Sunday morning, one minute past 10. The weather is rainy but there are signs of a letup. The driver and the first gastronomads are already in their seats.
The ‘European’ character of the club is confirmed a couple of minutes later when, everybody being punctual, we set out at 10:10 on a visit to the land of our forefathers. The Le vent nous portera by Noir Desir accompanies us appropriately on our passage to the other side of Ymittos Mountain, where the appearance of the first vineyards start to make the landscape around Attiki Odos more interesting.
The conversation inside the mini van centres around – probably not only out of need but also concept – the temperate way of life of the ancient Greeks, whose staples were mainly vegetables, pulse, cereals and smaller amounts of dairy products, meat and fish, depending, of course, on the region and the financial resources. Such was their frugality that even when there was an abundance of raw materials, it could still be seen in the simple way of cooking. So simple too, were the symposia (banquets).
The ancient Greek word for banquet is symposium : ‘syn’ means ‘together’ and ‘pino’ means drink and so, friends coming together to eat and drink.
That is why our ancestors split the symposium into 2 parts. Food was served during the first part whereas the wine was served in the second, which preconditioned the presence of hetaerae and dancers, and the absence of other women! So simple.
The typical triad of the Mediterranean diet at that time may have been Wheat-Olive Oil-Wine, but in the case of Athens it was probably Wheat-Olive oil-Savatiano. A variety of grapes highly resistant to high temperatures, drought conditions and disease, and ideal for the region. It is so resistant that despite having undergone countless interventions over the years, being badly used at will, and having its name exploited in many ways, it goes on producing several very interesting wines while still maintaining its own character. Besides, it is due to this flexibility that it makes such a variety of wines; wines with resin, such as the well-known Retsina, or from fresh and easy-to-drink wines to more structured aged ones as well as dessert wines made from sun dried grapes.
It is said to have all started 4.000 years ago, when the ancient Athenian wine-makers, in an effort to properly preserve the wine they made, rubbed resin into the inner walls of the amphorae in order to seal pores and also utilized this same sealant on the lid.
Pine trees thrived in Attica and Euboea, and the resin from this particular species was held in high regard. Thus, over time, its fragrance was mixed into specific wines and later on this winemaking procedure passed to the hands of tavern-owners, who bought only unresinated must from vine growers and decided what to do with it as they wished. At first, they added the amount they deemed necessary for the desired aroma, later, the amount was increased to ensure longer preservation and finally, it reached a point where quite a lot of … water was also added to the wine, making it similar to the krater mixed wine of the ancient Greeks. But in the case of ancient Athenians, this was done for health reasons – so that the wine would not upset them – whereas in this more contemporary version, the underlying cause was an irrepressible desire to make more profit. As a result, they sold wine with a high percentage of resin and low content of alcohol, which not only led to a bad, bitter taste but also brought on problems to the consumer, such as bad intoxication and stomach upset. Today, fortunately for us, there are people who treat this historical Attica vineyard variety as it deserves, thus offering us some extremely interesting wines.
1st Stop: Domaine Vassiliou, Koropi
The Vassiliou family may have over a century long history in producing wine, yet George Vassiliou, the oenologist of the Domaine and a third generation winemaker, with studies at the University of Dijon in France, welcomed us with the joy of a person who was just starting to realise his ‘wine dreams’ and the friendliness of a very close relative. He took us on a tour of the winery and talked to us about the methods and techniques used to produce their wines, in a way as if he was describing a treasured secret recipe that he had managed to inherit from his great-grandmother. Likewise, he presented his tanks and barrels with the same smile of pride, as if he was talking about his children. George Vassiliou loves what he does and it shows in his wines. This love can also be seen in his small collection of old winemaking equipment and antique tools, used as space decor. It was barely 11 o’clock and it was a wise choice to drink Ciban, the fresh Savatiano of the Domaine. Its light and fruity character combined with its refreshing acidity and lemony aftertaste was just right as a starter. Coupled with crayfish with Krokos Kozanis Saffron, which the Tip the chef had prepared, this could even have made an perfect Greek meal!
2nd Stop:Mylonas Winery, Keratea
To find this winery you have to have been here before. Hidden among other buildings in the area of Keratea, this small, modern family run winery does not call out its name, nor does it try to attract its visitors with folklore or winemaking symbols. And Stamatis Mylonas, the head vintner is just as low-key. Often bending his head, he speaks in a low tone of voice about wines that, among other distinctions, have won a gold and a silver prize in the Decanter World Wine Awards, one of the most difficult and influential international competitions. With the same simplicity and modesty, he describes experiments with amphorae, lees contact and cask burning, without showing off. Something that anyone else in his place would, albeit unwittingly, have done. For almost a century now, his family has been working the land of Attica vineyards with love and respect, and the wines they produce are the result of this labour. The wines are not flashy, do not strive to impress. They win you over when you come to understand them. And this is what we felt while drinking Mylonas Retsina. Though it was not yet noon, the wine was a delight to drink. The presence of resin was fairly mild, there to accompany rather than to overwhelm the fruity aromas and the herbal hints on the finish. Ideally, retsina calls for meze and entrees and combining it with rabbit with mustard seed proved to be an excellent idea!
3rd Stop: Anagnostou Winery, Koropi
Upon reaching the imposing gate and seeing the enormous expanse of the winery estate, which is approximately 15 acres, the first thought to cross our minds was how long it would take us for the tour and whether we would manage to stick to our tight schedule. If we want to refer to an ultramodern large-scale production unit in Attica, it would be like taking a picture of Anagnostou Winery. A winery that is able to produce wines from bag in the box and pet to magnum aged, while managing, at the same time, to give the best quality possible to all these levels. And if you’re wondering how this is possible, it only takes talking to Christos Anagnostou for 5 minutes to understand. Christos Anagnostou is a third generation vintner who has studied oenology in Germany and, who is so full of passion for what he does that he could fully justify his intention to indulge in his every wine producing … whim. Though having just met us, he was so open with us that by the time we got to the cellars with the French barrels and the monastery tables, we already knew a great deal about his wines, and even more about himself. When the time came for us to drink barrel Savationo, The Magic Barrel as he calls it, few of us expected it to have evolved so. A wine as exuberant as its creator, with wood tones and hints of wheat-ear in superb balance with ripe white flesh fruit. It was no coincidence that no one wanted to put down their glass, nor their veal souvlaki with quince that provided the perfect pairing.
4th Stop: Papagiannakos Winery, Markopoulo
This was the first stop where almost everyone wished to take a stroll around the building before going in. Not only because of its truly impressive architecture and aesthetic taste, but also its bioclimatic philosophy. On the same spot, where about a century ago his grandfather filled the first barrel, today, Vassilis Papagiannakos has created a modern winery that respects and honours the history of the region. His aim is to showcase it even further, relying on the truth of the primary ingredients, that is why the winery is designed in such a way as to show the visitor all the stages of production, without being an obstacle to the on-going work. Because he does not want to and does not have anything to hide, and nor do the wines he produces. Having grown up with Savatiano, Vassilis Papagiannakos was one of the first persons to believe in the potential of this Attica variety, and one of the few who knows it so well. We realised this when we listened to him describing, in great detail, the history, the evolution and his own concern about it, and also a little later on when drinking his 2008 Domaine. Now, seven years later, the wine has vibrancy and acidity, a rich and oily mouthfeel, while its fruit is mouth filling. Especially when pairing every sip with chicken liver pate with pomegranate, we enjoyed its evolution even more.
5th Stop: Georga Family, Spata
The Georgas family is no ordinary family. That is why our visit could not have taken place in an ordinary winery area – though this is exactly what this winery is not, since its history stretches back to 1898! – but in its natural environment. In the vineyard. There, where Dimitris Georgas, with a degree in Geology and postgraduate studies in Oceanology and Environmental Administration, lives his life with his plants, talks to them, listens to their needs and, when need be, travels to … ancient Greece to seek advice from his ancestors about the appropriate methods to deal with a problem. This is what biodynamic viticulture means and this specific family is not only one of the first in this field to follow it faithfully, but also to apply it on an every day basis as a philosophy of life. As for the wines they produce, they have a respective organic viticulture approach, without additional yeasts, oenological substances, chemical aids or practices, with a sulfite level almost as low as 0 in aged wines, and with processes such as filtering and fining seen as rarely as snow in Mesogia.
There, under the centenarian pine tree beside the vineyard, after having first tasted as many as we could of the grape goods produced by the Georgas family – from petimezi to grape water!- and listening to Chara playing tunes by Seikilos from 200 BC on the flute, we drank their sweet organic and unfiltered wine, aged for 5 years in a French oak barrel. High alcohol content and full body, with tones of dried fruit and nuts and lengthy finish, but mainly with a sweet sense of authenticity. As for its combination with a soft confection of sesame seeds and dried fruit, which the ancient Greeks called plakountas, only one word seems to fit: Lokum!
Across the Attica sky a crimson red starts to colour the clouds and we started on our way back. Inside the mini van, a sense of sweet fatigue lingered in the air and then the speakers started playing Micro’s arrangement of Melina’s song “Remember Me”. A phrase that hid the meaning of what this trip was all about.