Chatizvariti: Making (more) sustainable wine in Greece

Any readers who know me will know when I'm in London, ten days a month or so, I am usually found propping up the bar at 67 Pall Mall, the wine lovers club that has transformed the London wine experience, at least for folks like me.

One of the head sommeliers there is Klearhos Kanellakis, who knows much of what there is to know about Greek wine, and lot more.

Not long ago, Klearhos hosted a superb masterclass on Greek wine, and more recently introduced me to Chloi Chatzivaryti, who is making lovely wines in Northern Greece. He also treated me to tasting of some of Chloi's wines, which I can confirm are excellent.

Amongst my wine friends, we're all becoming more and more fascinated with Greek wines, from Economou Oikonomoy Sitia (the 2004 is just gorgeous) to wineries further north, such as Chatizvariti.

Jancis Robinson, rightfully (if regrettably) let the cat out the bag recently on how good Greek wine is becoming. See here for details. Long may they be the kind of value drinkers like I enjoy. It may be a while before they become as unaffordable as some of the Northern Rhone wines and of course, much of Burgundy and a lot of Bordeaux. Here's to hoping.

So after Klearhos connected me with Chloi, I sent her some questions about the wines they make and sustainability issues around grape growing and wine making in Greece. Here's her responses underneath, and some photos of her family, in action in the business together.

TW: Tell us about the history of your vineyard, and wine in the local area

CC: Our winery is situated in Goumenissa, in the Northern part of Greece. It is the smallest PDO zone in Greece and it has always been an important wine growing region. Before Phylloxera, around 1100 ha were cultivated while today there are around 350 ha, from which 90% is used for wine production.

My mother was born and raised in this village but her father was a merchant and her family had no relation with viticulture or winemaking. It was not until she met my father, that wine making was put into the picture. My father is an electrical engineer but he always wanted to make his own wine for the family and friends. He started bottling his first wines in 1984 and in 1993 he started planting his first vines. Everything was done out of pure love for good wine and therefore organic viticulture was chosen with no second thought. In 2005 we started the construction of our winery and in September 2007 we made our first ever wine in our own winery!

Today, we have approximately 15 ha of organically cultivated grapevines and we produce seven different labels. 3 red ones (one PDO and 2 PGI), 1 rose (PGI) and 3 white ones (PGI). In 2017, after having studied and worked abroad for 4 years (France, Portugal, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile), I came back to Greece, in order to start experimenting with my passion, the natural / least intervention wines and permaculture in the vineyard. In 2018 I produced 3 different natural wines, white, red and orange.

TW: Which wines are you making, with which grapes, and why?

CC: Our region is mostly well known for its red varieties, Xinomavro and Negoska. Xinomavro is the most famous red Greek variety while Negoska is the indigenous variety of Goumenissa. Negoska comes from the Slavic word, Negous which means Naoussa (important wine region in Greece).

We assume that this variety started from the region of Naoussa, but it was better cultivated in Goumenissa and this is why today Negoska needs to be blended with Xinomavro, at a minimum percentage of 20% for the PDO Goumenissa.

Our winery produces:

1. PDO Goumenissa, 70% Xinomavro and 30% Negoska- 15 months in old French oak barrels, 6months in bottles
2. Xinomavro 50%- Cabernet sauvignon 50%- 10 months in old French oak barrels, 6months in bottles
3. Mosaic red- multivarietal wine with Xinomavro, Negoska, Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot- tank fermented, no barrel ageing
4. CHLOE rose- Xinomavro 70% and Cabernet sauvignon 30%- tank fermented, no barrel ageing
5. Assyrtiko 100%- 3 months ageing in old French oak barrels
6. Vagelis, Assyrtiko, Sauvignon blanc, Gewurtztraminer- tank fermented, no barrel ageing
7. Mosaic white- multivarietal wine with Assyrtiko, Sauvignon blanc, Roditis- tank fermented, no barrel ageing

The natural experimentations of the 2017 vintage are all wild fermented with no additions, no fining and no filtration. The quantities were very small and they got exported in several countries like Canada, England, France, Germany, Belgium etc
1. Aplo, 100% Assyrtiko barrel fermented (white)
2. Lito, 100% Xinomavro tank fermented (light red)
3. Aperitto, 100% Roditis amphora fermented, skin maceration for 2 months (orange)

For all our wines, we try to use our native varieties as to demonstrate their characteristics and expression in their own region, as well as other Greek varieties that are not from the region, but can develop very interesting character (e.g. Assyrtiko). Since we have already some international varieties planted, we have made some interesting and powerful blends between Greek and foreign varieties. The natural wines are all monovarietal from interesting Greek varieties cultivated in Goumenissa, aiming the people who want to taste the uniqueness of our region.

TW: What does sustainability mean to you in your vineyard and wine making process?

For us sustainability is in our high priorities, as to guarantee long term development always with respect to the environment and the needs of our vineyards. We have always been certified organic, trying to set high quality standards and promote reasonable farming. Our idea is to try minimizing the external inputs and emphasize in the creation of a closed ecosystem, with its natural biodiversity.

All the vineyard practices including the harvest are done manually. Sustainability in the vineyard can provide healthy and strong plants, easily adaptable to new conditions and with high quality fruit for a long period of time. We believe that good wine starts in the vineyard and we always seek quality over quantity. In the winery, we are trying to improve the energy sufficiency by applying several practices like saving water, using solar panels, recycling the glass bottles etc. For the wine making, we try to use gravity instead of pumps to transfer the wine and for small experimentations we are performing foot pressing.

TW: Many winemakers don’t like following other people’s rules, with say organic or biodynamic standards, what do you think about that?

CC: For me, the important thing is how successful the “other people’s rules” have been proven to be in the long term. For very long time people have been very focused on studying every aspect of cultivation separately and they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. They have been devoted in intensive monocultures which deplete the soil’s nutrient resources and create imbalanced plants, being afraid of plant competition instead of searching for plant synergy.

Many people still believe that we cannot successfully and commercially cultivate vineyards without using pesticides. What they don’t understand is that imbalanced vineyards can only give sensitive vines prone to diseases. It’s true that organic, biodynamic and permaculture techniques are not always easy, as they demand much more work and presence compared to conventional systems. But the only way to preserve what we have and create sustainable development is to respect the nature and work with it instead of working against it.

For me, it is the only way to guarantee healthy vines and good grape quality in the long run. It is more of a way of thinking rather than a marketing tool. By experimenting with permaculture techniques and least intervention wines we want to observe the changes in every level and go to even more sustainable ways of producing wine. Our goal is to make wines with total respect to the soil’s microorganism and the vineyard’s biodiversity, in order to be able to present unique wines which can totally express the terroir of our region.

TW: Are you concerned about climate change with regard to making your wines, and what can you do about it, in the vineyard, and in other ways?

CC: Working with the earth allows you to clearly notice a big change in the climatic conditions and the cultivation needs. People generally think that climate change will simply mean a temperature raise, missing the details of how this may affect the plant cycle and change what we knew until now.

In order to better adjust to these changes, vineyards should be seen as an ecosystem and be treated in the whole. The idea is to try to develop the plant’s auto resistance and auto healing processes. Emphasis should be given to the soil’s microorganisms and composition.

The use of heavy machines should be limited in order to avoid compact soil and bad root development. The root system should be able to penetrate to deeper soil layers and find water during periods of serious drought. Cover plants can also help in this direction, as they keep some moisture on the ground. For the white varieties, different training systems can be applied for leaf covering of the fruit zone while avoiding sunburns and limited acidity levels .

In case of constant rains during the summer months, some leaves should be eliminated as to reduce the humidity around the fruit zone and avoid the fungal diseases, while selective fruit removal can be done when fruit load is excessive. Some plant infusions can be prepared and sprayed to help the grapevine be more resistant and cover plants should be cut to reduce excess humidity around the roots.

One other important aspect is that we try to plant all the new vines in bigger heights, so as to guarantee colder nights and better wind aeration between the lines which can dry out the morning mist.

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