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.

Going for Gold?

I opened a bottle recently displaying a sticker proclaiming that the wine had won a Gold Medal in a certain Wine Competition. 

Assyrtiko Gold MedalSo, how much should that influence you in buying?  Or is it just another marketing ploy? 

It’s certainly marketing but how seriously you should take the award depends on a number of things.  There are many wine competitions all around the world each year and it’s often impossible to know how strong the opposition was, who the judges were and how skilled they were and whether they knew which wines they were tasting (and so might have been influenced by the labels) or if they were tasting ‘blind’? 

As a result, with one or two exceptions for internationally recognised competitions, I generally ignore medal stickers – and not just for the uncertainties I’ve already mentioned.

However professional the judging and however strong the competition, medals are the opinion of a small number of people (sometimes just one) tasting the wine on a particular day.  Wines that stand out from the crowd – either because they have intense flavours or are in some way different – often attract attention from judges whereas subtle and elegant bottles (which may be far more food-friendly) tend to be ignored.  The same applies to wines that open up slowly once in the glass – busy judges may spend just a few seconds on each wine and miss this development.  And several weeks (or even months) later when the results go public, the wine itself will have changed – either improving or going past its best.  But, perhaps most important of all, do you and the judge have the same likes and dislikes?  There’s one judge (who shall remain nameless) whose high scoring wines I carefully avoid!

But, back to the wine that prompted this blog.  I already knew it well and have recommended it previously (Hatzidakis’ Assyrtiko from the Greek Island of Santorini, £13.50 from The Wine Society or Waitrose).  I knew it was good and was pleased it had been recognised in this way, even though an award from the Thessaloniki Wine Competition may not have the prestige of some!

So, by all means, look at stickers, but there’s so much more important information to help you on a wine label than the fact that it has won a medal.