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March 6, 2024

Alpha Estate: Amid the terroir nymphs

Sarah Kemp is enchanted by Xinomavro and other fine wines made by an outstanding producer in the mountains of northwest Greece.

By Sarah Kemp

In an article first published in WFW64 in June, 2019, Sarah Kemp travels to the remote mountains of the Amyndeon appellation in the Florina region of northwest Greece to meet Angelos Iatridis and Makis Mavridis, the talented winemaker and viticulturist producing, among other vinous treasures, some of the country’s most captivating Xinomavro at Alpha Estate.

Skiing in Greece? It probably doesn’t come to mind often. For most of us, the image of Greece is deep blue water, yachts, sandy coves, and, perhaps, if we are lucky, a delicious cold glass of Assyrtiko from Santorini. Greece, the ultimate laid-back sun-drenched Mediterranean lifestyle, celebrated by so many, from Patrick Leigh Fermor to Mamma Mia!, a country of gods and goddesses, Homer, ancient heroes, and idle beauty—certainly, that was my Greece before I visited Alpha Estate and added dappled mountain forests, fierce brown bears, stories of nymphs, and the subtle but intriguing perfume of the Xinomavro grape.

Alpha Estate, one of Greece’s most renowned wineries, lies in the remote wilderness of the Amyndeon appellation in the Florina region, on a limestone plateau, situated at an altitude of 2,030–2,330ft (620–710m), near the border of Albania and Macedonia, in northwest Greece. The mountains that surround it are the tail end of the Alps and are home to the beautiful ski center of Vigla Pisoderi and Voras-Kaimaktsalan and the charming historic village of Nymfaio, which is protected by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture for its architecture.

This mountain village became famous for its silversmithing and today hosts a museum devoted to the art, along with a church where new bold frescoes of the Macedonian martyrs in a deep blood-curdling scarlet have been commissioned by a rich young banker from the region who currently resides in London. It also boasts a charming boutique hotel where the owner has named each room after a nymph. She explained, “They guard the mountain. This is a special place—it is all about nature.”

Halfway up the mountain guarded by nymphs is the Alpha Estate winery, open every day of the year to tourists except Christmas, Easter, and New Year. It’s also a habitat for brown bears, which were driven south over the mountains to escape the bombings during the Balkan wars; they were originally dancing bears abandoned by the gypsies.

Such is the growing reputation of the estate that 16,000 visitors a year drive up the long, bending forested mountain roads and past the wolf sanctuary to taste these extraordinary mountain wines. It is a journey that Eric Boissenot, the renowned first-growth Bordeaux consultant, also makes each year, and it is easy to see why. This is cool-climate mountain Greece, a historic land with links back to Alexander the Great, whose cousin, Amyndis, gave his name to the appellation. It is perhaps best thought of as Greece’s Piedmont.

From Karma to Kella via NATO

The owners are winemaker Angelos Iatridis and viticulturist Makis Mavridis. As we drive up the mountain bends, Angelos explains how it all started. “My father was a third-generation pastry chef from Thessaloniki, but I decided to study chemistry at the local university. The last module was enology, and as soon as I studied it, I knew I wanted to be a winemaker.” This epiphany led Angelos to Bordeaux, to the Faculty of Oenology, where he took his master’s degree in winemaking, but it was a decision to get some hands-on experience in the vineyards that was to lead to a friendship with his future consultant.

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“I took the bus up the Médoc to the Pauillac region, because I was going to work a stage at Château Liversan for Prince Guy de Polignac. I arrived in the square at lunchtime, and everything was shut. I hadn’t realized everyone stopped for lunch. I didn’t know what to do—nobody answered the château phone—and then I saw this young man who said, ‘Can I help you?’ It was Eric Boissenot. He drove me to the château, and we soon became firm friends. We studied at the Faculty of Oenology together; I was 23, he was 22. It was karma.” It was many years later, in 2006, that his friend—who by then had joined his father and was a world-renowned consultant to some of Bordeaux’s first growths—became his consultant, too. Alpha Estate is the only winery in Greece to which Boissenot travels.

The young Iatridis headed back to Greece to work for the Boutari brothers and, after a couple of years, decided to start a consultancy business with some of his Boutari colleagues. “We consulted and supported wineries all over Greece, and it is through consulting that I met my friend and partner Makis Mavridis, who was a viticulturist.” It also gave him an opportunity to explore the potential of Greece’s different wine regions. Later, he also decided to broaden his experience with stages with Alain Brumont of Château Montus in Madiran (Tannat is one of Alpha Estate’s top wines), L’Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin in Colmar, Alsace, the Station Oenotechnique de Champagne in Epernay, and a course at the University of Wine in Souze la Rousse.

Angelos Iatridis who, with viticulturist Makis Mavridis, co-owns Alpha Estate. Photography courtesy of Alpha Estate. Photography courtesy of Alpha Estate.

Both Angelos and Makis were fans of cool-climate high-altitude regions, but it was, of all extraordinary things, NATO that helped them decide to plant in the Amyndeon region. NATO was sponsoring a Science for Peace project to bring the Greek and Slavo Macedonians together. Angelos explained, “Money was put aside for research into the Amyndeon region and the value of indigenous grape varieties, and the region had both Greek and Slavo Macedonians working in the vineyards.” Working with the Souze la Rousse university of wine, he applied and found they “fitted the criteria for a grant.”

The Amynedon region has been growing grapes since the 3rd century bc, and the ancient city of Kella was renowned for producing wines of very high quality. When Angelos and Makis arrived, most of the wineries were selling their grapes to the local cooperatives. They were intrigued by the possibilities of the region, with its sandy clay loamy topsoil covering the limestone subsoil. Though the climate is semi-continental, the cold mountain weather is mitigated by five prehistoric shallow lakes, leading to a diurnal difference of +/-34°F (+/-19°C) and making for a long, slow growing season. It is the coldest part of Greece but also one of the driest, with rain a rarity during the harvest season. Buoyed up by their NATO research, in 1995 they decided to plant 4ha (10 acres) of Syrah, Merlot, and Xinomavro.

The two men, as is so often the case with successful partnerships, are completely different. Angelos looks as if he could have been a general in Alexander the Great’s army: hawkish intelligent face, bear-like frame, and the sort of dynamism and energy that would lead you to believe very little could stop him. Makis looks as if he would rather be alone in the vineyards—quiet, studious, and totally connected to the soil. In 1997 they formed the company Alpha Estate, two years after the first vines had been planted. Today there are 180ha (445 acres) with 140ha (345 acres) in production, all in a single block.

Uncompromising and unique

The grape at the heart of the estate is Xinomavro, which means sour/acid (xino) and black (mavro). The grape it most resembles is Nebbiolo—and like Nebbiolo, it is a great interpreter of its terroir. The profile of the wine is, however, more red fruit than black. Florina is famous for its sweet red peppers, and Xinomavro has this flavor at its core, along with other red fruits such as wild strawberries and sun-dried tomatoes. It has a thin skin, natural high acidity, and a mountain brightness to the fruit. The grape is known for being tannic, and it is unusual in possessing three or four seeds, which according to Angelos is the key to its phenolic ripeness. Leading Greek wine expert Nico Manessis says, “You can tell when the grape is ripe because the seeds taste of walnut.”

What fascinated me was Xinomavro’s bouquet—subtly aromatic, the bouquet of the forested hillside, intriguing and mysterious. The grape’s natural high acidity combined with phenolic ripeness gives Xinomavro long aging potential, and the older wines I tasted had those glorious tertiary flavors of truffles and dried fruit, but with a backbone of acidity that keeps the freshness throughout.

The philosophy of the estate is sustainable viticulture; no herbicides are used, and though they farm organically, there are no checks, so there is no certification. A cover crop is used on the sandy loamy soil, and each block is treated separately according to its rootstock and grape variety.

Modern technology is combined with Makis’s nose-to-soil approach, and a deficit irrigation system has been installed— 370 miles (600km; think Edinburgh to London) of irrigation pipes that are buried in the subsoil at 16in (40cm) deep and 12in (30cm) for “controllable stress.”

Some €30 million have been spent on the winery since 1995. “We don’t make compromises,” Angelos stated, “and we nearly lost the business in 2005.” Technology, championed by Angelos, and row-by-row walking by Makis go hand in hand. Within the 140ha are 92 separate blocks, and all of them are vinified separately. “I could make 92 separate wines,” Angelos said, “but I don’t think the market would like it.” The grapes reach the fridges within 40 minutes of picking, optical sorters are used, and the grapes are destemmed before being vinified.

Angelos is a firm believer in technology: “You have to be in advance; you have to be proactive.” Every vat can be controlled at a distance, so whether he is in New York or on a beach, he can control what is happening. What is impressive is how the technology is used to serve the individuality of each plot: “This is micromanagement: Each subsoil, each vine, needs something different,” he explained. GPS satellites monitor the vineyards and thermal imaging is used to evaluate how stressed each vine is; this is when the advanced deficit irrigation system comes into play. It is a unique double act of old-fashioned viticultural practices by Makis and the use of the ultimate technology by Angelos.

Old-vine Xinomavro’s lingering beauty

There are several levels for the Alpha Estate wines. The ultra-premium are called Ecosystem and include single-block Sauvignon Blanc Fumé Kaliva, a Chardonnay Tramonto, Pinot Noir Strofi, and Tannat Vrachos, all from plots of between 2ha and 3ha (5–7.5 acres). The flagship Alpha One is different every year, depending on which variety has performed best. There is also a late-harvest wine, Omega, a blend of Gewurztraminer and Malagouzia. Next are the Estate wines, with Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, and the Estate Red SMX (Syrah, Merlot, Xinomavro). The premium range wines are named for the animals on the hillside: Alpha Estate Syrah single-vineyard Turtles, Alpha Estate Xinomavro single-vineyard Hedgehog.

One of the wines that captivated me was the Alpha Estate Xinomavro Reserve Vieilles Vignes Single Block Barba Yannis. This 3.71ha (9.1-acre) block was planted in 1919, ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines trained as traditional gobelets. Angelos and Makis bought the vineyard in 1999, and the wine is named Barba Yannis (“Sir John,” for the vineyard’s former owner). The 2015 vintage was controlled power, revving away like a Ferrari on the starting line. A beautiful array of red cherries and greengages caressed the palate, with a bite of stone fruit, deep and complex, and all the attributes to age beautifully. The 2014 was a broader expression, not as precise as the 2015 but still that spicy, intense, gorgeous rich red fruit interweaved with dark black-chocolate notes, silky tannins, and bags of personality. The wine that stole my heart, though, was the 2013 vintage, with its elusive fairy-tale nose that transported you onto the hillside from which it came. There are wines for which fruit notes go nowhere near describing the beauty of a wine—and this is one of them. Images of paths though mountain forests filled my mind as its lingering beauty seduced my senses.

In the full tasting of the wines, I found that I preferred by far the 2015 and 2013 vintages to the 2014. The Alpha Tannat 2015 Single Block Vrachos had so much latent energy that I wrote “full-pelt jive.” It was bursting with juicy black fruit, like a mad dancer with its hair down; there was nothing reticent about this wine—whereas the 2014 just didn’t have the same oomph.

Individuality, terroir, and value

What is truly exciting is that it is not just the small-plot single-vineyard wines that deliver. The Alpha Estate Blend 2015 (Eric Boissenot is hands-on with the blending) is 60 percent Syrah, 20 percent Xinomavro, and 20 percent Merlot, and it exudes class, generous blackberries, and red fruit, long, elegant, and as harmonious as a sextet at the end of a Mozart opera. It is not only the reds that shine. As a pupil of “the pope of white wine” Denis Dubourdieu, Angelos has an affinity for teasing out the texture of his white wines. The Alpha Estate Assyrtiko 2015 Aghia Kirianki Single Vineyard enjoys skin contact for six hours, with a controlled alcoholic fermentation by indigenous flora isolated from the specific block and is maintained sur lies for eight months. The result is a generous wine, combining a core of white stone fruit with tangy mineral notes reminiscent of sea shells, lifted and lyrical.

We finished the tasting with a late-harvest Xinomavro 2007, whose bouquet is pure dried old rose petals, the palate a riot of wild strawberries and summer fruit, and the length appearing endless. Extraordinary. It was a mark of the quality of the wines that after the tasting I felt energized and more intrigued than ever. At a time when Burgundy and Barolo prices are skyrocketing, these wines are still within financial reach: For those who love individuality and terroir, the value for money can hardly be beaten—the majority are under £25.

If Alpha Estate is a torch-bearer for the Amyndeon region, its light spreads wide. Nine wineries are now officially registered. To encourage excellence in the area, Alpha Estate has opened an education center on the estate where growers are brought up to date with everything from vineyard techniques, to the best tractors. Energy abounds: “If all goes well, a hotel will open in 2023,” says Angelos.

As I drive back to my hotel through the forests to the top of the mountain, I think how singular the terroir is, and how relatively undiscovered. While other varieties grow well, Xinomavro is without doubt its star, hefted to the soil. It isn’t Pinot and it isn’t Nebbiolo, but it shares their ability to produce luminous wines of beauty that age with grace and elegance. Back in the village of Nymfaio, as I say goodnight to the owner of my boutique hotel, I ask her whether she believes nymphs protect other mountains. She looks at me sternly. “The nymphs belong here; they won’t travel,” she says firmly. As I pulled the light cord I thought, how appropriate: Greek terroir nymphs.

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