Amyndeo, a mountainous region in northwestern Greece, is a prime spot for producing wine – in fact, it’s one of the most important wine regions in the country. Located between two peaks, Vermio and Voras, this area is known for cold winters with enough rainfall and snow for the vines to withstand the relatively dry summers (usually sans-irrigation).
Four surrounding lakes, the largest being Vegoritis, contribute to the mild semi-continental climate. In fact, this entire area used to be a lake thousands of years ago, which has resulted in a sandy top layer of soil and limestone subsoil, an auspicious combination that ensures the ideal drainage of rain water and delivers natural nutrients and elements to the vine roots (it has also prevented the spread of pests like phylloxera, preserving many old and self-rooted vines). The end result is high-quality, flavorful grapes, particularly xinomavro, a native red variety.
After years of research and traveling, Angelos Iatridis and Makis Mavridis were so impressed by this grape-friendly clime that they set up their vineyard and winery, Alpha Estate, in Amyndeo back in the mid-1990s. Their aim was clear: to produce high-quality – rather than quantity – wines over which they have total control, from vine to bottle.
Born and raised in Thessaloniki, Iatridis traveled the world on a quest to learn as much about wine before returning to his home country. His taste buds developed at an early age, on account of the fact that he was born into a family of pastry makers, but it was only during his university years, while studying chemistry at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, that he discovered his passion for winemaking. After graduation, Iatridis set off to Bordeaux, France, where he studied oenology; he later hopped around to other regions in France, such as Alsace, Champagne and the Rhône Valley, and worked at a number of different wineries to acquire as much knowledge and know-how on winemaking and different grape varieties as he could. His stay in France set the quality standards and moral principles on which his whole philosophy around winemaking is based.
When a family member introduced him to Mavridis, they immediately became close friends, bonding over a shared passion for wine while also realizing that their winemaking knowledge is very complementary. Mavridis, who hails from Florina, a town close to Amyndeo, and knows the surrounding wine regions like the back of his hand, is an expert in viticulture, while Iatridis specializes in the vinification stage.
Since purchasing their stunning 180-hectare vineyard, which is located at an altitude of 620-710 meters above sea level, the duo have spent most of their days working here, together with the rest of their team, giving their heart and soul to the vines. “You must take the best grape and respect it as if it were your child,” says Iatridis, who prefers to work with minimal intervention. “We always have several goals in mind, but what’s most important is that the next day is better than the last,” he adds. This dedication to continual improvement and keeping quality high has born fruit: In the latest issue of Wines & Spirits, Alpha Estate was listed among the best 100 wineries in the world.
Every step in the process is crucial, Iatridis explains, “from the way you set up your vines to the day you choose to harvest and of course the annual climate, which cannot be controlled.” Climate change has, luckily, been kind to Amyndeo: The milder weather has evened out the harsh temperature difference between winter and summer, lengthening the time it takes for the grapes to progress from ripening to maturity.
This year they had several rainfalls between May and June, fewer in July and none in August, which resulted in grapes that are smaller in size. But that means the surface area of the skin is greater in comparison with the flesh, resulting in a higher-quality wine (the complexity and richness of a red wine are dependent in large part on the grape skins, which in turn are affected by growing methods and climate).
The native red xinomavro grape dominates the region’s vineyards (although the conditions here are also ideal for cultivating a wide range of red and white grapes including sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and gewuürztraminer). In fact, Amyndeo is one of only four regions in Greece to receive protected designation of origin (PDO) status for xinomavro – the others, Naousa, Goumenissa and Rapsani, are all nearby.
The same is true for Alpha Estate, even though xinomavro grapes are known to be particularly difficult to grow, as they require extra care and attention in the cultivation process and are very climate dependent – “the right weather results in the best grapes,” Iatridis says. This year’s weather has caused a 30 percent drop in production (most wineries in the area have seen similar numbers) but the quality of the grape itself is higher than in previous years.
“You must take the best grape and respect it as if it were your child,” says Iatridis.
The trygos, or grape harvest, here begins with the white varieties in early to mid-September and goes on throughout the month. Towards the end of September and the start of October is when they harvest the late-ripening xinomavro grapes. Xinomavro means “sour-black” in Greek, and, as the name suggests, it is typically characterized by its high acidity. The grapes, which grow in tight bunches, are not too dark in color, resulting in wines with medium hues that range from a slightly subdued ruby to a terracotta red, depending on the vinification and ageing.
Since xinomavro is a multifaceted grape, it can also produce very good rosés, sparkling rosés and red dessert wines (made with late-harvest grapes) in addition to dry reds. It can even be used to make white wine, but Iatridis prefers not to do this, as it requires technical interference in the vinification process, which goes against his winemaking philosophy.
Xinomavro has a high phenolic content (these chemical compounds influence the taste, color and mouthfeel of wine), due to its seeds, and the resulting wine is incredibly complex, with medium-full body and high tannins, and characterized by the aroma of small red forest fruits, prunes and leather, and at a more advanced stage you can trace aromas of sun-dried tomato and olive paste. It ages particularly well; it’s matured in oak barrels for at least two years.
There are two categories of red xinomavro: the traditional, more rustic version has a high acidity and intense tannins, and the prevailing aromas of tomato, strawberry and dried fruit more generally. More modern versions, however, have a deeper red color, fruitier aromas and more gentle tannins, even though their acidity is still high.
While Greece is perhaps best known abroad for its white wines, Alpha Estate is one of the wineries leading the charge to change that perception. In late August, The New York Times featured an extensive review praising Greek reds; the top bottle in their tasting was the 2016 Alpha Estate xinomavro from the Hedgehog Vineyard in Amyndeon, which, at US$23 per bottle, is a great value.
For Iatridis and Mavridis, it’s onwards and upwards. They are currently in the process of building guesthouses on the property, which are slated to be finished in 2021, as well as a restaurant, which will be located at the highest point of the estate with an incredible view of the vineyard and the lake. The cultivation of vines and the whole winemaking process require expertise, knowledge and lots of work, and the duo are constantly trying to do better. As Iatridis remarks, “our best harvest is always the next one!”
Editor’s note: To celebrate the start of fall, we’re running a series focused on the grape harvest and winemaking.