I’m writing this in Hong Kong, in the wake of the protests which have paralysed the city for a week now. And I want to talk about protests – but not in Hong Kong, rather in Lebanon, and how they may reflect what is happening with wine in the country.
I’m prompted to do this by a curious confluence of movements in our cosmopolitan world. A student of mine in Dijon, is doing an internship here, helping to distribute French wine in this Special Administrative Region of China. Roland is a trained winemaker, and his family have a domaine – in Lebanon – to which he will return shortly. Read the rest of this article here
I’ve made this post after my return from Greece. The title sounds as though it is some
portentous, vinous, doomsday-focused, film – but it was prompted by a
presentation we had in Santorini from Yiannis Paraskevopoulos. Yiannis is the winemaker at Gaia Wines – who
produce wine in various parts of Greece but are, to my mind, one of the best
producers of Santorini assyrtiko.
Yiannis is also, however, a professor at the University of West Attica
with a PhD in oenology and has coauthored papers on topics such as the phenol content
of wines and fuzzy logic in grape variety identification. It was he who said he thinks that ‘the
statistics suggest that wine will die out on the island in 20 years’ time’ and
if he, with his background, believes that, it is worth paying attention to.
So what do the statistics say? First, that there has been a 47% drop in the
production of assyrtiko over the last 14 years (3.4% p.a.). If you take just the last eight years that
decrease becomes 7.6% p.a. Why this drop in supply? Some of it can be attributed to climate
change. Santorini is a rocky island,
with little water-retaining clay, and average rainfall has decreased by over a
third in the last 15 years, now at about 250 ml per year – drier than almost
any other quality vineyard region in the world.
Beyond that, however, there has been a gradual abandonment
of the vineyards. Older growers retire,
and they aren’t being replaced. Working
the vines is hard, and you can’t easily mechanise. Tourism (or migration) is much easier. And even if vineyards are not taken out of
production, with fewer people to work them the vines are less well managed and
therefore yield less.
This concern for the future was mirrored with a very wide-ranging but detailed interview with Matthaios Argyros, of the eponymous domaine, one of the biggest private producers on the island – and family which has been growing grapes since the early 19th century and making wine since 1903 – so he has a long-term view on what is happening on the island. He makes the point that what eight workers could achieve on mainland Greece requires 13 or 14 workers here at twice the salary. He agrees that fewer young people want to learn the skills required and work manually in the vineyard– viticultural skill is dying out. Even the new wineries which are being set up may not have the skills or experience to work vineyards effectively. Only his estate and one other, the well-known Sigalas (also making great wines) have actually planted new vineyards in recent decades. Matthaios is also exercised by the way that that the price of grapes has risen – as I noted in my last post.
This has benefited the growers, and may persuade some to
stay in business, but a rise from 1€ per kilo in 2011 to 2€ in 2015 to 5€ in
2019 means that the price of the wine has to rise dramatically. This is something I’ve noticed; four years
ago the best wines were a bargain (and deserved to be pricier). Now they compete with premier cru Chablis,
even top white wine from the Côte d’Or.
It’s not that the wines don’t bear comparison in quality terms – but
they are not comparable in terms of reputation and the awareness of most
consumers. Additionally, Matthaios
points out the 5€ price is across the board.
It isn’t a premium for quality; meticulous, quality-focused growers get
the same as the careless and uninterested.
So what incentive is there to bother?
What is more, the increasing value of grapes doesn’t seem to have
stemmed the decline in production. In
2016 the price per kilo went up to 2.75€, and in 2017 it touched 4€ before
reaching 5€ this year. Yet these three
years have shown the steepest recent decline in grape production, from 2750
tonnes to just above 1000 tonnes. Yet
even if you ignore this recent acceleration in the decline of yields,
projecting what has been happening since 2005 suggests that sometime around
2037 no more wine will be made on the island.
Paradoxically, if these wines were lost to humanity it would
be the end of vineyard systems which date back to the time of the great
explosion around 1600 BCE, and with vines that – because of the propagation
systems used and the lack of phylloxera in the island are often 300 or 400
years old. It would also be the end of a
wine that is the result of a unique volcanic terroir that humans have been
responding to for centuries – not just the idiosyncratic but effective pruning,
but the terraces, the walls and the canavas
– ancient family cellars. That would be
a sad loss to the human cultural heritage that UNESCO tries to protect and just
as devastating as the destruction of a classical temple or a Mycenaean royal
[Warning – this is quite a long post and may take a bit of
your time. But it’s about an important
issue, relevant to social and economic change in many emerging wine regions.]
I had a long and very comprehensive talk with Markos
Kafouros, the President of Santo Wines, on Santorini. Santo are the cooperative on the island, and
unlike cooperative wine producers in many parts of the world the wines they
make are the equal in general quality of other, private producers; like all the
others they make a crisp but full-bodied white wine mainly from the variety
assyrtiko – and it has carved out a very distinctive place in the affections of
many wine lovers over the last decade or so.
In spite of this, what was interesting me was less the wine and more the
social change taking place in Santorini and how it might be affecting the wine
Mr Kafouros is a grower; he is elected President of the
cooperative by a complex process which involves all of the 1,200 members. He has been in this post for twelve
years. He was also for eight years a
local mayor, a fact which is relevant to what follows.
We sat on the terrace at the cooperative, overlooking the
caldera of Santorini. Around 1,600 BCE
Santorini – which was a medium-sized roundish island towards the south of the
Aegean – was blown apart by a volcano, leaving a horseshoe-shaped remnant
remaining around the crater where the volcano had erupted. The island itself was covered in a layer of
volcanic ash followed by lava. It is
possible that no-one survived, and the devastation inflicted was much wider,
reaching at least down to Crete and possibly to Africa.
Since the 1990s the wine industry has rapidly developed on
the back of a great local variety – assyrtiko.
In this period Santorini has also become a prime tourist destination –
renowned for the views into the caldera and for its white and blue painted
churches. Santo Wines opened the first
cellar door on the island in 1992 and others have followed since then –
although wine isn’t the main focus of most visitors. Nevertheless, for example, another producer,
Estate Argyros, has around 30,000 visitors a year.
As Mr Kafouros recounts, the cooperative exists very much to
preserve the unique agricultural traditions of the island. As well as wine, it has a small production of
fava beans (a form of lentil) and tomatoes (turned into tomato paste) – both
specialities of the place and protected by PDO legislation, just like the
wine. These are all nurtured out of one
of the toughest agricultural environments available; an arid combination of the
hardest imaginable rock plus ash under your feet, the sun engulfing you from
above and strong winds whipping off the sea from all sides. The cooperative believes in innovation and
careful planning – but all towards the end of preserving what has been the
traditional business activity of its 1,200 members. ‘Innovation’, I’m told, ‘cannot stand on its
own; it needs history’. It also needs a
specific environment – the ecosystem that has been created by millennia of
Into this unique little world has stepped the tourist. Maybe two million of them a year (while the
resident population is under 30,000).
Like a volcanic eruption this has blown apart the human ecosystem of the
island. Hotels are everywhere, as are
restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops.
Driving through the narrow streets of Fira, the main town, has become an
exercise in total focus to avoid other cars, mules, pedestrians, and quad
bikes. In response to this rapid change
the cooperative does not just see itself as protecting the island’s traditional
products but also its community. Nevertheless,
it seems to me that such a response avoids dealing with the key issue of the
rapidly developing infrastructure and its infringement on the land available
for agriculture in the area.
Markos Kafouros accepts that. He points out though that there are three
levels beyond the wine industry: national and local government, and the local
community. They have attempted to review
the impact and potential development of tourism on the island – but national
and local governments change, and their agendas and priorities change. Some legislation has been passed at national
level to allow general zoning to protect agricultural land, but it is very
broad and perhaps unsuited to dealing with the specific situations which may
arise here. Meanwhile the cooperative is
trying to provide incentives to members to stay in agriculture – mainly by
paying its members a high price for the grapes they deliver – around 5€ per
kilo – making this probably the second most expensive region for grapes in
Europe after Champagne. Furthermore, he
says, the growers remain emotionally attached to their land – and they are
proud that their grapes, which had no market outside the island a decade ago,
are making wines sold in the best restaurants in New York and Melbourne or
being praised by the top British and German critics.
I’m still not convinced.
Crucially, why would growers continuing back-breaking work in the heat
and wind of the island if they could sell their small plot of vineyard land for
a few hundred thousand euros?
Traditionally small-scale agriculturalists in Southern Europe would not
sell. Partly because their land was
their security but even more because of a cultural view that they were not
owners of the land, but stewards of it.
They had inherited it from their forebears and had to keep it to pass on
to their descendants. Now, however,
their children are reluctant to take on strenuous work in the vineyard when
they can get easier employment in hotels or gift shops – and many would prefer
to get a better job in Athens or beyond if they can. Even more, tourism has kept the island going
through the decade of Greek austerity – indeed, it has become more prosperous
while the rest of the country has struggled.
The wine industry has also grown over this period. This is not just the rise in grape price but
the fact that outsiders have been coming in to start their own wineries; now it
is almost as if there is a ‘waiting list’ of companies who want to move in,
just waiting for some land to come onto the market so they can buy it. This has a positive side – it can help to
guarantee a good grape price for growers and it brings in more capital. On the other hand, the incomers may have less
understanding of how to make wines from such a bizarre terrain and may be less
committed to working mutually with the existing producers. Big companies,
especially, in such a limited vineyard area may push the boundaries of where
vines should be grown, pursuing quantity over quality. This wouldn’t be the first emergent wine
region where this has happened. As
Markos expresses it succinctly, the Santo philosophy is ‘not to be in all the
markets in the world but to be in the best markets.’
So how can you help to protect the wine industry? One way would be to strengthen the PDO
regulations on production. My host wants
to have a rule that all wines must be bottled on the island (traditionally
bottling in the region of origin is assumed to protect quality). He would also like to develop a cru system
(selected top-quality vineyard land) to enable the best wines to be
identified. And to improve the island’s
reputation for quality he would like to reduce the maximum yield allowed –
maybe by up to 25%.
Another possibility that has been suggested is seeking
UNESCO world heritage designation for the island’s unique vineyards – a
recognition of an interaction between humans and their environment. When I was last in Santorini, about six years
ago this was being mooted – but I was told at the time that many local growers
didn’t want it, as it would limit their rights to sell their dry, dusty,
rock-bestrewn land for a small fortune to local developers. But the proposal was worked-up by the local
authority and a file has been lodged with the national government, who have to
decide whether or not to promote it.
They are now about 3-4 years into what could take ten years or
more. But there is a Greek saying
according to Mr Kafouros that ‘the start is half of the whole’. If it’s granted this designation will create
a series of legal constraints on development in the designated area, and
protection of what humanity has carved out of the rock over the last three and
a half millennia. He accepts that there are
a few who oppose the idea but suggests that the problem is not with individual
growers, but some opinion leaders who manipulate them – mainly people outside
the wine industry. So the process is in
motion – it remains to be seen if it will be successful. Critically, he feels that they will only move
forward by discussion and education (the Greek is paideia, which I’m told has dimensions of culture and understanding
in it as well). This will be one of the
chief roles of the cooperative.
All in all, a fascinating conversation with a very
thoughtful man. The cooperative is lucky
to have such a balanced and engaged person providing a vision for their future. As well as producing grapes which he sells to
the cooperative, he also has some tomatoes and fava beans as well – and is a
bee keeper, hoping that maybe in the future there will be a PDO for island
honey. His father is 87, and still works
each day in the family vineyards from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
Thanks to Stela Kasiola who translated our
discussion and added a few insights of her own as well.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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. Finally, 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.