Greek Xinomavro: Taming of the Shrew

Xinomavro is an indigenous Greek variety that used to produce tannic, acidic, hard-to-love wines. But when handled right (and the Greek vanguard is trying very hard to do so!), wines can be amazing.

A pain

“We call Xinomavro a pain for a winemaker and a winegrower: it’s a difficult, capricious variety”, said Yiannis Karakasis, the newest Greek Master of Wine, about the dominant red variety in Northern Greece. It doesn’t have much color, he further elaborated, it is late-ripening, very vigorous, potentially leading to a lot of vegetal aromas in wine, has a considerable clonal variation, and can have very dry tannins.

Yiannis was leading the masterclass on Xinomavro at the recent Digital Wine Communications Conference in Plovdiv – the first public masterclass devoted solely to this variety. Having arrived at the conference from a 5-day press trip to northern Greek wineries, I could attest to all of the above-mentioned tasting characteristics. Translated as ‘acid black’, Xinomavro can taste just like that: acidic, very tannic, and intense.

A nobility

Yet, when handled in a right way, Xinomavro produces top-quality, well-structured, elegant wines with a great potential for aging. On the tour, we tasted wines made in the late 1990s, and they were beautiful, proving the point that Xinomavro not only develops, but improves with age.

“Xinomavro is Pinot Noir on the nose and Nebbiolo on the palate.”

Yiannis Karakasis, MW

With its intrinsic high acidity and high tannins, the wine is an excellent food companion. We had Xinomavro with delicious Greek appetisers, cured meats, lamb chops, and pork dishes, as well as soft and hard cheeses.

Modestly priced relative to Nebbiolo, to which it is often compared, Xinomavro can be a steal for collectors and wine-lovers who have a patience to wait a few years.

A rogue to be tamed

Up until about two decades ago, as Yiannis explained, winegrowers were often picking unripe grapes because they didn’t appreciate the nuances between phenolic and sugar maturity; they often fermented Xinomavro at high temperature because they didn’t have access to temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks; and kept wine in oak barrels for too long. As a result, some wines turned out great, but most were undrinkable: harsh, tannic, and with little color.

Since then, a lot of private and EU-funded investment has turned many Greek wineries into well-designed facilities packed with latest technologies. Some of the wineries we visited were truly jaw-dropping; they would surely make a lot of Bordeaux chateaux green with jealousy.

“With Xinomavro, we’re only at 30% of where we can be. In the next few years, you’ll see a lot of things happening.”

Stellios Boutaris, Kir-Yianni Estate

These investments, as well as many Greek enologists’ training at the best international enology schools, have surely helped to tackle some of Xinomavro’s challenges.

Alpha Estate, like many other Greek wineries, has state-of-the-art equipment, such as these temperature-controlled horizontal fermentation tanks used to ferment Xinomavro
Alpha Estate, like many other Greek wineries, has state-of-the-art equipment

Angelos Iatridis, the Bordeaux-trained winemaker and partner of the state-of-the-art Alpha Estate, is one of the champions of Xinomavro’s rebirth. To avoid too much extraction during fermentation, which may make wine taste too astringent, he uses temperature-controlled horizontal fermentation tanks with perforated screen at the bottom. These tanks also allow him to get rid of seeds and limit the influence of immature, green phenolics.

To minimize dry tannins, which he often found in wines aged in heavy-toast barrels, Angelos uses what he calls ‘white-toasted’ barriques – i.e. a very light level of toasting. The wines we tasted at Alpha Estate were indeed fruitier in character with firm but smooth tannins.

Yiannis Karakasis had other examples of how winemakers are trying to tame Xinomavro. Some opt for larger (and older) casks for aging in order for the oak to not overpower fruit. Others use pre-fermentation cold soaks or saignée method to resolve the grape’s color stability problem.

A lot of experimenting is still going on. Vasilis Georgiou, Australia-trained enologist at the historic Boutari Winery in Naoussa, has been trying different yeasts and clones to achieve different styles of vines: the traditional style with typical vegetal aromas, and a more modern, fruitier style with aromas of strawberries and plums.

Older Xinomavro vineyards, such as Alpha Estate's 93 year-old ungrafted vineyard, is a cherished commodity in North Greece
Alpha Estate’s 93 year-old ungrafted vineyard is a cherished commodity

While work in the winery has been important to raise the quality of Xinomavro, most winemakers agree that their focus is now on the vineyard. “Xinomavro makes vineyard wines, not winery wines”, says  Stellios Boutaris, Managing Director of the Kir-Yianni Estate. Many have replanted vineyards ‘more scientifically’, in Stellios’s words, and taught grape-growers modern vineyard management techniques.

Yiannis Karakasis believes that to achieve balanced aromas, texture and tannins in wine, winegrowers should lower yields to 50 hl per hectare, and use clones that give better phenolic maturity and ripeness.

Some clonal research has indeed been on-going, and Kir-Yianni is one of the pioneering estates that has planted specific Xinomavro clones and matched them to different soils. After trying three of their experimental wines from specific vineyard blocks, I’m really excited about future prospects of single-vineyard Xinomavros.

“In the past 10 years, winemakers that had done well, have been going back to roots – to the vineyards”, sums up Stellios Boutaris of Kir-Yianni. “This investment in the vineyards will make a huge difference in the years to come. I always say that with Xinomavro, we’re only at 30% of where we can be. In the next few years, you’ll see a lot of things happening.”

So why go through all the trouble?

So why go through all the trouble of replanting vineyards, finding the best clones, and agonizing over vinification methods?

“Xinomavro”, says Yiannis Karakasis, “is Pinot Noir on the nose and Nebbiolo on the palate.”

Yiannis Karakasis, MW, and Gregory Michailos are leading the masterclass on Xinomavro at the Digital Wine Communications Conference in Plovdiv
Yiannis Karakasis, MW, and Gregory Michailos talk about Xinomavro at #dwcc15

And like Pinot, the typical aromas of a traditional Xinomavro can be quite eccentric: fresh, canned or sun-dried tomatoes, pimiento peppers, olives and olive brine. “This happens because of high yields”, explains Yiannis Karakasis. “If the yields are controlled, then [Xinomavro] gets lively, juicy red fruit, like strawberry and cherry, or plum, or even some floral aromas, like roses, if it comes from light soils, [such as] schist. With age, it develops savory complexity, for example truffles.”

Also like Pinot, Xinomavro is quite versatile: it isn’t only made into still red wines but also into sparkling and still rosés and whites (Blanc de Noir).

On the palate, Xinomavro is highly structured, with high acidity and tannins – like Nebbiolo. Its aging capacity estimates vary from 5 to 30 years, but we may only fully understand the potential when the wines of the past 15-20 years – the ones that have been consistently well-made – reach their aging limits.

Like both Pinot and Nebbiolo, Xinomavro is a terroir wine, and the differences between appellations and vineyards can be quite apparent. Grown in light, sandy soils and cooler climate, Xinomavro produces lighter wines with a bright fruit character, floral aromas and a leaner palate. In heavier clay soils and warmer climate, Xinomavro is bigger, more tannic and highly structured, with savory and mineral notes.

Luckily, unlike Nebbiolo, Xinomavro is inexpensive for an age-worthy red. For example, Alpha Estate Xinomavro Hedgehog Vineyard 2010, and Kir Yianni Ramnista 2009 are under $20 (US prices). Buying a recent vintage and putting it away for a few years may be a very smart strategy for an aspiring collector.

Yet, the answer to the ‘why’ question may lie not in the comparison of Xinomavro to other varieties, but in the desire of Greek winemakers to be unique. They had planted and vinified enough Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah to realize that in order to have a distinct face in the world oceans of wine, they have to offer something new. Or in Greece’s case, something very old. Xinomavro, the noblest red variety of northern Greece, is a strong candidate to become the country’s flagship red.

Xinomavro flight of wines

Press trip to the North Greece wine region was part of the Digital Wine Communications Conference and was organized and sponsored by the “Wines of North Greece” Association

Related post: Greek Xinomavro: figuring out the terroir