Thursday, February 11, 2016

Wine and cheese in the clouds: The Rapsani (Mount Olympus, Greece) Vineyard Adventure

We were on cloud nine after visiting Ktima Geravassiliou on our tour of the North Greece wine trail: we had been led in a tasting by Vangelos Geravassiliou, one of the living legends of Greek wine; we had visited one of the best curated wine museums that I have ever encountered; and we had been treated to a spectacular lunch prior to boarding our vehicle for the next stop on our tour.

We were flying high. But higher heights awaited us in the form of the Rapsani Wine Adventure, a nail-biting, knee-knocking, white-knuckled, vertigo-inducing, end-of-the-rainbow, safari-themed tour of the Rapsani PDO vineyards which are located on the slopes of Mount Olympus, the legendary home of the Greek Gods. But wait, I am getting ahead of myself.

What it feels like to take the Rapsani Wine Adventure tour.
(Image from
We were scheduled to go on a vineyard tour so I was somewhat nonplussed when we pulled into what appeared to be a supermarket parking lot in a little village. Strange place for a vineyard, I thought. Stranger still, we were approached by a sunglass-wearing bloke who was dressed in attire more befitting the Serengeti Plain than this village parking lot. He spoke to the driver of our vehicle and the order was given for us to disembark. Strange.

Once we got out of our transport, I noticed two open-top, Jeep-like vehicles with logos for Rapsani Vineyard Adventure emblazoned on the doors. I got it then. We were transferring to our vineyard transports and the attire worn by the strange guy (who turned out to be Dr. George Salpiggidis, Viticultural Director and Head of Tsantali Rapsani) was all part of creating an atmosphere of a hard-bitten, no-nonsense, adventure guide. I liked it. So we clambered in and headed off.

This is probably an appropriate time to describe the environment within which the Rapsani vineyards reside. Rapsani is a protected designation of origin (PDO) in the Greek appellation schema. Its physical and legal characteristics are elaborated in the chart below.

The vineyards proper are located on the southern slopes of Mount Olympus and its "mainland mediterranean" climate is modified by the surrounding mountains and forests as well as by the Thermaic Gulf of the Aegean Sea. One of the heralded aspects of the environment is the 10 - 15 ℃ temperature variation between day and night, a condition which, it is held, "enhances phenolic ripeness and aromatic concentration of the grapes."

Ones mortality is constantly on the mind as you wend your way up steep mountain slopes with vertiginous drops on one side and ever-rising slope on the other. Funny but I constantly felt the urge to lean away from the gorge, willing the "Jeep" away from the edge.

Our first stop was at a level where we were directly across from Rapsani which draped down the side of a mountain slope.

And Dr. Salpiggidis began to tell us the story of the Rapsani vineyards as he guided us through the vineyards. Grapes had been grown in this region for a very long time. The quality of those grapes were evidenced by the produce being classified as an appellation wine in 1932 and one of the first Greek PDO wines in 1971.

The vineyards had always been owned by local farmers who provided grapes to a cooperative. In the 1980s, however, the region fell on hard times and the winery was repossessed by the bank. Growers began to look at other alternatives and were further encouraged to desert grape growing by an EU initiative which paid them to keep grapes off the market.

Tsantali took an interest in the region when viable vineyards were 10 ha in total. According to Dr. Salpiggidis, they embarked on a program to resurrect the greatness by first paying the growers more money to plant vines than the EU was paying them to pull them out. Secondly, they embarked on a cooperative program with the growers to guide them in the production of high-quality grapes. And third, they acquired the local winery in order to meet the PDO production requirements. Today, vineyard size is up to 90 ha from the 10 ha starting point.

After this scintillating discussion on the history and current practice of Rapsani viticulture, and tasting of wines which magically appeared from one of the non-Jeep vehicles following us (thanks Kiriaki Panagiotou), we re-boarded our vehicles to continue our trip up the mountain.

This phase of the trip was even more "adventurous" than the first. I kept hoping that we would not encounter any vehicles coming the other way, mountain goats heading to lower ground, or wild boars hellbent on mindless destruction. I heaved a sigh of relief when we pulled into the courtyard of ... a church (According to Kiriaki, the name of the church is St Theodoroi Monastery Terrace)? Now this was the last thing I had expected to encounter at this level. But I can see its relevance -- the calm after the storm kinda thing.

But even more soothing was the spread that was laid out before us on some upturned wine barrels: breads and cheeses and wines that seemed to be surveying the valley at large. But before we partook of the bounties, Dr. Salpiggidis took us on a tour of the Monastery.

I have seen some idyllic settings for wine and cheese pairings but this one takes the cake.

I conversed intently with my seat mate on the way down and was very congratulatory to my driver when we pulled into the parking lot of the lunch restaurant. Mind you, it was 4:00 pm and we were embarking on lunch, our second of the day. And what a lunch it was. I am still sated after the passage of all this time.

This had been a fantastic experience whose conception was genius and the execution of which was flawless. The story of the region is captivating in and of itself but to tell it within that setting is absolutely brilliant. I have taken vineyard tours before. I have pursued the big five on safari in Masai Mara. And I have conversed with viticulturists while drinking wine in their vineyards. But never before have I experienced all three effects simultaneously.

The Rapsani Wine Adventure is an adventure worth having.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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