The birth of a star
In the field of Greek white wines, the dominance of Santorini seemed unthreatened until recently. But a strong contender has appeared on the horizon – Tinos.
WOJCIECH BOKOWSKI, All photos: T-Oinos at Ferment
Each Greek island has its own distinct physiognomy, as it were, foreshadowing its character. Santorini bursts from all ends like a star, Karpathos rises from the sea like a shark’s fin, Naxos seems to be a huge turtle sleeping in the water. Lying in the northern group of the Cyclades in the Aegean Sea, Tinos appears as a great dark boulder that has slipped at an angle into the dark blue depths.
AN UNEXPECTED CAREER
For centuries, agricultural Tinos has not stood out among the other islands of the archipelago. Peas, artichokes and tomatoes are grown here. There is no airport on the island, so it has been spared the mass tourism that has engulfed Mykonos, just half an hour away by ferry. There are also no particularly picturesque beaches, so it tends to attract wealthier holidaymakers who appreciate some of Greece’s best restaurants. Other than that, Tinos is known for its monasteries, charming, typically Cycladic villages with whitewashed houses and distinctive ornate dovecotes.
At first glance, the island does not promise great wine excitement. Yet it is widely regarded as the second most promising of the Cyclades, having already challenged its sister Santorini, a hundred nautical miles to the south, by quality. Although there are now seven thriving wineries on the island, this career is essentially down to the first of them – the visionary T-Oinos. The estate was founded in 2002 by Alexandros Avatangelos, a Greek businessman settled in France. Having previously invested in the well-known wineries Tselepos and Sigalas, he finally found his dream location in T-Oinos to realise his ambitious plan, which has already cost over €10 million. Avatangelos at the beginning, collaborated with well-known Greek-Bordeaux oenologist Thanos Fakorellis; since 2016, production at the T-Oinos project has been overseen by the tandem: resident Thanos Georgilas (with experience at Château Latour and Opus One) and consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt from Bordeaux (a long list of clients headed by Domaine de Chevalier, Pavie-Macquin and Smith Haut Lafitte).
A key episode of Greek cosmogony was the Titanomachy – the battle between the old gods and the new, ending in the triumph of the younger generation of Olympian gods. The epic recounting this extraordinary battle has not survived; we know slivers of it mainly from Hesiod’s Theogony. According to some versions, the battleground was Thessaly, while according to others it was Tinos, a reminder of which is to be found in the unusual erratic boulders scattered around the village of Volaks, from which they took their name (or was it the other way around?) – the volakes.
The place exudes – even by exalted Greek standards – an unusual genius loci. Situated far above the rest of the island, at 500-600 metres above sea level, the Falatados plateau looks truly lunar. Due to the cool climate and unmercifully dry winds from the north, the vegetation is dwarfed and boulders the size of a car actually seem to have been thrown by the hands of giants. They lie on a layer of sand, under which lurks solid granite rock.
T-Oinos has planted eight hectares of assýrtiko here so far, tolerating the very dry climate quite well. (With drip irrigation in mind, they built their own rainwater tanks, as it only rains for a few weeks in winter). A little lower down, in a parcel of land called Rasonás, volcanic shale comes to the surface, mixed with red clay; this richer habitat was chosen for planting red varieties: the Ionian avgoustiatis (which produces an ambitious rosé) and the Cycladic mavrotrágano. At over 11,000 vines per hectare, this is the densest vineyard in Greece, but the yield per plant does not exceed half a kilo; the whole project, although so media-driven, releases barely 20,000-25,000 bottles of all wines in a good vintage.
THE ESSENCE OF ASSYRTIKO
Vinified in an interesting mix of 500-litre oak barrels and Italian high-temperature fired amphorae, Clos Stegasta’s Assýrtiko has in a few years grown not only into one of Greece’s best wines, but also its most regular. Shockingly, the 2018 vintage exploded with mineral power like a supernova at the 50 Great Greek Wines competition two years ago (it eventually took fourth place out of more than 300 wines entered), and tasted many times since then, it has never disappointed – today it joins the honeyed, multi-level 2017 as a benchmark with the majesty of aged assýrtiko. But the 2020 is valued even higher, and it has to be said that it has more fruit and brightness to it, without losing Tinos’ distinctive, one-of-a-kind alabaster acidity. Despite a certain technicality of style, this is an iconic wine, as it presents its varietal – so well known, it would seem, from Santorini – in its purest, most elemental form.
But Clos Stegasta has an even more precious gem in store – Assýrtiko Rare, a thousand bottles of the most carefully selected grapes. It’s not clear how they managed to inject that even brighter lemon, wax, verbena, that olive-like density into the classic version without losing the electrifying nerve – but they did succeeded. A monumental bottle, one of the finest in Europe.
ONE MILLIMETRE AT A TIME TO THE TOP
Stéphane Derenoncourt stated after the first vinifications that the Clos Stegasta Mavrotragano red is becoming the benchmark of the metre for Greek wine. This is a paradox, because the whites here are ‘objectively’ more outstanding, in a world context more unique, just as the assýrtiko strain is unique. However, as Derenoncourt points out, Clos Stegasta’s whites have more competition in the domestic league – wines from Santorini; close on their heels are the growing white wines from Crete, Kefalonia or Macedonia. Greek red wines, on the other hand, are several years behind, often still in the shackles of the barrel-aged ‘international’ style of the 1990s. Or, in turn, too rustic and casual to become true classics.
The mavrotrágano variety was launched two decades ago by Santorinian Paris Sigalas, and today it is grown from Crete to Olympus. Today, it is cultivated from Crete to Olympus. Indeed, it seems destined for a great career – it can combine intense, sensual fruit with tannic power like few others. It is something of a Mediterranean super-Rodan: it has both the generosity of ripe grenache, and the sparkle of perfect syrah, and the muscular grip of peppery mourvèdre. On Tinian soil, in Derenencourt’s hands, the varietal takes on a Bordeaux (Californian?) savoir-faire, losing perhaps the Greek wildness of heart. But in the 2017 Mavrotragano Rare, the ripe tannins to the millimetre (and this is no cliché for this varietal) undoubtedly rise above anything yet achieved in Greece. Likewise, by the way, the price – at €130, this is Hellada’s most expensive wine today.
Given that this is only the second vintage overseen by a Frenchman, one dreads to think what will come next. The Tinos epic was started by titans, completed by humans. A great terroir has been born.