St George and Retsina

Vineyard KokotosIn my blog last time, I talked about the vast array of wine grapes native to Greece.  Many of these are found only in a limited area where they have been grown for generations and are perfectly suited to the conditions. 

So, our wine tour of that country became a week of 2 halves.  As we travelled south towards the Peloponnese, we left the Xinomavro-based reds of the north behind and, instead, met up with another red variety, the almost unpronounceable Agioritiko (“eye-your-yit-iko”) which, happily, is also known as St. George.

St. George is altogether softer and rounder than Xinomavro with lower acidity and gentler tannins – more like a Merlot than a Cabernet Sauvignon.  Dark cherries and herbs dominate the palate with some spiciness where the wines had some oak ageing.  We tasted some delightful examples at Tselopos and Gaia.

But, as with the early part of the trip, our visit south wasn’t all about red wines; the Malagousia and Assyrtiko grapes we tasted further north were still found here, but were joined by Moschofilero, grown high on the plateau of Mantinia.  This has lovely freshness with floral and citrus flavours – Domaine Nikolaou’s bottling stood out.

And then there’s Retsina!  Dubious though we were, a wine tour of Greece wouldn’t really be complete without tasting it. 

Gaia RetsinaFortunately, the example we were shown was Gaia’s modern take on the subject: Ritinitis Nobilis – delicate, fragrant and lemony-fresh.  Yes, there was a subtle hint of pine resin on the nose and the palate, but it just seemed to add an extra aromatic dimension to the wine rather than being the central flavour.  I wouldn’t guarantee that all Retsina would be this drinkable, but it’s worth keeping an open mind.

And so, all too soon we were on our way home.  Thanks again to our tour manager, Caron, and invaluable wine guide, Derek Smedley MW for making the trip so interesting and worthwhile.

We travelled with Arblaster and Clarke (, a specialist in wine-related holidays.


The ‘X’ Factor

Dom Karanika VydsHow many grape varieties do you know whose name starts with the letter X?  If you can do better than 3, please leave me a comment. 

My 3 start with Xarel-lo.  It’s grown in Spain and it’s usually used as part of the blend for Cava.  Then there’s Xynisteri, mainly, if not exclusively, found in Cyprus and finally, the only red grape of the trio, Xinomavro – one of the best of a vast array of wine grapes native to Greece.

Greek wines have had a poor reputation in the UK in recent years with many thinking they’re all like retsina.  For me, that view is outdated; there are some excellent examples available here – and even more in Greece, where my wife and I have just visited and enjoyed tastings at some of their top wineries.

Xinomavro (the initial ‘X’ is pronounced ‘ks’) translates, perhaps unpromisingly, to ‘acid black’ but, in the right hands, can produce some really attractive, ageworthy reds.  Sometimes, as at Alpha Estate or Dalamara, its lovely blackberry and spice flavours are found as a single variety wine, elsewhere it forms a harmonious blend with Syrah, Merlot or other local varieties.  We even tasted it in a Blanc de Noir fizz at Domaine Karanika.

And that same estate was one of 2 (the other was Domaine Dougos at the foot of Mount Olympus) that showed us red wines made from a grape described as “the most exciting variety in Greece”: Limniona.  Revived from near extinction, it produces deep coloured, intense wines with black cherry and pepper flavours and, when young, firm tannins.  Certainly wines for keeping – if you can find them.

But the northern half of Greece, where all these wineries are situated, also produces some delicious white wines, notably from the fragrant, peachy, Malagousia grape (try Domaine Gerovassiliou) or the crisp, fresh Assyrtiko, better known as the signature variety of the island of Santorini where Domaine Sigalas produce the best example of the grape I’ve ever tasted.

All of these wines certainly have ‘the X factor’ even if only one has the spelling.

In my next blog, I’ll tell you about our meeting with Saint George on the second part of our wine tour – the ‘Story of Greece’ organised by Arblaster and Clarke ( and guided by the wonderfully knowledgeable Derek Smedley MW.

What’s in a Name?

Flower and BeeThere are many good reasons for choosing a bottle of wine: something you’ve enjoyed before, a recommendation, a wine on special offer.  And then there are the impulse buys; I’m sure most of us have made those on occasions.  “I wonder what that wine’s like?” as we pick up a bottle that our eye is drawn to.  And the wine pictured above must be a prime candidate for that sort of purchase: unusually named ‘The Flower and the Bee’ and, with a label reflecting the name and even the foil over the cork in yellow and black ‘bee’ colours, the entire packaging of this wine says ‘look at me’.  And ‘buy me’, of course.

But the design is not the only reason for giving this wine a try: it’s on the Association of Wine Educators list of the top 100 wines under £25 and, having tasted it (bought from Grape and Grind in Bristol, £13.99), I can confirm that it fully deserves its place.

It’s a delicious unoaked dry white from the Ribeiro region in the north-west of Spain, made from the local Treixadura grape.  Quite peachy and fresh on the nose leading to a rich, full flavoured mouthful with lovely peach and ripe pear flavours and a good, long finish.  Although I’d be happy to drink it on its own, it’s also a great food wine: ideal for some white fish in a creamy sauce.

So, why ‘The Flower and the Bee’?  The wine comes from the Coto de Gomariz estate which is run organically (although not certified as such) and is moving towards biodynamic methods which involve nurturing the entire eco-system of the estate; the flowers and the bees are as important as the grapes to the producers and the naming and the label reflect that.

It’s a neat idea and certainly good marketing.  But, try the wine and I’m sure you’ll buy it again – regardless of the eye-catching packaging.

The Bargain of the Year

I couldn’t write a wine blog this week without first mentioning the serious fires that have affected Napa, Sonoma and other areas of California.  I’m sure all readers will join with me in sending support and sympathy to all of those affected by the tragic events.

On a happier note, if you took one message from my last blog, “The Price of Wine”, it was probably that you should avoid any bottle selling at £5.58 or less.  However, the wine world is not quite that simple as that, as a tasting I went to earlier this week, organised by the Bristol Tasting Circle, showed.

Our speaker was Master of Wine, Ed Adams, a consultant for discount retailer, Lidl who brought along a selection of their wines for us to taste including a very quaffable juicy Malbec for a mere £4.99 and a crisp, tangy Gavi for just 50p more.  So, were these wines lucky flukes or is there some other explanation?  The answer lies in the fact that Lidl, unlike most large retailers, is a private company, not quoted on the Stock Exchange and therefore with no shareholders receiving an annual dividend.  As a result, their profit margins are often less than 10%, as opposed to the more usual 25%, allowing them to offer even modestly priced bottles for £1 or £1.50 less than the opposition would charge.

But, at just slightly higher prices, the real delights that Ed brought along were from Lidl’s ‘Cellar Range’ – a small, regularly changing selection.  The Cellier de Monterail Rasteau (£7.99), from a village close to Châteauneuf du Pape in the southern Rhône, is a smooth, chewy black-fruit flavoured red with a delightful old rose fragrance.  Rasteau

Lovely though this wine was, my favourite of the night was J.P.Muller’s slightly off-dry Riesling from the Alsace Grand Cru of Mambourg. 

Alsace Grand CruAttractive flavours of citrus peel and ginger and a finish that went on and on – and, if you have the patience to keep it, it will improve with another few years in bottle.  When Ed asked us to guess the price, the replies were between £12 and £14 – for me, the top end of that range didn’t seem excessive.  The actual figure?  £7.99!  Surely, the bargain of the year but get in quickly as the idea of the Cellar Range is that Lidl buy up small quantities and when they’re gone, they’re gone.


Look for the Duck!

Pato whiteIt wasn’t the striking stylised cut out of a duck in flight on the label that first attracted me to Luis Pato’s ‘Vinhas Velhas’ (old vines) dry white (Wines at West End, £14); I’ve been a fan of this top class Portuguese producer for many years.  And, in case you’re wondering why there’s a duck on the label –  ‘pato’ means ‘duck’ in Portuguese and all of Luis’ labels feature one; a nice marketing touch or a bit corny, depending on your view.

Portuguese wines have improved vastly, both in quality and in the choice available, in recent years.  No longer are they defined by a certain rosé in a funny shaped bottle but by some excellent, intense reds and food-friendly whites.

The country always had the potential for making high quality wines, especially reds – the grapes used for port (particularly Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz aka Spain’s Tempranillo) are equally suited to being turned into unfortified wines.  But, when British merchants visited there and started searching for some interesting wines in the 17th century, they preferred the strength and sweetness of port.   Table wines continued to be made for the locals, but, for the export market, it was virtually all port.

And so it remained until late last century when some of their reds started to appear in the UK – although many of the early arrivals needed long keeping to tame their furious tannins.   Gradually, though, the style softened and the wines became much more approachable; one of the pioneers of the change was Luis Pato in Bairrada and I’d strongly recommend any of his reds.  But he, and now his daughter Filipa on a separate estate, also produce some delicious whites, mainly from the native Bical variety.

The Vinhas Velhas is beautifully floral on the nose and quite aromatic and fresh in the mouth.  There’s a nice richness there, too, which makes it really food-friendly – try it with some fish in a tomato sauce.  But not with duck – that wouldn’t do at all!