SUMMER 2003, CRETE. I’m staying in a self-catering apartment hidden away on one of Chania’s many labyrinthine alleys. Almost right opposite is a local shop where I stock up on pasta, vegetables and olive oil.
The owner is super friendly and doesn’t speak a word of English. On my first visit he points to a giant glass demijohn by the door, which contains some lethal-looking and no doubt homebrewed firewater. “Booooom!” he exclaims, miming a shot being downed.
I laugh, and that’s all the encouragement he needs to pour us both a healthy slug. It’s every bit as potent as I suspect. “Booooom!” indeed. We repeat this enjoyable ritual a few times over the course of a week – as a way of ensuring my customer loyalty, it beats a Tesco clubcard hands down.
The shopkeeper’s DIY raki isn’t the only liquid memory I have from that trip – I also explored his modest selection of local and not-so-local wines, including a Boutari Naoussa. At a guess, maybe a ’97 or ’98. This rich, savoury and utterly serious tasting wine immediately struck a chord. As an avowed lover of tannic, even austere wines like St. Estephe and Barolo, it was right up my street.
The Naoussa region in northern Greece concentrates on just one variety – the formidable Xinomavro, widely considered to be Greece’s highest quality red grape. The literal translation “sour black” doesn’t do it any favours, but there’s no denying that Xinomavro does possess an abundance of acidity and tannins. The traditional mitigation – long skin maceration, lock the wine away in oak for years, age it in bottle for at least as long again – has made Naoussa wines a hard sell in the modern era.
Such a tannic grape variety needs a lot of fruit to sustain it through the ageing process. There’s a big risk of woody, dried-out disappointment after years of waiting – something I have witnessed a few times with supposedly venerable vintages from good estates. More modern winemaking is prevailing, as growers realise there is no market for a wine that demands a decade of cellaring – and might not be worth the wait.
Thanks to the Naoussa growers association (no website as yet), I was able to taste 25 different examples of Xinomavro earlier this month. It was fascinating to see a mix between more modern styles, produced for earlier drinking, and more “serious” wines made for the long-haul. I wondered which would be more pleasurable – tradition or accessibility?
The Naoussa PDO (“Protected Denomination of Origin”) is only for red wines, however some producers in the region also make white and rosé Xinomavros. These can be pleasant, but are a very minor part of the output. The Blanc de Noirs style, even from an excellent producer like Chrisohoou doesn’t seem to offer a great deal in terms of individuality. Xinomavro can also make a good sparkling wine, although no-one in the Naoussa PDO is currrently doing this. We did however enjoy the fresh, appley Karanika Brut from a nearby PGI region.
Vintage is clearly important. The 2008s showed particularly well – apparently a cooler year with more refinement and freshness, but also probably about the right age for drinking now. These wines have softened but not lost their fruit. A solitary 2007 (From organic estate Elinos) felt a bit tannic and unlovely, in comparison.
I was impressed with the overall quality – in general, neither acidity nor tannins were overbearing, even in young wines (2011s and 2012s). The region’s cooperative, Vaeni Naoussa, seems to be doing a lot right. With 330 growers, and a bewildering variety of old-fashioned and sometimes downright bizarre labels, I wasn’t expecting fireworks – but the top-end wines ranked amongst the very best. The blends with Merlot and Syrah were also very successful.
Although Boutari started bottling Naoussa wines in the 19th century, and the appellation was Greece’s first to be created in 1972, the realisation of the region’s full potential still feels new. The grower’s association was only created in 2014!
The best producers are making truly fine wines with character, gravitas and ageing potential – above all else, they are seriously pleasurable to drink, with a wonderful combination of red fruit, smoky, sometimes vegetal complexity and long length. Chrisohoou, Dalamara, Domaine Foundi and Diamantakos are the names I want to watch. For what it’s worth, the two “D”s (Dalamara & Diamantakos) also have the best labels.
I hope it won’t take another 12 years before I visit Greece again – and this time I won’t be hunting for another raki hit, but rather to find out more about these very fine wines and the Naoussa region itself. For now, here’s a rundown of what we tasted. Boooom!
Best of the best
These were the five highest rated wines of the evening. I scored on a 20 point scale, fellow tasters gave their opinions anecdotally.
Estate Chrisohoou – Naoussa 2008
Very fine-grained texture, with blackcurrant flower and mint aromas. Refreshing and elegant, very long and complex. Surprisingly light frame, yet no lack of heft. Superb. (19/20)
Vaeni Naoussa – Bios Ellinos 2008 Macedonia PGI – Merlot/Xinomavro blend
The addition of Merlot or Syrah risks softening the wine and lessening its typicity, but in this case the dark blackcurrant fruit character seemed earnest and brooding in a way that resonated utterly with me. Elegant and commanding, with a very Cabernet-like texture. A lot of pleasure to be had either now or over the next decade. (19/20)
Domaine Foundi – Naoussaia 2009
Smoky, herbal nose, with a bit of tomato stalk. Very pale, brick red colour. A more delicate style, elegant and refined structure. (18.5/20)
Domaine Dalamara – Paliokalias 2011 (2012 available in UK, see below)
Classic Xinomavro notes of black olive and tomato stalks, plus an abundance of redcurrant and cranberry fruit, lifted acidity plus hints of caramel and coffee. Firm and structured, already good to drink but a long life ahead. (18.5/20)
Best available in the UK
Domaine Dalamara – Paliokalias 2012 (£18 from Southern Wine Roads, no website yet – email [email protected])
Floral, minty nose with aromas of mediterranean herbs. Already approachable, albeit tannic – this really needs time. The fruit feels quite generous, with hints of cacao. It should last a long time (18/20)
Thymiopoulos – Earth & Sky 2012 (2011 £19.50 from The Wine Society)
Sweet, raspberry and floral nose. A lot of fruit, quite upfront and – to me, at least – atypical. More “new world” in style. Very approachable, and you would hardly know this had been in oak for 18 months. (17.5/20) – Also try the charming Jeune Vignes 2013, a light unoaked Xinomavro made in the style of a succulent Morgon.
Diamantakos – Naoussa 2011 (£20 from Clark Foyster)
Very fresh, cranberry fruit nose. Quite savoury and herby on the palate. Round, structured and complete. (17.5/20)
Tsantali is one of the largest producers, along with Boutari. Their Naoussa 2012 (16/20) is easy-going and undemanding, with likeable fruit. The Reserve Naoussa 2010 (16.5/20) is also very accessible, spicy but perhaps a little lacking in varietal character. A shame these wines aren’t available in the UK as they are attractively priced.
Kir-Yianni’s Ramnista 2011 disappointed on the night, feeling a bit short and tannic up against the competition. However, I’ve had good experiences with this estate’s wines in the past (eg: the 2006). (15/20) Some vintages available in the UK from Vickbar wines.
Elinos sent the only rosé (2013), which was fresh albeit tannic. I liked it (16/20), but their Blanc de Noir 2012 appeared to be faulty (nail polish aromas, sour milk flavour – failed malolactic perhaps?).
Melitzanis’s Cava 2000 (cava signifying a reserve wine with more oak ageing, nothing to do with Spain) was impressively fresh and alive, if rather tannic – something that’s clearly not going to change now (17.5/20). The supplied sample of Naoussa 2010 had sickly, cloying aromas and mousiness on the finish that would suggest a bacterial infection. I have read favourable reviews of their wines elsewhere, so perhaps quality control needs a bit more attention.
All wines were provided for review, with the exception of Karanika’s Cuveé special Brut, which was kindly supplied by Mariëlla Beukers, who has also written about this tasting (in Dutch) here.
Full list of wines and scores
|Mths Oak||Score (/20)|
|Karanika||Sparkling||Cuvee special Brut||NV||16.5|
|Estate Chrisohoou||White||Blanc de noir||2014||0||15|
|Elinos||White||Blanc de noir||2012||Y||0||F|
|Thymiopoulos Vineyards||Red||Young vines||2013||Y||0||17|
|Thymiopoulos Vineyards||Red||Earth and sky||2012||18||17.5|
|Estate Chrysohoou||Red||Estate Chrysohoou||2008||18||19|
|Vaeni Naoussa||Red||Grande Reserve||2008||24||18.5|
|Vaeni Naoussa||Red||Bios Ellinon||2008||?||19|
The scores are relative within this tasting, and only provided to give a sense of how the wine performed against each other. I don’t warrant that they align to anyone’s particular scoring system or scale!