For Nemea and Saint George – Agiorgitiko Today

31st Jan 2019

For Nemea and Saint George – Agiorgitiko Today

by Peter Pharos

 

Image courtesy of Estate Mitravelas
Image courtesy of Estate Mitravelas

It was a quiet summer afternoon in Florence. Some tourists
in Belgian shirts were nursing pints and wounds, averting their gaze from the
TV showing last night’s highlights. Their English counterparts were busy
choosing their seats for the evening’s proceedings, happily unaware they were
hours away from the same fate.


Me, I was bored.


I turned to Twitter and asked people
to start an argument. The usual suspects cropped up: wine scores, natural
wines, biodynamics. And then, rising above the mundane, a London sommelier decided
to go for something truly controversial:


“Agiorgitiko is generally a crap
grape, isn’t it?”




* * *


I could see where the somm was coming from. In the smarter
pockets of the wine world, people buy Greek wine for the uniqueness of its
terroirs, that je ne sais quoi which differentiates
Naousa from Etna and Santorini from Chablis. The Greek grapes that have
achieved some international prominence, Assyrtiko and Xinomavro, have a
dimension that is inescapably intellectual; not everyone gets them the first
time. Agiorgitiko* on the other hand, well, it feels familiar and friendly. If
Xinomavro is an eccentric three-piece suit, Agiorgitiko is a pair of pyjamas.
You can understand the wine geek that doesn’t find much fun in that.

How
times change. Two decades ago, when the scions of Thymiopoulos and Dalamaras
were still in school and Kir-Yianni’s best wine was a Syrah, it was Agiorgitiko
that was considered the red star of the Greek vineyard. Generous, fruity, and plump,
it was well placed to take advantage of an international audience marinated in
the writings of Robert Parker. Transformative figures of modern Greek wine such
as Skouras and Paraskevopoulos worked primarily with it. As far as Greek red
wine was concerned, Nemea was the word.

And
then, slowly, something changed. First was the rise of the French-style blends from the north-east of the
country. Then came the new wave of Naousa winemakers, releasing Xinomavro from
the shackles of a complacent tradition. Finally, the past ten years, the
explosion of small production, quality-focused wineries all over the country,
rediscovering local varieties and changing perceptions of what Greek wine is
and can be. In a world of Limniona and Mavrotragano, Kotsifali and Limnio,
Agiorgitiko becomes just another difficult-to-read, impossible-to-pronounce
name. Where is it today?




* * *


It might irk language purists, including yours truly, seeing
Agiorgitiko translated on labels, but what sounds to the non-Greek speaker like
an incomprehensible syllable centipede, is totally innocuous when rendered in
English. Agiorgitiko means simply a grape that’s “Saint George’s” and, though
theories abound, the name could have come from just about anywhere given the
ubiquity of worship of the Saint in Greece**. Giving generally good yields but
sensitive to viruses and mildew*** it has found limited success outside the
Peloponnese, used mostly to mollify Bordeaux-style blends (Biblia Chora’s mono-varietal
Areti is a notable exception).

Agiorgitiko’s
natural terrain and sole PDO is found around the village of Nemea, some 20
miles southwest of Corinth. The region is far from uniform, however, with a
range of soils, altitudes, and microclimates grouped under the same designation.
The two Greece-based MWs, Kostas
Lazarakis
and Yiannis
Karakasis
, have both suggested classifications (three for the former, seven
for the latter), but any attempt to identify distinct styles based on geography
in the end product is limited by the popularity amongst producers of cross-blending
different parcels. Indeed, it appears that today’s Nemea PDO offers more
variety than any other in Greece, and the winemaker’s hand is often the
deciding factor.

Ktima
Papaioannou is arguably the wine most would recognise as characteristic of the
Nemea that achieved prominence in the ‘90s, much like its label that has probably now been around long enough to be considered
iconic and thus above criticism****. The just-released 2014 has the trademark
plump red fruit on the nose and spice on the aftertaste, but there is enough tannin
and structure to allow ageing it a few years more and push it above most offerings
in that price bracket. Similarly traditional, but more restrained, are the
offerings of Estate Semeli and Estate Skouras. Both produce standard PDOs
(called “Reserve” for the former and “Saint George” for the latter) that are
medium-bodied and show delicate plum notes on the nose, with a touch of
cinnamon at the end, more pronounced for Skouras. Both also produce better
versions of these wines where things become more interesting. Semeli’s Grande Reserve is a serious and stylish
wine: the 2012 starts with raspberries in the nose and finishes with
blackcurrants in the aftertaste. In the mouth it is tannic, and a touch acidic,
still very young at six years of age. Skouras’s Grande Cuvée is a classic of the Peloponnesian vineyard, keeping a
tight balance between strength and flavour. Red cherry is prominent in the nose
of the 2014, with vanilla becoming more apparent in the mouth, while the
aftertaste shows a hint of further sweetness, but there is also complexity and
measured tannins. This is probably the most serious of the traditional red
Nemeas out there, Agiorgitiko sporting spectacles and a tweed jacket. Skouras
also produces Megas Oenos (“Grand
Vin”), an 80-20 blend of Agiorgitiko and Cabernet, which is altogether richer
and has often served as my Easter wine.

Image courtesy of Estate Gaia
Image courtesy of Estate Gaia

And
then, there is the other face of the grape. If there is one Agiorgitiko the
average UK consumer has encountered it would be Mitravelas’s Red on Black, which was stocked by
M&S for a couple of years. Jammy and pleasant, if somewhat forgettable, it’s
the rare Agiorgitiko that delivers at a modest price tag. It is, however, the
Estate’s better cuvées that are of real interest. Mitravelas claim that their
vineyards can be traced to the dawn of the modern Greek State, and their first
winery was built before the First World War. It is, however, the arrival of
Konstantinos Mitravelas in 2003 that brought the Estate to the new era and gave
it its signature touch, which landed the 2016 Nemea PDO a Gold at the Decanter
World Wine Awards. The 2017 is a dark red little beast with intense black plum and
a hint of spice on the nose. In the mouth there is firmness and structure, but
also purity of fruit, while the aftertaste is surprisingly tannic, promising maybe
up to a decade of further development. Finally, the Estate’s haut de gamme is perhaps controversial.
It is undoubtedly a serious wine:  it
is probably the most complex Agiorgitiko there is, with a firmness remarkable
for the variety, and a promise of long ageing, which is rarely seen. On the
other hand, the varietal character, as we have come to expect it, is absent.
The colour and nose are more reminiscent of Amarone than Nemea, while the
alcohol and new French oak are very prominent. This is one to revisit in first
ten, then twenty years, and see if it was a product of the winemaking technique
of its time or if Mitravelas built the first truly great Agiorgitiko.

Similarities
exist between Mitravelas and Aivalis, another family that owned vineyards for
generations but entered modern winemaking only the past twenty years. Like
Mitavelas, Aivalis eschews filtering but likes oak flavours. The single
vineyard Monopati has done well in
the domestic market; the 2014 has something of a modern Rioja (though the oak
is French), with chewy tannins and a long aftertaste. I would go for the more
economical standard PDO though (also a single vineyard called Gerakina). The oak manifests itself
there too, with cedar and chocolate notes in the nose, but it is altogether
more balanced and juicy in the mouth, with red fruit jam balanced by soft
tannins. A newer, top-of-the-range offering, named Le Sang de la Pierre and
created by the new generation of Aivalis, has been received very well in the
local market, but I have not had a chance to taste it yet.

Pinning
down Agiorgitiko then is hard. Yiannis Karakasis MW has described it to me as
something between Merlot and Tempranillo depending on the ripeness. I tend to
think of it more as Garnacha. For the London sommelier of our introduction, it
is the Malbec of the Peloponnese. Yet, surprisingly, one of the icons of modern
Nemea, Yiannis Paraskevopoulos of Gaia, is on record describing it as similar
to Sangiovese. The
innovative winery he founded in Koutsi in 1997 today provides arguments to
support all of the above. The relatively new Agiorgitiko by Gaia is a surprise: balanced, measured, with gentle
red fruit aromas and a solid touch of oak, it is more reminiscent of a young
Chianti Classico than a Nemea. It is hard to believe that the same grape forms
the basis of Gaia S, an
Agiorgitiko-Syrah blend that is a Greek take of The Chocolate Block. The nose is intense, with cocoa dominating and
hints of walnut following. It is soft and juicy on the palate, but the
aftertaste struggles to integrate the alcohol. The winery’s flagship Gaia Estate, a mono-varietal Agiorgitiko,
feels equally far from Agiorgitiko by
Gaia
. It is also probably the best reflection of the changes that Nemea has
seen over the last twenty years. While always rich, over the past decade it has
gotten progressively deeper, with more pronounced oak and higher alcohol,
feeling more like an Argentinian blockbuster than the Nemea of old. True to
form, the 2015 is heavy and dense, with flavours of black plum jam tempered by
some tobacco, while the aftertaste is once again dominated by the alcohol. Gaia
clearly intend this for long ageing; their promotional material claims 20 years,
but the structure feels too soft for that: seven to twelve sounds more like it.




* * *


So, where is Nemean Agiorgitiko today? The crown of the King
of Greek reds has certainly been lost, and the buzzing activity that has been
going on around the country from Thrace to Crete, means that it won’t be
reclaimed any time soon. There is an issue at the lower rungs, not covered in
this piece: there is plenty of forgettable, uneven wine coming out of Nemea at
entry level, which seems primarily to trade on the historical value of the
brand name in the domestic market. At the medium and higher echelons, it is
somewhat difficult to know what to expect: it often feels there are at least
two or three different takes on the grape.

However,
the standard bearers continue to produce some good wine. Increasingly better
understanding of land parcels and grape clones, plus the introduction of new
approaches, hint of interesting things to come. Minimum intervention might be
one: in researching this piece I tasted my first “natural” Agiorgitiko, Athanasiou’s
Fysis, which, while not
show-stopping, showed surprising potential, and an earthier, drier shade to the
grape.


Most of all, Agiorgitiko remains
a crowd-pleaser: approachable, easy-going, food-friendly, it is the least controversial
introduction possible to Greek wine.  True, it will not always tantalise the cognoscenti. But a
crap grape? No.




footnotes




* As
so often with transliteration of Greek grape varieties, or any other proper noun
for that matter, randomness and improvisation reigns. Aghiorgitiko and Aghiorghitiko
seem to be popular also. Personally I subscribe to the ISO 843 standard for
transliteration, also adopted by the Greek State as ELOT 743. According to
this, Agiorgitiko is the correct one.




** As
with many other elements of Greek culture successfully exported to the West,
locals tend to get quite surprised when told what a major part of English national
identity this quintessentially Greek figure forms.




*** Kostas
Lazarakis MW has a good discussion of the quest to find a virus-free
Agiorgitiko in his comprehensive volume “Wines of Greece.”




**** Papaioannou’s
labels are the only ones I’ve seen to make an allusion to the legend of the
Lion of Nemea, the first of Hercules’s Labours. The idea of calling Nemean
Agiorgitiko “Lion’s Blood” seems to be thrown about every now and then but,
mercifully, producers have not succumbed to that particular marketing siren.




Gaia Wines are
imported in the UK by
Hallgarten and Novum Wines


Aivalis, Papaioannou,
and Athanasiou wines are imported in the UK by
Southern
Wine Roads


Semeli, Skouras, and
Mitravelas wines are available for delivery in the UK via
Greece
and Grapes




The wines covered in
this article were received as samples.