As 2015 opens its doors to new opportunities, I find myself looking back on my favorite parts of 2014. There are a few experiences that I will remember, but there are also those memories that I will never forget. My trip to Nemea, Greece was that 2014 event.
In June, I had the unique opportunity to join an elite team of communicators from around the globe during the #NemeaWineTour2014, led by Ted Lelekas. Over the course of three days, we met with nearly 30 wine producers and tasted more than 200 wines to learn what makes Nemea a player to watch in the international wine games.
Over the last two decades, thanks in large part to subsidies from the European Union, significant investments have been made in Greek vini-viti-research, vineyard management and winery technology, turning what was once an international reputation of retsina producers into a quality-focused national collective of distinctive wine regions.
Fortunately, the producers of Nemea, in the eastern Peloponnese, have worked hard to re-brand this ancient wineland by focusing on making the best wines possible from local grapes. By doing so, Nemea has become the most important red wine-producing region in Greece, for the local black grape Agiorgitiko. Agiorgitiko translates as “St. George’s grape” and usually bottled under the regional name Nemea for wines that are aged in wood barrels and under the grape variety name when made in stainless steel.
Though wines from Agiorgitiko and Moschofilero are not readily available on many international retail shelves, it is my feeling that if producers of Nemea continue to follow their current course, the finest-crafted wines are sure to find markets of scale.
It should be said, however, that with any regional boon, there will be winners and losers, and those who simply miss the boat. Those who focus on quality will certainly reap the benefits of their hard work, while those who skirt the edges with an eye on profits from a growing interest in Greek wines could dilute the Nemea brand.
WHAT MAKES NEMEA UNIQUE
The key to understanding the Nemea landscape is its geographic diversity.
With plantings at elevation with varied aspects and soil types – including high concentrations of chalk and clay – in vineyards close enough to the sea to be effected by the Mediterranean Climate, the characters of both the red and white table wines show potential for mature fruit and acidity, phenolic maturity, and the capability for some ageing.
Under the supervision of knowledgable producers with an eye toward quality, the wines show promise for the diversity sought by international wine consumers and professionals in the trade.
Sparkling wines, still table wines, sweet wines, and fortified wines can all be found in Nemea.
The indigenous black grape finds its home in various terroirs throughout the Peloponnese.
The wines feature red forest fruit, ripe cherry, and plum (when very ripe), the wines show a range of fruit concentration, spiciness, and supple tannins.
Together with the local cuisine of fresh fish, seasonal vegetables, and local game, Nemea – the red wines are typically bottled with this regional labeling term – is adaptable to various culinary preparations.
George Loukas is one of Greece’s top sommeliers and the founder of Genius in Gastronomy. According to Loukas, current styles of red Nemea show a range of qualities that are perfect for the restaurant and home preparations. “Agiorgitiko has a fruity style with cherry and sour cherry aromas and a spicy character,” Loukas said. “Due to its soft character and its aromatic palette it can accompany Middle East cuisine with dominant spices and generally with spicy dishes, barbecue sauces which balance with the velvety texture of the wine.”
Agiorgitiko has the potential for high yields, especially when grown in the valley floors. By managing the canopy (vine foliage) and lowering yields in the vineyards, as well as focusing on hillside plantings, a new generation of winemakers have been able to harness the best of this potentially vigorous grape variety.
Oak barrels and some larger wood containers are being used for ageing the red Nemea. Use of new oak varies from producer to producer. At their best, red Nemea features ripe fruit, a spectrum of tannins, good acidity, and a lingering palatial distribution and a reserved touch of oak.
Moschofilero (Moh-sko-feel-eh-roh) is an aromatic grape wine that features floral and fruity aromas and flavors (rose, white peach, and
herbs spices). It shows its best when grown in the sub-appelation of Mantinia.
The Moschofilero variety is a pigmented (pale red when fully ripened). Many of the wines that are made with Moschofilero are pressed gently and the juice is separated from the skins before any pigmentation can color the juice. They can be seductively aromatic, light or complex in the palate, and are usually meant for early drinking – though my heart suggests that some experiments with extended maceration could show a white wine that has potential for ageing.
Loukas likens Moschofilero to other aromatic varieties and their pairings. “Moschofilero is a variety [with] a high intensity of aromas of flowers (rose, acacia) and exotic (litchi) and citrus fruit,” he said. It is an extremely versatile wine.
“[The flavour profile is] soft and crisp with low alcohol, which make these wines a perfect match for intensely aromatic, though not incredible spicy or fatty foods,” Loukas said. “I particularly like Moschofilero with Asian cuisine – vegetable spring rolls, shrimp dumplings, and shellfish, oysters, mussels, and shrimp – but it can also accompany a couscous salad, a cold soup with avocado and coriander, or sushi with vegetables, and Provencal dishes like a niçoise or lentil salad and stuffed zucchini flowers.”
In each glass, I find a spectrum of aromas, flavors, and textural elements similar to wines like muscat, torrontes, viognier, or grenache blanc.
While high yields have been de rigueur for generations, local enologists have learned that high yields can have an adverse effect on the wines of Nemea. Successes in the vineyards and the wineries have proven that moderate yields and attention to detail in the winery can lead to quality wines and an uptick in sales. However, there is a greater force at play.
Egos, no matter where wine is made, tend to seek gratification. Gratification in the wine industry usually includes high scores from international critics – which drive sales – and that means that some producers are prone to changing strategies for even a taste of short-term success. You can’t blame them. Winemaking is a business. It puts food on people’s tables.
But Agiorgitiko, in particular, does not do well in the extremes. High yields and over developed grapes (for higher alcohol levels) and over-oaked wines are my definitions of “extreme.” Though we did see these wines throughout the #NemeaWineTour2014, they were not par for the course. They were, nevertheless, present and accounted for.
As the years progress and Nemea coaxes more winelovers to the Peloponnese – for study, eno-tourism, and travel – my hope is that my fellow gastronomic adventurers find the local wine producers continuing to focus on what makes Nemea unique rather than international schemes to garner ratings from critics who will have passed on by the time this wonderful wine region finds its own comfortable stride.