Water into wine

A merry (sort of) Christmas story about the transforming power of wine

As it is Christmas I thought it was a good time to reflect on the source of Christianity and his relationship with wine.  Many of you will know about the use of wine in Christian ritual (Holy Communion or the Mass) and a number of writers have picked that relationship, so I want to focus on something different in this post – the marriage at Cana. 

The stories about Jesus record that he performed miracles and if you know anything about these then you will think of him curing the sick, feeding starving people or giving sight to the blind, all designed to show his power and his mastery of nature.  One of the New Testament books about him, the Gospel of John, records seven of his miracles culminating in bringing his friend Lazarus back from the dead.  Yet an earlier miracle, which the author of the Gospel records as his first, is rather different.

Jesus was invited, along with some friends and his Mother, to a wedding celebration in a town up in the hills above lake Galilee, called Cana.  As is common in most cultures, a wedding celebration was an extravagant business – both in terms of time and money.  The party could go on for some all day and overnight with lots of food and drink provided for the guests.  Managing the party was the responsibility not of the groom, nor the family, but a Master of Ceremonies, whose role was to make sure that all had a good time.  Yet this party, in the home of what seems to have been a fairly well-off family, went wrong.  In the middle the wine ran out!  Maybe the guests were more in need of alcohol than had been planned; maybe the groom was just trying to save a bit or money.  In any event, Jesus’ mother, Mary, picked up that there was no more to drink.  For whatever reason she thought her son ought to know, to which his response, broadly, was ‘what’s it got to do with me?’ 

That didn’t stop Mary, who clearly had a lot of confidence in her son’s ability.  She said to the servants ‘whatever he tells you to do, do it’.  Even more, whatever Jesus had previously said, he decided to get involved.  In the courtyard of the house were six large earthenware jars which held water which was used for ritual purification: cleaning hands before meals, preparing utensils and other forms of washing.  They were empty (no doubt with all the washing of the guests and the wine cups) and Jesus told the servants to go and fill them with water, which they did – ‘to the brim’ according to the story.  Then Jesus told them to take some of the water out and give it to the Master of Ceremonies who drank it, and found that it was wine.  The party kicked on – but the Master of Ceremonies (who clearly had no idea where the wine had come from) went to the Groom and complained to him that the wine he had kept to serve now was better than that which they had started with: ‘surely you know that everyone has the best wine first, and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink – yet you have saved the best wine until last’. Not ‘saving the best till last’ by implication meant that the guests would not usually realise that the later wine isn’t so good any more.

And so what?  I’m not interested here in arguing about the veracity of the story; what does interest me is what it means as the first supernatural action of the founder of the most widely accepted religion in the world.  You see, this wasn’t about curing disease or calming storms.  Instead, it was about conviviality.  A party is running out of wine (the implication is that they’ve already drunk quite a bit) and they need more – so miraculously it is provided.  Much of the history of Christianity is about restraint, asceticism, and piety; yet the first miracle is about fun, partying and alcohol.  The first Christian meetings were not structured religious services, with a rubric and ritual, but a sociable meal (agapé – a Greek word meaning a ‘love feast’) which all the believers shared in and which included shared bread and wine.

The next point is the link to the idea of wine being a great transformative agent – it changes us.  It is hardly surprising that from its first discovery wine gave rise to a link with the supernatural.  There was no knowledge of the science of fermentation; no understanding that sugar is changed to alcohol and carbon dioxide.  There was just the empirical evidence: you leave grapes or juice for a few days and the result is something very different.  It is less sweet and has a strange, slightly bitter, taste; yet it is also warming and – noticeably when you’ve had a few gulps – it makes you feel changed.  There could be no other explanation for this than the logical one – that it is magic.  Some god must have touched the grape juice and allowed this transformation which in turn changes you.  It defines humans, changing them from animals (who cannot make wine) into rational beings with a command of the natural world; changing them also from savages into thinking beings, able to project a future, anticipate their own death, and maybe seek to overcome it.  John, the writer of this story, is thus clearly identifying Jesus with what was – even then – a millennia-old tradition which associated wine with religion, and the gods; a big claim. 

Further, the fact that Jesus used the jars reserved for purification – for cleansing from what is bad or dangerous and thus ‘improving’ us – was no surprise either.  The wine is something which makes its drinkers better people and it allows them to celebrate another significant transformation – a wedding which brings two people together to make a new family.

Nevertheless, having said all of this, it’s also important to remember that this story is not about ‘Christianity’.  At the time it refers to there was no Christian religion, and no believer.  It is a story about Jewish culture, and a Jewish man who tries to teach, as a Rabbi, fellow Jews how to live a better life, and who perhaps aspires to personify some of that better life.  Wine has also been a fundamental part of Jewish religious and communal ritual as well, both weekly on the Sabbath and annually at Pesach (Passover).

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Paradoxically, the Christian message about the value of wine in instilling a sense of community, and indeed in representing how lives can be transformed, has often been ignored or even rejected by the Church.  This seems bizarre, given that wine is incorporated into religious ritual, yet with the growth of prohibition movements in many countries this changed, because one mainstay of the campaign to stop people drinking were groups of Christians.  These were invariably Protestants, generally of a fairly extreme persuasion (Catholics have never warmed to the idea of banning alcohol). 

Thus, my grandparents, who were Protestant missionaries in a small town in Algeria (at that time part of France and the major source of cheap wine in that country) were adamantly opposed to drinking alcohol.  It was the work of the devil, and the fact that (according to them) the Catholic priest in the town was regularly drunk merely compounded his heresy.  Money and time spent carousing was money that could be used to ease the lot of poor people and time which should have been spent in the service of God.  Thus, they never drank, and never knew that any of their offspring did – they would have been mortified by that.  It was a joyless, hard religion. Often, with the widespread abuse of alcoholic drinks, its opponents had a good point to make.  However, as history has taught, banning doesn’t solve the problem – restraint is what has an effect and fun and enjoyment are healthy, necessary and good, not evil.

Yet, of course, as firm believers in what the Bible taught, they had a problem.  Jesus drank wine, and left the Church a ritual of wine drinking to remember him by.  So how could wine be so diabolic?  Because, it was argued, the wine Jesus drank was not alcoholic – it was grape juice: that is what as being drunk at the wedding at Cana.  That ignores the fact that in a hot country like Israel any grape juice would naturally ferment within a few days, and that couldn’t be prevented; modern life taught that wine was evil so, self-evidently, Jesus could not drink it, so (not for the first time) science had to be thrown out and reason had to be turned on its head in pursuit of the truth.

*          *          *

In case you think this post unduly focused on Christianity, the next one early in the New Year will be in a different religious context.  Meanwhile, for many of us this will be a holiday time.  So to everyone who reads this – whatever your religion or none, whether the most significant day for you is the 25th or 31st December or the 1st or 6th of January – a very merry holiday and a healthy and safe New Year.

Wine and Women

Over the last six months I’ve focused all my posts on wine in the time of Covid-19. I’ll move on from that topic shortly – but one of the results of this has been that I’ve not addressed other important issues which have a major impact on wine including things like Black Lives Matter and #metoo. However, a friend passed on to me a link to an essay by another blogger about the role of women in the wine industry. It takes a bit of time to read but is a heartfelt response to five years of pursuing a dream of working with wine while having to deal with inappropriate and offensive men. I strongly recommend that everyone interested in wine reads it – and especially men who shouldn’t pass it by thinking it is not so relevant to them: https://bottledbliss.wordpress.com/2020/09/10/women-wine-and-the-uncomfortable-conversation-we-need-to-have/

The end of wine as we know it?

A recent visit to the Pfalz offered another perspective on the impact of climate change on wine.  The winemaker at Muller-Catoir noted that making good riesling is getting harder.  ‘We will still make good riesling in 20 years; but in 30?  Maybe not.’  They are increasingly planting the pinots (noir and blanc) rather than riesling.  They are also moving away from lower-level vineyards and up into the traditional vineyards in the hills.

Meanwhile at Bassermann-Jordan we were told that they used to use a sledge every winter; now they have not had snow for the last four years.  Twenty years ago they harvested in October; now it can even start at the end of August.  They are also talking about irrigation as a possibility for the future.

English wine and British wine

Recently I was at at the marketing conference for WineGB – the coordinating body for the English and Welsh wine production industry – mainly high quality, traditional method, sparkling wine.  It took place as Brexit was coming into effect, and the feeling at the conference was very interesting.  WineGB made a lot of the fact that they are British, and proud of it.  Their logo incorporates the Union Flag.  That isn’t a pro- or anti-Brexit perspective, just a recognition that this is what they do, irrespective of politics, and a pride in the fact that they do it well, and have great potential for the future. 

English sparkling wine is just beginning to get a bit of attention in the global world of wine.  Some is sold to Australia; American critics, like Eric Asimov of the New York times has praised it.  With the departure of the UK from the EU maybe there is a real opportunity for it to expand on international markets.  Unlike most British businesses they are not locked into exporting to the continent at this stage – the English-speaking world is more important.  The industry is still exploring how to manage, structure and market itself, and just maybe freedom from the more rigid EU notion of a PDO (appellation) could allow it the leeway to evolve dynamically and creatively. 

A typical English vineyard

One of the things that WineGB want to do as part of their strategy is reclaim the notion of ‘British Wine’.  British wine has been a major part of the market for alcoholic drinks from well before the time of English sparkling wine.  However, its name is deceptive – it has nothing to do with grapes grown in Britain.  Rather, it is made in Britain using grape juice from other countries, and turned into a fortified, rather sweet but pale imitation of good cream sherry (sometimes flavoured).  It’s also very cheap, and beloved of those for whom alcohol intake is more important than complexity, balance and intensity.  The best known of these – paradoxically given its reputation for fuelling hangovers and fights – has been made by an abbey in Devon since the end of the 19th century.  The English wine production industry has skirted around this aberration for some time – scared of being damned by association with a competitor which bears no relation to the drink made made from grapes grown in the cool, sodden climate of the UK.  Now, however, it seems that they want to take the competitor on – and come out as proud of the ‘British’ part of their moniker – which seems obligatory given the name.  Maybe soon we’ll be talking regularly about British fizz and consigning sweet wine from French or Spanish juice to the vinous seconds bin.

Just one question for WineGB though.  What happens to their name when Scotland secedes from the Union and part of the British Isles is no longer included?

Retsina II

27th December 2019

I’ve already written before about retsina – but it’s a wine style which because of its history and very specific cultural context I find fascinating; so you are going to get a bit more of it I’m afraid.

These reflections are prompted by a tasting I was given of retsina when in Greece a few months ago, as well as some background information from a few winemakers.  I need first to clarify an uncertainty I raised in my last post on the subject; it seems, according to Prof. Yorgos Kotseridis of the Agricultural University of Athens, who has carried out research, that resin has no anti-oxidative powers, and cannot protect wine versus spoilage.  I would suggest, then, that the reason for adding it is to cover up the oxidative characters of wines which, in the past with inadequate storage containers, would often become undrinkable within a year or so of production.

The big problem that modern producers face is knowing what style to make.  The Greek author and critic Constantine Stergides gave me a pretty good summary of the conundrum that producers face.  In the past the bulk wine used a lot of retsina, often up to 10kg per tonne of grapes; now, for the most refined versions it is much less – about 250gms per tonne.  A little while ago the main producers started to bottle these ‘lighter styles’ for export markets.  The result was that domestic drinkers gave it up as it wasn’t to their taste any more.  Now it’s made with limited resin and sold to partner with sushi!  This style doesn’t go so well with Greek food which needs a more forceful style – so the traditional market has been lost.  Meanwhile young, Greek drinkers wouldn’t be seen dead with it.  In the north of Greece it’s mixed with coke and trendy modern winemakers recoil from making it. The issue of food was repeated with other people I listened to – especially the fact that it pairs well with sushi, because it can stand up to strong flavours like ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce; it also goes with other intense foods, such as anchovies or pepper. 

Savatiano vines in Attica – the most common grape used to produce retsina

However, the styles have become so light that it is often barely detectable, so that you get onto issues of authenticity – and here we move on from the issue of what consumers would like to drink to what producers think is correct.  If you produce a retsina suited to modern (non-Greek) tastes what is the point of calling it retsina anyway?  This issue of authenticity goes further.  Constantine Sterigdes notes that many producers are now making it with the grape assyrtiko, rather than savatiano or rhoditis.  This – it is claimed – adds elegance but it seems to me that assyrtiko is more probably selected because it has become very fashionable and  easier to sell.  In any event, retsina was never designed for elegance.  One winemaker, Dimitris Georgas,  said he would not use assyrtiko, and that retsina needs a much more robust, even rustic variety such as savatiano in order to shine.  Meanwhile retsina has become a focus of contested ideas of Greek vinous identity.  It was a traditional working-class drink.  As some producers moved towards producing ‘good’ wines – wines which would shine internationally – from the 1980s onwards, there was a shift towards using French grape varieties.  This has been, after all, a world-wide phenomenon; if the French make the best wines in the world then we should use the same grapes as them, to show that we are worthy of respect for our wines.  Think of Chile, Lebanon, Super Tuscans or Georgia amongst many others.  Fortunately Greece has, in part, moved on from this and first assyrtiko and now xynomavro, agiorgitiko, moschofilero, and others are beginning to shine.  However, as Yiannis Karakasis MW has said, ‘retsina is a blessing and a curse; everyone knows about it but it has an appalling reputation’.  Many Greek producers who want to show how good their wines can be wanted to forget about something which can taste so coarse and unrefined.

In the end, as Eleni Kechris, another winemaker, pointed out the question is not how much resin but how good is the resin, and how good is the wine?  It shouldn’t cover the wine’s fruit.  Indeed, the best retsinas are not simply resinous; they can have aromas of thyme and rosemary as well as pine which complement rather than dominate what comes from the grape.  I’m willing to drink retsina not just because it’s a relic of another day, but because, in the right situation, it can be very enjoyable.

If you want to drink this debate, you may find some of the following wines interesting to try:

Gikas Winery Pine Forest 2016.  Very restrained pine – a merest hint.  This is made with assyrtiko and has good acidity.  The resin is collected from May to July and goes into big ‘tea bags’ which are placed in the ferment.  They experiment with it by fermenting at different temperatures; the higher it is the more bitterness is extracted.  It seems that 15-19oC is ideal, for about 10-20 days.

Nikoulou Winery: Botanic 2017.  A sparkling retsina.  Evident resin on the palate but less on the nose.  However, there are also floral and herbal characters (fennel especially).  I found the mousse rather dominant, and it is quite bitter on the finish (which is not necessarily a criticism).

Kechris Winery Roza 2018.  A red retsina made with xynomavro.  The resin is not very obvious.  An interesting wine, phenolic (naturally!), clear acidity, and with some red fruit.

Kechris Winery Afros 2018.  White retsina made from rhoditis.  A residual sugar of seven grammes/litre (so just evident) which, the producer claims, emphasises the resin.  Intense – ‘reminiscent of the old style’ she says.  There is a hint of spritz which also accentuates the resin character on the nose. Very traditional but balanced and good length.

The Revolution in Lebanon

16th November 2019

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

Will there be wine from Santorini in 20 years’ time?

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 tomb.

A typical, dusty volcanic Santorini vineyard.

Tradition and change on Santorini

[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 industry there.

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.

On the terrace of the caldera with Markos Kafouros. The island in the immediate foreground is the result of further eruptions of the volcano over the centuries. Picture courtesy of Stela Kasiola.

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 volcanic activity.

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.

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.