by Peter Pharos

A Greek (Wine) Christmas

I knew Greece had lost the struggle against its perennial bugbears of Westernisation and capitalism, when I saw on TV that the big Christmas tree in Syntagma Square went up in November. I am not sure many Athenians noticed it, and not only because of the positively autumnal temperatures (an alarming conversation, for another day). But then again, what do I know. I have been away for a while and these days, I am told, some people even celebrate Halloween. Covertly one hopes, and with just a bit of underlying regret, like ancient Athenians taking up Roman customs. O tempora, one feels the urge to whine in one’s middle age.

But I remain unconvinced the tree did much to convert Greeks to northern European-like worship of December. The festive period doesn’t really start until the third week of the month. When I manage to make it there earlier, landing at Athens airport with a bottle of Tawny Port and a pack of mince pies, people seem mildly bewildered by my Yuletide spirit. They take me to new wine bars and have me taste the latest trend. Normal weekday stuff. Christmas proper kicks in on the 23rd, when schools close, and then lasts all the way until the Epiphany on January 6th. Office parties don’t happen before the holidays, but after them.  New Year is more important than Christmas, the latter still hampered by a vaguely religious aura. Santa Claus comes on New Year’s Eve, to the non-Romanised at least. I guess even imaginary courier services have to stagger deliveries at peak times.

I am undecided which option is better myself. I can be convinced that this is the most wonderful time of the year, and that it deserves to be stretched to the limit. I appreciate a whole month’s worth of a runway, the increasing anarchy at work as the weeks go by. The slightly manic edge to it all. Brazil has the carnival, northern Europe has Christmas, licentiousness from decorum for the whole family. And I have learned to love an English Christmas pudding.
But like all binges, it comes with a crash. New Year’s Eve seems to be reserved for the age group that still recalls vividly the topics of their A-levels. For the rest, it is a half-hearted last hurrah before work starts the next day. The New Year begins as a long march through the winter steppes.

Instead, in the model I knew first, Christmas Day is the start of the celebrations, not the end. There is not even a national gold standard for what lunch should be. Back when I was a kid, my grandparents would do barbequed sausages and pork chops, Christmas being not a time of excess (that would be Easter), but Sunday plus plus. Later, more urbane customs dictate allusions to French and international cuisines. I think of it as the one day of the year when Greeks will consider having fruit in savoury dishes. In recent years, my parents seem to have settled on roast turkey. Christmas Day being a relatively measured affair means you get to do it all over again on Boxing Day. It’s probably the only time of the year when I’ll have dessert wine two days in a row.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s is the best time of the holidays, and when the Mediterranean model pays off. When visits are exchanged, when old friends are met, when the geekiest wine is drunk. The excitement ramps up to the pinnacle of the festive season. Custom has it that on midnight sharp Santa arrives, and the kids get to open their presents. (Yes, Greek kids stay up well after midnight, partying with the grown-ups. No, society has not collapsed. Yes, most end up as rather well-behaved adults.) Then everyone sits down for dessert, which will be Vasilopita, a cake dedicated to St Basil. Ah, yes, over there Santa is not St Nicholas, who is celebrated on December 6th, but St Basil, who gets January 1st or January 2nd depending on who you ask. (I mean, it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?) The pie has a coin baked in. Whoever finds the coin in their piece of cake is meant to have a lucky year. It usually works.

It’s a good model, but not a perfect one. Nobody has found out quite what to do from January 2 until the Epiphany. Think of it as the week between Christmas and New Year in the north. You know the drill. The days flow into one  another until they’re all one big day. Meals are had, nights out are organised, alcohol is drunk, but you can see the enthusiasm starting to evaporate. Some men will jump in the sea (or river, or lake) on January 6th, to catch a crucifix. Anything to avoid thinking of the return to the office the following day, I guess. I wouldn’t know. Usually, I’ve been on a plane back to England by then.

Peter’s Selections for a Greek (Wine) Christmas
 
Wines for the Runup to Christmas

These wines are interesting, often quirky, and just the thing to get you in a festive mood.

Mylonas Pet Nat NV
Product of Greece                     12.5%
Delightful, linear nose with honey, yellow peach, and green apple. The palate is pure fun, with just the right level of fizz and just the right amount of glu-glu. Not an intellectual wine, but a joyful one. Pet Nat tends to be hit or miss. This one, the first I’ve had from Savvatiano, is a hit.  (Drink 2023-2024.)
90 pts
Imported by and available from Maltby & Greek, £24.

Thymiopoulos Rosé de Xinomavro 2022
PGI Macedonia             12.5%
Elegant, beautiful nose, balancing fruitiness and robustness, with a hint of nuttiness in the background. The palate is just gorgeous, starting with juicy red fruit, but then progressively picking up strength to finish with a pleasant hint of astringency, vaguely reminiscent of olive paste, suggesting the grape variety. The Wine Society is no stranger to value for money, but I would be surprised if there is a rosé in their list right now that comes even remotely close to delivering so much at this price.  (Drink 2023-2025.)
93 pts
Available from the Wine Society, £13.50

Garalis Limnio 2020
PDO Limnos                  13%
Very fresh and sharp nose, with intense raspberry fruit and a promise of a tannic hit in the mouth. Yet the palate delivers a surprise. The texture is softer and rounder than the nose suggests, while the fruit is juicier and sweeter, more reminiscent of cherries and strawberries. There is a hint of tannin, a hint of gravel, but all given in an elegant and measured manner. The aftertaste is long, lively, but again genteel and pleasant. Easily one of the best takes on Limnio if I’ve tried, honouring the wine’s origin, Lemnos, the island that gives the grape its name. (Drink 2023-2026.)
92 pts
Imported by and available from Maltby & Greek, £22.

Wines for Christmas Day

Two versatile options for the Christmas table, one lighter the other deeper, plus a sweet wine for your dessert.

Akrathos Xinomavro 2018
PGI Halkidiki                 13.5%
Trademark Xinomavro aromas of sun-dried tomato, rendered lively but elegantly, with a suggestion of fresh red fruit to follow. Fascinating palate, of high quality, with hints of black cherry and olive paste. The tannins are sharp on opening, and this needs a lot of air to unfold the loveliness and juiciness of its texture. A new frontier for Xinomavro, in a bottle that is good now, but will be excellent in 5 years’ time. (Drink 2025-2030 when it will be 93-95 pts.)
92 pts
Imported by Hallgarten & Novum Wines. Around £26.

Papargyriou The Black Daphne 2021
Wine of Greece             15%
Greek wine laws are not as labyrinthine as those of other countries, but they do have some weird fixations. One of these is that if Mavrodafni is vinified dry, the variety shouldn’t appear on the label.  Papargyriou circumvents this by resorting to a pretty much direct translation.
Very rich and generous palate, a blanket of red and black fruit with a hint of wood and a suggestion of power (or, more crudely, an alcoholic kick) to come. However, it is framed with elegance and verve, suggestive of the better labels of the Southern Rhône. The expectation, then, is that the palate will exhibit similar richness and sweetness, perhaps flirting with the uncontrolled. Not quite. Yes, this is a wine with sweet red and black fruit, and no degree of modesty in its ABV. But it also has robust tannins and a hint of dryness in the fruit maelstrom that makes it appear more serious, grown-up, even pensive. A plethoric Christmas wine, or perhaps a Vino di Meditazione for Boxing Day. Either way, one of the finest Greek labels in the heavyweight category in recent years. (Drink 2023 – 2031 when it will be 93-94 pts)
93 pts
Imported by Southern Wine Roads. Around £27.

Vakakis Pythagorean Epogdoon 2015
Wine of Greece             13%
Speaking of bizarre Greek wine laws, how about restricting an entire island’s wine production to the local Co-op? Such was the case for Samos until recently, with Vakakis being the first privately owned winery since the ‘30s. Epogdoon, the winery’s dessert label, has its work cut out for itself, as its competition-by-default, the EOS Samos co-op, specialises on sweet wines, producing some of the finest in Greece.

Epogdoon starts with a fresh nose of measured sweetness, strongly reminiscent of the spoon sweets typical of Greece, especially quince and orange. A similar aromatic profile follows on the palate, excellently balanced between sweetness and acidity, flavour and lightness. Samos dessert wines as we know them, favour intense, all-encompassing sweetness. This suggests a different direction instead, wanting to be measured not against the local Co-op, but against the noble rot of the Gironde. A resounding success. (Drink 2023-2025.)
93 pts
Imported by Southern Wine Roads. Around £25.

Wines for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve

This is my favourite time of the festive period – and when I get to drink some of the most interesting wines of the whole year.

Akriotou Oreivatis (The Wild Mountaineer) 2020
PGI Sterea Ellada                       13%
This is from Savvatiano, but with a fascinating, atypical aromatic profile. If descriptions have to be sought, a combination of mint and lemon, with a note of mastic is a possible one. It is, however, quite original. This idiosyncrasy continues on the palate. It starts almost pristine, with clarity and minerality, and then slowly picks up pace, like it is thickening in real time. This is a rather unique, pushing forward the boundaries of Attica’s signature grape. (Drink 2023-2026.)
91 pts
Imported by Hallgarten & Novum Wines. Around £16.

Kir-Yianni Agathoto 2022
PGI Macedonia             14.5%
Elegance in rosé is often a synonym for a light touch. This, however, is elegant while promising of power to come. The Xinomavro character is not immediately apparent: the nose starts lighter, slightly acidic, herbal. I am not too embarrassed to admit that if I smelled this blindfolded, my first guess would likely be of a barrel-fermented white wine. Then the varietal character slowly appears. A hint of sundried tomatoes, some red fruit, but always given lightly.  The switch on the palate is impressive: rich and powerful, but with a steely backbone and serious complexity. There is cool red fruit at first (vaguely reminiscent of a sugar-free granita), followed by a kick of Xinomavro acidity, and the lightest suggestion of tannin. Greek rosé doesn’t get the kudos it deserves – this should make people stand up and pay attention.  (Drink 2023-2027.)
94 pts
Kir-Yianni wines are imported by Enotria & Coe.

Biblia Chora Biblinos Oinos 2013
PGI Pangeon                 13.5%
How about this for tripping someone in a blind tasting? The people at Biblia Chora were aware of a traditional red variety in their local area in the Pangeon mountain in NE Greece. When they tried to match it to existing varieties, however, even enlisting the aid of DNA identification, the search came up blank. So the variety got the name of the winery.
The nose on the 2013 is a thing of beauty. The fruit is red (strawberries, cherries), concentrated and intense, yet with remarkable freshness for a 10yo vintage, a combination of hedonism and poise. Given the ageing trajectory of most wines of the PGI, one would expect a soft texture, and lots of concentrated red fruit. Instead there is the freshness, juiciness, acidity, and rigid tannins one expects from a great year in Tuscany. A fascinating wine, with more time ahead of it still. (Drink 2023-2028, when it will be 93-95 pts.)
93 pts
Imported by and available from Cava Spiliadis, £27.

Wines for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day

I tend to go for sparkling and white on NYE, then red on New Year’s Day. And after the Vasilopita you need a dessert wine of course.

Tselepos Amalia 2018
PDO Mantinia               12%
Greece often falls short on the sparkling front, but this single vintage traditional method sparkling from Tselepos is one of the few exceptions. Generous nose, full of tropical fruit with a pleasant citrus hint in the background. The palate is more balanced and more steely. There is rigour and a degree of poise, framed by a welcome acidity. This is always one to surprise those that have only had still Moschofilero. (Drink 2023-2024.)
90 pts
Imported by and available from Cava Spiliadis, £25.50.

Ktima Gerovassiliou Viognier 2022
PGI Epanomi                 13.5%
Intense yellow peach aromas in an extremely rich nose, which, however, remains stylish. (A hint of herbal character in the background helps.) Plush and opulent on the palate, with intense tropical fruit. Yet there is also a clean, linear element and a citrus-y aftertaste which balances it out and prevents it from being overbearing. The calling card of this wine (indeed, the whole series which also includes a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc) is an equilibrium between intensity of flavour and linearity. The 2022 Viognier is an excellent example of that.   (Drink 2023-2025.)
93 pts
Imported by Hallgarten & Novum Wines. From £20.

Domaine Skouras Nemea Grande Cuvée 2019
PDO Nemea                  14%
A juicy nose full of blackberries and cherries, smooth yet balanced, intense yet elegant. The palate is serious, flirting with the austere – or at least austere for Nemea standards. Compared to the average Greek red, it is still flavourful and juicy, a basket of red and black fruit. But this is also a Nemea of the old school. People today tend to think of Agiorgitiko as the preeminent ready-to-drink variety. The Skouras Grande Cuvée is a wine that rewards those that can wait. (Drink 2025 – 2031 when it will be 93-95 pts.)
92 pts
Available from the Wine Society, £21.

Ktima Dryopi Nemea Reserve 2020
PDO Nemea                  14.5%
Intensely flavourful yet very smooth nose. Immediately recognisable as Agiorgitiko, with all the juicy, ripe red fruit and the hint of spice that one expects from the variety in its home terroir, followed by a vanilla kick. Continues seamlessly on the palate, with juicy, yet ripe red and black fruit. This is modern Nemea challenging modern Rioja. Pistols at dawn – and I fancy the Peloponnesians’ chances. (Drink 2023 – 2028.)
93 pts
Imported by and available from Cava Spiliadis, £25.50.

Alpha Estate Omega 2019
PGI Florina       13%
How is this for originality? A light dessert wine from northern (Greek) Macedonia, made from Gewürztraminer with a bit of Malagousia.
The 2019 has a round, sweet, and very enjoyable nose, with apricot jam and lemon curd. A pitch-perfect level of sweetness: an intense kick of syrup aromatised with citrus, rose petals, and cinnamon. The aftertaste is very long, very enjoyable – and yet not cloying. Lovely.  And works beautifully with mince pies too. (Drink 2023-2024.)
92 pts
Imported by and available from Maltby & Greek, £30.50.

Wines of Christmas Future

For the end, some suggestions for laying down: two modern Greek icons, plus a remarkably well-priced outlier. You can (just about) drink them now, but they’ll reward patience very handsomely. As always with my tasting notes, the score indicates how the wine is drinking right now, with the score range in the drinking window showing the potential down the line.

Mikro Ktima Titou Goumenissa 2020
PDO Goumenissa                      13%
I often beg to differ when Xinomavro is compared with Nebbiolo in its Naousa incarnation, but I see it in Goumenissa, especially when blended with Negoska, as is the case here.  Clean, linear nose with delicate aromatics, primarily a gentle touch of sun-dried tomato. Substantially more interesting on the palate. The texture is fascinating – it feels like someone has been trying to tame a wild horse. The end result is refined, pleasurable – but it feels it’s just a breath away from fierce tannins and merciless astringency being unleashed.. Open it in the 2030s please. (Drink 2028 – 2045 when it will be 93-96 pts.)
92 pts
Imported by and available from Cava Spiliadis, £25.50.

Gerovassiliou Evangelo 2021
Wine of Greece             14.5%
A Syrah-Viognier blend in the style of Côte-Rôtie, this takes time to open. It starts uncommunicative and brooding, and then slowly demonstrates archetypal Syrah notes of violet, smoke, and white pepper. The palate is a combination of quiet elegance and understated power. This is always a texture-led wine: very smooth, effortlessly elaborate, but with a dark inner core. It is also very young right now. Approachable, just about, but stronger as a promise of Christmases to come. (Drink 2023 – 2036 when it will be 93-96 pts)
93 pts
Available from Greece-based online retailers, such as Greece and Grapes.

Kir-Yianni Mple Alepou 2020
PGI Imathia                  15%
A modern Greek icon, this moreish label is a Syrah-led blend with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot. The nose on the 2020 starts quiet but serious, humming with concentrated red fruit, tobacco, and leather. The palate is a dark, complex little wonder, with blackberries, currants, and tobacco. The winning element, however, is the texture. This is a wine whose trademark is the balancing act between fierce tannins and velvet mouthfeel. It is also a wine that is only just beginning its journey. Try it again in ten years, and pit it against a Hermitage.  (Drink 2028 – 2035 when it will be 94-96 pts)
93 pts
Kir-Yianni wines are imported by Enotria & Coe.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash