Xinomavro: a Diva in the Vineyard and in the Glass
By Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW
Photography: Constantinos Pittas
Greece has the potential to become one of the world's leading wine-producing countries. Most Greek producers agree that the best way to move ahead is not by mimicking the wine styles of other successful countries, but by exploiting the possibilities of Greece's indigenous grapes. Quite a few native vines are capable of greatness, of producing wines with a purity of character that could only be Greek. One of these is the Xinomavro grape of Northern Greece.
The Xinomavro variety is one of the great divas of the Greek vineyard. It is capricious, demanding, and difficult to deal with, both in the vineyard and in the winery. The style of most traditional Xinomavros contradicts the current international image of what a modern, commercial wine with wide general appeal should be. However, bucking the trend is part of Xinomavro's charms. The grape is capable of producing wines of stunning character and individuality and extraordinary complexity, with a seamless combination of intense extract and sheer finesse.
One could compare Xinomavro to the more famous Pinot Noir, to the great red Burgundies, or to the Italian Nebbiolo grape and its benchmark wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Like Xinomavro, none of these varieties is appropriate for making large-volume, everyday wines. Attempts to do so usually result in featherweight, characterless wines that range anywhere from charming, to easily quaffable, boring, thin, and aggressive. But the best examples are unquestionably among the top wines of the world.
ANTIDOTE TO GLOBAL TASTES
Nowadays consumers are attracted by a certain style of red wine expressed in the many Cabernet Sauvignons or Syrah/Shirazes produced around the world. On the globalized palate, if a red wine is very dark, indeed opaque, intense on the nose with bright, sweet-fruit aromas and loads of buttery new oak, and full, ultra-rich, extracted but velvety on the palate, then it must be good.
Modern-style wines dictate that power, opulence, and high alcohol are desirable, while low-key finesse and high acidity should be disparaged. Xinomavro wines offer a fascinating antidote to this homogeneity.
Xinomavro is tremendously promising, but it takes effort to realize the grape's potential. As a vine, Xinomavro forces the grower to adapt to its requirements, rather than the other way around. It requires specific soils, climates, and cultivation techniques in order to achieve proper ripeness at harvest time. The vine's age is particularly important, as is its clonal selection. Some of Greece's brightest viticultural minds have been working on identifying promising Xinomavro clones and have achieved a number of outstanding results. Finally, the plant responds very badly to high yields. While Merlot in Greece can produce perfectly acceptable fruit, whilst producing 12 tons per hectare, Xinomavro must go below half that figure in order to yield grapes with good sugar levels and expressive aromas tied with ripe tannins.
Ripeness and tannin levels are key factors when vinifying Xinomavro. This variety has an angular and firm tannin profile that can be aggressive if not handled properly. Xinomavro's color can be low, with a tendency toward browning. Oenologists are studying the particulars of Xinomavro and consequently creating “Xinomavro-specific” winemaking practices that allow winemakers to extract color without adding harshness and have more refinement in the way primary flavors are expressed.
For example, as with Pinot Noir, more and more producers are trying cold-soaking the grape-skins with the juice before the start of the alcoholic fermentation. At this stage, water is the main extracting agent. This process means not extending the maceration on skins after the end of the fermentation, when alcohol is the far less selective extraction force. Xinomavro's complexity can be underpinned by some elegant notes, but excessive amounts of new oak can destroy the grape's character. Many producers now are working with more pungent American oak barrels rather than the more widespread and subtle French oak. A blend of the two maturation techniques gives stunning results.
XINOMAVRO WITH FOOD
Xinomavro wines almost never have very deep color or bluish tints, and tawny hues are apparent, even when the wine is still in barrel. The nose is usually intense, even high-pitched, although bottle aging couples these “soprano” notes with more “contrabass phrases.” One of the criticisms often heard about the Xinomavro variety is that it lacks vibrant, fresh, sweet-fruit notes, and leans instead more towards dried prune, cherry-tomato, and very often strawberry facets. But why should anyone miss the fruit when there is so much more going on in the wine? Sweet, exotic spices and finely powdered Mediterranean herbs are matched with haunting nuances of leather and wet earth. The palate has a crisp acidity and a firm tannin structure, giving more extract and density than body and broadness. For some, Xinomavro can be too angular, but, in fact, it is the ultimate food wine. It is present but never cloying on the palate and the interplay of the flavors of food and wine, or protein and tannin, can be fantastic. The tomato and prune aromas and flavors complement many dishes with tomato sauce, such as the Greek soutzoukakia (meatballs in a sauce) or even pasta with tomato sauces. The high acidity and firm tannins make Xinomavro incompatible with salty foods but work beautifully with high-acid dishes, for example, pork with lemon sauce. The acidity and tannins in Xinomavro cut through the oiliness and fat of certain meats, especially lamb. One could even go as far as matching the lighter versions of Xinomavro with oily and rich fishes, especially tuna.
Most of all, Xinomavro arguably produces the most age-worthy Greek dry reds. Many bottlings develop for at least five years, good examples need more than a decade to reach their peak, while 30-plusyear- old wines are superlative.
FOUR APPELLATION REGIONS
Xinomavro is the major red grape variety of Northern Greece and, together with the Agiorgitiko of Peloponnese, the undisputed large-acreage quality leader in Greek red wines. Greek wine legislation acknowledges the variety's supremacy. Xinomavro is included in four appellations; only the sweet wine appellations dedicated to the Muscat varieties exceed that number.
The four Xinomavro O.P.A.P.s (Onomasia Proelefseos Anoteras Piotitas, or Appellation of Origin of Superior Quality, which is the equivalent of the V.D.Q.S. in France) are, from north to south: Goumenissa, Amyntaion, Naoussa and Rapsani.
Goumenissa is located 50 kilometers north of Thessaloniki and 20 kilometers west of the town of Kilkis. Despite being the northernmost appellation, Goumenissa is markedly warmer than Amyntaion or Naoussa. Sheltered by mountains from west, north and east, and at a low average altitude, the entire region enjoys the temperate influence of the Aegean. Xinomavro is here blended with the Negoska variety; by law, the region's O.P.A.P wine has to contain at least 20% Negoska.
Negoska counterbalances some of its partner's weaknesses: It has soft tannins, and only moderate acidity. Many growers suggest that it contributes a higher level of fruit, adding slightly raisiny notes.
Goumenissa wines display more power on the nose and broadness on the palate, while most Naoussa wines are more elegant and leaner.
Amyntaion is the coolest O.P.A.P. in Greece, with most parts of the area exceeding the 600 meter (1,800 ft.) altitude mark. It is possibly the only place in the country where cool weather frequently hinders grape maturation. Xinomavro is allowed to shine alone in this region, and Amyntaion's wines display many of the variety's different faces. The region's individual specialty is its range of rose wines, which are produced in still, semi-sparkling, and sparkling wines, all of them perfect for summer drinking or as meze accompaniments.
The region's reds tend to be lighter than those of Naoussa because of cooler climate. Wines from these two appellations find a comparative parallel in the slightly more elegant red Burgundies from Côte de Beaune and the more powerful Pinot Noirs of the Côte de Nuits.
However, quite a few producers in Amyntaion are now moving to a more extracted style, which keeps the finesse but exhibits a denser palate structure.
Not all of Amyntaion's wines are legally eligible to carry the region's appellation. For example, there are some excellent, non-OPAP Blanc de Noirs that are fresh on the nose and crisp on the palate, yet with the flavor profile of the variety surprisingly intact.
Goumenissa, Amyntaion, and Rapsani to the south notwithstanding, the region most closely associated with Xinomavro is Naoussa. Naoussa is located in the prefecture of Imathia, about 50 kilometers west of Thessaloniki. It is less that 40 kilometers away from Amyntaion, but the combination of lower altitudes, mainly between 200 and 450 meters, and south-east facing slopes, creates a much more forgiving climate.
Xinomavro is the sole king of the red-wine-only Naoussa appellation, producing wines full of breed, with a firm tannin and acidity framework, and an intense aromatic presence, full of ripe tomatoes, complex herbs, and graceful red fruits, such as strawberries, blueberries, and currants.
Naoussa's wineries embrace every wine-making philosophy and produce a full range of styles, from the traditional to the modern, the latter often characterized by a noticeable new-oak influence. There are winemakers who concentrate on making good, light, fresh, everyday wines, and others who make wines meant to last decades. Naoussa's local wine culture has a healthy infrastructure. The region boasts large producers who make great-value wines, medium-size wineries that focus on higher price points, and boutique growers who exploit the potential of single vineyards.
One of the most important issues among Naoussa producers now is the variety of styles and even the quality potential within the appellation itself. For example, there is some evidence that the vineyards around the village of Gastra are producing quite tannic wines, while higher-altitude locations such as Yiannakochori, show fresher fruit aromas. These are very complex issues, and the Naoussa wine community will need some years to identify the region's possible Grand Cru areas.
The final appellation that includes Xinomavro in its varietal make-up is Rapsani, the grape's southernmost growing region and potentially its most important because it is located in the foothills of Mt. Olympus, a place name with world-wide recognition. Wine production in the area lulled during the 1970s and the '80s, but nowadays Rapsani is becoming one of the most high-profile O.P.A.P.s, both in local and export markets.
Here, by law, Xinomavro has to be blended with 30 percent of the local Stavroto variety and 30 percent of the Krasato variety. Neither has Xinomavro's difficult temperament or quality, but both add complex nuances to the blend. The warmer climate of Rapsani transforms the character of Xinomavro, preserving the basic aromatic elements but providing a far smoother tannin structure and lower levels of acidity. The resulting wines easily could appeal to the average Merlot lover. However, Rapsani wines have a great affinity for oak maturation and lengthy bottle aging, and can be very close in flavor to the Xinomavro- Negoska blends of Goumenissa.
The great potential of most indigenous Greek cultivars is still untapped. What we known today for example about Xinomavro and its possibilities is much more than what we knew a mere decade ago.
To reveal the limits of Xinomavro, producers need passion and dedication. Luckily, both are qualities Greeks have in great supply.
Wine consultant and writer Konstantinos Lazarakis became Greece's first Master of Wine in 2002. His book, The Wines of Greece, Mitchell Beazley, London, was short-listed for the Andre Simon Memorial Award in 2006.