Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Xinomavro: Variety, growing regions, and wines

During my recent visit to the Kir-Yianni winery in Naoussa, Stelios Boutaris described Xinomavro as a difficult grape to grow and very unique in that "it is susceptible to every pest and disease that comes along." In the Wine Commanders presentation (Xinomavro on Fire) at the 2015 edition of the Digital Wine Communications Conference, Yiannis Karakasis MW referred to the variety as "a diva." Yet they are both effusive in the praise of the wines made from this grape.

What is it about this variety that engenders this "disdain" among the greatest proponents of its wines? In this post I will explore the internals of the variety, its growing regions, and the product of this union. The Naoussa and Amynteo portions of the post draws heavily on the work of Dr. Stefanos Koundouras of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Perspectives on Xinomavro: Greece's Noblest Varietal, Use permission granted by Angelos Iatrides of Alpha Estate.).

The Variety
Greece has over 69,000 ha of land devoted to the growth of its 300 indigenous varieties, the fourth most planted (2,389 ha) of which is Xinomavro, the noble red variety from North Greece which is the basis of the PDO wines from Naoussa, Amyndeon, and Goumenissa and a key component of the PDO wine from Rapsani. The key characteristics of the variety are provided in the figure below.

Growing Regions
The PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) designation describes the highest quality level in the European wine classification schema and Xinomavro wines made from grapes grown in the Naoussa, Amyndeon, Goumenissa, and Rapsani areas -- and meeting other relevant statutory requirements --can use this indication on the labels.

The Naoussa PDO covers between 500 and 600 ha of mostly east-facing slopes at altitudes ranging between 106.68 m (350 feet) and 457.2 m (1500 feet) at the foot of Mt Vermion in Central Macedonia (Between 100 and 120 ha of the planted vines are devoted to the growth of non-Xinomavro varieties.).

Naoussa PDO showing key crus. Used with permission.
The climate in the region is Mediterranean, with continental influences, and is further moderated by Mt. Vermion which protects the vineyards from cold north winds as well as providing a rain-shadow effect.

Table 1 below shows the varying soil types in the Naoussa PDO while Table 2 shows the unique microclimates created by the interaction of the soils and climate zones.

Designation Soil Type Percent
K1 Loamy soils (sandy clay loam, loam) without Calcium Carbonate
K2 Loamy soils (sandy clay loam, loam) with Calcium Carbonate > 4%
K3 Clay soils (sandy clay, sandy loam, loam) without Calcium Carbonate
K4 Clay soils (sandy clay, sandy loam, loam) with Calcium Carbonate > 4%
K5 Acidic soils (pH < 6)
Table 1. Soil types in Naoussa PDO (Source: Koundouras)

Zone Altitude (feet) Characteristics
  • Deep soils
  • Earlier harvest
  • Grapes suitable for light reds
  • Central zone ranging between 600 and 800 feet
  • Mostly clay soils with high lime percentage
  • Some of the best crus
  • Trademark tannic wines with aging potential
Table 2. Naoussa PDO microclimates (Source: Koundouras)

According to Koundouras, the wines with the best aging potential are associated with calcareous clay soils as these soils provide good drainage, root aeration, and medium vine vigor.

The Amynteo PDO covers 650 ha (250 of which is devoted to non-Xinomavro varieties) at altitudes ranging between 550 (1800 feet) and 750 m (2500 feet) in the town and municipality of Amynteo in the Florina peripheral unit of Macedonia. Amynteo is the coldest grape-growing region in Greece with cold winters and relatively cool summers and autumns. There are four lakes in the region which serve to modify the climate but the largest impact is derived from the presence of the interconnected lakes Vergitis and Petres, of which the former is the largest. The area experiences northern winds from surrounding mountain ranges.

The area is cooler and drier than Naoussa and most of the new vineyards are irrigated. The vineyards are, for the most part, modern and cordon-trained but there are clusters of old vineyards including some own-rooted, pre-phylloxera, head-trained vines.

The main grape growing regions and soil types are illustrated in the charts below. According to Koundouras, the Type I soils are "ideal for aromatic and elegant Xinomavro wines" while the type II soils produce "structured and balanced" wines.

The Goumenissa PDO covers 330 ha on the western slopes of Mt. Paiko, just 50 km northwest of Thessaloniki. The gentle, southwest-facing slopes are somewhat protected from the cold north winds by the Paiko range while the lower altitude allows the moderating effect of the Aegean Sea to influence the crop.

In this region Xinomavro is blended with up to 20% Negoska, a distant relative and a variety that is unique to Macedonia. The two varieties have to be co-vinified and aged a minimum of 1 year in oak. According to BBR, the high sugar content, and riper berry fruit, of the Negoska, help to balance out the character of the relatively austere Xinomavro. The wines of this region are seen as broader, and less firmly structured than other wines of Macedonia.

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." The physical and legal characteristics of the zone are elaborated in the chart below.

The Wines
I evidenced a variety of Xinomavro wine styles during my tour of Northern Greece to include:
  • Still and sparkling Blanc de Noirs
  • Rosés
  • Red fruit-forward
  • Red structured
  • Mono-varietal (Naoussa and Amyndeon)
  • Blended (Rapsani and Goumenissa)
  • Sweet
The aroma/taste profile of a traditional Xinomavro red wine is indicated in the table below.

Aromas Taste
Strawberries, cherries, plums Structured, ageworthy
Vegetal (dried tomatoes, olives) Firm tannins, medium-high intensity
Floral (roses) in light soils, robust in clay Medium-high alcohol (has risen 1.1% over last 20 years
Develops savory, aromatic complexity (truffles

Table 3. Xinomavro aroma/taste profile (Source: Wine Commanders)

Compared to Naoussa, Xinomavros from Amyndeon have brighter fruit character, a leaner palate, and greater florality.

There is an ongoing concerted attempt to present Xinomavro as the face of North Greece red wines and it took a little while for me to get it. At 2014 DWCC, Ted Lelekas and Luiz Alberto presented a seminar on the wines of North Greece and I left the session not feeling the urge to add the wines to my collection. And it was nothing that the guys did. The wine just did not appeal to me. The tomato vegetal character and hint of a mid-palate were somewhat off-putting.

That feeling persisted on this tour until I tasted the 2005 Ramnista at Kir-Yianni and the 2008 Ramnista and the 2007 Boutari 1879 Legacy at the Wine Commanders Master Class at the Plovdiv DWCC. The 2008 Ramnista exhibited ripe fruit, truffles and a kerosene character. Red fruit on the palate with a mid-palate that raised its hand. According to the Wine Commanders, Kir-Yianni uses clones that allow greater ripening of fruit (less vegetal character). According to the Wine Commanders, the year 2007 was a "ripe vintage year" and the the 1879 Legacy reflected this with rich, ripe cherry fruit along with tar, licorice, earth, truffles and spice. And a mid-palate.

What this told me is that Xinomavro, like Barolo and Pinot Noir, for example, shows best after it has had an opportunity to evolve in the bottle. The problem with that is that the trend today is towards wines that are more approachable.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. Thank you #greekwinelover Keith Edwards!!!

    1. You are welcome fellow #greekwinelover Alexandra Anthidou