Where Greece’s top wine grows
Where Greece’s top wine grows: The Cycladic island of Tinos is a world of wild beauty.
By Rainer Hermann, Photos Helmut Fricke at Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
What weather, it could be despairing. There were only a few weeks left until the grape harvest, and it rained for three days, almost a tenth of the annual rainfall fell. A little later, the wind picked up and it stormed for several days, so that ferry traffic to the northern Cyclades was temporarily suspended.
Now the French vigneron Stéphane Derenoncourt walks the Clos Stegasta vineyard and talks to the winemaker Thanos Georgilas. In front of them rises the cloud-covered mountain Tsiknias, the seat of the Greek wind god Aelos. On the other side, the highest mountain of the Cycladic island of Tinos plunges steeply into the sea, and opposite is the neighbouring island of Mykonos, barely 15 kilometres away.
The extreme weather has passed, the steady wind carries a salty breeze onto the plateau of Clos Stegasta, 460 metres above sea level. Derenoncourt has been coming to Tinos every few weeks for six years and exchanges ideas with Georgilas, who looks after the winery day after day. He seems anything but desperate. “This will be a very interesting vintage,” he says. The white wine grape Assyrtiko, which grows here, is given even more complexity by the rain and the wind. “They will be the signature of this vintage.”
Due to the loosened sandy loam soil on the granite bedrock, the unexpected rainfall flowed directly to the deep roots. This gave the berries another boost. In addition, the dry wind helped to ensure that nothing began to rot. And never have the leaves been so green at this time of year in the two decades that wine has been professionally cultivated here.
Actually, one could not think of a more unsuitable place for the production of a top wine than this inhospitable high plateau. The landscape is like something out of Homer’s work. Thousands of gigantic monoliths press down with their weight on the barren, sloping ground. They could be the result of the wrath of the gods, who wanted to plunge the universe into chaos, or merely the traces of a battle between gods and titans. Or the result of a violent volcanic eruption, as on Santorini. Then there are the never-ending violent winds.
The place is timeless and of wild beauty, full of energy. An environment that produces a wide variety of aromas. The French wine critic Michel Bettane says that there is no better wine in Greece than this one. “I saw this place and immediately knew this must be an incredible wine.”
Derenoncourt felt the same way when he came to the island in 2016 to develop the already good Assyrtiko into a top wine. By then, Derenoncourt had advised 150 wineries around the world. Then he came to Tinos, and he was initially shocked by what had opened up in front of him. But he was soon captivated by the energy of the place. The wind, the nearby sea, the soil, all this is reflected in the grapes and the wine. “With its difficulties and energy, it’s the perfect place to make one of the best wines ever, in terms of identity and personality”.
He was brought to Tinos by the Greek entrepreneur, wine lover and philosopher Alexandre Avantangelos. He was initially involved in the winery of Paris Sigalas on the southern island of Santorini in Greece. Then his friend, the sculptor Praxitelis Tzanoulinos, invited him to Tinos. There he showed him his home village Falatados and took him up to the abandoned vineyard Clos Segasta. Avantangelos bought the 13 hectares, invested eight million euros and founded the company T-Oinos. A name composed of Tinos and the Greek word for wine, Oinos. And he parted with his shareholding in Santorini.
Avantangelos showed the vineyard to Gérard Margeon, the head sommelier of Alain Ducasse and his Michelin-starred restaurants, in 2001. At first he had great doubts, Margeon confesses today. But it was clear to him that something different, something new was being created here. Margeon and Ducasse became the most important customers. A large part of the 30,000 bottles that are bottled goes to them – they thus guarantee the economic success of the project. The white Assyrtiko accounts for two thirds of this, the red Mavrotragano for one third. Besides France, Switzerland is the most important market. The target is 50,000 bottles.
Assyrtiko and Mavrotragano are Greek grape varieties. For a long time, they were little known outside Greece. Looking back, Derenoncourt says it was a mistake for Greece to rely on international grape varieties as a sign of quality for a long time. But the country has many excellent grape varieties of its own. You just have to discover them.
For example, the white wine grape Assyrtiko. It grows mainly in the Cyclades, where it has adapted to the dry climate. It is known for its fresh acidity. In Santorini, where it is mainly cultivated, the black volcanic soil is warm. This results in a different wine than in Tinos, where the grape grows on granite soil. There, the wine becomes very clear and crystalline, says Derenoncourt. What fascinates him about this grape is that it tastes different in every place and develops a wide range.
Or the red wine grape Mavrotragano. It, too, has adapted to the climatic conditions, but had hardly been cultivated for a long time. It is a complex and demanding grape variety, says Derenoncourt. Due to the slate found in the somewhat lower-lying vineyard of Rassonas, it develops special floral aromas, he enthuses. Like Assyrtiko, it had its breakthrough on Santorini.
It’s Monday, the grape harvest is beginning. Aelos has retreated into his mountain, only a light breeze still enlivens the air. The wind is part of everyday life, especially the Meltemi, which rushes in from the north and brings cooling in summer, not only on Tinos but on every island in the northern Cyclades. To protect themselves from the eternal wind, but also from pirates, the islanders built their villages artfully interlocked. This is why the vines in Clos Stegasta, with up to 11,500 vines per hectare, are more densely planted than elsewhere.
The harsh climate, the wind and the dryness demand creativity from the winegrowers. The grapes are part of nature, but they also have to defy it. It’s like people, Derenoncourt muses: those who have to struggle and overcome difficulties in life are often more interesting than those who have everything fall into their lap. A wine becomes good and interesting when the vines have suffered. “Then they have a story to tell.”
But the winegrower can make it easier for them to grow. When the vines were planted, they were irrigated a few times for three years. When Derenoncourt first inspected the vineyard in 2016, he noticed that the soil was too compact. He sowed wheat grains, the soil became airier, breathed. The soil was alive again, also thanks to a mixing with worms. Now the precipitation went straight down to the roots, which dug deeper and deeper into the soil.
Fertilisers or pesticides were not and are not used. Everything is done on an ecological basis and by working the soil. Derenoncourt names the wild goats and wild hares that populate the plateau as the biggest enemies. A fence keeps some of them out, a dog drives the others away.
The message of the wine here is the eco-system, says the vigneron from Bordeaux, who was born in Dunkirk in 1963, left the declining industrial town at the age of eight and found work in the vineyards of Bordeaux. Soon the self-made man’s advice was in such demand, in Europe as well as in America, that he founded a consulting firm and built up his own winery. Wine reflects the culture of a time and the spirit of the time, Derenoncourt philosophises. It needs a message that goes with the wine. For a long time, the focus was solely on quality. Today, the focus is on nature. Wines are no longer produced according to industrial standards. When agriculture was industrialised, completely different quantities became possible. “But it was a total disaster for the soil and the climate,” says Derenoncourt.
Derenoncourt and Avantangelos share this attitude towards the importance of the eco-system. Born in Corfu in 1960, Avantangelos first stood in this landscape in 1999. Intuitively, he felt that this was the place he was looking for, he recalls. He had studied philosophy and theology in Montpellier, he was awarded a doctorate in philosophy there and still prefers to speak French, the language in which he also writes poetry.
“Wine, that is the flow of time,” he whispers. Wine is the proof and manifestation that time is moving forward. It is our companion, an indicator of time and all its difficulties. When a great wine develops a quality of its own, it helps us to break away for a moment from the incessant progress of time”.
This sounds not only like philosophy, but also like mysticism. Avantangelos says that the German lyricist and mystic Angelus Silesius influenced him. Philosophy and theology flow into each other in his work. “The one completes itself in the other.” Like philosophy, faith also means travelling a path, he says.
He himself walked such a path from Santorini to Tinos. Santorini had become too touristy for him, a place that became a postcard and a commodity to be bought and sold. “The heavy wines from there represent the ego of their winemakers rather than the soil,” he rages. He wanted to break out of this thinking. Wine should be more than a commodity. On Tinos, he then discovered an energy that he wanted to capture in the bottles of a vintage.
Grape juice has been fermented on Tinos since ancient times. Aristophanes, Aristotle and others were already writing about the island. Some of the most important Greek sculptors were born here, and the Greek-French philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis (1922 – 1997) spent months every year here in his summer house. Because of the artistic terracing, he called Tinos “an island made by man”. For a long time, Tinos was Athens’ granary and vegetable supplier, and since the island was under Venetian rule for half a thousand years until 1715, its wine was even drunk in the Vatican.
From the island’s harbour, the road winds up to Falatados, one of the agricultural villages in the island’s interior. From there, the narrow country road winds along lush bougainvilleas up to the plateau with its monoliths, which have long been an insider tip among European climbers. The road first passes the T-Oinos winery, which kicked off the wine renaissance on Tinos, and then continues to younger wineries such as Volacus, where the Tinian Michalis Kontzias has been cultivating the Greek white wine grape Malagousia since 2009. These new wines refine a development that goes back to antiquity. In the past, the vineyards were not as visible as they are today, the grapes did not grow on vines but on the ground.
Maths teacher and hobby winemaker Nikos Alvertis takes us out to his family’s fields in the village of Tripotamos. Along the terrace wall, large leaves interlock, protecting what lies beneath them. Alvertis pushes them aside, revealing ripe grapes underneath. Dense grass keeps them off the ground. Nevertheless, the rain and the wet ground have taken their toll on them in recent weeks.
On the parallel strips of the terrace, Alvertis grows vegetables and figs. His ancestors were all farmers. Back then, every household was an economic unit and self-sufficient, says Alvertis. And every meal was accompanied by its own wine. That only changed when people started buying bottled wine, such as retsina, more than half a century ago and then moved to the big cities in search of work.
Even as a teacher in faraway Athens, Alvertis now continues to make his organic wine in his home village, even if it is only 120 bottles a year that he gives away to friends. He sticks to the traditional grape varieties of the island, the white and red varieties of Potamisia, which were probably imported from Asia Minor, and the red Kumariano.
In the dark vaulted cellar of his wife’s house, opposite that of the philosopher Castoriadis, one enters the history of wine-making on the island. For centuries, the grapes were trodden out there in a brick basin. The local brandy, raki, was also made from the pomace residue. This only ended in 1990.
In the new luxury resort of Kynara, five star chefs who had flown in from Paris for the grape harvest at the Clos Stegasta vineyard recently tasted the top wines from T-Oinos. Juan Arbelaez, one of the five, is responsible for the restaurants “Yaya” and “Bazurto”, among others. He was enthusiastic about Assyrtiko. About how the grape deals with the difficult circumstances, how it becomes a fresh, subtle, powerful wine, “a fighter”.
Of course, the wines are different from those in France. But it is not difficult to convince his French guests of them, Arbelaez said. He no longer has to fight the cliché that Greek wine is synonymous with Retsina. Word has spread among French wine drinkers that Greece also produces top wines.
Good investment: Alexandre Avantangelos, Thanos Georgilas and Stéphane Derenoncourt (above, from left) are responsible for the top wines of the T-Oinos estate. The stormy sea that rages around the Hora of Tinos (below) cannot harm the Mavrotragano grape.
More than just a hobby: Nikos Alvertis (above) continues to grow grapes in his home village of Tripotamos (third picture from top) even as a mathematics teacher in faraway Athens – just like his ancestors. The grapes grow on the ground (below).
Viticulture on Tinos: The grape Assyrtiko, grown with a breeze of salt (above) and harvested by young men from the village of Falatados (centre left), is refined by Stéphane Derenoncourt (below) into top quality wine. The island’s main village is Hora (centre right).