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The Cool Side of Greece
Nervy, mineral whites—both sparkling and still— from Amyndeon and Goumenissa

by Tara Q. Thomas
July 21, 2017

Laurens Hartman is trudging through the loose, ruddy soils of his vineyard, kicking up pieces of white, chalky rock, explaining how he, a Dutchman, ended up building a winery in Amyndeon, Greece. A former publisher in Holland, he’d been obsessed with wine since university; he and his friends would drive their old 2CV and Renault 4 to Champagne to stock up on bubbles, then return home to sell them.

In the early 2000s, he began searching for his own winery to make Champagne-style sparkling wine, looking in France, Germany, Australia and South Africa. Although his mother is Greek, his only experience of the country had been the same as most tourists: as a warm, sunny place for vacations by the sea. He’d never been to the mountainous interior, where altitude and continental winds dump snow on the vineyards every year. When he landed in Amyndeon, a high plateau two hours west of Thessaloniki, he was blown away: “It had altitude, history, a sensational grape variety, snow, rains, enormous differential between day and night temperature—everything we were looking for,” he says. It even has patches of limestone.

“Amyndeon had everything we were looking for.”
—Laurens Hartman
If northern Greece has been known for any sort of wine, it’s been red, made from xinomavro, and primarily from Naoussa, where the wines draw comparisons to Piedmont’s Barolos. These reds rank as some of Greece’s best, but lately, the north is finding another strength, channeling its cool temperatures into nervy, mineral whites, both sparkling and still.

Looking out from a hill above Hartman’s house in Amyndeon, the plain below is a patchwork of peach trees, potato fields and barley decidedly cool-weather crops. There are vines, too, but it’s never been easy to ripen xinomavro here; this is, in fact, the coolest winegrowing region in the country, and the only one in Greece to have a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) for rosé, implemented back in 1972 to make the best of all the xinomavro that never ripened to a deep red.

Hartman’s hunch was that, with its high acidity and firm structure, xinomavro could produce a firm, long-lived sparkling wine. Still, he recalls, “Everyone, even my MW [Master of Wine] friends, thought we were stark raving mad.” Amyndeon’s only tourist attractions are its bird life and ski resorts; otherwise, it’s largely a sleepy farming region with a challenging climate for grapes. Hartman and his wife, Annette, started in 2006 by planting a warm, protected spot around their winery to xinomavro for still wines, in case the sparkling wine idea didn’t pan out.

They named their winery for Hartman’s mother, who’s family name is Karanika, and who was born in Volos, a town 200 miles southeast, on the coast. And they began covertly experimenting with sparkling wine, buying grapes from local growers. In 2009, they produced 1,000 bottles of bottle-fermented sparkling wine, and he opens one of the last bottles he has in stock—disgorged in May 2016. A pale yellow, the wine smells of crisp pears, juicy and ripe, with some of xinomavro’s earthy tones at the center. There’s only a hint of its age, in a button-mushroom fruitiness, which turns to lemon meringue and lime blossoms as it opens, freshening as it takes on air.

He pulls out some of his other variations—the easy-going, lemony Cuvée Prestige, blended with assyrtiko; the red fruited, earthy Brut Rosé; and a creamy, earthy old-vine cuvée he made in 2014 from an own-rooted vineyard.

“When Huon Hooke visited, he asked me, ‘Why bother to make red?’ Hartman says. Clearly, making a Champagne-style wine costs more time and money than most growers in this region have, but Hooke, one of Australia’s leading wine scribes, has a point, Hartman says. “When I talk to people who’ve lived here for many vintages, they are very consistent in their description of the climate. But for me, I’ve been here ten years, and it’s been different every year; it’s like someone’s been mixing up the sequence of events.” Getting ripeness before the fall rains is a challenge, and sparkling wine has been a useful way to deal with it—for him and for the farmers who sell him fruit.

Hartman is the only one in Amyndeon making sparkling wine by the Champagne method, with the second fermentation in bottle, but the region’s modern history with bubbles reaches back to 1971, when the local cooperative released a sparkling rosé using the Charmat method—the wines fermented a second time in large, pressurized tanks. With their pale pink color, foamy bubbles and a little sweetness to take the edge off xinomavro’s acidity, these sparklers were an instant hit, and for many years were the primary wine outsiders associated with the region.

Kir-Yianni’s Samaropetra Vineyard, rising to 2,300 feet in Amyndeon Kir-Yianni’s Samaropetra Vineyard, rising to 2,300 feet in Amyndeon
They were, in fact, about the only wines associated with Amyndeon, as the cooperative was the only winery in the area until 1999, when Yiannis Boutari founded Kir-Yianni. He knew the region well, having long sourced fruit from local growers to supplement the production of his family’s winery in Naoussa, J. Boutari and Sons. Back in the 1960s, when he started at Boutari, Naoussa was still recovering from phylloxera, which decimated the vineyards in the early 1900s. Amyndeon, on the other hand, emerged mostly unscathed, thanks to its sandy soils; both its fruit and its vines helped Naoussa get back on its feet.

Over his years working in Amyndeon, Boutari noted that some parts of the appellation grew fine, elegant, long-lived reds; others, where the climate is too cool or the soils too clay-heavy, didn’t. The team at Kir-Yianni began mapping the region’s different terroirs, earmarking some vineyards for rosé only. The fruit from those areas now goes into Akakies, a bright pink rosé that Kir-Yianni bottles in both still and sparkling versions. With their gentle, fruity flavors and a cool, breezy feel, these wines are about the most fun xinomavro can ever be, and yet they retain enough of the variety’s earthy, tomato-skin flavor and herbal notes to have a distinct varietal and regional identity.

“If there’s one thing we can be sure of in Amyndeon, it’s that we’re going to have rain in September. Why not plant white varieties that ripen before the autumn rains?”
—Haroula Spinthiropoulou
The happy side effects of this approach have been better reds, as well as an opening for white wines. Boutari himself started planting white varieties some 30 years ago, thinking that the climate would support grapes like sauvignon blanc, gewurztraminer and chardonnay. Since then, the team at Kir-Yianni has expanded the mix. As Haroula Spinthiropoulou, KirYianni’s longtime vineyard consultant says, “If there’s one thing we can be sure of in Amyndeon, it’s that we’re going to have rain in September. Why not have some white grapes—some varieties that ripen regularly before the autumn rains?” Samaropetra, from the top of a hill at more than 2,000 feet in altitude, is the winery’s hallmark white, blending sunny sauvignon blanc with roditis’s discreet rose tones.

One of Kir-Yianni’s former employees, Angelos Iatridis, started a vineyard right under the Samaropetra vineyard, founding Alpha Estate in the late 1990s. A student of the late Bordeaux winemaker Denis Dubordieu, Iatridis makes a strong case for sauvignon blanc in Amyndeon, turning out a fleshy version that carries the chalky minerality of the region’s limestone; he recently revealed an impressive assyrtiko as well.

That new entry is a real coup in the world of Greek wine, where winemakers are desperately searching for a place that might produce assyrtiko as striking as what grows on Santorini. It’s planted everywhere now, and so far, no one place stands out—except, perhaps, Amyndeon. In addition to Alpha’s assyrtiko, Kir-Yianni has just released a tight, minerally 2015 off 11-year-old vines planted at 2,300 feet. Both offer a sense of verve and minerality that’s hard to find in mainland examples, with a fleshiness that echoes the gentler landscape.

When Hartman planted assyrtiko, he says he didn’t have tremendously high hopes; he simply thought it might make an interesting sparkling wine (“more elegant than the brutal force of xinomavro,” he says). He also used some of the fruit for a still wine. “I wasn’t sure it’d ever be good enough that I’d want it under our label,” he admits, so he bottled it under his second label, Terrea Levea, starting in 2010. That 2010—from an ambient yeast ferment in stainless steel tanks—is still vibrantly salty and mineral, just beginning to take on the salted cashew and chamomile notes that mature Santorini picks up. Hartman’s most recent vintage, 2016, is just as compelling—vibrant with peach and pink grapefruit flavors and herbal notes. In 2017, he says, he may bottle it as Karanika.

One of the Tatsis brothers’s vineyards in the hills of Goumenissa One of the Tatsis brothers’s vineyards in the hills of Goumenissa
In fact, compelling white wines are springing up all over northern Greece. Spinthiropoulou makes a fascinating blend at Argatia, her winery in the xinomavro stronghold of Naoussa, using assyrtiko as the backbone with floral malagousia and athiri. And farther east, in Goumenissa, Evangelos and Olga Hatzivaritis make room for white wines while focusing on the traditional reds of their region. This year, they let their daughter, Chloe, put some of their assyrtiko in a barrel and allow it to spontaneously ferment. Creamy and mineral, with an entirely savory, resinous herbal flavor, it’s stunning wine.

Few people push the possibilities quite as far as the Tatsis brothers, Stergios and Perikles. Like many families in the north, theirs landed here after the Balkan Wars, one of the many resettled in the massive population exchanges that ensued. Their family came from Eastern Rumilia, once an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, now part of southern Bulgaria. Many of those families arrived with nothing but the knowledge of how to grow grapes, and created small vineyards in clearings throughout the hills. The brothers own some of those parcels—little blocks deep in the trees—and have worked to preserve them, lavishing attention on them as they work them by hand, without any chemicals.

Standing in the vineyard, in their jeans and black t-shirts, hair pulled back in ponytails, they have the air of rebels and outsiders, unconcerned with actually selling their wines; instead, they give off the feeling that they’d like simply to live in their vineyards, trying to discern how best to translate their grapes to wine.

That feeling only intensifies in the winery, a low building surrounded by iron dinosaurs made by a friend, where they present a mind-boggling array of wines, including many traditional Goumenissa reds.

Few people push the white wine possibilities in northern Greece quite as far as the Tatsis brothers, Stergios (left) and Perikles. Few people push the white wine possibilities in northern Greece quite as far as the Tatsis brothers, Stergios (left) and Perikles.
Among the most evenly compelling, however, are the white wines. Angel’s Heart, a blanc de noirs of xinomavro, comes from a vineyard where the grapes never get darker than a pale reddish hue, so they vinify it as is, fermenting it in cement tanks with ambient yeasts. Bright gold, it’s silky smooth and powerfully structured, a white with the heft of a Rhône blend and the acidity of xinomavro, as well as a pleasantly grippy hint of tannins.

Then there’s roditis, the ubiquitous white of the north, normally regarded as rather boring. Not here: a 2014 spent one month on its skins, then 12 months in barrels, turning deep orange-gold, spicy, honeyed and floral. Another roditis, from 2012, spent three years in barrel before they bottled it; it’s now as dark and clear as high-grade amber, and smells of Lapsang souchong tea. Lush and earthy, it’s the polar opposite of what roditis normally turns out. But if there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that Northern Greece has a talent with white wines—and growers have barely begun to explore the possibilities.

photo by Tara Q. Thomas

This feature appears in the print edition of August 2017.
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