Europe and the evolution of wine quality

Afshin Molavi and his wife make a strikingly cosmopolitan couple in the world of Cretan wine.  She is the American-born daughter of a Cretan who now lives in the USA; he has Iranian heritage (hence the name) and was a Swedish sommelier.  Together they now run the estate owned by her father back in Crete: the Manousakis winery.

I remember, when I was studying for the Wine & Spirits Education Trust diploma a long time ago learning about Rueda.  The main grape variety there is (white) verdejo which tends to oxidise easily.  That didn’t matter when the taste in Spain was for oxidised wines – literally ‘fruitless’, maybe a bit of bruised apple if you lucky, but otherwise just cardboard and wood shavings and prematurely brown – probably turning to vinegar as well.  The problem was that this kind of wine was going out of fashion decades ago – and certainly doesn’t fit in with the way most people in western Europe want their wine today with clean flavours.  The saviour of producers in Rueda was the EEC (forerunner of the European Union) which Spain joined in 1986.  Suddenly there was money available for regional development in economically less well-off rural areas.  Producers in Rueda could invest in stainless steel tanks, equipment to cool fermentation, good pumps, and a whole range of new technology.  And when they applied this to their verdejo grapes they found that they actually had an interesting and distinctive wine style on their hands.  Fresh acidity, an attractive grassy and citrus nose and good texture.  (To be fair, this approach to making the wine also owed a lot to the Rioja based producer, Marqués de Riscal).

So, what has this got to do with Afshin and his wife, Alexandra?  As a sommelier he made regular trips to Rueda and enjoyed the wine.  But one day he was shown the older style (still made for some local consumption).  He realised then that the same approach could be taken with romeiko, a barely known white grape grown in his father-in-law’s native part of Crete.  The wines here were traditionally oxidised and – in his terms – undrinkable.  But use what modern technology offers and there is a wine with aromatic peach and leaf tones, attractive texture with a bit of grip and good length.  Which is what he did.  Nor was he the only one; there has been a revolution in the quality of Cretan wines since about 2006, and much is owed to investment from the European Union.  Some of this has been channelled into the technology needed to make cleaner, fresh, more carefully delineated styles of wine.  Some has also been used to develop a very clever and cohesive marketing campaign by Wines of Crete managed by the local producers and led by the dynamic and clear-sighted Nikos Miliarakis.  Nikos told me that every project that had enabled wine to develop and the local association to promote it had seen some European money.  Never 100% of what was needed, but 40% or 60% or 70% – which enabled better wine to be made and the association to survive.

There is still a great deal of traditional wine made with romeiko around Chania, in the west of Crete.  Most is made by families with a small plot of vines for their own consumption.  This small-scale production is how most wine has been made for millennia – certainly around the Mediterranean.  In the case of romeiko there is an interesting specific technique.  Wine is made and put in barrels where it sits for a year being tapped as people want to drink it, and oxidising fast.  At the following harvest the old wine is added into the new juice, and then it is all (re)fermented for the family to drink over the coming year.  You develop a form of solera system of wine – though to our taste probably not so pleasant.  A few slightly larger producers also make wine this way but Afshin says they struggle to sell it as no one else really likes the wines.

The winery is still owned by Alexandra’s father.  But he has given them a free hand and accepts that the style has changed the direction of the winery.  In that time it has grown by 500% in volume and is making a range of good wines, so he ought to be satisfied.

The impact of Europe isn’t limited to Rueda and Crete.  Most of southern Europe’s wine regions have benefited. I’ve heard of a number of other producers and regions in Greece where it has had an impact.  Sicily is another place which 30 years ago was making a series of very ordinary table wines and is now one of the most dynamic and exciting wine regions in Italy, completely reinventing its wines and its image.  For UK readers this is probably not the most appropriate time to be noting an EU success – but it is one of the main reasons why there is some much more cleanly-made, interesting wine from European nations available to British than was the case a few decades ago.  They deserve a toast for that.

In the interests of impartiality I should also point out that 29 other estates also belong to Wines of Crete and each in its own way is trying to make good quality wines from a range of grapes.

Wine and the end of life

When my favourite aunt died we held a party to celebrate her life – and we drank wine at it.  Not just wine, in fact, but champagne (although in the mind of most consumers a death is the one time it is inappropriate to drink champagne she had loved it, and it seemed entirely appropriate).  We don’t talk about death and wine so often but there is a long historical link.

The oldest wine press in Europe

I’ve just visited an ancient wine press from the Minoan era at Vathipetro in Crete – said by the Greeks to be the most ancient in the world (although probably only the oldest in Europe, as there is an older one in Armenia https://prehistoricarch.blogspot.com/2011/01/at-6000-years-old-wine-press-is-oldest.html).  This prompted our guide to talk about another Minoan press at Archanes, nearby, which is situated by a cemetery.  Wine was probably used in the funeral rites of the Minoans – hence the need to have it on tap at a burial ground – so to speak.  There is a logic to this.  Wine and the vine were the ancient symbols of the cycle of life and death around the Mediterranean.  Its annual life cycle mirrored that of people, it reflected ideas of fertility and was – after all – a magical drink capable of transforming the way drinkers felt. 

The Minoans believed in an afterlife and were often buried with grave goods.  Some, it seems, have been found with miniature wine presses in their grave.  The representation that the deceased was a wine maker perhaps?  Or a connoisseur?  Or maybe that when moving on to the afterlife they wanted to have the opportunity to go on making their favourite drink as compensation a for having left the world of the living?

Even today, it seems, wine remains key in some Cretan wine rituals.  Often, when people die they are buried but then dug up some years later for a final reburial.  Before this happens, however, their bones are washed in red wine – the most symbolic local liquid which could represent their passing.

A bit more about savatiano

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.

Savatiano Vineyard

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. 

What are the boundaries of ‘natural wine’?

Tags: Natural Wine; Greece

The first part of our trip is a tasting of wines from northern Greece. We’re on a rooftop above Monastiraki Square, with a stunning view directly over the city and the plaka towards the Acropolis. The wines are interesting, some of them are very good. One particularly puzzles me, though – a xynomavro. This is what the text in our tasting book says:

Fermentation with nothing added, and no machinery used at any stage (all by hand) 6 months aging on the fine lees in amphoras. Bottled unfiltered to retain its natural character and elegance. No sulfites added.

So far so natural. An echo of the way wines may have been done in a golden age gone by so that what you drink is just what nature can offer you. Except that this text is preceded by the following:

Grapes are placed in refrigerated room [sic] until they reach a temperature of 5-6oC. Berry to berry selection by hand. Spontaneous fermentation in egg shaped 5 hl amphoras 8-10% whole cluster is used.

So how is a refrigerated room natural, and how could ancient wine producers have used it? And how could they have found an egg for fermentation? I’m not against these techniques, and the wine was quite interesting, though rather rustic in style. But it makes me even more uncertain about what, philosophically and practically, natural wine really is. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to define it. You just know it when you see it. Or, it is there when you claim it – irrespective of how technological it may be. But in that case what meaning does the notion of ‘natural’ have?

View of the Acropolis from our tasting which has nothing to do with the post on natural wines but shows that I’ve been in a lovely place.

Welcome

Welcome to my website about wine, culture, and society.  My day job is as a Professor of Wine Marketing – but I have a special interest in how we feel and think about, and engage with, wine.  So this site aims to stimulate debate about the relationship of wine to the varying people and cultures who make it and drink it.  You won’t find lots of advice on what to buy here –  but you will find reflections from my travels around the world of wine about how people think and talk about it, along with various musings related to how we view wine and understand its cultural significance.

You will find my latest posts below.  Older ones are archived by year, and then by the country or region involved.  Because I have close links with Burgundy there is a separate tab for this region.

One reason I’m writing this blog is that I’m really keen to get feedback on what I say, so I can develop, revise or even discard my ideas.  So please comment on what I write.  However, I’d just ask that when posting you give your full name; I think we’re all entitled to know online exactly who is making a claim or accepting or disagreeing with an idea.

For those who are really interested in the subject, you’ll find links to other websites, blogs and resources which I find particularly helpful.  And, although I said that this is not primarily a site about wine tasting, occasionally I’ll make a post about interesting wines that I have tried.

Steve Charters