They do good wine in Greece. That surprises some people. It shouldn’t. The Greeks have given us the pillars of modern civilisation as we know it, have given us hedonistic deities, sporting heroes and even naughty, old Dionysus himself: God of Wine. So they should also give us good wine. And they do.
But where has it been all these years, you ask? Why don’t they serve it at the pub? Do they have any at ALDI? Why isn’t there Greek wine at the off-license I stumble into around midnight with a head full of junk and a heart still in sorrow? Why? Why am I, the writer, pretending that I can hear and field the questions of you, the reader? WHY?!
Greece is a small country, an underdog, when you look at her against the sprawl of Europe, against the mass of the western wine-producing world. Her agricultural output aligns with her size. Her capacity to produce for both local consumption and an export market aligns with her resources and her own appetite, much of it being enjoyed in Greece by Greeks (or holidaying Germans). And some of it makes it out alive. A study* of 2019 ranking wine exports by country placed Greece as the 26th largest player, with a value upwards of £64 million. France sat as the reigning number 1 with almost £720 million. That’s a lot of hangovers.
Greek wine, like the truth, is out there.
Apostolos Thymiopoulos, (whose first name is, for me, a heralding coincidence) is one of many Naoussa shepherds of the native and most noble black grape variety Xinomavro, from which he produces a collection of astounding, complex, age-worthy rosés and reds. I’d say seek them out with a liquid hunger like no other, but for the first time ever I face the conundrum of wanting to tell people to drink his wines and also not wanting to. The more I tell people to drink his wines, the less there is for me. And the less there is for me, the less I’ll revisit the true pleasure of a Thymiopoulos; the leavening bliss of a wine that haunts the nose, that seduces the tongue and tantalises the mind.
Thankfully Thymiopoulos has in more recent times lent his skilful hands to producing even more wine in some blended and single varietal reds and whites under the ‘Atma’ label. And it is under the lemony-limey lick of the ‘Atma’ Assyrtiko that I, today, find myself swooning.
In early April in Jerusalem, the season of spring just kicking off, the temperature sits in the late teens and early twenties. Now whilst global warming (yes! …it’s real) has wrought dramatic change to expected averages it’s safe to assume that you could have anticipated a mild and pleasant early evening in early April some two thousand years ago as much as you can today. We all love a good supper, but I’ve often wondered about the choice of red over white especially when the weather has only just turned good and there’s nought but figs, olive oil, honey and a little bread to soak up the booze. I think that if any disciples were offered a tipple of good juice from the Good Lord Jesus in early spring in Jerusalem, with the temperature sitting in the early twenties, a chilled and fresh and zippy white or rosé would have been more likely to pass around the forward facing rabble; even with the planned sentiment of metaphorising the wine as blood. After all, this is a savvy and generous thirty three year old; poor, yes, but not without resource. By all accounts he was a classy, considerate guy. The kind of guy more likely to bring a bottle of long-macerated, new-world Moschofilero from the the independent bottler to a spring luncheon than an inappropriately bold and full bodied rouge or a checkered and warm bottle of Tesco’s finest.
And if the Good Lord Jesus, sandal-clad and on a budget, were planning his early April festivities in the northern hemisphere today as he did some two thousand years ago the Thymiopoulos ‘Atma’ Assyrtiko would be just the right kind of juice.
This is 100% Assyrtiko. Hailing from the volcanic isle of Santorini the renowned white grape has made its way to mainland Greece and it is from Macedonia, better known for red production, in the north that these grapes have churned astounding chemistry. Half the grapes coming from Thymiopoulos’ own vineyards in Naoussa and half from other growers across the region. Hand-harvested, gentle-pressed, organically-yeasted and un-oaked. With a 20 day ferment and denied malo-lactic conversion the wine retains it’s naturally high acidity. The nose immediately throws lanolin and lemon cheesecake, camomile tea, daffodils, jasmine and orange blossom. There’s lime wax candle and possibly cut parsley. It also smells a little like glue and a lot like a lemon tree that’s had her roots concreted over to make way for a footpath. It smacks with the noted piercing acidity and seaside freshness; the mouth moving all of that acidity up the rear telling your teeth and tongue that there’s a party in your mouth and more to come, if only you’d take another sip.
And it’s got considerable length. Not a Dostoevsky or a Dickens. More like a recommended ‘good read’ on a spring holiday; part juicy-romance, part noir-thriller touching poignant microdrama. The kind of book you buy at the airport terminal on the first day of vacation and are rushing to finish on the last, because its better than you thought it’d be and you want to tie the memory of that holiday and the memory of this book together in a neat and canary-coloured bow.
It takes me to a seafood banquet, to the light and lo-fi disco of better times, to the long Sundays in Sydney when I would climb over the rocks around eastern suburbs watering holes and watch the dark blue of the rocky sea meet the soft indigo kiss of the sky. It’ll make you think you could play tennis really well and imbibe perfectly afterwards and you would actually look great in a body hugging set of 70’s sports shorts and terry cloth polo, a gold chain bouncing in your sweat-flecked chest hair. It wouldn’t matter who had 15 or 40 or who took the game because at some point we all start with love.
Enjoy it wearing sandals. Enjoy it dashed with soda. Enjoy it with shucked oysters courting new and fresh delight. Seek out Assyrtiko and enjoy! If it’s good enough for the Greeks, and the right kind of aperitif over a supper with twelve mates and a bread-baking host, it’s good enough for me. Just don’t tell anyone about it.
*study by Daniel Workman, Worlds Top Exports.
tasted February 2021