There is no denying that Greece is a global hotspot these days. After a two-year lockdown, people are once again flocking to the picturesque Southeast European country to explore all that Greece has to offer. And along with stunning beaches, picture-perfect villages and some of the freshest, most delicious food, there is something else that makes Greece so special: the wine.
Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world and while the various varietals produced there may not be as well-known as, say, ones from Italy or France, Greek wine is having a moment — one that is sure to stay.
“Greece is a country that has been producing wine for thousands of years, and wine has been of cultural significance for millennium,” explains Johnny Livanos of Diamond Wine Importers. “While Greece is a relatively small country, there are dozens of unique regions that focus on a variety of indigenous grapes, each with their own distinct qualities and flavor profiles. This immense history and diversity of the country makes it a wine region where exploration is constant. There is always something new to explore.”
In this next installment of the Thirsty Guide to Greek wines, we explore the Peloponnese region of Greece and find out what makes the wines from this area so unique.
Wine Styles of PGI Peloponnese
The Peloponnese is the largest wine-producing region of Greece and is made up of the several wine appellations including the esteemed areas of PDO Nemea and PDO Mantinia.
Mantinia (Mantineia) is a Protected Designation of Origin appellation on the eastern side of the Peloponnese Peninsula in southern Greece. The cool climate, high altitude area surrounding the city of Tripoli is planted extensively to the Moschofilero grape variety, which produces floral, aromatic white wines with low alcohol and high acidity.
In order to be designated as Mantinia PDO , thewines must be made of at least 85 percent Moschofilero, although often many are made entirely from this variety. Otherwise, the blend may be completed by the little known Asproudes.
The appellation was established in 1971, although winemaking here dates back thousands of years. Many of the older vines planted here today are more than 40 years old. The ancient city of Mantinia has given the appellation its name. In terms of government administration, the municipality was abolished in 2006 to be incorporated into Tripoli.
“The winemaking regions of southern Greece, Nemea and Mantinia, have very high elevations,” Johnny Livanos of Diamond Wine Importers tells Thirsty. “Grown between 1800 to 3600 feet of elevation, Nemea has some of the highest red wine vineyards in Europe; this high elevation creates balanced wines that ripen and develop slowly.”
The vineyards of Mantinia sit within a 22 mile valley, just south of the famous wine region of Nemea. Vineyards that cover much of the valley floor, which sits around 700 meter (2000ft) above sea level, and rise to even higher elevations in the foothills of the surrounding Parnon and Mainalo mountains.
As a result of these high elevations, the climate in Mantinia is more continental than Mediterranean, despite the close proximity of the Aegean Sea, less than 30km (20 miles) away. In fact, this is one of the coldest wine growing regions in Greece, despite its relatively low latitude.
Cool temperatures during summer slow ripening sufficiently for the grapes to retain their characteristic acidity, and harvest can sometimes come as late as October. However, this long ripening period can prove challenging to growers: rain in the fall often proves problematic, and in particularly cool years, grapes can struggle to ripen fully.
“Peloponnese is the south-est region of Greece (mainland),” explains Dimitris Skouras, Winemaker at Domaine Skouras SA which was founded in 1986 by George Skouras. “We all know that Greece is a hot country, in terms of climate, so we can understand that in the south it gets even hotter. Peloponnese has a mild and hot climate in its coast and colder in its center, where the mountains are. The winter does get cold but that depends on the altitude also. In the center of the Peloponnese it gets quite cold and very often under 0 degrees while in its coast temperatures are more stable and rarely fall under zero.”
Mantinia vineyards are planted on a range of soils, from sandy loams to heavier clay loams. Carefully chosen vineyard sites are free draining and allow for deep root systems, although there are parts of the valley that can become waterlogged, particularly during winter snowfalls. These are not included in the official viticultural areas of the Mantinia appellation.
Meanwhile, says Livanos, the grape Moscofilero is the dominating white variety in the Peloponnese. “Grown throughout the region and in the appellation of Mantinia, this grape is extremely aromatic, but with a bright acidity; one of the most unique aromas I’ve ever smelled on a wine comes from this grape. It’s full of floral notes, tropical fruit, but then when you have a sip, it’s full of citrus and balanced acidity.”
However, says Skouras, “It is quite difficult to specify the terroir in the Peloponnese. It is a quite big region and almost 80% is covered by mountains. This means that the altitude also plays an important role. Our winery is based on the east side of the Peloponnese in the region of Nemea. Even here where it’s only a small part of the Peloponnese there is a huge variation in the terroir. Our vineyards start from 300 feet and go up to 3000 feet. Which means that the terroir will usually be different depending on the altitude. Apart from the temperatures, we notice that the higher we go the poorer the soils are and the less access there is to water. The lower we are usually the soils are stronger and more fertile and vines tend to find easier access to water. The Peloponnese contains a huge variety of soils, micro-climates and thus a huge variety of terroirs.”
The second area of Peloponnese, Neméa, is arguably Greece’s most important red-wine appellation — even more special because most of the wines from Greece are of the white and rose varieties — located in the northeast corner of the Peloponnese peninsula. The mountains and valleys surrounding the small village of Neméa have been producing wine for centuries, mostly from the native Agiorgitiko grape. A wide range of styles are made from this red grape variety, from rich, age-worthy dry wines to lighter, sweeter examples.
“The red wines of Nemea are made from the noble red grape, Agiorgitiko,” says Livanos. “These are some of the most important and popular red wines in Greece. They produce a range of styles. Typically they are medium bodied, balanced, and full of wonderful fruit and spice characteristics. But they can also be made into more developed, fuller bodied reds.
About 40 wineries are located within Neméa’s boundaries, and the area has seen a huge amount of investment and growth over the past few decades. Agiorgitiko is Neméa’s native grape variety and is named for the small St George’s Church found within the boundaries of the appellation: agiorgitiko translates as “St George’s grape”.
Wine growing in Neméa dates back to at least the 5th Century BC, although the exact date is hard to pinpoint. Wine is a part of the Greek mythology surrounding the half-god Heracles, who was sent to Neméa to slay the Neméan lion. The Ancient Greek wine of Fliasion was made in Neméa and was known as the blood of Heracles, a moniker that is still today equated with Neméan wines.
The terroir of Neméa can be easily divided into three subzones: the flat land surrounding the village, the hillier land to the west of the village and the more-mountainous areas toward the peak of Mount Kyllini in the north. These areas range between 800 and 2,600 feet (250-800m) above sea level and give rise to a huge amount of variation in the styles of wine produced in Neméa.
It is widely considered that the best examples of Neméa wine are made from vineyards at the highest altitudes, where thin, gravelly soils and lower temperatures help to produce high-quality grapes. Agiorgitiko is a late-ripening variety and responds well to the diurnal temperature variation that slows the production of sugars in the grapes, helping with the retention of acidity. Vineyards also perform well on Neméa’s red, free-draining soils, which lessen vigor and yields, leading to highly concentrated grapes.
In the lower-lying alluvial areas surrounding the village of Neméa, temperatures are higher during the growing season, which can sometimes result in a loss of acidity in the grapes. Often, these berries are made into a sweeter style of wine which complies with the appellation laws, and some lighter examples of Agiorgitiko wines are made using the process of carbonic maceration.
Neméan wines are required under the appellation law to be composed entirely of Agiorgitiko, and it is the only PDO-level appellation in Greece that utilizes this grape variety. Despite these stipulations, Neméan producers have been experimenting with other grape varieties, and in particular Cabernet Sauvignon, which blends well with Agiorgitiko. These wines must be sold under the regional Peloponnese appellation.
Wines at Domaine Skouras are produced from both Nemea — the birthplace of the indigenous Greek variety Agiorgitiko – and Mantinia, a plateau at 1800 feet where Moscofilero, another Greek indigenous variety, comes from.
“We cultivate around 40 hectare,” Skouras tells Thirsty. “When the grapes are ready we harvest them. All of our grapes are harvested by hand so we start the harvest very early in the morning just before the sunrise. The grapes there are meticulously selected. Then we destem and crush the grapes before they go to a tank to ferment. Some of our wines will also age in French barrels before they are ready to be bottled.”
“At the winery we have a few wines that do have more interest in the way they are made,” continues Skouras. “One of them is the Labyrinth. This is a wine that contains all the vintages from 1999 to today. Every year a small part gets bottled and the empty part gets replaced by the new vintage. Another one is the Salto, a wine made by a rare clone of the Moscofilero called Mavrofilero and that is fermented by wild yeasts. Last but not least is Titanas, a sweet red wine made by an almost disappeared variety called Mavrostifo. The grapes are dried for a few days in the sun then for 20 days in the shade and aged for 5 years in barrels before the wine is bottled.”
Last but not least is the Peplo, a unique rosé made by 3 different varieties in high altitude. Syrah which ages in stainless steel tanks.
Kamal Kouiri, the General Manager and Wine Director at Molyvos in New York City sees Greek wines having quite a moment. “Over the last 6-8 years, Greek wine has reached the next level of excellence,” says Kouiri. “You have this new generation of winemakers that came from a family of growers, and they studied In other parts of the world to learn new techniques and practices. They have then come back to their family land, and applied this newfound style to their small, family vineyards. They’ve learned winemaking all over the world, not just Bordeaux and Dijon, so you’re seeing a unique range being applied on different terroir and varietals.”
“During my 21 years running the wine program at Molyvos in New York City, I have seen this growth and development in Greek wine take place little by little,” Kouiri continues. “I go to Greece twice a year and see how the passion in the wineries is growing. We have developed the largest all Greek wine list in the country, and we love showing our guests just how fantastic Greek wine can be. The challenge of only serving Greek wine is now our biggest strength, as we are able to transport our customers to the country we love so much.”
Wines from The Peloponnese — and other Greek regions — can be ordered by visiting shop.diamondwineimporters.com.
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