Escape to Greece: Great Wines from The Peloponnese

I have just returned from a breathtaking wine trip to Greece, where I visited the wine regions of the Peloponnese and Santorini. With a winemaking history that dates back over 4000 years, unique soils and micro-climates, and over 300 indigenous grape varieties, it is little wonder that wine drinkers around the world are embracing Greek wines so enthusiastically. Cook up some Greek food and find yourself a great bottle of Greek wine for an easy escape to this beautiful land.

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The Peloponnese and Its Wines

The Peloponnese, located in the west of Greece, has a long history and heritage of grape growing and winemaking. Even Homer referred to the region as Ampeloessa, meaning "full of vines". Today the region is known for wines of great diversity and complexity.

I was really blown away by how rugged, mountainous and remote the region is — a far cry from our immediate association of Greece with sun, sand and beach-time. The vineyards are scattered on the hillsides and plateaux throughout the region, and benefit from high altitudes and cooling night temperatures to produce top quality grapes.

The main appellations to look for from the Peloponnese are Nemea, Mantinia and Patras.

  • The wines from Nemea are red, and they are made from the indigenous variety Agiorgitiko (A-yeer-YIT-iko), also known as St. George. Agiorgitiko is one of Greece's noblest black varieties and makes wines that are deep in color, aromatic, with refreshing acidity, soft tannins and packed with ripe berry fruit.
  • Mantinia appellation wines are white, made from the beautifully aromatic indigenous variety Moschofilero (Mos-ko-fee'-le-ro), which has a pinkish gray skin. Hence the wines are a type of Blanc de Gris. Delicate, floral and rarely above 12% alcohol, the wines are wonderfully refreshing with hints of spice. Light enough to enjoy on their own, they also pair fantastically with many appetizer and light dishes. Think Greek salad, feta and watermelon salad.
  • The appellation wines from Patras include a dry white made from the indigenous variety Rhoditis, two sweet white wines made from Muscat varieties and a sweet fortified red made from the local Mavrodaphne and Korinthaiki grapes.

Aside from these appellation wines, the Peloponnese is host to a wide variety of regional wines (VDP), where often local varieties are blended with International varieties.

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A Wine Trip Through The Peloponnese

Our first stop in the Peloponnese was at Domaine Papaioannou in Nemea, where we were welcomed by owner Kathy Papaioannou, daughter of owner Thannis Papaioannou, who led a tasting of their wines before inviting us to further enjoy the wines, while feasting on all sorts of traditional Peloponnese dishes.

Next stop was Domaine Skouras, not far from the picturesque town on Napflio, where owner George Skouras showed us around his modern new winery, while talking about his high altitude vineyards (3000 feet above sea level) and their importance in creating wines of great balance and freshness.

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This was followed by a glorious dinner of local Greek dishes, that paired so marvelously with his exciting range of wines. A particular favorite pairing was a dish of roasted red peppers stuffed with creamy feta cheese and a glass of 2008 Skouras Moschofilero white wine.

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Next day we set off for Domaine Tselepos, which is located not far from the town of Ancient Olympia, where the first ever Olympic games took place. We were met by Burgundy trained owner Yiannis Tselepos, who set up the Domaine with his wife Amalia in 1989. First up was a visit to his stunning vineyards set at 750 m asl, where we enjoyed a welcome and refreshing glass of his Amalia (named after his wife) sparkling wine. Tselepos is the only Greek winery to make sparkling wine using the traditional method. Amalia is 100% Moscofilero. It is elegant, and refined with a persistent mousse of tiny bubbles. Moscofilero is his main variety (60% of his plantings), along with some Chardonnay, Agiorgitiko and small amounts of other international varieties.

Later on, still in the Mantinia area we headed to another well regarded property, Domaine Spiropolous, where we were met by UC Davis trained Apostoles Spiropolous. The vineyards are in the center of the Peloponnese, mainly on the Mantinia Plateau at 650m above sea level, but he also has some in Nemea. In Mantinia the focus is on Moscofilero and some Rhoditis for whites, and in Nemea, Agiorgitiko for reds, with small amounts of Bordeaux varieties and some Syrah planted.

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The following day was a real treat. We started with a visit to Domaine Mercouri, which dates back to 1864. Here the delightful brothers Vasilis and Christos Kanellakopolous (the fourth generation of the Mercouri family) showed us around the historic property, while dozens of peacocks did their tuneful thing, as a giant St. Bernard dog snoozed happily in the sun. After the visit and tasting an amazing lunch was set up on the grounds, amid the shady trees. Here we lazily and happily enjoyed the wines with a gastronomic array of meze and other local foods. As well as local Greek grape varieties, Mercouri Estate is particularly known for its red wines made from the Italian Refosco grape, which has been grown on the estate for many generations and was brought in from Friuli in Italy by the brothers' great grand-father.

Our last visit before leaving the Peloponnese was to Domaine Parparoussis, a beautiful property near Patras. Owner Thanasis Parparoussis also Burgundy trained, was one of the first of the new wave of Greek winemakers. Today his daughters Erifili and Dimitra, work alongside him at the winery.

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As well, as the more usual indigenous grape varieties, Parparoussis also cultivates the rare Sideritis variety. An almost forgotten variety it makes a delightful, light white wine, with lots of citrus fruit notes. Parparoussis is the only property growing this rare variety.

After much discussion and tasting through the wines, we were ultra-spoiled with a delicious dinner, all home-cooked by Thannis' very talented wife. As course followed course, we all relaxed in the evening air, to the humming sound of the nearby crickets and truly enjoyed the wines, as they are meant to be enjoyed, with delicious food.

Wines To Try At Home

It would take a tome to list every wine tasted, so I've decided to limit it to a small selection of wines that I particularly enjoyed, and that are available in the United States. While prices may vary from state to state these wines cost between $15 and $25, amazing value considering the high quality.

  • 2004 Papaioannou Vineyards, Nemea - Single vineyard red made from 100% Agioryitiko. Made from 40 year old vines and aged 18 months in oak. Attractive ripe berry fruit, with hints of spice, nutmeg and clove. Oak well integrated.
  • 2008 Skouras Moscofilero, Mantinia - Enticing floral nose, with notes of pear, Meyer lemon, and talc. Refreshing on the palate with a spicy kick of ginger on the finish. very clean and pure.
  • 2008 Skouras Cuvée Prestige Bianco, VDP de Peloponnese - Made from a blend of 50% Rhoditis and 50% Moscofilero varieties. Clean, crisp and fresh with subtle layers of tangerine, juicy mandarin orange, and notes of laurel leaf, and sweet spice.
  • 2006 Skouras Megas Oenos, VDP de Peloponnese - Made from 60-80 year old vines that are on their own rootstocks. It is a blend of 80% Agiorgitiko and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Layers of complex aromas and flavors. Ripe black fruits - cherries, berries and currants mingling with savory herbal notes and hints of earth and leather. Great depth and long length.
  • NV Domaine Tselepos Amalia Brut, Methode Traditionelle - Sparkling wine from 100% Moscofilero grapes. Elegant, pale lemon color, with refined, persistent mousse. Attractive notes of rose petal and freshly baked bread.
  • 2008 Domaine Tselepos Moscofilero, Mantinia - Lively and refreshing. Citrus notes, white flowers, and hints of spice. A delightful wine.
  • 2006 Ktima Driopi Agiorgitiko, Nemea - Very classical and fresh, with layers of ripe berry fruits and attractive subtle smoky notes. property also owned by Domaine Tselepos.
  • 2008 Mercuri Estate Foloi, VDP of Pisatis - Made from a blend of Rhoditis and Viognier, it has delicate citrus aromas, as well as peach and apricot. Refreshing and clean, it is a perfect partner for fish and seafood dishes.
  • 2008 Mercuri Estate Kallisto, VDP of Ilia - A blend of Assyrtiko and Robolo grape varieties. Fresh, juicy and packed with lemony-lime flavors, with floral notes and a creamy mid-palate.
  • 1997 Domaine Mercuri VDP des Letrinon - A blend of 85% Refosco and 15% Mavrodaphne. - Spicy, earthy, layered aromas on the nose with hints of smoke. Flavors of macerating cherries, bitter chocolate and spice. Tannins still quite firm, but good concentration, depth of flavor and long length. At peak. Drink now.
  • 2008 Parparoussis Sideritis, VDP de Achaia - 100% Sideritis. As noted above, clean, fresh and light, with attractive citrus aromas and flavors. Fantastic as an apéritif or with meze dishes.
  • 2008 Parparoussis Cava White Blend - 50% Athiri and 50% Assyrtiko - made from grapes that hail from Santorini. 40% fermented in oak. Spicy, smoky notes mingling with pear and stone fruit.
  • 2004 Parparoussis Taos Cava - Regional Wine of Achaia - made 100% from local Mavrodaphne grape and dry (Mavrodaphne is more usually used to make sweet dessert wines). Deep red color, spicy and ripe black cherry aromas. Lots of tannin but ripe and smooth. Long length.

These are but a short selection of the many wines enjoyed in the Peloponnese. Thankfully today, almost every good restaurant carries at least one or two Greek wines, and most progressive wine stores are giving more shelf space to Greek wines. If you are not yet familiar with these wonderful wines, that are such a perfect match for food, go check them out. Don't be put off by the unfamiliar grape variety names. The wines are fantastic. Enjoy and escape to Greece. Next week I will be posting about the wines from Santorini.

Images sources: Courtesy of All About Greek Wines, Beth Von Benz, Michael Madrigale and Justin Ross

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Mary Gorman-McAdams, MW (Master of Wine), is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. In 2012 she was honored as a Dame Chevalier de L'Ordre des Coteaux de Champagne.

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