What wine is medium to deep ruby, translucent, high acid and high tannins, were you thinking nebbiolo? You were close. It is Xinomavro, the black, noble grape of the Naoussa wine region (PDO) in the northern Greek province of Macedonia.
Leave it to the wine map mavens at Wine Folly ,to have an easy to read map, of Greek wine regions. Greek Macedonia is the green area in the north, and Naoussa, the largest, mountainous urban center in the north, is center left within the green region. Thessaloniki, the largest city in the region, sits on the southern border along the coast of the Aegean sea. The vineyards of Naoussa are set on the southeastern slopes of Mount Vermion that protects the vineyards from the cold winds of the north, and the Aegean sea is to the east. Whereas the climate to the south is Mediterranean with long hot summers, the mountainous nature of Naoussa results in a semi-continental climate as you gain altitude, with even skiing present on some of the mountains, in the nearby Amyndeon PDO in winter. Already, what a wonderful place in the world to transport yourself momentarily as you sip the wine.
I was fortunate to attend a dinner at the Mediterranean restaurant Kostali at the Gwen in the MagMile area of downtown Chicago. It was sponsored by the Naoussa Xinomavro PDO and organized by the American WIne School. Master Sommelier, Jill Zimorski, lead the mini-class on the Xinomavro grape as we tasted the wines blind but paired with food.
Xinomavro (Ksee-NOH-mah-vroh), also known as, Mavro Naoussis, Popolka, Popoliko or Mavro Xino is an indigenous, noble, black grape primarily grown in the vineyards of Naoussa as well as in the cooler and drier region Amyndeon PDO, further north and west (see map). Xinomavro (acid/sour), Mavro (black) gives an indication to the grapes atrributes, high acid, high tannins, pale to medium ruby, medium to full body depending on winemaking. The grapes are grown at altitudes of 100m- 400m, on south-eastern facing slopes, which include the changes of temperature that maintains acidity in the grapes and promotes flavors. Aromas included strawberries, plums, raspberries and a bit of tomato leaf tucked in. Nick Jackson in his book “Beyond Flavor“, describes Xinomavro as being easily confused with nebbiolo. He describes the wine as having “high levels of grippy, grainy, tannin and high acidity. The difference from nebbiolo is its ripeness the fruit is sweeter and more concentrated on the mid palate and the body rounder”.
The perfect pairing of the night was the ribeye steak with the high acid and tannins of the xinomavros. The delicious fatty nature of the ribeye softened the tannins in the wine, making it taste fruitier and smoother. I am not a big meat eater, particularly steaks, so I chose the scallops which on first glance you might think, what scallops with a high tannin red wine? Oh my! Well, Michael Nahabedian, a partner in Kostali, is probably one of the top food and wine afficionados in Chicago. The scallops were enveloped in charred scallions on a bed of parsnip puree. The char and the savory pungent nature of the scallions allowed the scallop dish to be embraced by the red wine and not repelled. Jill commented that xinomavro has a bit more tomato leaf, vegetal quality than nebbiolo, and I think this vegetalness complemented the scallions. I do not have any pictures of the food because it was for the most part scarfed up immediately by everyone, it was so good.
We were honored to have Dimitri Petropoulos, the Greek Trade Commissioner of Chicago, as a dining guest. He was born in the region and described Naoussa as being similar to the mountainous areas of Colorado.
As you might have surmised, there are plots of old and very old vines in the region. Given the wines structural characteristics, they have an ability to age like Nebbiolo Barolos and Barberescos. The winemakers in Naoussa also have an inventory of aged wines available to the market. We tasted one, it was blind so the producer was unknown, it had that red brick color and the complex aromas of balsam, leather, some forest floor and a touch of mushroom. I could have sat at the table for much longer sipping that last glass of Xinomavro.
In my WSET materials for the Diploma Unit , in the Greece section they cite Kir-Yianni as one of the producers of note in the area. Although the wines were blind, I did take a sneek peak of a few including the Kokkinos winery whose pictures on facebook I used for this post.
In the materials provided by the PDO and in Jill’s talk, it was quite evident that like the Barolo region, in Naoussa there are a variety of terroirs and soils that result in varied styes of wines. One of my expertises is just going down rabbit holes quite easily and it was evident, that there are of course, particular vineyards and soil pairings that result in very terroir specific wines. This night was just about the grape, Xinomavro and pulling aside the curtain to show what the personality of the grape is and what a wine partner it is at the dinner table. Being a lover of nebbiolo myself but not having the personal budget anymore to buy barolos, xinomavro from Naoussa is a wine to turn to. Eventually, people will and some already are, not going to xinomavro as a nebbiolo substitute but going to xinomavro for the stunning wines resulting from this very scenic, specific place. This was a very great night to Travel By the Glass to Naoussa in northern Greece. Thank you to Marianne Mortimer Franz of the American Wine School and to the Naoussa PDO for making this delicious food and wine event possible. Ya mas!