Greek Wine Project

The mid 20th century was a pretty dark era for Greek Wine. The valuable trade in Vin Santo had ground to a halt with the First World War, the ‘Raisin Crisis’ of the 1930’s had devastated viticulture and the legendary wines of Malvasia, traded by Venice, were long forgotten. Domestic demand was for cheap wine, (most of it Retsina), and the tourists arriving in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s were distinctly unimpressed. Wine Tourism can make reputations, but it can ruin them as well; Greek wine gained a reputation for being atrocious.

Of course, it wasn’t fair, and had tourists asked sommeliers in the top restaurants in Athens to show them fine Greek wines, they would have been astounded to discover that they did indeed exist! In fact, there were also perfectly reasonable wines from Nemea, Macedonia and other places too for those who cared to look. However, few people did care and Greek wine was seen by almost everyone to be just plonk. I never shared this opinion.

SAMOS

There was one place that really bucked this trend and that was the island of Samos. Samos was blessed with the delicious aromatic Muscat grape and an international reputation for its wine. The market that really mattered was France, where the sweet muscat wines of Samos accounted for over a fifth of the important Vin Doux Naturelle market. (You will still find Samos Grand Cru in all French supermarkets).  The EOSS cooperative churned out huge volumes of very acceptable sweet wine.  My guess is that this accounted for the large majority of Greek wine exports. 

In fact, some of it was more the wine than acceptable, it was very good. The EOSS Cooperative made respectable dry Muscat, wines for the Church, the award winning aged Vin Doux Naturelle ‘Anthemis’ and the sweet Muscat Liastos (Passito) ‘Nectar’. 

THE MUSCAT WINES OF SAMOS

The White Muscat a Petit Grains was introduced to Samos most probably when the island in the was mid 1500s. This was when Samos was resettled under the orders of the Sultan Suliuman the Magnificent and the Lord of Samos, Kilic Ali Pasha. (Kilic Ali was originally an Italian taken as a galley slave and had rose up to lead the left wing of the Ottoman fleet at The Battle of Lepanto and then to be the High Admiral). Samos had been abandoned about 75 years earlier because it had become untenable due to incessant warfare and pirate raids in the Aegean. The re-settlers, Christian Greeks from the mainland of Asia Minor opposite the island, were specifically ordered to plant vines. They almost certainly brought the Muscat with them, it is still grown here just outside Izmiir (formerly Smyrna) and known as Misketi of Bornova.

The fame of the wine grew and it was well established in the early C19th when in Byron’s Don Juan there is the repeated cry “Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!” On a more prosaic level, there were technical exchanges with France.

However at the end of the 20th Century, just as the rest of Greece woke up wine-wise, Samos started to falter. In the hotspots around the country, a plethora of small domaines competed for excellence, explored new ways to express the many wonderful autochthonous grape varieties and looked back to Greece’s glorious wine past and its divine sticky wines. On Samos, the EOSS cooperative still had a legally enforced (but not in fact legally enforceable) monopoly and was still making wines that were ‘good enough’ and selling a lot more in bulk. Things were not helped by the issue that internationally, sweet and fortified wines and Muscat wines in particular, were firmly out of fashion.

BACKGROUND

Greek wine improved dramatically in the late 1980s, or rather, a reasonable trickle of wines started to become very interesting and this allowed Lynette and I to start running Wine cruises in Greece in the in the early 1990s. 

 My personal connection with the island of Samos had started much earlier in 1976. It’s a long story, but while going round Greece with a friend, we ended up being invited to a ‘Panagyria’ or village party on this island that we hadn’t intended to go to. We were not allowed to pay for anything, were given a house and as many bowls of Samian wine as we wanted…… What more could a post-A level student want?  I was bought, and whenever people damned Greek wine, which was about as often as it was mentioned, I always leapt to its defence. 

In the course of my wine travels I became ever more fascinated by the historical roots of wine and by ancient wine traditions, such as those found in Georgia and indeed Greece. The medieval wine trade, the sweet wines that had been so prized and the echoes of this production that you can still find scattered around the Mediterranean fascinated me. It was particularly exciting to visit Monemvasia in the Peloponnese and taste the early experimental wine that the Monemvasia Winery had made. This was a recreation of the original ‘Malvasia’, once the most famous and expensive wine in the world. It was very moving to be among the first to taste this. 

It stuck me that such wines were a validation of Greece as one of the great wine countries and that such wines were something beyond beverages that could perhaps be scored out of a 100 points. They were cultural treasures and something that speaks to the soul. I was also struck by the the fact that so few people were working at this and that so much more could be done here.

INCEPTION

After nearly 30 years of exploring the wine world and taking wine expeditions to its very furthest corners, in 2015 I decided to launch a wine project.The aim would be to make a wine using ancient techniques and working as ‘naturally’ as possible, that would nevertheless seem fresh and lovely to people today. I looked at Georgia, the cradle of wine, and at other some areas of Greece before settling on my first love, Samos. Having known the wines of EOSS for years and having tasted some small growers’ private wines in vineyard huts and tavernas, I thought that it might just be possible to do something quite extraordinary here. 

The island has many beautiful vineyards of old vines on terraces high above the sea. The real quality kicks in at about 2000 feet up in sites open to the wind and where there is a clear view of the sea. it was in such vineyards owned by friends that I was to work. Now much of what they do in the vineyards and the small vineyard huts (called ‘colivis’) is full of wisdom and based on many generations of experience, but across the island there is also too much of an ‘anything goes’ attitude that stems from having sent grapes to the co-op for too long. 

The circumstances at this time were that the grape price was crashed and the all important cooperative was tottering on the edge as Greece’s economic crisis without end lurched into its 9th year. On top of that Samos’ Tourism had been hit hard by the refugee crisis.

The LIASTOS Project

YEAR 1

The first trial was in 2017 and the aim was to make a Muscat “Liastos”. (Such wines are called Passito in Italy, Vin de Paille in France and Straw Wines in English). The Greek name is the most expressive and also denotes that the wine has been made from grapes dried in the sun. It is this sun drying that is so important for it charges the grapes with anti-oxidant properties, meaning that sulphur is not necessary and that the wine can taste fresh and lively. In the first year, I blundered through the process including learning how to hand-harvest old bush vines with a small curved knife in the blistering heat of a Greek August. I watched each part of the process, most of which I knew in theory but was hazy about what really happened. One thing I did do that was different was a lot of deselection of sub-optimal grapes after they had been picked and were drying on mats on the terraces. 

The grapes, or rather raisins, went through the nice new crusher-stemmer twice and were pressed in an old basket press, (which is serious physical work). The juice was run directly, without debourbage, to new small oak for a natural ferment. Later in the year I worried that there might be too much new oak… 

YEAR 2

We made a much better selection in the vineyard this year, so few grapes had to be discarded later. The oak was now second use and the barrel was kept fairly well topped up, which helps with freshness. No sulphur, no fining, no enzymes, no racking and no filtration of course. The wine stayed sur lie for a year, (so the lees had to be clean).  I also looked into buying vineyard.

YEAR 3

This was a more problematic year. There was a lot of mildew and a late heat-spike made this worse and pushed sugar levels close to the edge. This was an issue because to make a great Liastos the grapes must be absolutely clean, fully ripe physiologically but also with good acid. I learned the hard way the importance of picking at exactly the optimal ripeness for each plot (and how difficult it can be to do this in practice), of managing the sun-drying by judicious use of shade, of the importance of spacing out the bunches and turning them over during the drying process. I also took the decision to add in some very high grown fruit to  balance sweetness and get ‘freshness’. These last grapes had been grown organically……  
I spent a lot of time juggling things and realised the truth of what Jean Hugel told me many years ago. “There is no such thing as a wine maker” –  You can be a ‘wine grower’ as Johnny said, you can be a ‘wine imaginer’, but most of the time you are a ‘wine runner-a-rounder!’

GOING INTO PRODUCTION

The list of minor refinements made gets longer each year. The production can be expanded but we have to see what people think of the finished product. Early versions which were shown to friends including winemakers, members of the trade and other guinea pigs were wines with names such as “SWT1. Component 2  70%, Comp 3  30%”.  I explained that SWT stood for Sweet Wine Trial, they told me to work on the marketing.

I have an arrangement with Vakakis Wines, a super new outfit run by Nick Vakakis, who will produce and bottle the wines and now have our first bottling. This is the 2018 vintage and the eagle-eyed will notice that it is a “Wine of Greece”, not a “Samos”. I should explain that this was done for practical, not ideological reasons. The wine I have named “Kybernetes”.

The back label reads as follows:-

Kybernetes

Kybernetes means ‘helmsman’ in Ancient Greek and here refers to Ankaios, helmsman of the Argo, the ship Jason used in the quest for the Golden Fleece. The Fleece is sometimes taken to be a symbol for the Pelasgian wisdom and it was this, rather than mere gold, that the heroes were seeking. In the myth, Jason brings back Medea with her terrible knowledge of magic. But Colchis, modern Georgia, had another secret to pass on; wine. After returning from Colchis, Ankaios, king of the island of Samos, planted a vineyard making him the first named man to plant vines in Europe.

Kybernetes is made from White Muscat old vines grown on terraces high above the Aegean sea. The grapes were hand harvested at 14.5˚ baumé then dried in the sun for aweek. This traditional process, Liastos, concentrates sugars and charges grapes with anti-oxidant properties. After a rigorous selection, the grapes were pressed in a basket press. The must, now 21.5˚, was run to small newish oak. It fermented naturally and stayed on the protection of its lees for a year. No sulphur or additives were used.

Kybernetes also means a guide or a navigator and I too have searched the world for wisdom in wine. I came to this island on my travels. Then, (following ancient traditions), nature, friends and I created this sweet wine, which is fresh, aromatic and full of life. I hope you will love it!

Produced & bottled for Timothy Clarke Oinos by Vakakis Winery. Samos. Vin Naturellement Doux. Product of Greece. 500ml. 13.5%
My thanks to the Christou family, to Nikos Vakakis and Maria at Southern Wine Roads.

Some Links!

Guide to Samos  A Guide to the beautiful island of Samos Vakakis Winery  My partner winery where Kybernetes is produced and bottled 
Orizontas Restaurant  Restaurant belonging to my friends in Platanos Platanos Vineyards Map The Muscat Vineyards of Platanos Lioutas Coopers  The coopers I use Southern Wine Roads  Vakakis Importer in the UK