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Published:  23 July, 2008

It was the ancient Greeks who introduced the Romans to wine. Over two millennia later, some believe that the world is about to experience a Hellenic comeback. Joanne Simon encounters an upbeat mood among producers in the Attica and Peloponnese regions of Greece.

Greek drivers!', cursed the oenologist who would be my host for a few hours (and who shall remain anonymous), as he swerved to avoid an oncoming car on our side of the road in a wine region of the Peloponnese. Within minutes he had proved himself to be one of them, screeching through a red light, and before our time together was over he had reversed, at speed, into the side of a parked car. It then took him over 20 minutes to inch, agonisingly, out of the car park, but at no point did he leave his car to inspect the damage... A few white-knuckle taxi rides later, I was firmly convinced that some stereotypes exist for a very good reason. But the real purpose of my visit to the Attica and Peloponnese regions of Greece was to investigate a myth - the one that maintains that Greek wine is all too often badly made and oxidised, or heavily flavoured with pine resin to produce Retsina, which at least disguises these faults. With over 600 years of war and economic hardship under Ottoman occupation, Greece has certainly had more to worry about than quality winemaking. But negociant-producers, co-operatives and specialist boutique wineries alike claim that relative stability over the past three decades and membership of the European Community since 1981 have enabled them to clean up their country's winemaking image.

Attica: an ancient heritage Athens is on track to host the 2004 Olympic Games,' concluded an Olympic Committee spokesman shortly before my arrival. For a start, the new Eleftherios Venizelos airport is already better than world-class and ready to greet the anticipated masses. It also happens to be located deep in the heart of Attica's wine country, if country' is the right term for the burgeoning suburban sprawl of Athens, now home to almost half of Greece's ten million inhabitants. It was to these people of Attica, according to ancient tradition, that Dionysus, the god of gaiety and wine, first entrusted the cultivation of the vine, and with it the art of winemaking. But lately, very attractive land prices have persuaded small vineyard owners to sell up. Most of Attica's eastern plain, Messogia, is now a dusty basin in which sun-bleached highways-under-construction cut through orange and olive orchards; where gigantic billboards compete for airspace with mobile phone masts; where electrical pylons straddle dwindling pockets of vineyards. And this is the area famous (or infamous) for bulk wine - usually Retsina - produced from the Savatiano vines, which thrive in the perfect Mediterranean climate. With the airport close to cultivated land, the prices and usage of the land have changed dramatically,' says Matina Fragou, the daughter of third-generation producer Asimina Fragou. Tucked between the whitewashed houses of Spata, Fragou winery's tranquil courtyard, dating back 230 years, has the atmosphere of an era long gone. It's important to stay here and produce wine, for environmental and ecological reasons,' says Matina. But our two red wines come from the south Peloponnese, and we're planning to move there. This winery will remain here merely as a place of exhibition.' At nearby Vassiliou, a family winery since 1905, third-generation oenologist and Dijon graduate George Vassiliou strictly controls the yields of his Savatiano, Roditis and Assyrtiko vines on the foothills of the Messogia. While his red Aghiorghitiko wine comes from the sub-region of Asprokampos, in the Nemea region of the Peloponnese, he has no plans to uproot his showcase winery from Attica. Things have changed, but we hope the vineyards of Attica will stay despite the airport - after all, there are even vineyards inside Bordeaux' airport!' points out Vassiliou's commercial manager, Nick Hatzitheodorou. He, too, refers to Greece's recent wine revolution'. Ten years ago, everyone knew Retsina, but nobody knew Greece could produce good-quality wines. The trouble was British and German tourists who were flocking to the islands and trying to spend the least money possible on wine. We know it will take more time, but many small wineries, including ours, have started to produce good wine.' Roxane Matsa's family started cultivating vines on their property at Kantza in 1831. Even as she laments the fate of what used to be one of the most beautiful areas of Greece', she is hard at work beneath the new pylons, experimenting with new plantings and pruning techniques. Roxane is credited by her peers with not merely single-handedly saving' Malagousia, a grape variety which was fading into obscurity, but bringing out the best in it. But she good-humouredly shrugs off any praise: I am sick of doing experiments. I want to make some good wine now - and some money!' Equally dedicated to the area is Dimitris Georgas, whose Savatiano vineyards near Spata have been registered as organic since 1998, producing Retsina and a wine that is crisp, like a Friuli'. With his organic - even biodynamic - principles, Georgas is an extreme embodiment of an increasing trend in Greece towards integrated vineyard management.

Die-hard tradition Towards the southern coastal tip of Attica, at Anavyssos, is Strofilia. We're the last winery here, because we're near the sea and property is very expensive,' explains Yannis Maltezos. Quite feasibly, the winery's biggest contribution to the industry was opening Greece's first wine bar in Athens in 1985. It is a fact that the bar promoted wine culture for 15 years, educating a whole generation of new consumers,' he says. But the older' type of Greek wine consumer still exists. At the Allagiannis winery in Markopoulo, PET bottles filled with lower-quality Savatiano have replaced the traditional system, whereby locals would fill their own containers. We have a good name for our cheaper wine because it is first stored in oak barrels,' says Vassilis Allagiannis, proudly pointing at a row of casks baking in the sun (and then, no doubt seeing my face, assuring me that the area will soon be closed off). He clearly approves of the PET practice, stating that many of his peers in the industry merely continue to bottle inferior wine. Less than 15% of the total production from the Attican plain is good enough for bottling,' he claims. His family's winery, meanwhile, plans to increase production of its seven quality' bottled products from 20,000 to 60,000. Technology must always be at the service of tradition,' he insists. With quite another tradition, Kourtakis produces around three million cases a year, mostly at its winery in Ritsona. The "Gallo of Greece" we're not, but we're fairly large for a family-owned winery,' says international marketing director, Graham Blake. Established in 1895 with the sole aim of producing Retsina, the winery became known for its consistency; indeed, the name Kourtakis became synonymous with Retsina. But current MD and Dijon graduate Vassilis Kourtakis eventually overcame family prejudices to introduce non-resinated wines in 1980. The hugely profitable Retsina, however, has always enabled the company to invest heavily in technology, which it claims has given it lead position in the renaissance of Greek winemaking'. Blake is rather more modest (or perhaps just more British): Our aim is to produce consistent wines that offer jolly good value for money,' he says. Blake adds that wineries like nearby Harlaftis and Kokotos are more specialised, enabling them to command higher prices. Both are located northeast of Athens, in the foothills of Mount Penteli, an area characterised by long summers with cool nights, and cool winters with at least one snowfall. In the days of bulk production nobody wanted this land, because its high altitude resulted in wines with low alcohol and high acidity,' says Anne Kokotos. Now, things have come full circle.' She and husband George planted a seven-hectare (ha) vineyard at 450 metres' altitude in 1980, naming it Semeli, in honour of Dionysus' mother. They have progressively replanted it with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Savatiano. And using grapes brought in from other areas, Domaine George Kokotos now produces over 250,000 bottles a year. In nearby Stamata, Diogenes Harlaftis took over his father-in-law's winery in the late 1950s, immediately replanting its eight hectares of vineyard with Assyrtiko, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. Diogenes' son, Nicholas, is now at the helm, but Harlaftis senior's influence still prevails. We cultivate scientifically, but also using the traditions of three generations. Wine is not a dead thing: its life depends on how you love it. You must have tradition and roots.' Perhaps less traditional is Evharis Estate, located near Megara, in a forgotten corner of western Attica. Created by German spatial design consultant Eva-Maria Bhme and Greek tourism entrepreneur Haris Antonious, the estate features a restaurant and terrace, conference facilities and one of the world's largest personal collections of Modern Greek art. But for all these trappings, oenologist Ioanna Davleri simply says the estate's award-winning wines are the result of the area's calcium-rich soil.

The Peloponnese From Evharis, it is just a short drive before one crosses over the Corinth Canal into the Peloponnese. Rich in ancient ruins, this is the southernmost region of mainland Greece and wine grapes are the area's most important agricultural activity, especially now that the cultivation of sultanas and raisins is in decline. I think it's because the British are eating less puddings than they used to!' chuckles Christos Kanelakopoulos of Mercouri, at Korakohori, in the western Peloponnese. Founded in 1860, this is possibly Greece's most beautiful estate, located near to Olympia and overlooking the Ionian sea; planted with century-old palms, pine and olive trees, and patrolled by peacocks. The nine-hectare estate was originally planted with currants, before vine cuttings were introduced from Italy. Refosco is a variety we now consider Greek,' says Kanelakopoulos, who, with brother Vassilis, replanted the vineyards with the Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso clone 12 years ago, along with other red varieties like Sangiovese and Grenache. But Kanelakopoulos is a strong advocate of Greece's indigenous varieties: It is difficult to compete commercially with international varieties, especially from the New World, because our production costs are much higher. We must exploit our relative advantages - and our indigenous varieties are one of them. In my opinion, Greek varieties can offer an alternative.' Who the hell needs another Chardonnay?' agrees Yannis Paraskevopoulos of Gaia Estate at Koutsi, Nemea. With a PhD in Oenology from Bordeaux University, he is credited with proving that Aghiorghitiko is not only good for young, easy-drinking reds. If made differently, it can age for a decade,' he says, referring to his red Gaia Estate, which is over-extracted' for up to 40 days (in good vintages) before spending 12 months in French oak and then being bottled unfiltered. His acclaimed Retsina Ritinitis, meanwhile, has propelled the traditional wine into a new quality league. By combining meticulously low-yield Roditis grapes from the high slopes of Aegialia with a carefully calculated dose of top-quality resin, this palate-cleansing wine is perfectly balanced. At his new winery near Ghymno, George Skouras, who studied and worked in Burgundy (and has the moustache to prove it), admits to being a little bit in love with Chardonnay'. He firmly believes that Greece should focus on international varieties, or at least blend them with indigenous varieties (an idea he pioneered in 1988 with Megas Oenos, an Aghiorghitiko/ Cabernet Sauvignon blend). But Paraskevopoulos is quick to make a point: The industry has invested heavily in equipment and know-how in recent years, but we still do not have a thorough knowledge of our own terroir and how to cultivate our vines to get the best results. And if our wines are decent now, they will be very exciting when our questions regarding the raw material are answered.' Paraskevopoulos also believes the Greek Appellation of Origin system needs to develop a sub-system for zones of outstanding quality. Koutsi is around 650 metres above sea level, whereas the valley - we call it the swamp! -is really more suitable for cereals and tobacco. Yet we all have the same appellation!' He is also deeply concerned about areas like Santorini. Europe is about to lose one of its most interesting wine regions, because there are no young guys growing grapes there. They'd rather build tourist accommodation, make a fortune in three months and go skiing in St Moritz than spend all year kneeling in the dirt. Santorini will disappear. Nemea, on the other hand, will flourish.' Described as the Napa Valley of Greece, Nemea was an obvious place for Attica's Strofilia and Katogi Averoff of Macedonia, which merged in 2001, to look for a site for Oktana, their new, ultra-modern winery, now operating at 750 metres above sea level, in the Stimfalia lake district. Achilleas Lampsidis explains: We went up the mountains to find places with sunshine, but not too much heat [20-25C in summer]. This gives us good acidity and a longer growing season to develop fruit intensity and aromas.'

High-altitude gold mine Whereas Nemea is famous for its red wines - and has the Appellation of High Quality Origin' for Aghiorghitiko - Mantinia, further inland and with an average altitude of 650 metres, is celebrated for white wines, and for Moschofilero in particular. We are sitting on a gold mine for Moschofilero,' says Yannis Tselepos, whose vineyard, Domaine Tselepos, is located on schist soils in the foothills of Mount Parnon, near the town of Ancient Tegea. Planted at 800 metres above sea level, higher than the estate's other indigenous and international varieties, Moschofilero faces the risk of frost well into May, but generally thrives to produce aromatic, dry blanc de noir wines -including mthode Champenoise sparkling wine. We believe organic cultivation is best, but we don't promote our wine as such; people should drink it because it's good, not because it's organic.' On the plain below, the return of Apostolos Spyropoulos from the University of California, Davis can only augur well for state-of-the-art winery Spyropoulos. This was the brainchild of his father Nondas, a dentist, who spent every spare drachma on vineyards until deciding in 1985 that it was a waste to sell his good grapes to producers making junk wine'. Now the winery needs to produce 800,000 bottles within four years to cope with demand. And we've got this far without even trying,' says Spyropoulos, a point which he says can equally be made about the Greek industry as a whole. We have come a long way and I believe we have a good future if we try even harder. There isn't much imported wine in Greece, but if you go to a shop and buy a e20 bottle, a Greek wine will be much better quality than an imported one for the same price. A e200 bottle is a different story, but how many people buy that?'

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts The UK is a very difficult market,' muttered most of the smaller players I encountered during my seven days in the region. Germany is Greece's top export market and the US and Scandinavia have also proved quite successful. But UK importers get a group thumbs down' for insisting on unbelievably' low prices. They want to pay us less than 2, but it costs us over 2.50 to make it!' complains Georgious Gioulis of Cabernet Sauvignon specialist Domaine Gioulis, in hilly Klimenti, Corinth. Spyros Lafazanis of family-owned Lafazanis at Ancient Kleones, Nemea, agrees. Our best possible price for the UK - the limit for us, including wholesale margins, duty, VAT, etc - is 7. Our costs are high compared with wineries in other countries and there is also a big gap between us and the big players like Kourtakis, Boutaris and Tsantalis, who have established their names in markets worldwide.' Spyropoulos adds: We can't compete with the New World on price or quantity, so our only chance is with different products of a very high quality.' But chemist/oenologist George Papaioannou, who has helped his veteran grape-growing father Thanassis to bottle Papaioannou's Ancient Nemea-based wine for 20 years, says it is no longer enough for winemakers simply to focus on improving their wine. Marketing is very important for our future. But it takes up so much time - just designing a new label sometimes needs more work than the cellar!' Gaia's Paraskevopoulos disagrees: It's not a question of how good your products are, it's a question of how well you promote them. And I'm afraid we've been very lax where other countries are very aggressive. We haven't had a generic campaign in the UK, at least not since the industry got more focused and started producing cutting-edge wines.' For this reason, ten wineries who all cherish the good quality of each other's work' have formed a Greek Wine Association that will be footing the bill for the UK public relations company, Food And Other Matters, to increase awareness of Greek wines from July. Of course it's a gamble,' says Paraskevopoulos. Greek wines make up about 1.7% of the world's wine production, of which our companies probably make up 5%! We couldn't flood the market even if we wanted to. In any case, we can easily sell all our wine on the domestic market. So why do we bother?' Kallie Papantonis, president of the Association of Greek Women of Wine and co-producer of Meden Agan, a velvety, ruby-red Aghiorghitiko whose name means Nothing to Excess', is quick to answer him: Because it's a challenge. Our goal is not to be "something"; it is to be something special.'