Xinomavro, the noble black grape of Greece: A tasting at Bar Boulud

Xinomavro line-up

Last Thursday, Markus Stolz invited me to attend a tasting of Xinomavros, followed by a dinner at Bar Boulud in New York City. The invite came on the heels of my latest blog post about a magnificent Xinomavro from Thimiopoulos Vineyards. This was my chance to taste more than a dozen wines from the region of Naoussa and to meet some of the winemakers. Needless to say I awaited the event with great anticipation.

The tiny region of Naoussa in Macedonia, Northern Greece, is blessed with great assets – Mount Vermio offers desirable elevation, southeastern exposure and adequate rainfall; the soils vary from sandy clay and clayish loam to limestone and schist; and the summers are hot and dry – all favorable conditions for vine-growing. In 1971, Naoussa was accorded PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin), the country’s first appellation. Here Xinomavro rules. It is red wine country.

Although Greece has been producing wines since ancient times, it took until the early 1980s for the Greek wine industry to experience a true revival. The phylloxera plague (that nasty louse which wiped out almost all the vineyards in Europe in the late 19th century) arrived in Macedonia in the early 1900s and eradicated most vines. It took until the 1960s, after Greece had endured two world wars and a civil war, for the vineyards to finally be replanted with resistant rootstocks. A decade later, the industry benefited from an influx of funds from the EU and private industry, along with a wave of young winemakers trekking back home armed with fresh degrees in enology and agronomy. Today, many Greek wineries boast state-of-the-art technology – and produce world-class wines.

But one of the most exciting things about modern Greek wines is that producers are still focused on indigenous, ancient grape varieties. There are more than 200 such varieties, making Greece a treasure trove of distinctive wines.

Xinomavro is grown in other parts of Greece, but in Naoussa it seems to find its best expression. A robust vine, yielding an abundance of black-skinned fruits, Xinomavro is also finicky. Master of Wine Konstantinos Lazarakis calls it “the diva in the vineyard”. The grape is a late ripener and harvest often coincides with autumn rains. If the rains come too early, the grapes have to be picked before they’ve achieved optimum ripeness, making harvest a particularly nerve-racking time. Once the grapes arrive at the winery, it takes great skill to handle their powerful tannins. Last but not least, the wine needs extensive rest in barrels before being bottled.

In the Bar Boulud tasting room, we found 13 bottles neatly lined up, representing some of the best wineries of Naoussa. In tasting each wine, the essence of Xinaomavro clearly stood out: all the wines were intensely aromatic, with a unique, not-too-fruit-driven nose, great acidity and bold tannins. But each wine was nuanced, too. Some were light and vibrant; others were bold, smoky and full-bodied; while others still were refined and even a bit gamey.

Michael Madrigale, the brilliant-yet-approachable sommelier of Bar Boulud, made a heartfelt introduction to the dinner. “I love Greek wines,” he declared. “Xinomavros are wines that have something to say and this is what’s special to me. They are wines of tradition and soul. As a sommelier, it is my duty to highlight wines like these.” His passion was palpable, and smiles lit every face in the room.

Melitzanis and Diamantakos Xinomavros

During the dinner I got to sip some of the wines that had caught my attention during the lineup. The 2008 vintage from Melitzanis had a most youthful and vibrant nose. Ruby with bright, red-fruit aromas, medium-bodied, with lively acidity and lighter tannins, this wine screamed summer.

The 2006 vintage from Diamantakos, on the other hand, had the most unusual nose – it was more earthy, leathery, herbal. The wine showed great balance, finesse and complexity.

The Kir Yianni Ramnista 2008, with its colossal aromas of dark fruits, cedar and tobacco, and its potent tannins and rich, full-bodied personality, was another standout.

Kir Yianni Ramnista Xinomavro

Dalamara Winery‘s Paliokalas 2008 vintage delivered a wine that was vibrant, alive, deep. It was brimming with aromas of dark fruit, blackberry, licorice and black olives. The wine was dry, with good acidity, slightly mouth-drying tannins and a medium-plus body.

But Dalamara’s 2005 vintage, which winemaker Kostis Dalamara had brought along, although it wasn’t in our original lineup, was entirely different. Never would I have imagined that three years could have had such an impact on the wine. The color was much lighter, its ruby color faded to garnet, and the aromas emanating from the glass were more gamey, even meaty. The spice, herbs and leather were present and the fruit had receded and evolved into blackcurrant, but the wine was softer, the tannins more integrated, the flavors more complex and it delivered a much more lengthy finish than the 2008.

Tasting this older vintage was the revelation of the evening. Xinomavros evolve with age in the most remarkable ways. When I turned to Markus Stolz for confirmation, he exclaimed: “What I love about Xinomavro is the elegance the wines can gain with age. From being powerhouses when young, they become silky-smooth in a few years. And these wines can age for four decades and still be fresh, vibrant and evolve into something really beautiful and very special.”

Mary Gorman, who has just submitted her dissertation for Master of Wine, was also present at the dinner. I asked for her impressions. “The wines are savory, earthy, with a certain wildness to them. They speak of a certain place. They’re not made up, they’re honest wines,” she answered softly. How true those words rang!

Dalamara Xinomavro

Markus Stolz wrote a wonderful post about the tasting. Take a peek at Xinomavro Wines of tradition and soul.

The lineup

Vaeni Naoussa 2006
Vaeni Damaskinos 2005
Dalamara Paliokalias 2008
Chrisohoou Naoussa 2007
Elinos Naoussa 2007
Foundi Naoussaia 2006
Kelesidis Merhali 2006
Diamantakos Naoussa 2006
Kastaniotis Naoussa 2007
Melitzanis Naoussa 2008
Tsantalis Naoussa Reserve 2006
Boutari Grand Reserve 2004
Kir Yianni Ramnista 2008

Foundi and Elinos Xinomavro

Where to buy Greek wines

In the US: Astor Wines in New York City has a wonderful selection of Greek wines. They ship around the country. My advice is to start with any of the wines above $12.
Grand Wine & Liquor in Astoria, New York also carries many Greek wines. Not all are listed on their site, so call the store directly at (718) 728-2520. They ship!
In Europe: 600 Bottles sells outstanding Greek wines online.

Where to taste Greek wines

One of the best ways to taste Greek wines is in restaurants. In New York, Sommelier Michael Madrigale of Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud features many superb Greek wines on his wine lists, including vintages available nowhere else. Molyvos has an outstanding wine list offering wines from every part of Greece. Snack Taverna has a small but excellent wine list. They also offer wines by the glass.

Next time you see a Greek wine on a restaurant’s wine list, don’t be shy, try it – there’s much to discover and enjoy!

If you like Greek wines or want to learn more about them, you might want to take a peek at these three articles:
- Thimiopoulos Vineyards Uranos, Xinomavro paired with Pan Bagnat
- Gentilini Robola of Cephalonia, paired with roasted asparagus salad
- Gai’A 14-18h, Dry Rosé, Agiorgitiko paired with lentil and beet salad

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