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Xinomavro key to unlocking Greek potential?

Xinomavro, a variety native to Greece and often compared to Nebbiolo due to its ability to develop complex earthy aromas with age, has the potential to unlock Greece’s full potential, claim its winemakers.

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A healthy bunch of Xinomavro

The heartland of this high tannin, high acid grape, whose name translates to “acid black”, lies in north west Greece, which is home to two PDO regions for Xinomavro, Amyndeon to the north and Naoussa further south.

Greek winemakers in both regions have reaped success outside of Greece by blending Xinomavro with international varieties such as Syrah or Merlot to make them more marketable, however a belief that the industry’s future lies in further promoting the region’s indigenous grapes, so that they may stand alone, prevails.

Speaking to the drinks business on a recent visit to the region Thomas Anastou, winemaker at Vaeni Naoussa in Naoussa, said: “I think that its pretty interesting that we have such varieties and we should try to invest in theses varieties and make much better wines and try to introduce something new to the rest of the world.”

“The biggest percentage of wines bought are of French varieties – Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and some of the Italian varieties like Nebbiolo – and they are making good Pinotage in South Africa. [Our grapes] are all a mix of them.”

Speaking about Xinomavro in particular, Anastou said it was a “very good grape” with lots of potential to capture the interest of international consumers.

“In the last 10 years Xinomavro has made some steps outside of Greece and that’s very encouraging. I think all the winemakers should co-operate to make an effort to push Xinomavro on the global market. It’s one of the best local varieties and I think very interesting.”

Vaeni Naoussa is one of the largest co-operatives in the region producing two million hectolitres each year with the help of some 250 growers, contributing to the production of around 80 different wine labels. Noting this year’s impending harvest, which was due to begin on 15 August, Anastou was confident that it would be a good year.

“Last harvest it was raining during the harvest so its was very difficult to make the harvest and gather the grapes from the producers. This year the weather has been very good and everything is going very well. There’s been some rain but not too much.”

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Winemaker Thomas Anastou of Vaeni Naoussa in Naouss PDO

Further north lies the PDO region of Amyndeon, Greece’s highest, coldest and smallest appellation and home to the Alpha Estate, Greece’s biggest single estate producer.

Considered to be one of the most cutting edge wineries in Greece, Alpha started its commercial operation in 2003 and now produces a line of 14 premium wines, exporting to 30 countries. It has invested €25 million into its winery, the biggest in Greece in the last 15 years, which has resulted in infra-red drone cameras to monitor the harvest and underground irrigation across its 90 hectares of vineyards. It is also currently the only winery in Greece producing a Tannat wine, a variety more typical of France than the Mediterranean.

Noting a change in Greece’s approach to winemaking in recent years, Kostas Arvanitakis, export director at the Alpha Estate, said consumers were driving demand for higher quality, premium wines, helped by the fact that many of the country’s winemakers have been trained outside of Greece. (Alpha’s winemaker Angelos Iatridis trained in Bordeaux and has a chemistry degree from the University of Thessaloniki.)

“Every year we focus on getting everything a little bit better”, he said. “From a consumer point of view we are now starting to get a wine culture in Greece. Consumers are demanding better quality wines, and Greek varieties, not only international varieties. Now it’s now a bit more balanced.”

Of its red varieties, the estate has plantings of native varieties including Mavrodafni and Xinomavro (which includes 94-year-old vines used to produce its Reserva label), as well as Syrah, Merlot, Tannat and Barbera. Its white varieties include the indigenous Malagouzia alongside Sauvignon Blanc, and Gewürztraminer, which is used to produce a late harvest sweet wine blended with Malagouzia.

While supply and demand for Greek wines is growing, the difficulty faced by Greek winemakers and their export departments, says Arvanitakis, is the international market’s general lack of knowledge about indigenous Greek varieties.

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Kostas Arvanitakis, export director at the Alpha Estate in Amyndeon PDO

“When you talk about Greek quality and Greek wines there is high value compared to other regions of the world”, he said. “The difference is that people selling Greek wines have to not only sell the wines, but introduce their customers to [the different varieties]. When we are taking about wines it is something very new. We have to change the approach that people have to Greek wines, which unfortunately is Retsina.”

Commenting on the split between exports and domestic consumption, Arvanitakis revealed that more than half of bottles produced by the Alpha Estate are consumed in Greece, adding that it “could be a 50/50 split” if they wanted it to be.

“We are showing respect to the Greek market”, Arvanitakis stressed. “It will be 50/50 in 10 years, without affecting volumes going to Greek market. The UK is a strong market. We are spending a lot of money there but in terms of sales is is still low. It is a reference market and what we do there shows elsewhere, particularly in Hong Kong and Asia.”

Its biggest markets are currently Canada, the US, Cyprus, Germany and Australia.

Looking ahead, Alpha’s goal is to have 170 hectares (it currently cultivates 90 hectares) within 10 years and to double the amount of bottles it produces to 1,000,000, while keeping its vineyard within a single block as best as possible.

Aside from its plans to expand its vineyards, the estate’s next project is to produce a sparking wine made from Xinomavro and Assyrtiko using the traditional method, the results of which are due to be unveiled in 2017.

“There is a specific demand for sparkling wine from Greece, but it is a matter of what the approach is”, said Arvanitakis.

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The Alpha Estate winery in Amyndeon, northwest Greece

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