's also a vintner, having launched her own winery, Argatia, in 2000.

Having just come from Rapsani, a xino­mavro stronghold one hour south, I'm surprised by how young many of the vineyards look. Rapsani is filled with small plots of gnarly old bush vines; here, everything is trellised in neat, widely spaced rows.

"You have to understand, the growers here weren't selling wine; they were selling grapes," she explains. "The growers would say, 'Oh, the vines are twenty years old, they aren't productive anymore,' and they'd pull them. It's the same for peaches and apples. As soon as prices drop, they pull them up, switch to something else they hope is more profitable."

This sort of attitude is particularly challenging for wineries that buy most of their grapes, like Boutari. The oldest winery in Naoussa, it has always depended on local growers; the point of the winery, when Ioannis Boutari founded it in 1879, was to preserve grape-growing in a region fractured by the political tumult of the late 19th century. It was the only buyer in the region up through the 1960s, sustaining farmers through wars, phylloxera and economic crises; the region didn't have a cooperative winery until 1983.

As such, Boutari set the style for the region, pulling fruit from vineyards planted in a wide variety of soils, expositions and altitudes. "Boutari was known for Naoussa before Naoussa was even recognized as an appellation," says Yiannis Voyatzis, the winery's chief enologist. Their flagship wine, Grande Reserve, became the archetype: garnet-hued and truffle-scented, with lean, ferrous fruit—the Greek equivalent of Piedmont's old-style Barolo.

"Boutari was known for Naoussa before Naoussa was even recognized as an appellation."

—Yiannis Voyatzis

And Boutari had great success with it: By the 1990s, the company was putting out 1.5 million bottles of Naoussa a year. But while bottled Naoussa was selling well, bulk wine was selling even better: By the 1970s, the region was exporting one-and-a-half million hectoliters. Growers planted quickly, spacing the vines far apart enough to let tractors through, so they could take advantage of the region's new-found success. By the 1990s, acreage had ballooned from a scant 125 acres in the 1950s to 1,700.

Since then, 500 of those acres of vines have been dug up, changed over to other crops. The mindset of the commodity farmer has been hard to shake off, says Voyatzis, so he began paying Boutari's best growers by the acre rather than by weight in 2000, working with them to fine-tune their farming methods. At the same time, the winery began keeping detailed records on all of their hundred-odd growers—finding, along the way, a particularly distinctive vineyard they've begun bottling it on its own, calling the wine 1879.

"It's from a grower who's been working with Boutari forever," Voyatzis says, pouring tastes of the first few vintages. "Takis is his name. It's about two hectares, the vines around forty years old, in sandy clay-loam." The wines are so fine-boned and fragrant with Naoussa's earthy, herbal aromas and bright red cherry core that I assume the vineyard must be in Naoussa's higher altitudes, up by the fir trees. "No, it's low altitude, in fact not far from the winery here," Voyatzis says. "With xinomavro, it's soil and, even more, the grower that make the difference."

Boutari's first forays into single-vineyard wines actually started in 1968, when Yiannis Boutari, the founder's great-grandson, began planting an experimental vineyard on a high hill in Yiannakohori. When he left his family's business in 1996, he took the vineyard with him, and set up a winery, Kir Yianni, in an old tool shed on the property. At nearly 1,000 feet, the top of the vineyard affords a clear view across the treetops to the town of Naoussa; it's also noticeably cool, the rain and wind chasing us into the winery when we arrive.

Now Kir Yianni farms 98 acres of vines, which the team maps obsessively for rootstocks, clones, trellising methods, row orientation and planting density—work they've done with the help of Spinthiropoulou, who consults here. It's essentially a working lab, and they make the results of their research available to everyone in the region.

From this work, she says, they've discovered quite a lot of things about xinomavro. Some useful—for instance, that trellising with the lyre method works really well. ("There are less aggressive tannins because there's more old wood—more reserves for the plant," Spinthiropoulou explains.) Other aspects remain mysterious. ("In the old parcel, the grapes had fewer seeds; we replanted one and a half hectares with stock from that vineyard. It's in its third year now, and it has the normal two to three seeds.")

But the most useful information has been about the influence of soil on the final result. To demonstrate, Antonis Kioseoglou, the enologist, pours three glasses. The first is dark purple, and smells as inky as it tastes, a meaty wine. The second is lean and tight, with a green-olive spice to its sinewy red fruit; a long-distance red. The third is bright and fresh, cherryish and easy; a friendly red to take to a cookout. All are xinomavro, all from Kir Yianni, and vinified identically; the only difference is soil.

"In heavy soils, you have a lot of phenolic compounds, and the aromas aren't so fruity," Spinthiropoulou says, referring to the first wine. "If there's a lot of calcium in the soil, you get fruitier wines, and the vines' root systems are richer and deeper—the best for long-aging xino."

This information has helped further refine Naoussa's wines: Where there was once one single "terroir," it's now clear that there are many. Growers can not only identify soils that are too acid for xinomavro, and try something else—say, syrah (as they have at Kir Yianni), but also tailor their farming and winemaking to the particular soil type.

What some locals have decried as a dilution of Naoussa's identity may, in fact, be greater articulation of the region's terroir. In 1990 there were just six wineries here. Now there are more than 20, most established within the last decade, and many making wine from no more than a few acres of vines. If you hold up Boutari's Grande Reserve Naoussa as the epitome of the region's expression, some of the wines coming out of the region are radically different.

Right now, in fact, the most talked-about Naoussa wine is Thymiopoulos Vineyards Uranos, an inky, high-octane xinomavro. Apostoles Thymiopoulos came back to his family's vineyards directly after university to help his father, Stergios, make the transition from farmer to producer. In 2003, when he was 22, he produced the first vintage of Ghi kai Uranos (Sun and Moon, called simply Uranos in the US), which made waves for its intensity of fruit.

He flatly denies that he's aiming to make a "modern-style" Naoussa. "I have only a destemmer and an elevator to get the grapes into the tanks," he says. "They are open tanks, and it's a classic red wine fermentation, all indigenous yeast, no cold maceration, nothing fancy." Instead, he says, his intention is to let the vineyard show itself: He's in Trilofos, at the southern end of Naoussa, only about 350 feet in elevation. It's significantly warmer than the rest of the appellation, with rich soils, some volcanic, he says, showing off a chunk of black rock. While he also admits he's one of the last to harvest, waiting until the middle or even end of October to pick, it's not hard to imagine that it's also the place speaking in the wine's rich, mouth-filling fruit and ripe tannins.

More recently, he's made waves with a bottling he calls simply Young Vines, focused on the vines he planted a decade ago in Fitieá, in one of the highest parts of the appellation. It's a cooler site with poorer soils. His 2011 is almost Beaujolais-like in its cherry-red fruit, a bright, friendly interpretation of Naoussa—something once thought impossible to produce from a vine named for its acidity (xino) and blackness (mavro).

Style, of course, does play into the conversation of what Naoussa is, or is becoming. Everyone is talking about how difficult it is to market Naoussa right now. At Kir Yianni, which has star status in the world of xinomavros, Stellios Boutaris tells me they sell more Paranga, their merlot-based blend, then Ramnista, a pretty rich, dark Naoussa, grown on some of the heavier soils in the area.

"To make great xinomavro you need old vineyards: This I am certain of."

—Haroula Spinthiropoulou

Even well regarded classicists like Karydas are feeling the pressure to turn out softer, more approachable wines. Petros Karydas, who took over from his father in 1991, tells me he began adding tannins to the wine in 2007 so that he could make wines that are ready earlier. It sounds counterintuitive, but the added tannins are less harsh than those he would get if he left the wine to macerate any longer, so he gets a smoother wine.

He draws a sample of his 2012 from the tank to demonstrate: It's purple and juicy, and already goes down smoothly. "If my grandfather had made this wine, he would have left it with the skins one month more, and left it for three to four years in the barrel." He shrugs, undecided. "I don't know which is better. I don't know if my wines will age as well. But people don't want to age their wines."

There's also the concern that what was possible in the past isn't possible today. When Spinthiropoulou and I visit Kostis Dalamara, he shows us a half acre of ungrafted vines about 90 years old. Tightly planted, with plenty of grass coming up around them, they provide the inspiration for his newer planting—vineyards spaced at 10,000 plants per hectare instead of the 2,500 to 3,000 that became the style in the 1970s. He farms his vineyards organically, and doesn't irrigate the old vines—but he does irrigate the others. He'd like to go back in time, but there are certain things he can't risk, and withholding water is among them. "In the last three years, we've had very dry Augusts. That makes the grapes' sugar rise fast. And with high sugars, the [indigenous] yeasts don't work—like in 2011, when the fermentation stopped two months early, and we had to wait. And wait. And wait," he says. He'd rather irrigate than risk the sugar spike.

Also, the climate has changed since his grandfather worked these vines. As Spinthiropoulou points out, "In old times, we had 1,000 millimeters of rain; now it's 600 millimeters." Compounding things, the average temperature in Naoussa has increased 1.5°C since 1970. The sweet cherry center I taste in Dalamara's wines may not be a stylistic choice as much as one reflective of younger vines farmed for lower yields in a warmer climate than the Naoussas of the 1970s and 80s, the wines that gave the region its identity.

According to Spinthiropoulou, the main issue in Naoussa is learning to grow grapes for quality instead of quantity. "Xinomavro's worst issue is vigor and how to control it," she says. "Even in Yianachohori [the highest point of the appellation] where you have cooler temperatures and acidic, sandy-loam soils from mother rock, you still get high vigor. We just have to deal with it."

As she drives to her winery—essentially her house—high up Naoussa's slopes in Rodochori, she points out vineyards along the way that are moving toward what she considers better viniculture. They are easy to recognize—they are the ones planted tightly, with grasses and herbs coming up between the rows. "Here people are afraid of competition between the vines and the herbs, but xinomavro needs this," she says. "If you want to keep a vineyard more than forty or sixty years, you have to balance the vineyard from the very beginning," she says.

In the winery, she pours her xinomavro, and I taste yet another interpretation of Naoussa—different again from all the others, yet definitely Naoussa: It's got the hallmark tannins, but they are fine; it's got the high acidity, here illuminating the red fruit like a flashlight beam. It's delicate, earthy and rose-scented, even a little herbal, as cool as the March night outside.

In the winery, she pours her xinomavro, and I taste yet another interpretation of Naoussa—different again from all the others, yet definitely Naoussa: It's got the hallmark tannins, but they are fine; it's got the high acidity, here illuminating the red fruit like a flashlight beam. It's delicate, earthy and rose-scented, even a little herbal, as cool as the March night outside.