We’ve got a lot to thank ancient Greece for, and establishing basic viticulture and vinification practices is no exception. Although most of the country’s winemakers have laid low over the last century, a handful of Greek farmers are paving the way to ensure that Greece remains at the forefront of Europe’s viticultural advancements. Check out the ways in which five game-changing winemakers are shaking things up across the country’s diverse wine-producing zones.
Douloufakis Winery was established in the heart of Crete back in 1930, though its modern-day story begins with Nikos Douloufakis. After studying enology at the Instituto Agrario-Specializzato in Viticoltura e Enologia in Piedmont, Italy, Douloufakis returned to the island in 1993 to take over operations at the estate. Despite his love for tradition, Douloufakis had bigger plans for the family’s land. “Since my first vintage, everything and nothing has changed,” he laughs, noting that the vineyard has tripled in size, though more importantly, it’s also completely transitioned to organic farming. In addition to implementing more sustainable farming practices, yields have also been lowered, and harvest is done much earlier to preserve acidity and adapt to ever-changing climate conditions.
“Back in the 1930s, my grandfather Dimitris was one of the first winemakers on the island to manage his vineyard in a [commercial] way,” Douloufakis recalls. Today, Douloufakis finds that meshing technology and modern equipment with a traditional mentality is the best way to honor his ancestors’ legacy. “I’m following my family tradition, but much like my grandfather Dimitris, I am passionate about innovation,” he says.
In Naoussa and Amyndeon, Stelios Boutaris also cites that his “vineyard-focused mentality” has been the biggest change he’s brought to his family’s estates. His father Yiannis Boutaris founded Kir-Yianni back in 1997, and after studying and working abroad in both the UK and USA, Stelios eventually returned and took over in 2004. “Our philosophy is that innovation builds tradition, both in the vineyard and the winery,” he says. Boutaris notes that under his oversight, pesticides have been eliminated, yields have been dropped, and unique clones have been planted.
In Amyndeon, Angelos Iatridis and Makis Mavridis have been working to advance viticulture and vinification at Alpha Estate. The pair first planted their vines in 1995 and released their first commercial wine 10 years later. “At the time, we were seen as irrational for creating a vineyard that would be a reference for the Amyndeon appellation,” recalls Iatridis. “From the beginning, Alpha Estate has been focused on quality and innovation.”
In 1995, Alpha Estate was the first winery in all of Europe to install subsoil irrigation and incorporate regulated deficit irrigation in its regimen. Iatridis notes that 590 miles of irrigation pipes were buried in the subsoil at 40 centimeters deep, and the structures are still used today. In fact, Alpha Estate was the first property in all of Europe to apply this process of regulated deficit irrigation.
To monitor the effects of climate change in his vineyards, Douloufakis has implemented microclimatic stations to gather data on soil, humidity, rainfall, frost, and overall temperature. “I am also using soil analysis and topographic maps to obtain information on the differential features defining our terroir,” he explains.
Cellar Innovations & Barrels
In addition to adjusting farming techniques, many winemakers have also brought changes to the cellar. For Douloufakis, this meant swapping new barrels for mostly used oak. “I noticed that with slightly higher alcohol, the impact of new barrels felt more intense,” he says. Today, neutral oak is preferred. In Amyndeon, Boutaris says that although an overall low-intervention mentality is used at Kir-Yianni, modern vinification advancements, such as the use of temperature-controlled fermentation, are welcome additions.
George Skouras founded his eponymous estate in Nemea back in 1986, after studying enology and working in France. “Starting my own winery had many difficulties, like renting vines and facilities and entering the Greek market, but I had so much passion for this that nothing stopped me,” Skouras recalls. What started with a few leased vineyards has since grown to 40 estate-owned hectares, which are now being passed along to his children, Stella and Dimitris.
Skouras always had a passion for native Greek grapes, yet remained open-minded to international vinification and aging methods. “This led me to use Stelvin closures for white wines, as well as implement a solera system for dry red wines,” he says. Skouras notes that his winery was the first in Greece to release wines under screw cap closures. “It took a lot of time and marketing to make it acceptable to consumers, especially in Greece,” he says. Yet Skouras’s motivation for experimenting with Stelvin closures was simply to find the best method for aging his white wines. So far, he’s pleased.
A Return to the Past
Although it may sound contradictory, pioneering can also mean taking a step back in time. After a bout of popularity with international varieties, many winemakers are looking to revive indigenous varieties, despite their lesser popularity on the international market.
Domaine Sigalas was founded by Paris Sigalas on the island of Santorini back in 1991. After receiving a degree in mathematics in Athens and an MBA in France, Paris returned back to his native island, where his family had a small, non-commercial winery, and began experimenting with viticulture. He found himself becoming more passionate about Santorini’s native grape varieties by the day, specifically Mavrotragano and Aidani. “Sigalas also helped the winemaking of Santorini move further from the oxidative character wines had until the ’80s,” recalls Lambros Papadimitriou, the winery’s general manager.
In Crete, Douloufakis describes his extensive experimentations with the native Vidiano grape. “My key initiative is to develop and push forward the Cretan indigenous varieties,” he says. “While I am clearly focused on the future, I am also returning to my roots in a way.” Douloufakis reveals that ancient vinification styles (and vessels) are also seeing a renaissance across Greece, specifically at his estate. Douloufakis and his sons recently produced a skin-macerated wine in Greek amphorae — a technique that his grandfather used nearly a century ago. With the rise of consumer interest in orange wines, he likely won’t be the last to look to this ancient technique.
Looking Outward (for a Return In)
Boutaris believes in sharing his knowledge and advancements with his peers for the greater good of the community. “We adhere to the philosophy that ‘we want to grow the pie for everyone, rather than taking the whole of it’ — in other words, we share information and knowledge, train young people who will move on to new ventures, and will therefore be more likely to promote our regions,” he says. Additionally, Boutaris says that Kir-Yianni was one of the first estates to really invest in wine tourism in Naoussa and Amyndeon, with hopes of turning them into significant wine destinations.
In addition to tourism, commercial profitability abroad is also key. “Since its beginnings, Sigalas has put in [the] forefront the common good of Santorini’s vineyard,” says Papadimitriou. He also notes Sigalas’s actions to increase grape prices — to help growers sustain their businesses in a very competitive market — as essential to the pioneering of Santorini’s commercial winemaking scene. That said, Domaine Sigalas was also one of the first wineries in Santorini to focus on exports, which both encouraged and paved the way for many others to do so.
So what can we expect next from Greece’s forward-thinking producers? Only time will tell, though with the pioneering spirits above at the forefront, we’re sure to taste through these dynamic, ever-changing wines soon.
This article is sponsored by EU Funding.