Naoussa & Amyntaio….the heartland of Xinomavro

Xinomavro is a favourite of mine and last week I had the pleasure to spend a few days in its homeland in northern Greece.

We begun our trip with a visit to Alpha Estate in Amyntaio, about two hours drive west of the city of Thessaloniki. I have spent many nights in London enjoying Xinomavros from Alpha Estate so I was really looking forward to visiting this place.

We started off with a brief tour of the ultra modern winemaking facilities and the impressive cellar before sampling some of their wines. This is Xinomavro country and their Alpha Reserve Vieilles Vignes (old vines) made with 100% Xinomavro is for me the star of the show. We were also presented with the Alpha Axia Red a 50% Xinomavro 50% Syrah blend which makes it a bit more familiar and approachable to the international consumer.

Alpha estate

In terms of their whites, I had read allot of good things about their Sauvignon Blanc (not least by Jancis Robinson in her FT column) and it certainly did not disappoint. Great balance of fruit and acidity, in terms of style closer to Sancerre than New Zealand.

The second white that we tasted was the 2015 Alpha Malagousia Single Vineyard Turtles which was only bottled a couple of months ago. Malagousia is an indigenous Greek grape variety that was saved from extinction due to the efforts of winemaker Vangelis Gerovassiliou (from Domaine Gerovassiliou in Epanomi, Thessaloniki). Intense floral aromas and flavours of melon and peach make the Alpha Estate version a great example.

The following day we visited two family run wineries in the nearby Naoussa region which is the official PDO of Xinomavro.

Dalamara is a small winery producing a range of organic wines. The Dalamara family has a history of wine making and distillation going all the way  back to 1840. Kostis Dalamaras, who took over in 2010 showed us around the winery which included a lounge area with an impressive display of antique vineyard and cellar equipment.

We sampled their flagship Paliokalias, an organically produced 100% Xinomavro named after the vineyard area located on the eastern foothills of mount Vermion. This wine is not as smooth as the Alpha Xinomavro Reserve Vieilles Vignes but nevertheless showcases the rich characteristics of the grape with great intensity and depth of flavour.

Dalamaras also produces a Xinomavro, Merlot blend called Aghechoros (80% Xinomavro, 20% Merlot) which is smoother and more friendly to the palate.

A 10 minutes drive away in the village of Stranza we made our final visit of the day at Foundi Estate. This is another small family winery located in the Naoussa region producing Xinomavro PDO wines.

Ktima Foundi

The Foundi family strongly believe in ageing their wines before release and their signature Ktima Foundi Xinomavro 2007 was only released a few months ago. This is a very impressive Xinomavro and at €11.50 extremely good value. If you find it buy it as there won’t be many left!

We drove back to Thessaloniki that evening with the boot of the car filled with as many cases of wine as we could fit.

I cannot help but thinking that at some point the price of Greek wine, especially Xinomavros will significantly increase as the world begins to appreciate the beauty and complexity of this noble Greek grape variety.

I hope this moment does not come too soon though….

Details of wineries visited:

Alpha Estate
2nd Km Amyndeon – St. Panteleimon
PO 53200 AMYNDEON
Greece
tel. +30 23860 20111
email: info@alpha-estate.com

 

Dalamara Winery
Naoussa 59200
Greece
tel. +30 23320 28321
email: info@dalamarawinery.gr
www.dalamarawinery.gr

Foundi Estate
Stranza, Naoussa 59200
Greece
tel. +30 23320 48255
email: info@ktimafoundi.gr
www.ktimafoundi.gr

The Wine Diaries are written by an amateur wine enthusiast with a passion for Greek wine. Born in Greece, lives in London.

Follow me on twitter @greekabroad

Isle of Olive

There are 3 characteristics to look out for when tasting extra virgin olive oil.….” proclaimed Gregoris co-founder alongside Paulina of Isle of olive, a new greek deli in London’s Broadway market, “….fruitiness, bitterness & pepperiness “.

I have attended many wine tastings over the years, but olive oil tasting was something completely new to me.

2014-12-03 19.16.54-3We were about to begin and there were five small plastic cups in front of us containing extra virgin olive oils from different regions of Greece.

The one from Korinthos was cloudy,  sweet and mellow, the Cretan one was bitter and fruity with a long and powerful finish and the one from Pilio was more spicy and left a peppery taste on the back of your throat.

All distinctive tastes that showcase the humble olive in all its glory.  We swirled, sipped and swallowed under the expert gaze of Gregoris.

Around us,  an eclectic mix of other products from around Greece adorned the shelves including honeys, pulses, cheeses and herbs with quality and traceability being the key characteristics for their selection. The graviera  cheese from Crete is one to look out for and it’s surprisingly delicious with a drizzle of Greek honey (thanks Paulina for the tip!).

The wine section in the corner of the shop is small but perfectly formed and includes  a Xinomavro from Naoussa (Thymiopoulos) and the a Mosxofilero/Roditis blend from the Peloponnese (Skouras).

This little shop is fairly unique in that its existence centres around a produce which is arguably the quintessential expression of Greek agricultural – extra virgin olive oil. In that respect, Gregoris and Paulina have created a stylish addition to London’s foodie destination list.

A great project driven by their passion for quality and authenticity. We need more places like this in the UK….

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olive oil tasting

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Fava spread from Santorini made from yellow split peas

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Cretan Graviera cheese with a drizzle of honey

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Gregoris conducting the olive oil tasting

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Selection of Greek honeys

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Cretan meze called Dakos

Mazi Restaurant London – Stylishly Authentic Greek Cuisine

I am from northern Greece, specifically the city of Thessaloniki so I know a few things about good Greek food. I grew up eating it after all, literally!

Food is ingrained in every aspect of Greek culture and no festivity, big or small is complete without its matching food delicacy; from spring lamp on Easter Sunday to lagana (a lightly leavened bread) and taramosalata on “Clean Monday” (Kathari Deytera) to melomakarona at Christmas, the list goes on.

In terms of eating out, there is no better place than Thessaloniki for sampling authentic Greek food. The plethora of restaurants, tavernas and ouzeris have earned it the unofficial title of culinary capital of Greece.

I have now lived in London for over 15 years and I tend to avoid  Greek restaurants here altogether. The inevitable comparisons with what is on offer back home results in a profound but predictable sense of disappointment.

So it’s with these high standards in my mind that I visited Mazi, a small but stylish Greek restaurant in London’s Notting Hill.

The evening started on the other side of London, tasting some excellent Greek wines at Maltby & Greek (Druid str, SE1 2HQ). By the time we made our way up the picturesque Hillgate Street where Mazi is located it was just after 9pm and we had worked up quite an appetite.

I had read great reviews of Mazi in various UK publications but I was still skeptical as we were approaching the venue. After all, I was thinking, what do these British reviewers know about authentic Greek cuisine, they did not grow up in Greece so how dare they even contemplate providing an misinformed opinion with their non-Hellenic palates…

OK, I admit it, my logic for doubting the reviewers was not that rational….But I was hungry, so rationality that evening was not one of my key strengths.

We entered and the place was buzzing with activity. The small front room was completely packed and there was a great atmosphere. It took a few minutes for our table to be prepared and we used this time to stare at the procession of beautifully presented dishes flowing out of the kitchen.

Soon enough we were seated in the main room which contains no more than a dozen small tables. The Greek waitor greeted us warmly and took the time to describe some of the key dishes on the menu. For starters we ordered the aubergine salad and the calamari in squid ink fava, both cleverly served in small glass jars (as are all the Mazi starters).

The familiar aromas of the aubergine salad (melitzanosalata) just leapt out of the jar and instantly this place won us over. One mouthful of this famous greek delicacy and we silently looked at each other as we realised that this was not just good but it stood shoulder to shoulder  with the best “melitzanosalata” we had tasted back home. It was simply delicious!

For mains we had the tiger prawns with orzo pasta (a stylish interpretation of Giouvetsi) and the shredded rabbit stifado on pearl onion cream. Both authentic and modern at the same time, a feat not easily achieved and as far as I know not seen elsewhere in London, or even in Greece for that matter.

For wine, we opted for a bottle of Malagousia from Domaine Gerovassiliou (a winery located around 20km south of Thessaloniki). This famous white wine is made from the indigenous Greek grape Malagousia and is a prime example of the massive improvement in Greek winemaking techniques over the last few decades. But more importantly, it was the perfect complement to the delicious food we were experiencing, (went particularly well with the orzo pasta and tiger prawns).

Shredded rabbit stifado on pearl onion cream

Shredded rabbit stifado on pearl onion cream

For desert, we ordered the loukoumades (traditional Greek donuts) in lavender honey and chocolate sorbet. This was presented to us in a square wooden case decorated with lavender  flowers and smoking cinnamon sticks. Sounds over-the -top but it was brilliantly executed and a delightful touch to end the night.

Loukoumades, lavender honey and chocolate sorbet

Loukoumades, lavender honey and chocolate sorbet

Mazi has redefined Greek cuisine. It has demonstrated that authenticity and creativity can be combined without compromising on taste. More importantly it has achieved this in a simple and elegant way.

Well done and we will be back!


 

Mazi, 12-14 Hillgate Street, London W8 7SR

Xinomavro: Hard to pronounce, easy to drink

Apparently there is a correlation between how easy it is to pronounce the name of a wine and how well it does in the market. Not surprising really as most people want to be able to tell their friends about the wine they picked from the supermarket shelves or the restaurant wine list.

If this correlation does actually exist, then the red grape of northern Greece called Xinomavro (Ξινο-μαυρο, pronounced ksee-NOH-mah-vroh) will probably struggle to make its mark on the English speaking world. Xinomavro is the signature red of Naoussa in the Macedonia region of Greece. It is a rich and complex wine with flavours of cherry, raspberry and spice. In my humble opinion, when made well, this wine can compete with the great reds of Tuscany and Bordeaux.

On a recent short trip to Naoussa I had the pleasure of visiting a few wineries and sampling some great examples of Xinomavro. We set off from nearby Thessaloniki which is just over an hour’s drive away, heading west towards the foothills of mount Vermio.

Naoussa is a small town with allot of history surrounding it. We started our trip with a visit to nearby Vergina (or Aiges as it used to be called) the burial site of many kings of Macedonia, the most famous of all being King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great. The exact site of the excavation has been converted into a stunning museum showcasing the grand royal tombs and the famous golden larnax containing the remains of the king. Evidence of the historical importance of  wine to this region can be found in the form of dozens of beautiful ceramic amphorae and silver wine jugs (oenochoe) that were discovered nearby and are elegantly displayed in the museum.

Following this truly inspiring visit, we headed straight for the vineyards and wineries that are dotted around the town of Naoussa making our first stop at the picturesque Kir Yianni estate in the village of Giannakohori (a 10 minutes drive north of the town of Naoussa). This estate is owned and run by the leading family of Greek winemakers – the Boutaris. It was founded by Giannis Boutaris (who is currently also the mayor of Thessaloniki) and run by his son Stelios. We tasted their Ramnista (100% xinomavro at 12 EUR) and their more expensive Diaporos (87% Xinomavro, 13% Syrah at 24 EUR). Great examples of Xinomavro and amazing value compared to prices of similar quality wines from more established old world countries.

We plotted our way through a few other local vineyards before we ended up in Argatia estate,  a small winery tucked away in the nearby Rodochori village producing wine from biological vineyards of indigenous Greek varieties including Negoska, Assyrtiko, Athiri and Malagousia but as with all the wineries in the Naoussa apellation the real star of the show here is the Xinomavro variety. Dr Haroula Spinthiropoulou (enologist and author of a book on Greek grape varieties) who runs Argatia, greeted us warmly and served us locally produced kaseri (Greek semi-hard cheese) with her signature Argatia Xinomavro (100% Xinomavro at 12 EUR). This is a deliciously rich wine and would complement well hearty Greek beef or game dishes.

After a full day of sightseeing and wine tasting it was time for dinner (and more wine!) so we headed to nearby Agios-Nikolaos (Saint Nicholas) and a small taverna called Tesseris Epoxes which was highly recommended by a few of the people we met during the day.  This small family run taverna serves delicious traditional local dishes; we opted for the rabbit stew and we were not disappointed. For wine what else but a bottle of Xinomavro, this one from the nearby Chrisohoou estate (“Chrisohoou Naoussa” 2008).

The next morning, reflecting on the amazing places we visited and the quality of the wines we tasted, we headed back to Thessaloniki to catch the plane to London. The Xinomavro grape is a hidden gem and when treated well has the potential to create truly outstanding wines.

If only its name was easier to pronounce! Mind you Gewürztraminer does not roll of the tongue either and that seems to be coming back in fashion so maybe there is hope for Xinomavro after all…


The Wine Diaries are written by an amateur wine enthusiast with a passion for Greek wine. Born in Greece, lives in London.   


Wineries in Naoussa (it is advisable to make an appointment before visiting):

Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai (Vergina): http://www.aigai.gr

Tesseris-Epoxes Taverna: http://www.tesseris-epoxes.gr