Gods & Heroes: Xinomavro in Northern Greece

Xinomavro is a difficult grape. It’s a challenge to grow, problematic in the cellar, and can be painful to taste. Until it isn’t. When the stars align and a talented winemaker is presented with great grapes and a beautiful vintage, the result is nothing short of extraordinary.

It’s for this reason that aficionados liken Xinomavro to Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir. All three grapes have a rare ability to produce wines of indescribable beauty, but they also share an unforgiving nature. The highs may be high, but the lows can be offensive, a fact to which anyone who’s been handed a glass of overcropped or overoaked Pinot Noir can attest.

I recently spent several days traipsing through the mountains of northern Greece, an area that has dedicated most of its PDOs (Protected Designations of Origin) to Xinomavro, or Xinomavro-based blends. As with any broad survey, some wines were good and some wines were bad, but here the best were truly exceptional. The most exciting part about the top wines was that they weren’t just great in a faddish, esoteric way, but they were great in a global sense, and age worthy to boot.

Map of Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus, and Thessaly (Credit: Wines of Greece)

So why aren’t collectors stuffing their shelves with back vintages of Xinomavro? For one, the name. While exotic varieties might be catnip to today’s sommeliers, collectors looking to lay down fine wines are likely less inclined to select something so unfamiliar. And then there is the issue of price. With top examples selling for less than $25, these wines are almost too cheap to be taken seriously. But reliable quality, the most significant hurdle to their widespread popularity, might soon be a problem of the past.

In the last decade or so, two major changes have befallen Greek wine: the passion for international varieties that rose during the 1960s has started to subside, replaced with a renewed commitment to indigenous stock, and a new generation of winemakers has taken the reins, many with international training and experience. Considering how easily Xinomavro steers toward rusticity, a more modern hand in the cellar and the vineyard (lower yields, cleaner winemaking) seems to have served it well, as most of the best examples I encountered were either produced by young estates or established estates with young winemakers. In short, this ancient grape is responding well to its 21st-century makeover.

Xinomavro’s Profile

The name Xinomavro translates to “acid black,” which tells you a bit about its nature. This high, almost sour acidity is matched by an equally strong tannic profile, which can result in harsh, abrasive wines if not properly managed. Alcoholic strength hovers on the modest side of moderate, with many wines falling from 12 to 13.5%. These low levels exacerbate the variety’s already lean body; many producers comment that lees work is essential for building texture. Aromatically, Xinomavro tends to be red fruited, although its characteristic savory tones of tomato, olive, and herb can easily dominate the nose.

Despite the dark tint of the berries, color stabilization is an issue, and the wines tend to be light in hue, with browning seen after only a few years of age. This, along with Xinomavro’s intense structure, is often compensated for through blending. Inside the PDOs, Xinomavro can be combined only with other indigenous varieties, but within the less restrictive PGI designations, Merlot and Syrah are common partners. Whether blended or on its own, when its stalwart structure is properly balanced, Xinomavro will develop beautifully in bottle and is widely considered the most age-worthy variety in Greece.

Head-trained Xinomavro in the Rapsani PDO, on the slopes of Mount Olympus

In the vineyard, Xinomavro is finicky and requires careful site selection. It craves humidity, both in the air and in the soil, but too much can easily lead to rot or mildew, to which it is extremely susceptible. It is also sensitive to heat so prefers a moderate climate, but its late-ripening tendencies put it at risk for inclement autumn weather. This amplifies vintage variation, making for huge qualitative swings from year to year. Most importantly, Xinomavro is an extremely vigorous vine, so yield management is critical to quality. Indeed, George Salpiggidis, viticultural director for the Tsantali winery, claims that convincing his Rapsani growers to restrict their crop load is one of the biggest challenges he faces.

Despite its savory nature and the intensity of its structure, Xinomavro is a versatile grape. Though it is most often vinified in a dry red style, it also excels in both rosé and sparkling form. Some producers even dry the grapes on racks before fermenting, which results in an intriguing, if unusual, dessert wine.

Legend & Legacy

Xinomavro has been one of Greece’s most celebrated and internationally recognized wines since the 16th century. Always concentrated in the cooler north, it thrived until the late 19th century, when phylloxera served as the grim agricultural prelude to a series of devastating wars. Greece’s viticultural landscape began to recover in the 1950s and 60s, though this era saw international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and so on) displacing many of the country’s historic vine types. Despite this trajectory, Xinomavro has remained the dominant red grape of the north and is among the most planted grapes in Greece, along with such varieties as Savvatiano (Retsina), Roditis, and Agiorgitiko. It is also considered one of the country’s four flagship varieties; the others are Assyrtiko, Agiorgitiko, and Moschofilero.

Appellations

Requirements

  • Naoussa (Macedonia): 100% Xinomavro, made as either a dry or off-dry red.
  • Amynteo (Macedonia): 100% Xinomavro, made as a dry or off-dry red, rosé, or sparkling rosé (sparkling can be either tank or traditional method).
  • Goumenissa (Macedonia): Xinomavro co-fermented with at least 20% Negoska, made as a dry red.
  • Rapsani (Thessaly): Xinomavro co-fermented with varying percentages of Stavroto and Krassato, made as a dry red.

Naoussa

Of all the Xinomavro-dedicated appellations, Naoussa is by far the most prestigious, ranking with Nemea as most important PDO for red wines in Greece. When the appellation system was being formally developed in the early 1970s, Naoussa was among the first to be delineated. Much of its esteem was due to the long-lauded quality of its wines, but it was also noteworthy as the headquarters of Boutari. Founded in 1879, Boutari was the first winery in Greece to bottle red wine, and remains one of the largest and most important producers in the country.

The Naoussa, Amynteo, and Goumenissa PDOs all fall within western Macedonia. Unlike most of Greece, which is classified as Mediterranean, this area is more continental in climate, with cold, often snowy winters and the highest levels of rainfall in the country. The summers are warm to hot, but far milder than the rest of Greece. The area’s many mountains provide shelter, but chilly northern winds—an extension of the Mistral—regularly bathe the region in cold air, making springtime frosts an annual concern.

The Naoussa PDO is named for The Heroic City of Naoussa, so-dubbed for its epic but ultimately tragic stand-off against Turkish invaders. Today, the area is a popular ski center, and almost as renowned for its peaches as its wine. The vineyards tend to be small and are regularly interrupted by orchards. They occupy a long band at the foothills of Mount Vermion and range from 400 to 1,100 feet in elevation, with the majority falling between 600 and 800 feet. The dominant aspect is east, but the undulating topography allows for some northeast- and southeast-facing vineyards as well. Soils range in fertility and composition but are generally composed of varying percentages of sand, clay, and loam, run through with limestone.

Today, Naoussa is home to around 20 wineries, a tight-knit group that has banded together to promote the appellation. In addition to lobbying for a regional stamp à la Chianti Classico, they are in the process of drawing up a map that will delineate Naoussa’s 13 “crus.” Once properly defined, the next step will be getting the government to recognize these subregions and allow them to be listed on labels. Currently, cru and vineyard names are rarely indicated; if a wine hails from a parcel, the winery is more likely to print “single vineyard” on the label than actually name the vineyard. A notable exception to this is Paliokalias, a vineyard mostly owned by the Dalamára family. They skirt this legislation by using Paliokalias more as a brand name than a vineyard name, per se, a common approach among those who wish to market a specific vineyard.

Amynteo

Often written as Amyndeon or Amyntaion, this area was an important commercial hub prior to the two World Wars. Now, in addition to its wines, it is best known for its red peppers (for which there is also a PDO) and as the source for a significant amount of Greece’s electricity, produced by the area’s many coal-fired power plants.

An abandoned quarry exposes the complex subsoils of Amynteo

Amynteo is among the coldest growing regions in Greece. The appellation occupies a high elevation plateau—1,800 to 2,500 feet above sea level—ringed by mountains and dotted with lakes. These lakes moderate the climatic extremes, but as their banks are too fertile for quality wine, vines are kept at a distance. The soils are a combination of sand, loam, and limestone, and in some places the sand is so dominant that phylloxera has never taken hold. Because of this, Amynteo boasts some of the only own-rooted vines in northern Greece, specifically a patch of 90-year-old Xinomavro owned by Alpha estate.

As with Naoussa, the climate skews more continental than Mediterranean, though Amynteo is notably colder and drier than its more famous neighbor, due in large part to its elevation. As such, the area excels in the production of sparkling wine, for which Xinomavro is well suited. Though technically the PDO only allows for sparkling rosé, many producers are making fantastic Blanc de Noirs-style wines, bottled under the PGI Florina appellation.

Goumenissa

Goumenissa, the northernmost of Macedonia’s three Xinomavro PDOs, has the least established reputation. Located at a lower elevation (500 to 800 feet) and with heavier soils, it is hotter and less humid than Naoussa. Per the dictates of the appellation, Xinomavro must be co-fermented with at least 20% Negoska, its deeply colored, soft-tannined foil. All these elements combine to make more fruity and full-bodied wines.

Rapsani

Rapsani is Greece’s only Xinomavro-dominant PDO outside of Macedonia; its parcels of vines are carved from the untamed slopes of Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in Greece and ancient home of the gods. The vineyards range from just above sea level to over 600 meters in elevation, with the majority facing east or southeast. The soils are a sandy clay loam, with a varying amount of ferric schist that begets an intermittent reddish hue. As with western Macedonia, this area sees a good amount of winter rain, but though cool breezes run regularly down the mountain, it is hotter here than in Naoussa. That said, a more dramatic diurnal swing compensates for the increased temperature, pushing harvest later than is seen in the north.

Vines on the lower slopes of the Rapsani PDO tend to be trained on wires

Historically, Rapsani was an important area for wine, and it was on this basis that it was granted PDO status in 1971, even though viticulture had been effectively abandoned after phylloxera devastated the region in the early 1900s. The area remained largely void of vines until Greece’s super-producer Tsantali established an outpost there in the early 1980s. Salpiggidis notes, “When we first got here, the vineyards were almost abandoned. We worked with local growers to save what was here and to plant more.” Tsantali doesn’t own any vines but purchases 95% of the area’s total production. This near-monopoly doesn’t amount to much, however, as there are currently only 90 hectares of vines in the ground, a mere 60 of them producing.

Appellation laws mandate that Rapsani be a co-fermented blend of three varieties, Krassato (dark in hue, high in sugar, low in structure), Stavroto (tannic and spicy), and Xinomavro. Historically, they were present in equal parts, though current regulations do not specify percentages. The vineyards are divided into zones based on elevation, with “basic” Rapsani coming from the loam-rich vineyards under 200 meters, “Reserve” wines from those between 200 and 400 meters, and “Grande Reserve” from 400 to 600 or more meters. Older bush vines, up to 50 years in age, are concentrated within the rocky soils of the higher elevations, while younger vines on trellises are found on the lower slopes.

Aside from Tsantali, there are only a handful of wineries bottling Rapsani. One of these, Dougos, owns vines in the appellation but can only bottle a limited amount of its production as Rapsani as the winery is located outside the PDO. Thus, most of their wines are labeled as “varietal wines of Greece,” a new classification that debuted in 2011.

Beyond PDOs

The above text covers the official PDOs, but as with all Greek wine regions, they represent only part of the story. Xinomavro is planted widely across Macedonia, with much of its over 2,000 hectares falling outside the PDO boundaries. In these instances, the wines will be bottled under the area’s many PGIs. One of the most famous examples of this is the dessert wine of PGI Siatista, made from air-dried Xinomavro and Moschomavro.

Even within the PDOs, there are non-conformists who prefer to bottle their wine as PGI rather than adhere to the specific demands of the appellation. Oftentimes, as with the Blanc de Noirs of Amynteo, the results are superlative, and provide an exciting alternate perspective on the potential of a given area. Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW, cites the following example: “Goumenissa is a bit warmer, [and] Negoska adds ripeness, softness, fruit and color. But then you taste the Old Roots Xinomavro from Tatsis (which lacks Negoska and therefore it cannot be PDO) and that theory [that Goumenissa wines are soft and fruity] goes out the window!”

Notable Wineries & Wines

As Boutari got its start in Naoussa, Xinomavro is a major focus of the brand, and they produce several different styles. I appreciated the light and easy-drinking nature of their entry level Xinomavro (2015 Naoussa) but was especially enamored of their 2010 Grande Reserve, which spent two years in older French oak followed by two years in bottle prior to release. Though the nose was beginning to show some age, the wine was perky on the palate, with the variety’s characteristically high acidity cushioned by a modest amount of red-fruited flesh. Aromatically, the wine offered little fruit, showcasing scents of black olives, oregano, and mesquite instead. The tannins were present but in check, smoothed over by the extra years of aging. Their 2007 Legacy 1879 was even better and appeared more youthful than the 2010. Produced from a revolving selection of single vineyards, this wine spends one year in 60% new French oak before bottling. While in general I found that new oak disagrees with Xinomavro, this wine wore it well. Very expressive and atypically charming, it offered a nose of cherry, iron, and frankincense. The palate showed good ripeness and concentration, and though the structure dominated, it was not out of balance.

The Kir-Yianni winery was established in 1997 when the Boutari brothers separated and Yiannis built a new brand around his Naoussa estate vineyard (he has since expanded into Amynteo). These wines are among the most modern and polished in northern Greece, and lots of love is given to international varieties. Among their Naoussa wines are several that can’t be included in the PDO, such as their 2014 Yianakohori Hills, a pretty but gamey blend of 50% Xinomavro, 30% Merlot, and 20% Syrah, and their soft and juicy 2015 Dyo Elies, an intriguing combination of 60% Syrah, 30% Merlot, and 10% Xinomavro. To my palate, however, the star of their portfolio was the 2013 Ramnista XInomavro (PDO Naoussa), a subtle, pretty, single vineyard wine with a gentle nose of black pepper, dried flowers, and cherries and a polished palate of smooth red fruit.

Some of my favorite wines came from the small producer Foundi, which was established in 1992 and makes little more than 4,000 cases a year. Of the four wines I tried, three were incredible (their 2015 Naoussa was a tad overoaked). The 2011 Naoussa had an expressive, intricate nose of cedar, nutmeg, red cherries, and iodine. The palate was playful and inviting, with sweet, soft red flesh and the perfect amount of sculpting acidity. Their 2011 Ktima Foundi, by contrast, was both more savory and more serious, with greater tension on the palate and more of a tomato stamp on the nose. The 2013 Reserve was superb, surely due in part to the strength of the vintage. An exceptionally aromatic Xinomavro, this felt a touch darker and more modern than the other wines but managed to retain its bracing acidity and strong tannic backbone.

While I didn’t visit the winery, a 2013 Dalamára Paliokalias ordered at dinner was a revelation. As noted, the Dalamára family uses Paliokalias as a proprietary brand name, but it is in fact a well-known vineyard. The wine was perfectly balanced, with fruit and earth elements in total harmony and just enough body to render the significant frame approachable. Expressive, complex, and characterful, this was one of the finest Greek wines I’ve tried.

Kokkinos is another excellent small winery; established in 2009, they produce around 2,500 cases per year. Their wines possessed terrific purity and energy, with less extraction and new oak than others in the modern camp. The 2012 Naoussa was fresh, bright, and perfumed, with an almost citrus edge to the fruit. Interestingly, they also produce a Paliokalias. I tried the 2014, which was floral and zippy, with a focused, high-acid palate and a finish redolent of lavender. This was a striking wine, further testimony to the excellence of the site. A 2013 Argatía was also lovely, if a bit more rustic in feel. The nose was marked by dried herbs and tomato leaf, along with traces of violets and smoke. The palate was bracing and tight, with a firm acidity and claylike tannins that coated the palate and dominated the finish.

Alpha Estate's 90-year-old, own-rooted Xinomavro vines, planted in an extremely sandy patch of soil in Amynteo

In Amynteo, styles of Xinomavro varied wildly. This was true both regionally and of the Kir-Yianni portfolio, which ran the gamut from a saccharine sparkling Xinomavro rosé called Akakies (2016, tank method), to the meaty, extracted 2015 Paranga (a blend of Syrah, Merlot, and Xinomavro), to the intensely rustic and savory 2015 Kali Riza Vieilles Vignes, a Xinomavro made from 60- to 80-year-old vines.

The Dimopoulos estate is brand new, established in 2015. Of its lineup, the best wine was a 2015 Xinomavro, which spent six months in new French barrels and was the darkest and most extracted wine of the tasting. The wine is still a bit awkward, with the new oak at odds with the leanness of the body, but that may coalesce with time.

Another new winery was Pavlou, which offered an unusual and creative lineup of wines. Though I didn’t love them all, one curiosity I enjoyed was their 2016 Kappa P11, a blend of 80% Xinomavro and 20% Riesling, vinified as a white wine. Here the bright apple tones of the Riesling added some welcome charm to the funky Xinomavro nose. On the palate, the wine was clean and straightforward, with the barest tickle of tannin and a strong, crisp acidity.

The king of Amynteo is Alpha Estate, the largest producer on the plateau. Their style skews modern, and they produce a wide range of wines from both indigenous and international varieties (their Sauvignon Blanc bottlings are especially noteworthy). Of their many Xinomavros, a few stood out. The 2014 Hedgehog Vineyard offered a smoky, somewhat reticent nose, with a subtle, refined palate, and a good balance of fruity and savory flavors. The only distraction in this otherwise fine wine was a kiss of confection in the finish. The 2013 Single Block Reserve Vieilles Vignes, from their 86-year-old own-rooted Xinomavro vines, was both savory and polished, with good depth and complexity. Though the nose was funky and wild, the wine had admirable purity on the palate and finished clean. The 2014 Axia, a blend of 50/50 Xinomavro and Syrah, was also excellent. Intense and chewy, it boasted a slightly gamey nose of leather, olives, and herbs, with a palate of underripe blackberries. Both the acidity and the tannin levels were quite elevated, but the body possessed enough glycerin to smooth the edges. My sentimental favorite from Alpha Estate, however, was the 2016 Rosé of Xinomavro, by far the best still rosé of Xinomavro I tried. Though produced via the saignée method, it retained its delicacy and freshness, and the savory notes were contained enough to allow a cheerful strawberry fruit to come forward.

Of special note in the Amynteo scene are the wines of Karanika. Though not yet Demeter certified, Karanika is among the few biodynamic estates in Greece. Launched in 2006 by a Danish publisher of Greek origin, this winery focuses on traditional method sparkling wines, though they do make an excellent still Assyrtiko. The 2013 Brut Prestige is a combination of Assyrtiko and Xinomavro (their homage to Champagne’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir blends), an attractive, fruity wine with a nose of nectarine, yellow peach, and biscuit. Though the dosage is low, some residual sugar was apparent, and the medium-sized bubbles were persistent. The 2015 Extra Cuvée de Réserve, made entirely of Xinomavro, was light gold with bigger, less aggressive bubbles and a nose of rainier cherries and sugar cookies. It is an easy-drinking, straightforward wine. Karanika’s finest creation was specifically engineered for the New York market: the 2015 Brut Nature Xinomavro was exceptional, and its vibrancy made me wish he’d lighten the dosage in all his wines. On the nose, it featured lemon pith, wet stone, and cherries, and the palate was focused. The autolytic notes were subtle, less confected, and more refined than in the other wines. The mousse was persistent with very small bubbles, and the finish had a welcome touch of aspirin bitterness.

Within the Rapsani PDO, Tsantali produces several tiers of wines: a “basic,” a Reserve, a Grande Reserve, and a new organic wine called BIO. Stylistically, the wines are a touch softer and riper than most I tasted from the other Xinomavro appellations, and were a tad on the rustic side as well. Of the three flagship wines, I enjoyed the 2013 Reserve most. Poised between the relatively simple “basic” and the more concentrated Grande Reserve, the Reserve offered the best combination of personality and freshness. The nose featured scents of blackberries, black pepper, tomato leaf, and smoke, and the palate was lean and dry, with grippy tannins and a high, guiding acidity. Their 2013 BIO was also lovely. Sourced from a range of elevations, it had medium concentration and a bitter chocolate finish. The nose was evocative of plums and figs, with complicating tomato and herb inflections.

The Dougos winery, founded in 1994 by a family of long-time vine nursery owners, offered a more modern take with its 2014 Rapsani. Composed of 40% Xinomavro, 40% Krassato, and 20% Stavroto, this wine offered a warm, appealing nose of leather, red cherries, and incense. The palate was sterner than the nose indicated, with upfront tannins and a meaty, structural texture. It was aged for 12 months in 25% new American oak, which likely accounts for the sweeter-smelling nose.

Special thanks to Stefanos Koundouras, Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW, Sofia Perpera, and Stavroula Liapi for their assistance as I researched this article.