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A Beginner's Guide to Greek Wine

by susannah

At the shop, we get asked every day, “What’s new?,” “What’s cool,?”  or, “What’s tickling your palate right now?” What they all mean is, “What’s the next big thing?” If you ask me, the answer is Greece. If you care about wines of character and history, of authenticity, Greece is where you should be looking.   What you need to know about Greek wine For starters, Greece is small. Smaller than Nepal (really!). Yet, within its narrow borders, it hosts a teeming collection of grapes and terroirs. Add to that a recent revolution in quality winemaking and you have a perfect storm for exciting wine. Each of these factors is important. So, let’s go through them one at a time. Roughly the size of Louisiana, Greece boasts 300 or more indigenous grapes that have never traveled abroad, each with a unique voice. Chardonnay and Cabernet are planted everywhere in the world, but to hear what Debina, Liatiko, and Limniona have to say, you have to go to the source. The most common grapes you’ll encounter are Assyrtiko, Malagousia, and Moschofilero for whites and Xinomavro and Agiorgitiko for reds. Yes, Xinomavro is what passes for common in Greece. Then there are many grapes that are so rare that only a producer or two grow them. The opportunities for exploration are many. I also think Greece will explode in the wine-world’s consciousness because of its incredibly diverse climate, soil, and topography. Greece is at the very end of the Alps and almost the entire country is mountainous—so rugged that vines and sheep or goats are the only things that farmers can reasonably raise in much of the country. The soil is generally thin and poor: terrible for most farming, but optimal for great wine, as vines that struggle give the best fruit. Don’t forget the weather: sunny and dry. Greece enjoys an incredibly high annual number of sun hours, a feature that not only attracts German tourists but also makes it possible for grapes to ripen even at the high altitudes necessary for good acid/fruit balance in the grapes. This is also a very dry and windy country, which means much less disease pressure than in, say, Bordeaux, and so a relatively easy path to organic farming. Lastly, there’s been a sea change in what wines producers are choosing to make. For a long time, all we saw imported from Greece were generic, internationally-styled wines—either from international grapes like Syrah, Merlot, and Chardonnay—or from native grapes like Agiorgitiko or Robola but so weighed down with wine make-up like new barriques and laboratory yeast strains as to be indistinguishable from more global wines. But that is all changing right now, and fast. To be fair, a handful of producers started down this path of authentic Greek Wine in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but their revolution didn’t mature and take hold until this century. Now it’s spreading at quite a clip, and just when Americans are falling in love with these kinds of authentic wines like never before. Who knows what delicious things will develop here in the next decade or two? Greek Wine 101: A beginner's guide What follows is a brief and far from complete overview of Greece’s vinous landscape today. A sort of Greek Wine 101. But know that I’ve ignored whole regions, grapes, and styles. And even the categories I address are vastly simplified. To encourage broad exploration, throughout the month of July we’re offering 10% off any purchase of 3 or more Greek wines, and 15% off mixed cases. Click here to view our full Greek inventory in New York City or in San Francisco or keep reading below for more regional information. PELOPONNESE This is the southern half of mainland Greece and is what I think most Americans picture when they think of Greece: it’s mountainous, dry, scrubby, generally sort of tan in color most of the year. The main grapes are Agiorgitiko, Moschofilero, Monemvasia, Muscat, Mavrodaphne, and Roditis. This is probably the region farthest behind in the quality revolution, as there is still an inexplicable obsession with new and small oak (is Nemea the last hidey hole for the marauding barrique?). I happen to believe that Agiorgitiko is a grape with enormous potential, but I have seen little of that potential manifested, so we mostly focus on whites and rosés from the Peloponnese at Flatiron. Producers to look for: Parparoussis, Troupis, Barafakas, Papaioannou, Tselepos. MAKEDONIA Without wading into the fray over the name, we’ll just say that this is Macedonia, the region in Greece, not the country (Greeks refer to the latter simply as Skopje, the capital of FYROM, or Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Situated in the far northeast of mainland Greece, this is where Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great, burst forth to rule the known world; the Macedonian Plain (one of only three flat places of any real size in Greece) is where Alexander assembled his army to march east. The main grape here is Xinomavro, presented on its own in most of the subregions (most notably Naoussa and Amynteo) but blended with Negoska in the subregion of Goumenissa. Xinomavro often gets compared to Nebbiolo, and there’s something to the similar balance of tannin to fruit to acid, as well as the light color and long aging potential. The vineyards of Macedonia are generally at slightly lower altitudes than much of the rest of Greece, more rolling hills than straight-up mountains. Soils vary enormously here, including clay, sand, loam, schist, and even marble. In Domaine Nerantzi’s vineyards, 3500-year-old potsherds even contribute to the mix. Producers to look for: Tatsis, Dalamara, Kokkinos, Nerantzi, Karanika, Chatzivariti, Kamara, Argatia. EPIRUS Also in the north, but on the western side of the country, Epirus is extremely mountainous and green, full of rushing mountain streams, strikingly tall old forests, and elaborately-clapboarded, slate-roofed architecture that would make you believe you were in Switzerland or Austria or Bavaria rather than Greece. The vineyards are inland and at high elevation, and the soils are mostly clay and limestone. Grapes here are Debina for white, and Vlahiko & Bekari for red. Producers to look for: Glinavos, Katogi Averoff THESSALY Here we’re just going to focus on one producer. Most of Thessaly is flat and hot, and you’d think the wines wouldn’t be very interesting. For the most part, you’d be right, and much of the output here is sold in bulk. But there is one producer who is changing that storyline: Christos Zafeirakis. Based in the town of Tyrnavos in northeast Thessaly, near the foot of Mt. Olympos, Zafeirakis works with some international varieties, but mostly focuses on native Malagousia and Limniona. The latter hadn’t been planted by anyone for a very long time, until Zafeirakis took an interest and started putting out his game-changing red wine. Now that he’s proven its potential, a bunch of other folks have gone and planted it, too—a success story for grape diversity! While I haven’t found much else of interest in Thessaly so far, Zafeirakis’ wines came out of nowhere (though the family have been grape growers for a long time, the winery was only founded in 2005), so I’m actually pretty excited about what else might crop up here going forward. Producers to look for: Domaine Zafeirakis ISLANDS: IONIA Situated off the western coast of Greece and facing Italy across the Ionian Sea, the islands of Corfu, Zakynthos, Lefkada, and Kefalonia are yet another completely different side of Greece (there are a few more islands in the chain, but these are the major ones for wine). On average, these islands are larger and more mountainous than those in the Aegean. The Ionian islands were a Venetian possession for several centuries, and that colonial influence is readily apparent in the architecture and cuisine. This is the homeland Odysseus spent ten years struggling to reach after the Trojan War. Chief among the islands for wine is Kefalonia (Cephalonia), featuring the towering Mt. Ainos, a 1600+-meter hunk of limestone rising from the sea. It is cold at the top even in summer, and you will see bands of heavily shaggy mountain goats picking their way through the chilly fog in July. So, the climate here is relatively cool, even on the scrabbly lower slopes where the vineyards are located. Alberello (bush) training is common and many vines are ungrafted. Native grapes include Robola, Tsaousi, Vostilidi, and Mavrodaphne. Producers to look for: Sclavos (Sclavus and Sklavos also appear on the label) ISLANDS: CYCLADES This is the other place that I think Americans envision when thinking of Greece, as the Cyclades are the land of white-washed buildings with stone terraces overlooking the blue, blue waters of the Aegean. They’re called the Cyclades because some folks think the islands are laid out in a circle shape (I don’t see it, but whatever). While some of the islands have been almost completely overrun with tourism (Santorini, Mykonos), there is a lot of cool wine happening here, even amidst the madding crowds. The Cyclades extend southeast from Athens into the Aegean (they are really the final and lowest mountains in the chain that runs down the entire mainland) and are generally hilly rather than mountainous. Summers are very hot and dry, limiting the potential areas for quality vineyards to the highest reaches (e.g., the granite slopes of the Kalathas valley on Tinos) or places with uniquely water-retentive soil (e.g., the volcanic ash on Santorini, which sucks up the morning mist and feeds it back to the vine roots during the day). There are some genuinely cool, genuinely weird and unique vine-training systems here as well—the most famous being the koloura baskets of Santorini, but don’t forget the supine ksaplota of Tinos either (and see the Flatiron Wines instagram account for a rare video of plowing with this training system) [we should include the image here]. On Santorini, phylloxera doesn’t stand a chance, and vines are ungrafted, with some root systems many centuries old—a truly unique situation in the world of wine. Grapes include Assyrtiko, Athiri, Aidani, Mavrotragano, Mandilaria, Aspro Potamisi, Mavropotamisi, Koumariano, Rozaki, Monemvasia. Producers to look for: Hatzidakis, Koutsoyannopoulos, Karamolegos, Roussos, Sigalas (Santorini); Domaine de Kalathas (Tinos). ISLANDS: CRETE Crete is Greece’s largest island, and perhaps its most beautiful. Wine is grown in every district in Crete, though it must be said that most of the island is carpeted with olive trees. It’s an open secret that much of what is labeled and sold as Italian olive oil actually comes from Crete. This is perhaps the most different part of Greece, and Greeks agree, viewing it in much the same way that Italians view Sicily; I’ve even heard comparisons to Texas. It’s pretty dry all over here, but especially in the eastern region of Sitia, where the remote and rocky Ziros plateau rises 650 meters above the Mediterranean. The island’s (and perhaps the country’s) most interesting wines come from this region, from the hand of Yiannis Economou. Soils range from sandy red clay to blue marl to wildly mixed conglomerate river rock. Everywhere you look are low rounded humps of wild herb plants drying in the sun all day and lending their Cretan garrigue to the grapes. Grapes include Liatiko, Mandilaria, Voudomato, Kotsifali (red), and Assyrtiko, Vilana, Thrapsathiri (white). Producers to look for: Economou (Oikonomoy is how it appears on labels), Stilianou Thanks for reading, now go explore! -Susannah Want to get more offers like these straight to your inbox? Sign-up for our newsletter already! As loyal subscribers already know, the newsletter is not only the best place to get first crack at your favorite, hard-to-find wines at special discounts but it’s also where we go in depth about the producers, vintages, regions and trends in the world of fine wine. We send it once a week on Wednesday, unless, you elect to receive more. You can do so by using the form below or, here, if our site’s sophisticated technology isn’t functioning as described. ;)

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On the cutting edge of something big: Jochen Beurer is Making Zweigelt Obscure Again

by josh-cohen

People ask us all the time: What is wine's next frontier? They remember when the Jura exploded on the scene. They watched prices of Northern Rhônes soar. What is next? We don't really know, of course. But there are a definitely a few categories that we're keeping a close eye on. Greece is one. Another is what we're calling "Teutonic Obscurities": wines from Austria and Germany made from their many overlooked grape varieties. Most of these non-famous grapes (basically, we're talking about wines that aren't made from the usual suspects like Riesling, Grüner, Spätburgunder, and Blaufränkisch) were for many years produced cheaply and industrially and entirely for local consumption. But a younger, artisanally-minded generation has taken a keen interest in rediscovering these varieties and seeing them through to their full potential. These producers have been basically unknown here in the U.S., until like-minded importers started to take notice—people like Stephen Bitterolf, who discovered this amazing Zweigelt grown in Württemberg by Jochen Beurer. Zweigelt, you might argue, is a pretty conventional grape. Plenty of it comes to America. It's a big thing in Austria, right? Austria, yes. But not so much in Germany. There, it is a true obscurity. You see, Zweigelt was invented only in 1922, when an Austrian scientist (Dr. Zweigelt, of course) crossed St. Laurent with Blaufränkisch, and not many vines ever crossed the border into Germany. But there are a few vines in Württemberg, the warmish southwest corner of Germany over by Baden and Alsace. There, red wine is the thing. But even in Württemberg, Zweigelt is only about 0.5% of the region's total production. This really is a Teutonic Obscurity. Jochen Beurer is a champion of Teutonic Obscurities. Has was also, at one point, an actual Teutonic champion: of BMX biking. But around 2001 he switched to biodynamic farming of grapes like Trollinger, Lemberger, Portugieser....and Zweigelt. Now, we're not just writing about Beurer and his Zweigelt because it's Obscure. We think that Beurer could be at the cutting edge of something big. The Zweigelt tastes, frankly, awesome. We are all too used to more industrial examples of Zweigelt from Austria, which can seem to be a little...ketchupy. But this one is all clear and pure red berries, with just a touch of something smoky adding a little complexity. In other words, you should drink this not just because it's some kind of curiosity, but because it is a really lovely wine that is quite undervalued!  And if this wasn't enticing enough, we’ve discounted on just on one bottle so everyone can feel comfortable having a taste.  Just use the discount code TEUTONIC at checkout.  Good while supplies last. Jochen Beurer, Zweigelt, 2015 - $22.99 $19.99 -Josh Want to get more offers like these straight to your inbox? Sign-up for our newsletter already! As loyal subscribers already know, the newsletter is not only the best place to get first crack at your favorite, hard-to-find wines at special discounts but it’s also where we go in depth about the producers, vintages, regions and trends in the world of fine wine. We send it once a week on Wednesday, unless, you elect to receive more. You can do so by using the form below or, here, if our site’s sophisticated technology isn’t functioning as described. ;)

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Pinot Noir from Tasmania? The delicious, different and delightful Holm Oak

by josh-cohen

There's a worldwide hunt for great Pinot Noir. Oregon and California are well-known sources of Pinots that put their very own spin on Burgundy's grape—especially the regions with temperatures cool enough to coax Pinot's complex aromatics and the bright notes that complement its pretty fruit flavors. And many of you have discovered Germany's exploding Pinot scene with us, where global warming has been making what used to be a too-marginal region much more Pinot-friendly. We tend to think that the Southern Hemisphere is…  just too warm. But if you go far enough south, of course, it gets cool. And eventually you find temperatures cool enough for Pinot to work its magic. In Tasmania they figured this out in the early 1980s and started planting vines. Now those vines—the oldest on the island, and a respectable 35 years old—are producing some very lovely Pinot Noir. For many years, actually, Tasmania was just too cool; ripeness was the real issue. So they followed the Champenois and added bubbles. If you've enjoyed a glass of Sparkling Shiraz, there's a good chance it was from Tasmania. But Holm Oak has 35-year-old vines in a warmer part of the island called the Tamar Valley that these days make Pinot Noir so delicious that it's frankly shocking. Fact: there are some pretty hard-core Burgundy fans among us here at Flatiron. And yet we suddenly found ourselves bringing home a "Tassie Wine" (as apparently it's called). This is something you should try. We've discounted it deeply and on just on one bottle so everyone can feel comfortable having a taste.  Just use the discount code TASSIE at checkout.  Good while supplies last. Holm Oak, Tasmania Pinot Noir, 2016 - $29.99 $25.99 Harvested early, this is light and smooth with silky fruit and a touch of forest and spice on the finish.  Finally Tasmania is sending us some of their best Pinot and not hoarding it for themselves! We don't know if Tassie Wine is going to become a thing, but we do know that this is a delicious—and different—bottle of Pinot Noir: -Josh Want to get more offers like these straight to your inbox? Sign-up for our newsletter already! As loyal subscribers already know, the newsletter is not only the best place to get first crack at your favorite, hard-to-find wines at special discounts but it’s also where we go in depth about the producers, vintages, regions and trends in the world of fine wine. We send it once a week on Wednesday, unless, you elect to receive more. You can do so by using the form below or, here, if our site’s sophisticated technology isn’t functioning as described. ;)

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Poderi Colla: Piedmont Greatness in a New Life

by josh-cohen

"Readers in search of a top flight, traditionally-styled Barolo will find much to explore in these very fine, noble wines from the Colla family." - Antonio Galloni, Vinous Sometimes we introduce new producers in these stories. Sometimes we revisit old classics. But this time we have the best of both worlds: an old classic that has become new again. The Colla family has one of oldest histories in the region. For many generations, they futzed about. They dabbled in Champagne-style sparklers. They learned something about Vermouth and Amaro at Carpano and ended up making their own Amaro from Moscato. But then, in the 1950s, Beppe Colla settled into Barolo fame by taking over the old Prunotto estate. Beppe Colla hits his stride at Prunotto At Prunotto, he was the first to introduce single-vineyard-designated Barolo to Piedmont (inspiring Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa to do the same a few years later). Quality at Prunotto soared and if you ever come across old bottles from the late 1950s to the late 1980s—drink them! But the Colla legend did not end when Beppe sold Prunotto to Antinori in 1991. The family decided to put together their own estate, in part by purchasing some of the same great sites that Beppe had worked at Prunotto. The cantina never got much attention here in the U.S. But there they were, at this year’s Festa del Barolo seminar, standing toe to toe with the rest of the region's top wines. Carlotta Rinaldi stopped by the shop to say hi the next day, and she joined us for a taste of Colla – just about all we ended up talking about was how great the Colla was. Colla's 2013 Barolo and Barbaresco are Pure Magic It helped that the current vintage is 2013, of course. But wow! How long had it been since we'd come across a producer new to us making Barolo and Barbaresco of such depth, seriousness, and general quality. Here was the Colla magic—steeped in tradition, fine terroir, and generations of honing techniques—embodied in a beautiful set of new wines. We have small quantities of both their Barolo—from Bussia of all places—and Barbaresco (from Roncaglie). We think you should take at least two of each wine: one of each to try now, for sure, and at least one of each to put in your cellar. The Barbareco will start to open up in 3-5 years and the Barolo a few years later. To incentivize you, we’ll offer 10% off any order of four or more of these wines. Just use the discount code COLLA10 at checkout. Poderi Colla, Barbaresco "Roncaglie", 2013 - $52.99 Poderi Colla, Barolo "Bussia - Dardi Le Rose", 2013 - $65.99  -Josh

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