A hard-to-pronounce grape from Northern Greece is my latest wine discovery, thanks to a recent LA Wine Writer's luncheon at Hotel Angeleno in Los Angeles. Hosted by the the XinomavroNaoussa trade organization, the luncheon featured three Greek winemakers, a slew of wines, and some Greek food.
Xinomavro (pronounced "Tsee-nó-ma-vro" I am told, with emphasis on the first "o" just as in the word "Sonoma") is what I am calling the X Factor in the wines of Greece. It took me several tries to get the name right, but it was worth the pronunciation lesson. The "X" grape is similar in style, body and flavor to the Barolas of Italy, but the price tag is much lower.
Grown in the part of northern Greece called Macedonia, it is just one of the more than 330 grape varieties indigenous to Greece, of which only about 40 are exported to the US market. However, things are improving as we in America expand our wine palates and explore more interesting wines from around the world, and Greek wines in particular. Xinomavro, a hearty red, and Assyrtico, an acidic and minerally white, are now becoming more common on wine store shelves nationally.
Xinomavro is most at home in Greece's Naoussa region, a PDO, or special designated wine area, the first such area designated in the country. Running approximately 15 miles long, the area is reminiscent of Napa Valley in that there are low-lying vineyards, high vineyards on terraced hillsides, and some coastal vineyards, which provide a variety of ecosystems that give different nuances to the wines. But unlike Napa, this area can see snow in the winter.
An acidic and tannic wine, Xinomavro translates from Greek to "black with high acid." Fickle, and difficult to grow, the grape is sensitive to warmth, drought, and rot, but when successfully harvested and vinified it offers wines with aromas and flavors of strawberry and sour cherry, as well as vegetal characteristics, such as tomato, olives, mushrooms, and tertiary aromas (from oak barrel aging) of tobacco and tar. The more aged versions -- and some can age a very long time -- give off more dried fruit, such as plum and figs. Comparisons can be made not only to the Nebbiolo grape, which is the foundation of Barolas from Italy, but also to Pinot Noir.
We were treated to 13 wines at our luncheon, along with a lamb-and-eggplant-based Greek version of a shepherd's pie, which was a good match for the wines' tannin and acid.
Some of the wines are available in the US, some are not. Some producers make only a few hundred cases, so they stay in Greece. For example, Kelesidis Estate Merchali, 2006, has a production of only 500 cases. It is aged a year in oak (common to these wines), and offered nice fruit after 9 years aging, with a balance and structure that supported it. It was a nice treat, only available at our luncheon.
One of my favorites was the Elinos Naoussa 2007, again an aged wine, which is holding up very well due to its firm tannins and acidity. Thirty-five-old vines provided the grapes. The winemaker is 31-year-old fourth-generation winemaker Christos Taralas (for more on the winery visit their Web site.).
Many of the 13 wines tasted at the luncheon carried price tags under $20. I've listed the producers below, so it's worth checking out the Greek wine section of your local retail shop for them.
For more on the wines of Naoussa visit www.xinomavronaoussa.com/.
Until next time, Yamas!
List of Greek Wineries;