Malagousia's trip from obscurity to fame
"Malagousia is the next riesling," said Yannis Voyatzis ten years ago, as we sat at a table surrounded by plates and bottles. We laughed hard, buoyed by the wine and the ridiculousness of the statement. Sure, it did seem to pair with every dish in front of us– from the sweet shrimp to the earthy snails to feta laced with hot pepper– but there were only about two examples in existence: the one he made for Boutari and another from Domaine Gerovassiliou.
by Tara Q. Thomas
Back then, the variety was still a curiosity, a grape that had been on the verge of extinction only 27 years earlier. Now, as one insider toldme, "Malagousia has become the parsley of the Greek vineyards." Tasting good examples, it's easy to see the appeal: it tends to be soft and silky, with a subtly floral fragrance and plenty of fruit. But then again, great grapes are not hard to come by in Greece. Why malagousia instead of dafni, plyto, vidiano or sideritis?
"Sideritis: now that's a great variety," Roxane Matsa replied when I posed the question. "Razor-sharp, savory: It's the best white in Greece." But it's not the grape she chose to plant at Domaine Matsa outside of Athens. Rather, when she was looking to augment her roditis and savatiano vines back in 1989, she planted malagousia.
"It was Paraskevas Evangeliou, the agronomist for Boutari at the time, who said, "Roxane, Parparoussis has this vine– you must go try it," she recalls. He was referring to Thanassis Parparoussis, a winemaker on the outskirts of Patras with a fondness for rare, indigenous varieties, who'd taken cuttings from the Athens Institute of Vines and Wines a few
years earlier. Parparoussis's vineyards, in fact, aren't that far from malagousia's homeland: Just across the Gulf of Corinth is Nafpaktos, where Vassilis Logothetis, a professor of viticulture, discovered the vine on an overgrown pergola. By that time– 1975– Nafpaktos had no wine industry to speak of: After the civil war of 1945 to 1948, the area had largely been abandoned, the vines left to die or go wild.
Logothetis took a cutting to plant alongside the 26 other forgotten varieties he'd collected
in a vineyard at Porto Carras, a winery in Sithonia on the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece. There, a young enologist named Evangelos Gerovassiliou found the malagousia grapes tasty and, after some promising trials, began propagating the vine. By 1982, the Athens Institute got wind of his work and requested cuttings, sending the variety back toward its home, and Parparoussis brought it a step closer.
Malagousia turns out to be a difficult vine to control. "In fact, it's a terrible variety," Matsa says. "Do you know that international varieties become international varieties because they are easy to train, easy to cultivate, relatively forgiving? Cultivating malagousia
costsme four timesmore than anything else inmy vineyards. The vine grows horizontally, not vertically; it doesn't like to be trained; you have to tie it to make it go into the wires; it's very vigorous; it needs green pruning two, three, four times. It's mid-May
and I've been through the malagousia three times already, while syrah, assyrtiko, savatiano not at all."
Why bother? "I'm very stubborn; it's also why I was never married. I'm a very bad character.
If something is challenging, I have to take it on," she says. And there is an upside: "People likemalagousia. It's a variety that they
can recognize. It's like sauvignon blanc in that way: People can taste it and say, 'Oh, that's sauvignon blanc.'With malagousia, it's a little like muscat in aroma, and it doesn't lose its aroma in a hot climate."
In this way, it also fills a gap, says Matsa's good friend Yannis Paraskevopoulos, a professor of enology at theUniversity of Athens,who grows a tiny plot of the variety at his estate in Nemea. "[Greek whites] tend to have a lack of aromatic expression, a lack of fruit," he says, calling up savatiano, roditis and assyrtiko as examples. So malagousia– aromatic, recognizable and indigenous to boot– is highly attractive to vintners looking to diversify.
Yet in the 1990s, despite the fact that both Boutari and Gerovassiliou were putting out well-regarded wines fromthe variety, few vintners expressed any interest. "Back then, it was sort of dismissed," says Matsa. "At the time it was the fashion to have chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, international varieties." So she began giving away cuttings to anyone who asked. "I figured, what good does it do anyone if you have a variety no one wants? The more people that have it, the more people will ask for it, and themore people will buy it."
There was also the real question of where the grape would do best. The two contemporary examples came from radically different places, both miles away from malagousia's original home.Who was to say it wouldn't do well in the mountains of Goumenissa or the
peaks of Nemea? Maybe it would take off in the continental climes of Drama. Eventually, more than a dozen growers took Matsa up on her offer of cuttings.
There was a catch, though. "You know,
when you buy stock from a nursery, they have
papers certifying that it's virus-free," saysMatsa.
"Well, mine, it's virus-full." This wasn't exactly
Matsa's fault, says Haroula Spinthiropoulou of
Argatia Winery in Naoussa, who was working
for Vitro, the country's main nursery, back in
the 1990s. "When we selected plants in Roxane's
vineyard, we couldn't find even one plant
without virus. But this is not only in Roxane's
vineyard: like agiorgitiko, it is hard to find one
single plant anywhere without a virus."
But while virused material offers its challenges,
Spinthiropoulou believes it's only one
of the difficultieswithmalagousia. "I think that
the most important fact that differentiates the
wines is the type of soils," she says, explaining
that the variety needs well-drained soil; with
its tight bunches and big berries, it's particularly
susceptible to rot. "In my opinion,"
Spinthiropoulou says, "the tendency to plant
malagousia everywhere will lead to disaster."
Spinthiropoulou acknowledges, however,
that when malagousia is good, it's beguiling,
describing a "light terpenic character" that
the better versions share: scents of rose, citrus
fruits, mint and fresh basil. Getting it right is
the hard part: If it gets too ripe, it looses any
elegance, along with what little acidity it
might otherwise sustain. "Even in the cooler
conditions of Amyndeon, it has low acidity,"
she says, referring to a region in far northwestern
Greece even cooler than Naoussa,
where she is. Nevertheless, she's gone ahead
and planted close to an acre of it in her vineyard
at Rodohori, high up a mountainside.
Instead of acidulating– common practice
with the variety– she blends in assyrtiko,
which is high in acidity and not particularly
aromatic. It's a combination that Gerovassiliou
pioneered in the early 1990s, a way to get
malagousia's hallmark citrus fruit and floral
overtones lifted with assyrtiko's racy acidity.
Spinthoropoulou also adds a touch of athiri.
Gerovassiliou, who's been working with
the vine longer than anyone, believes that
clones also play an important part. He's identified
three distinct clones, favoring the smallest-
berried and least productive clone, but
few others have begun to parse the variety,
and there are no official clonal selections in
distribution. So when Christos Zafeirakis renovated
his family's estate in the foothills of
Mount Olympus, he hedged his bet: "I made
a selection of old-vine vineyards and vines,"
he says. "Generally 60 to 65 percent of the
malagousia consists of small grapes, which
give very good acidity; the rest are larger, and
give more aromatic wine."
But even a careful vineyard selection by
berry size isn't foolproof, says Matsa. "I had
somewith huge berries, and then I changed the
fashion of pruning, and they started producing
small berries." The choice of rootstock is also
crucial, says Gerovassiliou, who ran trials before
settling on 110R, a less vigorous stock than
the more common 1103P. But it doesn't work
well everywhere. Matsa is holding out for a better
solution for her vineyards, based on some
experiences she's had grafting roditis to a less
vigorous rootstock. "It can be problematic
when you graft vigor on less vigor," she says.
"It's like having a Porsche engine on a bicycle."
Zafeirakis also planted in two different
places, one block on clay and another on
sandy clay with a high percentage of flint in
the soil. He finds it makes a difference in the
final wine: "The flint gives the wine an almost
metallic character." Regardless the attention
he pays to it, the variety remains a struggle to
cultivate well. "It is important to protect the
grapes from the sun, to keep the acidity and
the aromas," he says. "Every day I have to
taste its berries– not just from the same vine
but also from the same bunch." To preserve
the grapes' fragile freshness, he chills them
down for a day before pressing, then lets 80
percent of the juice spontaneously ferment in
stainless steel. The other 20 percent goes to
oak barrels with a portion of the grape skins,
and stays there for at least two months. The
result is a wine that's fragrant but subtle, like
the scent you might catch while driving by a
peach orchard, with the soft texture of peach
fuzz and fleshy-but-not-sweet stone fruit flavors.
It's broader than Argatia's malagousia
blend, but still elegant, hitting all the notes
that have come to define the variety
Neither version quite rises to the heights of
Matsa's– a bright, fresh essence of the flowerfilled
fields behind her house– or Gerovassiliou's,
an opulent satin-textured beauty
redolent of peaches. But, as Gerovassiliou
points out, "We have been studyingmalagousia
for 35 years now." And he continues to experiment
and make changes in how he works
in the 62 acres he has planted to the variety,
finding, for instance, that direct sunlight
makes for more muscat-y malagousia (something
he works to avoid) and that, with care,
the variety can make a hedonistically rich,
supple late-harvest wine. "Generally, I believe
that the variety is multi-dynamic," he says,
"and, depending on the cultivation and vinification
methods, can give primary wines, aromatic
and delicate, or, with careful work at the
vine, full-bodied wines with aromas of citron,
citrus and mature fruits," he says. But, he
adds, "That demands experience and knowledge
of the variety that only few of us have."
For the moment, there is far more experimentation
than experience being applied to
malagousia as it spreads through Greece's
vinelands. And the results are varied: Some
taste more like sauvignon blanc, others like
muscat, yet others more like chardonnay in
their vanillin-bolstered ripeness. But while its
character is still being sorted out,malagousia
has provided a rare point of agreement
among Greek winemakers: This is a variety
worth a struggle.