When it comes to native grape varieties, the Greek vineyard is among the richest in the world. Presently there are 33 PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) varieties and 100 varieties with a PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) spread across the country, from the northern border to the outermost islands.
While some of these indigenous varieties are extensively cultivated – assyrtiko and xinomavro come to mind – others remain unknown and even on the brink of extinction. But there are passionate winemakers across the country who are working to spotlight these lesser-known and almost forgotten varieties, people like Dionysia and Sakis Britzikis, the wife and husband behind Abelon, a family-owned winery and vineyard in the western part of the Peloponnese.
Located in Lantzoi, a village not far from the ancient site of Olympia, the Abelon winery was established by the couple in 1994. The name comes from the Greek word ampeli (αμπέλι), which translates as “vine” (Ampeloessa, or Αμπελόεσσα, one of the ancient nicknames given to the Peloponnese, whose winemaking activity has been renowned for centuries, was also derived from this term). The vineyard sits in the valley of the Enipeas River, where the clay soil combined with the humidity and temperatures created by the river comprise an ideal microclimate for growing grapes.
The fields full of vines have been in Sakis’ family for generations. Both he and Dionysia, who hails from the nearby town of Amaliada, were working as classical music professors when they met. Yet Sakis would often help his parents tend the vines, especially during the harvest. The white and red grapes were mixed together and then taken to the local co-op, where they were made into wine – the tradition of making wine at home or at the local co-op purely for personal consumption is deeply rooted in Greece. In fact, this particular area in the Peloponnese has always been known for its village-style rosé, which was easy to produce without much knowledge or sophistication.
Sakis, however, didn’t particularly like the end result and felt strongly that it was a waste of the family’s treasured vines. So he and Dionysia dedicated themselves to building their own winery. The couple had a romantic vision of creating a business that operates with a zero-energy footprint, using only solar and geothermal energy, and at the same time growing their grapes naturally and organically. In 2012, their vineyard was officially recognized as the first fully eco-friendly “Green Vineyard” in Greece.
Equally important work was done down in the fields – soon after taking over, they separated the white grape vines from the red, and then focused their attention on reviving rare local varieties that were nearly forgotten. First they focused on avgoustiatis, a red variety that is drought-tolerant and cultivated mainly in the western Peloponnese and on the nearby Ionian islands; they were among the pioneers in bottling monovarietal avgoustiatis 30 years back. They then turned their attention to growing tinaktorogos, a local white variety that was not widely cultivated – those who did used it for personal consumption. Both grapes became the cornerstones of their wines.
Monovarietal wines produced from avgoustiatis are very rare, which makes the fact that Abelon produces four wines entirely from this variety, three reds and one rosé, even more impressive. The Augoustiatis, a red matured for 12 months in a barrel and aged for six months in the bottle, has a deep, vivid color and a full, soft taste with fruity aromas, particularly of berries and cherries. While it can be enjoyed immediately after its release, the wine’s velvety tannic structure means that it becomes even more interesting and complex with an additional four to six years of additional aging in the bottle.
They also produce a limited edition Augoustiatis Reserve, matured for 12 months in barrels and then bottled unfiltered. This red has deeper aromas of ripe fruit and berries, tobacco and spices like clove and black pepper with a balanced acidity and a lasting complex aftertaste. Their third red is Green Augoustiatis, a natural wine matured for six months in barrels and then also bottled unfiltered. A deep red color, it has aromas of ripe summer fruits like figs and mulberries, and hints of nutmeg.
Finally, their rosé made with avgoustiatis is very pleasant, light and crisp – ideal for summer – with aromas of fresh berries and a refreshing aftertaste.
While their avgoustiatis wines are a treat, Dionysia and Sakis are particularly proud of their cultivation of tinaktorogos, a unique white variety with ancient roots – the grape is mentioned in Homer’s work and is indigenous to the area around ancient Olympia. Locals used to grow it for personal consumption, and it was common wisdom, according to Dionysia, that “if you don’t add tinaktorogos to the wine, it won’t be good.” But Abelon is behind the variety’s recent comeback and introduction to a broader audience – the couple has been exclusively cultivating tinaktorogos for commercial production for the past 23 years, with the grape acquiring a PGI in the process.
It was common wisdom, according to Dionysia, that “if you don’t add tinaktorogos to the wine, it won’t be good.”
Tinaktorogos (τινακτορώγος) is a peculiar variety whose name – tinazo and roga (τινάζω and ρώγα) – essentially describes what it’s all about. Tinazo means “to shake, throw off” and roga means “grape,” specifically each berry (stafyli is the Greek word for the fruit more generally) Its name derives from the fact that during its blooming season in early June, this “intelligent” grape variety tends to naturally shake off a number of its less robust berries, leaving only the sturdiest ones to develop further. Also referred to as a “green harvest,” this natural process leads to each cluster losing between 10 and 15 percent of their berries, which results in a significant reduction in yield. But at the same time, the berries that remain on the vine are better aired and receive more sunlight, resulting in a very interesting and high-quality white wine with aromas of citrus fruit and peaches.
The couple produces two wines from this variety, using a brief pre-fermentation extraction and aging it in perfect conditions that result in a crisp, almost transparent wine with green and yellow highlights. One is called Tinaktorogos, with elegant aromas of flowers, tropical fruit and lemon blossoms, and the other is called Rhapsody 22 (a nod to the fact that the grape is mentioned by Homer in The Iliad), which is made with a fermentation process that takes place naturally in French oak barrels for over 24 months and has a limited production of 900 bottles per year.
While roughly a quarter of Greek wines are produced in the Peloponnese, it’s usually the established, globally popular varieties of moschofilero from Mantinia and argiorgitiko from Nemea that garner the most attention. So we’re happy to see lesser-known varieties, which locals have known for years as “the good stuff,” get their day in the sun, thanks to the tireless work of passionate winemakers like Dionysia and Sakis Britzikis.
Editor’s note: Inspired by our Wine Clubs in Tbilisi, Lisbon and Athens and the grape harvest season, we have asked our correspondents to share the stories of winemakers and wine shops that are making a splash in their city for our Wine Week 2020.