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Μ&G Road Trip 2016: Day 5 Kefalonia

Arriving by ferry on Kefalonia just as the sun is setting over its steep, dark green mountains with cliffs that fall straight into the sea gives it a faintly magical air. This first impression is reinforced as we make our way across the island on tiny, windy roads through villages with crooked bell towers and buildings abandoned after one of the large earthquakes that delineate Kefalonia’s history. It’s an hour’s drive from the port to the main town and we’ve barely crossed half of it.

The next morning we once again enjoy a seafront view from our hotel balcony and then jump on an empty ferry across the bay. Travelling out of season really has its benefits and as today is a national holiday (25th of March – a double celebration of the victory in the war of independence against the Ottoman empire and the Annunciation) it’s extra quiet.

 
Waking up view


The mystic charm of travelling off season


Crossing the bay and arriving at Lixouri, Kefalonia

Our first stop is Domaine Foivos – a producer who has really embraced a lot of the obscure local varieties, resulting in a total of 17 labels.  Slightly daunting first thing in the morning with no breakfast or coffee! The Robola (the main white variety of the island) really stands out as do the sweet wines, one of which the French call liquid gold.


Sweet Muscat of Kefalonia or "liquid gold"

Theodore, the winemaker, and his wife, who is an archaeologist, have also researched ancient Greek wine-making techniques and attempted to follow these to make a mavrodaphne in large clay amphora.
The must (i.e. crushed grapes and juice) is first fermented and then added to the amphora along with wheels of cedar and myrtle that had been cut and dried in the sun for a year. These perform the same function as an oak barrel on the wine – imparting flavour and texture. One difference is that they didn’t seal the amphora so a quantity of wine leaked before the impurities in the wine gradually sealed the pores. The ancients would have usually sealed the vessel with resin – which is where the pine-resin flavoured retsina comes from. The results of an early bottling of the 2015 vintage is a wine that seems to have matured very quickly and is very supple.

Next we go to the Haritatos Estate, a beautiful stone house, with its origins in the 1860s surrounded by a patchwork of not only organic vineyards but citrus orchards, olive groves, veg patches and amongst it all sheep, chickens and turkeys. A real self-sufficient paradise. The vines are Muscat and Mavrodaphne planted from 1997 onwards, which produce just two labels, both dry. Both lovely, elegant and balanced – perfect for a lazy day on this island. Refusing the invitation to lunch with the wonderfully eccentric Haritatos family and their friends and peeling ourselves away is very difficult.


On our way to Haritatos Estate












Haritatos Estate, a real self-sufficient paradise

Time is running out to catch the last ferry of the day back to the mainland so we cut straight to our last visit of the day – Melissinos Winery. This is a seriously boutique winery with very small productions of each label, including not only excellent Robola, including a natural label, and Mavrodaphne but the intriguing Zakynthino too. All wines are organic and some of the best of the day.


On the road (again) to Melissinos Winery






Melissinos Winery, another paradise on earth

Our time is up so we catch the ferry to Peloponesse. As this is the 25th of March, there is only one option for lunch – the traditional Bakaliaros Skordalia (Stef ate his too quickly so no photo)


Leaving beautiful Kefalonia behind


And some office time..

 

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Μ&G Road Trip 2016: Day 4 Peloponnese

Eh, slight change of scene today.



Having arrived back in Athens a day late from Crete, we set off very early for the Peloponnese – the four-fingered peninsula to the south of mainland Greece. The weather is bleak and as we leave the main road and start climbing into the mountains and the clouds, sunny Crete seems a world away.

Waiting for us at the top are some high altitude vineyards on a plateau 800-1000m (2,7000 - 3,300 ft) up. Many Greek varieties don’t reach maturity in this microclimate but those that do, such as Moschofilero and Agiorgitiko, produce elegant wines with high acidity. Another effect of the altitude is more rounded, mature tannins so these are smooth wines that go down a treat. Alongside these varieties we find grapes more accustomed to the climate – Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris (a less aromatic Sauvignon), Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a great example of the huge range of terroirs to be found in Greece.

 


Wine PDO map Peloponnese. Credit: New Wines of Greece

Turning back down towards the Northern coast of the Peloponnese and slightly further down the mountains around 650m (2,000 ft) you find the home of the Roditis variety. Roditis is a reddish-pink grape and surely the most underappreciated Greek variety. It is the most widely planted yet is either blended or hidden in cheap wines. In fact, the right clone – Roditis Alepou (meaning fox) – in the right area can make wonderful, refreshing, crisp, lightly aromatic whites that are incredibly enjoyable to drink, which probably explains its ubiquity.  And the great thing is that even the best examples are still very affordable.

Continuing all the way down to the coast you go from the most planted to one of the rarest Greek variety in cultivation – Sidiritis. The name derives from sidiro (iron), a reference to minerality perhaps or the particular spicy zing it gives wines. Sidirits doubles as an eating grape and has quite a thick skin, which can be a challenge during vinification.

The day rounds off with a late lunch and jumping on the ferry to Kefalonia…




Easy lunch while waiting for the ferry to Kefalonia

 

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Μ&G Road Trip 2016: Day 2 Crete

Morning comes beaming in to our top-floor, seafront room in Sitia town centre.

First stop is Toplou monastery, on a peninsula on the North-eastern edge of Crete and a national park blissfully devoid of concrete. The monastery has only four resident monks but their activities far outweigh their modest number with a sizeable olive oil production, winery and distillery, largely down to their enterprising patriarch. Past the monastery you find the Vai palm tree forest, fed from a freshwater spring.

 

 
Toplou Monastery, Sitia, North-eastern Crete


Vai Palm tree forest

Monastery wines don’t predispose you well but Toplou is a pleasant surprise. The winemaker is the suitably softly-spoken Manthos, whose aim is to produce terroir-driven wines. At 35oN and practically sea-level, this means a lot of sun and heat bearing down on the 30ha of organic monastery vineyards planted with local varieties such as Thrapsathiri, Vilana, Assyrtiko and Liatiko, as well as Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah, producing punchy, high-alcohol wines. The results are a set of great food-pairing wines, with real development showing with each vintage of his Liatiko.

 
Liatiko grapes

Liatiko is an old Cretan red variety, the name, so the story goes, deriving from Iouliatiko (i.e. of July) suggesting it ripens early. However everyone we speak to dismisses this. It has a very pale colour and turns a dull orange with age so is often blended with Mandilari for a deeper red hue. Liatiko produces gentle wines with soft tannins and aromas of sweet red fruit and spices. It is used in the PDO appellations of Dafnes and Sitia. Traditionally Liatiko was used in sweet wines and is still used to produce naturally high-alcohol sweet wines.

 
Liatiko produces wonderfully delicate light red wines, that
turn browny-orange with age.

From Toplou we drive south through rolling countryside with olive groves, vineyards, streams and cypress trees and up through small villages to reach Domaine Economou, on the Ziros plateau,  run by Giannis Economou.
Giannis is a collector and fixer of all manner of farm equipment - rusty old tractors, hand ploughs and a French bottling machine from the 50s - and has a similarly hands-on and adept touch with his vines and natural wines.
The production focuses on two labels, a blend of Thrapsathiri and Vilana and a Liatiko, from old, ungrafted, bush vines.


40+ year-old ungrafted bush vines of Cretan Liatiko. Plough looks a bit older.

Giannis has made his name releasing wines only when he thinks they are ready so the 2009 might follow the 2012. He demonstrates the new vintages by scrambling around barrels and tanks to blend them in our glass with the aim of matching the style of the previous vintages he’s opened for us to try (2006, 1999 and 1998). Sublime.


Old vintages tasting

From here we drive along the Southern coast of Crete through acres of greenhouses growing tomatoes, oranges and bananas and then vast plains of olive trees where the air is still heavy with the smell of ripe olives long after the harvest.


The limestone soils of Dafnes

Our destination is the village of Dafnes, nestled in the hills above Heraklio, the chaotic capital of Crete. The last winery of the day is Douloufakis, run by Nikos Douloufakis and his wife Katerina, who produce the local PDO wine from 100% Liatiko, handling the delicate grape by aging 60% in mostly old barrels and the rest in tank. The sister wine to the Dafnios Liatiko is the Dafnios white, which is made from the new star of Cretan white varieties – Vidiano. The variety has good acidity, a full body and complex aromas of apricot, peach, herbs and minerality. Nikos is also famous for his single-vineyard, barrel aged Vidiano ‘Aspros Lagos’. The new vintage will be with us soon.


Βarrels for Vidiano

Nikos trained at the prestigious Alba wine-making school in Italy, which, combined with a fortuitous local planting of Sangiovese, produces his winemaker’s favourite - a wonderfully deep and complex Sangiovese-Cabernet blend.  He puts the great concentration of his wines down to the area’s limestone soils.

Dafnes is where Stef’s grandmother was from so we are enveloped again by the generous hospitality of friends and neighbours and fed a home-cooked meal with local rabbit braised and chicken soup.

The next morning we waited at Heraklion departures for the plane to take us back to Athens but Crete has other ideas. Strong winds had been blowing from the South all night and though they had died down, conditions at the airport, which is particularly vulnerable to gusts from the South, were still treacherous. An hour late, the plane from Athens comes into land but after one failed attempt turns straight back to Athens…

 

 

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