Although times are changing and modern Greek wines are receiving growing amounts of attention, it is fair to say that many of the greatest wines of Greece remain relatively unknown. Even the two most celebrated red winemaking regions of Greece, Naoussa and Nemea, are not well publicized in international markets. These regions are interesting because they are quite synonymous with Greece’s two major red wine varieties: the Xinomavro grape in Naoussa and the Agioritiko grape in Nemea. There are so many other thrilling wine varieties in Greece (Limnio, Mavrotragano, Mavroudi and Limniona to name a few) that it is not really fair to single out Agioritiko and Xinomavro. However, Athens wasn’t built in a day (so to speak) and so there is something to be said for trying to raise the profile of a place like Naoussa and its wine in the international consciousness as a starting point for the balance of the wines of Greece. Naoussa has been established as a Protected Designation of Origin (ie a registered appellation) because of its place as the home of Xinomavro. In order for a wine to qualify for Naoussa PDO status it must be 100% Xinomavro. And that creates an interesting, high bar for the production of quality wines. This is because Xinomavro is a fiendishly challenging wine to make.
The name Xinomavro translates to “acid black”, a reasonably appropriate name given the dark colour and the elevated acidity levels of this grape. Perhaps the name should also include a syllable or two of the Greek for “tannic” because there is tannin to spare in these grapes. All of these properties (the colour, acid and tannin) together with vibrant dark-red fruit flavours and aromas, bode well for the potential to make great wine. In fact, Xinomavro is often compared with Nebbiolo and Aglianico in terms of its power and potential elegance. But just like those famous Italian varieties, Xinomavro needs expert handling both in the vineyard and the cellar in order to produce a wine of beauty.
Why Naoussa For Wine?
Naoussa is the Greek wine region most closely associated with Xinomavro although it is grown extensively in Northern and Central Greece and figures prominently in wonderful wines from Goumenissa, Rapsani and the sparkling wines of Amyndeo among others. In the mountainous region of Naoussa, the climate is as much continental as it is Mediterranean. The winters are cold and can be harsh here and the summers warm to hot. The vineyards are situated at an elevation between 150m to 350m which helps moderate the summer heat. In fact, Thymiopoulos Vineyards has a vineyard near the village of Fytia at 550m and produce their Naoussa Alta wine there. The vineyards are generally located with a south-east aspect on the slopes of Mount Vermion, which gives them protection from cold northern winds and additional sun exposure to allow them to ripen. Even so the cool location is one of the challenges to growing great Xinomavro because sufficient ripening time is so important. Like some other great red wine grapes, Xinomavro can tend to being too lean and tannic without sufficient ripening.
Where Is The Naoussa Region?
Located squarely in the middle of Northern Greece, Naoussa is a mountainous and verdant area. From here a much larger semi-tamed region extends over large distances in all directions. When people think about going to Greece they are usually thinking about beaches, islands and classical Greek historical sites. But there is more to Greece. Few know about the mountains of Northern Greece, the ski resorts, the lakes and the remote hiking trails. How many people know that there are wild bears and wolves up here? Pretty fascinating - and since it is only about 1 1/2 hours from Thessaloniki, the Naoussa region makes a great wine destination on the way to all that the area has to offer.
Who Are The Winemakers?
There are a small number of big names making wine here (Kir-Yianni, Boutari and Tsantali stand out) but most of the Naoussa wineries do not export in large quantities. Thymiopoulos and Dalamára are names to look for. Seek them out if you can or, better yet, travel to Greece to try them there.
Travel To Naoussa, Thessaloniki and Northern Greece
The best time to travel to Naoussa is from April through October. Winter is quite cold here but there is the attraction of going skiing if you do travel in the winter months! Thessaloniki is a fantastic, little-known destination city worthy of a city break or a visit as part of a larger tour of the region. For centuries Thessaloniki has been a melting pot of Orthodox Christian, Jewish and Ottoman and the city has the feeling of a culture framed by many influences and melded in antiquity. It has a beautiful sea front, amazing restaurants, lovely shopping districts and some very bohemian bar areas.
Photo credits: Kir-Yianni, Tsantali and Vaeni Cooperative