By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 3 July 2021
Naoussa in northern Greece is one of the wine world’s most underappreciated wine regions – home to just one grape, Xinomavro.
This region is off the beaten track for many Greek tourists, but is relatively accessible if you fly into the coastal city of Thessaloniki. Head 60km west from the coast, through the fertile plains of Macedonia where King Midas had his gardens, towards the south-east slopes of Mount Vermio of northern Greece.
Naoussa is the name of a town and Greece’s first and most famous PDO. It sits in a sheltered arc of mountains protected from brutal north winds with ample rainwater from the melting snowcaps which surround it. This is where the tricky Xinomavro grape thrives at different altitudes on limestone and clay soils.
“Xinomavro is seen as the diva of the grape growing world”, explained Matthew Horsley, The Wine Society’s Greek wine buyer who took me on a voyage of discovery through the nuances of Naoussa. This region has seen a dynamic wine renaissance since 1980s, with a new generation of growers now bottling their own, like the acclaimed Apostolos Thymiopoulos who produces first rate quality wines.
At our tasting Horsley highlighted subtle differences in Xinomavro styles across Naoussa’s subzones, from more structured wines of Gastra subzone and minerally salty-toned wines of Pole Nera in the north - down to the richer fuller styles of Trilofos in the south.
“It is a vigorous vine, so essential to restrict yields to avoid it becoming stalky and green. It is also susceptible to mildew and botrytis, low in anthocynanins hence its pale colour, suffers from potassium deficiency hence its high acid and is very tannic in nature”, says Horsley.
But as Horsley showed, with a fascinating range of six different Naoussa Xinomavros now on offer at £105 as a special Naoussa six-pack from www.thewinesociety.com, in the right hands this grape can produce exquisite aromatic sensuous wines.
Xinomavro literally translates as ‘sour black’ which does not do it justice. Imagine instead a wine with the ethereal bouquet of fine mature Pinot Noir from Burgundy with the body, structure, brooding high alcohol and firm tannins of Nebbiolo from Barolo. You get the picture: enchanting aromas, savoury palate and unrelenting tannins. Xinomavro does not appeal to all, but like both Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo it does have the potential for longevity - and as Horsley suggested many of these wines will improve with bottle maturity.
All these wines below show the different modern and traditional faces of Naoussa Xinomavro from top producers (pictured above is star producer Apostoles Thymiopoulos) – some more approachable for earlier drinking, some tannic needing more time to soften. Ideal food accompaniments would be roast lamb cooked with rosemary, tomato-based dish, barbequed aubergine or a hard aged Comtes cheese.
If you are new to Xinomavro, it might be worth starting off with an introductory wine like Thymiopoulos’ Jeune Vignes (£11.50 The Wine Society), his standard Xinomavro (£11.99/14.99 Majestic Wine) or even cheaper Thymiopoulos’ Xinomavro & Mandilaria blend (£9.50 Marks & Spencer).
EARTH & SKY XINOMAVRO NAOUSSA 2018 Thymiopoulos (14%) ***STAR BUY***
Subzones: Fytia & Trilofos
Naoussa’s star producer in my book is Apostolos Thymiopoulos, with vineyards in higher altitude Fytia at 650m south of Naoussa and in lower Trilofos. From a generation of growers, he was the first to make wine in his family. His style is typical modern Naoussa with rich ripeness, using part whole bunch fermentation, wild yeasts and longer maceration (40 days) than anyone else. Youthful colour, fragrant, strawberry, farmyard hints, sweet spicy oak notes, plush, soft supple tannins typically of 2018 vintage, bright acidity and long length. Drink to 2027.
XINOMAVRO NAOUSSA 2015 Markovitis (12.5%)
Subzone: Pola Nera
From a small cult winery founded 1980 in northern Naoussa run by German-trained Markus Markovitis. 2015 was typically pale producing cherry, cranberry nose, elegant fruit palate, slightly spicy smoky from Hungarian oak, salty notes, fine but dominant tannins – made in a modern style. Drink to 2030.
RAMNISTA XINOMAVRO NAOUSSA 2017 Kir-Yianni (14.5%)
From superb 2017 which combines power and richness, made by Kir-Yianni - now one of most famous estates with vineyards at 300m who use modern extraction methods. Deep dark brooding with plummy, dark cherries, bramble, quite succulent – a rich full expression of Xinomavro. Drink to 2027.
XINOMAVRO NAOUSSA 2016 Ktima Foundi (13%) ***GOOD VALUE***
Small Ktima Foundi winery is the bastian of Naoussa’s traditional style with pale colour, savoury, less oak influence and pronounced tannins needing lamb or pork roast to enjoy. Dried tomato and spice flavours, tertiary savoury flavours with richness and vibrant high acid, an intriguing wine at this price – needs more time in bottle. Drink to 2028.
XINOMAVRO NAOUSSA 2016 Domaine Karydas (13.5%)
From a tiny estate founded 1979 in upper Gastra, whose wines can be tannic and unforgiving. Very fragrant, sweet notes, caramel, savoury hints, black pudding flavours with piquant acidity and softer more rounded tannins than many traditional Naoussa styles. Drink to 2031
XINOMAVRO NAOUSSA ORGANIC 2018 Dalamara (13.5%)
From the opulent ripe 2018 vintage, this example is produced by one of Naoussa’s oldest growers founded 1840. High toned bouquet, cranberry spicy undertones, lot of sweet ripe fruit with firm tannic grip (matured in French and Hungarian oak). It would benefit from further maturing. Drink to 2031.
All above available from www.thewinesociety.com as a six-pack (£105) or as individual bottles
Join Rose’s Hidden Gems of Hungary wine tastings Saturday 10 & 17 July in association with L’Art du Vin www.rosemurraybrown.com