When discussing wine production in northern Greece, one should start with the regions dedicated to Xinomavro. This intriguing grape variety delivers an idiosyncratic wine that unveils its complexity to those who passionately explore previously untraveled gustatory paths. It has a complex, intricate and intellectually challenging personality, leading to an exploration and an
awaking of the senses, while at the same time it is an ideal accompaniment to foods with intense and rich flavours. Xinomavro wines are usually released on the market when they are at least two years of age, having spent a significant proportion of that time in oak and the rest in bottle. These wines tend to rise to prominence with aging and are bright red in colour, having strong tannins, good structure and pure elegance. The essence of the Xinomavro character can be found in the complex, distinct aromas of red fruits, tomatoes, olives, dried prunes, tobacco and nuts, while wood-aging becomes evident in the subtle hints of spices. The bottle aging potential of these wines is long and nothing but remarkable.
Naoussa is arguably one of the two top appellations using Xinomavro. Naoussa is a mono-varietal appellation, dedicated entirely to Xinomavro. This is the area where the variety excels and produces some of its best wines, offering amazing depth, breathtaking complexity and possibly the longest ageing potential of any Greek dry red. Several 40-year-old bottles, full of freshness and vivacity, stand as ultimate proof. The appellation area overlooks the plain of central Macedonia, located on the slopes of Mt Vermio, at altitudes ranging from 150 to 450 metres (approximately 500-1500 ft). Topography is a most crucial issue in Naoussa, since the hills of Mt Vermio offer a wide range of not only altitudes, but inclinations and orientations. There is no dominant soil type in the area, allowing for vineyards that are a patchwork of limestone, loam, sand and clay. However, organic matter is low, so yields are naturally restricted. The climate of the area can be described as a cross between Mediterranean and Continental influences and vintage variations exist but not to an extreme degree. Northern winds can be a major inhibiting factor, sometimes resulting in spring frosts in less sheltered vineyards.
This diversity of terrains, altitudes, aspects and soils on the hilly slopes of Mt Vermio result in significant differences between the various vineyards and, thus, allow for the existence of many smaller distinct terroirs. Over the centuries, Naoussa vine growers observed and then tried to rationalize differences found over the years in wines coming from particular villages in the appellation. So, the notion of “cru” has been established in the mindset of Naoussa producers for several decades and this adds intricacy to an already fascinating region. This disparity of characters between vineyards is usually interpreted by the producers in two diverse ways. Some wineries and small wine growers decide to make “Vineyard Designated” wines to allow the site’s individuality to shine. Other producers make blends across a variety of crus, creating a more personal interpretation of the appellation. Both schools of thought are producing outstanding wines of remarkable personality.
Amynteo is the second appellation of northern Greece, totally dedicated to Xinomavro. This is among the coldest viticultural areas of Greece, with a climate that can be classified as continental. There are cold winters and relatively cool summers and autumns. During winter, there is even considerable snowfall as a rule and rainfall patterns are distinctive and
radically different from what is the norm even fifty or sixty kilometres away. Amynteo’s proximity to lakes is another factor shaping the area’s unique terroir. There are four lakes in the general region, but most of Amynteo’s vineyards are close to the lakes of Petron and Vegoritida, which contribute to the climate’s continentality. Although the terrain of the area has only gentle slopes, the average altitude of the vineyards is high, ranging between 570-750 metres (1,870-2,460 ft). Another key feature is the northern winds that prevail in this district, coming down from the adjoining mountain ranges. These winds, which blow all year round, are exceptionally beneficial, since they cool the vines rather than stress them. Soils are mainly sandy, poor in organic minerals and provide exceptional and much needed drainage. Some sites have such high proportions of sand that they are actually phylloxera-free and phylloxera- immune. Land is typically infertile and very poor in organic minerals, so yields are very low, making Amynteo a most suitable place for Xinomavro.
Amynteo produces wines that vividly show all the idiosyncratic Xinomavro qualities, of strong tannins, good structure and aromas of red fruits, tomatoes and olives. When compared to Naoussa wines, Amynteo has a brighter fruit character, a leaner palate and more florality. Furthermore, Amynteo is the only appellation in Greece where rosé wines are extremely important and one of the few that produces significant quantities of sparkling wines. Most of these sparkling wines are made according to the Charmat method, showing more of the varietal typicity and having less focus on the yeasty profile frequently found in wines made using the classic method. The locals also make some excellent blanc de noirs, using Xinomavro from specific sites, often called vin gris or grey wines since they can have a splash of pink colour. These can combine depth with freshness, while keeping the true aromatic qualities of Xinomavro intact.
Both Naoussa and Amynteo have more to offer to visitors than wine. Apart from the diverse natural environments, there are many traditional and picturesque villages with distinctive architecture, top class accommodation facilities and numerous wine restaurants matching magnificent local dishes with old vintages of Xinomavro. Furthermore, some extraordinary archaeological sites, like Vergina, only add to the excitement of the region.
In the area of Kilkis, the northern part of the great Macedonian plain, the Goumenissa appellation again uses Xinomavro, together with twenty per cent Negoska. The style here is broader, softer, with a higher level of primary fruit aromas, capitalising on the warmer climate of the region. Closer to the sea, Halkidiki is one of Greece’s most distinguished landscapes: three finger-
like peninsulas extending into the Aegean Sea. The climate of Halkidiki is ideal for viticulture. The most important viticulture areas are the appellation of Côtes de Meliton, covering both red and white wine, Epanomi as well as the outstanding vineyards of Mt Athos. Whites include Athiri, Assyrtiko, Malagousia and Sauvignon Blanc; while the reds are Cabernet Sauvignon, Limnio, Xinomavro, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah and Grenache Rouge.
Kavala and Drama form the eastern Macedonia wine region, separating the rest of the mainland from Thrace. The whole region of Kavala, especially around the slopes of Mt Pangeo, is a significant viticultural area providing high-quality fruit. Principal Greek grape varieties are Roditis and Assyrtiko, while Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernets Sauvignon / Franc, Merlot and Syrah are dominating new plantings. The wines of Kavala generally have a brightness of fruit and warmth that are not found in many Macedonian wine regions. Kavala’s sister area, Drama, is land-locked in the northern half of eastern Macedonia. The development of viticulture in Drama over the last three decades has certainly been dramatic, making it an up-market, top quality wine-producing region in Greece. The varietal mix of the vineyards is dominated by red and white Bordeaux varieties, together with Ugni Blanc, Assyrtiko, Roditis, Chardonnay and Syrah. The wines of Drama, when compared to those of Kavala, are firmer, while the latter are rather exuberant – but both are exhilarating.
In the eastern part of the mainland, bordering on Turkey and Bulgaria, Thrace is one of the most geographically remote regions of Greece. The two most important winegrowing regions are Maronia and Avdira, both of which have a long history. However, until recently, Thrace has been a well-kept secret. As many producers identify the largely untapped potential of the area, vineyards have been expanding rapidly. The newly planted grapes are a mix of Greek and French varieties, including the Assyrtiko, Malagousia, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay whites, the pink-skinned Roditis and the Limnio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache rouge, Merlot and Syrah reds. As these wines excelled in the marketplace, vine growers decided to showcase the local specialties, like the tannic, intense, small-berried Mavroudi of Thrace, the white Zoumiatiko and the important, pink-skinned Pamidi, which is used as a blending component mainly, but not exclusively, for rosés.
Finally, Epirus is the north-western tip of Greece and a very mountainous area, of which a large proportion is at an altitude of 700 metres (2,300 ft) or above. Climate here is relatively humid and cool. The most important and popular white grape variety is the late-ripening Debina, as well as some vineyards of Roditis and Malagousia. The most significant red grapes of the area, Bekari and Vlahiko, are rarely seen elsewhere in Greece. International varieties excel in the vineyards of the mountainous village of Metsovo, where red Bordeaux varieties and Traminer produce impressive results. The only appellation of Epirus is Zitsa, producing white wines from Debina that are low in alcohol, crisp, almost ethereal in character, with a stylish lemony aroma. Zitsa is one of the very few Greek regions that can also claim a tradition in sparkling or semi sparkling wines. The wines are mainly whites, but there are a few rosés as well.