We are in a vineyard where the wild fennel grows high; taller than the bush vines all around us. It’s a typical Greek rural scene, dry grass, brush up on the top of the hills and vines, olives and dates all around. There’s also a producer called Stamatis Mylonas who wants to instil in us his love for an unloved grape variety.
I wrote about savatiano last year. This is a short update. Just to repeat – savatiano is the most widely planted variety in Greece, and crucially, 80% of vineyard area in Attica – the region around Athens. Because it has a reputation for poor quality and especially for making retsina either it needs to get a new image or large swathes of vineyard area will fade away. Consequently a number of producers are working hard to improve its image. ‘Rejuvenate’ may be a better word, as it needs to be taken on by younger drinkers.
Stamatis took over his family’s domaine in 2002-06. It was set up by his grandfather in 1917 who sold retsina in bulk from his own shop south of Athens. They would bring their pitchers or bottles to fill up regularly, and paid for the volume they purchased that was tapped off the barrel. Stamitis’ father only grew grapes for retsina but he believed savatiano could make good wine and encouraged his son (who studied oenology) to take it further. It was Stamatis who shifted the focus away from retsina and is developing the brand via a number of wines (though he still makes a very good example of the former as well).
The economics of this vine is also interesting here. Land price this close to Athens is around 250,000 per hectare. No one will buy at that price, but the land is still zoned for agricultural use, so the owners can’t build either. Something of a catch-22, but it keeps the land in viticulture for the time being – though a few vineyards are being left. Meanwhile the plantings are mainly bush vines, and not trellised, and as Stamatis points out the new generation of vineyard managers doesn’t want to work that low towards the ground.
We do a tasting of wines from the region. Young savatiano, fermented cool and anaerobically, can make an attractive if simple wine; like well-made wine from lesser varieties around the world. Some of the aged wines, however, are very interesting. A colleague asks me what they remind me of (he clearly has his own idea) – so I say Hunter Valley semillon. He agrees entirely. They don’t have the searing acidity of the Australian wines but they are fresh and do get the lovely toasty, slightly nutty, style which gives them good complexity. A combination of some weight but also a touch of delicacy; perhaps the Greek wines are a bit more phenolic – but it gives them some structure. The trouble is that Hunter Valley Semillon isn’t a great model for reshaping the image of a wine; in its own country consumers are turning away from it: even great examples such as those from Tyrells and McWilliams. And it’s very hard to find on export markets.