The interest in Greek wine continues after a decade in which wineries here have almost tripled in number. It has been the switch to championing indigenous grapes and the improving quality of the wines that have been the main drivers. As the standard-bearers start getting into their Sixties so a new generation is taking over with firmer financial footing and a healthy appetite for pushing the envelope. Justin Keay talks with leading producer Stellios Boutaris, who heads up Ktima Kir-Yianni in Macedonia, northern Greece and last year took over the running of Domaine Sigalas in Santorini.
“This may be the birthplace of wine culture – with a huge diversity of grapes and vines able to grow almost anywhere – but the industry today is a very new thing,” Boutaris says.
As 2021 gets underway, there’s no end of bad news afflicting the global wine industry. Producers in South Africa, Lebanon and elsewhere face existential challenges, whilst in some countries the prolonged closure of restaurants are putting the very survival of the on-trade into question. Meanwhile the new Kafka-esque bureaucracy created by the self-inflicted wound of Brexit threatens businesses on both sides of the English Channel.
So frankly, it’s nice to hear some positive news for once.
“2020 was a good for us overall despite the pandemic, despite everything. And after a shaky start to the growing season we had a decent enough harvest too,” says Stellios Boutaris, who heads up Ktima Kir-Yianni in Macedonia, northern Greece.
He says that after a very good 2019 and a good start to 2020, sales dropped over the summer alongside the fall off in local tourism. But he says year-end exports were only down 15%, with sales to monopoly-dominated markets like Canada and Sweden broadly unaffected.
“The UK is one of the toughest markets and one we’ve been trying to crack properly for years, but we managed to sell 1000 cases, an unheard of amount, especially given our on-trade dependence and the fact hospitality was closed for much of the year.”
Speaking by Zoom from his mother’s house in an improbably snow-bound Athens – his own house was one of 10,000 to be without power or heating – Boutaris admits his winery has been a beneficiary of the current upswing in interest in Greek wine.
“The real changes started in the late 1990s with a switch towards quality, and this trend continued into the new century with winemakers increasingly focused on local grapes. But it’s been the last ten years that’s seen the real transformation. Today there are 1600 producers compared to around 600 back in 2010, which is incredible, especially given how impacted we were by the financial crisis and its aftermath here.”
The focus is on high end Xinomavro
Established 23 years ago by his father Yiannis after the Boutaris family split their business interests, with Stellios taking over as winemaker and CEO in 1999, Kir-Yianni now produces over one million bottles a year out of two adjacent but very different PDO regions, Amnydeon and Naoussa.
Although much of production is entry level, the focus at Kir Yianni remains high end Xinomavro – led by the benchmark dark fruit-driven Ramnista from Naoussa and from Amnydeon, the old vine Kali Riza, a lighter, more elegant, strawberry-driven take on the variety – and Assyrtiko, the variety that objectively has driven the growing international interest in Greek wine.
He says the style of his Xinomavro is different say from Thymiopoulos, which are more rounded and fruit-driven, or Dalamara, with smooth and elegant tannins, but says that is intentional, with all winemakers interpreting this sometimes fickle variety differently.
“I compare it to Nebbiolo in Piedmont where winemakers all have their own take on the grape. I guess we aim for the more traditional, classic approach with firm tannins and tight acidity. At the other end of the scale I guess is Alpha Estate, which take an almost New World approach to Xinomavro.”
He’s optimistic for Greek wine generally saying that next year will see generic body Wines of Greece launch a three year campaign to promote it in key export markets, of which the UK is one.
“This will be an important step in building on the reputation we have established via sommeliers and importers in the UK, who now increasingly have at least one Greek producer on their list.”
Next year Kir Yianni will expand production of sparkling wine using the traditional method in a white and pink wine.
And work goes on at the Sigalas estate in Santorini which Kiri Yianni took over last year, and where production is currently around 250,000 bottles. Although Paris Sigalas remains closely involved as winemaker and on the board, Boutaris is CEO and although sales were down 50% last year, as a result of the collapse in tourism, there are ambitious plans. These include the creation of more single vineyard wines (in addition to the two already produced) and the development of some new Cyclades wines, using fruit from the neighbouring Paros PDO to help create a new mid-range brand to launch next year.
“There are so many amazing and diverse varieties in the Greek islands it seems a shame not to use them,” he says.
Presumably there will be synergies arising from the deal with Sigalas– although the two producers will remain distinct, marketing, sales and other functions should benefit from economies of scale.
The move to off trade sales
Although historically the on-trade has been the main conduit for Greek producers, as the UK and other markets struggle to recover from the pandemic, Boutaris says he will be looking more closely at the independent off trade. One of the biggest challenges for Kir Yianni, which sees itself in the middle to upper tier of the market, will be price. Even if it wanted to, it can’t compete with big Chilean or Australian producers at the lower end of the market yet to get a bottle on a British shelf for under £10, cellar door prices cannot exceed €1.40, once all taxes and intermediary charges have been paid.
Looking forward he thinks Kir Yianni and Sigalas are well positioned to build on their position in the UK trade. Although he says Brexit is a political disaster for both the UK and EU, he feels he will be able to negotiate its complexities, pointing out that he is used to dealing with bureaucracy in other parts of the world.
Boutaris thinks the next few years will be very exciting for Greece as new investments in the industry feed through and quality continues to rise.
“This may be the birthplace of wine culture – with a huge diversity of grapes and vines able to grow almost anywhere – but the industry today is a very new thing,” he says, pointing out that it is evolving.
“Many of those who led this industry’s transformation are now in their sixties and a new generation is taking over, as devoted to quality but with new ideas, and financially much more secure. I expect new brands and styles to emerge, which will all be very exciting.”
Don’t expect Boutaris to be standing on the sidelines, however.
Tasting three of the best wines
The fresh, screw-capped Mountain Assyrtiko 2019, made in Amnydeon, is very good value, attractively rounded so a very different style from Santorini Assyrtiko, with its emphasis on acidity and salinity. This is wonderful with seafood and Greek mezze but also on its own. (The single vineyard Assyrtiko Tarsannas – which spends a hefty eight months in oak – from Naoussa remains a work in progress and for me at least, the 2017 I tried is something of an acquired taste. “I’m not sure we’re there yet, but it will be interesting to see how it develops,” admits Boutaris).
Ramnista is the wine for which Kir-Yianni is best known, although just 50,000 bottles are produced in a typical vintage. The 2016 is a good, typical vintage – quite harsh tannins and acidity, both of which soften to give a forceful characterful wine that deserves its reputation. However, to get a better idea of what this wine can turn into, it is worth trying an earlier vintage: the Ramnista 2011
The Diaporos 2016– made with 12% Syrah to help soften and give weight to the Xinomavro – is Kir-Yianni’s flagship with just 90,000 bottles produced, and is completely different both to Ramnista and Kali Riza, its more rustic, fruit-driven brother from Amnydeon. This is a big wine literally (the bottle alone checks in at over a kilo) but one which will mature and soften with age.
The wines of Kir-Yianni are imported into the UK by Enotria&Coe which is a supplier partner of The Buyer. To find out more about them click here.