Carrying on with his Greek wine adventures, our roving Michelin star chef Roger Jones visits Alpha Estate, high into the highlands of Amyndeo, in the Macedonian region of North West Greece. Here he finds a winery that is so state of the art it can direct underground irrigation to specific vine roots and changes the air in its wine cellars three times a day. As well as make delicious wine, of course.
Roger tastes 16 Alpha Estate wines, made from indigenous and international varietals, and gives a preview of his own-staged Greek Festival.
Alpha Estate is not a new name to the premium wine trade with Jancis Robinson MW, Julia Harding MW and Robert Parker all big fans of this top quality Greek winery. Alpha is also one of the most advanced wineries I have ever visited: from its nursery and work it does with the local university; its gravity-led production ethos carried through in a state-of-the-art winery; through to an on-site laboratory connected to an underground irrigation system that is vine-specific! I kid you not.
Established in 1997 by viticulturist Makis Mavridis and oenologist Angelos Iatridis, Alpha now has over 50 permanent staff working on this impressive estate, in an area of extreme natural beauty surrounded by lakes, mountains and wildlife.
After the visit we went further into the hills to lodge in a small, stunning abode (Nymfes) in the village of Nymfaio, surrounded by bears whom we shared the local porcini mushrooms with, washed down with Tsipouro (Ouzo for grown ups).
Despite being in the most Northern part of Greece, Alpha is located in one of the driest and coolest wine regions with a semi-continental influence from the two huge lakes that kiss the property and also the constant North-Westerly winds that act as a cooling influence.
Alpha is the biggest importer of French oak barrels into Greece with over 1,300 barrels in stock and 40% new barrels used every year. The barrels are steamed (white toast) as opposed to toasted (over a fire) to get the correct (minimum toasty) flavour. The air in the underground cellar is changed three times a day.
Recognised as one of the pioneers of modern Greek wine, Alpha is the biggest producer of Sauvignon Blanc in Greece. It has 94-year-old bush vines amongst its vineyards and, in their own words; “Value the importance of nature but use modern technology to get precision”.
The winery combines international with traditional grapes, has its own nursery developing colonial selections, and the aforementioned irrigation system is carried out where necessary with exact precision controlled by a huge range of probes buried in the soils and plotted all over the vineyards.
Linked to the laboratory this enables Alpha to make daily analysis from this Big Data and be row-specific in manual control of the daily life of its vines. Very impressive.
Interesting to note that while there are still 600 unclassified grape varieties in Greece, although it may take the viticulturists up to seven years to ascertain a new grape, it can take over 15 years to get the paperwork passed!
We then sat down to a very impressive wine tasting
The substantial tasting hosted in an immaculate sealed room with bespoke glass specific Riedel glassware and was one of the best organised that I had been privileged to attend in situ. Tasting was done from red to white, and quite substantial, here are some of the highlights:
Alpha, Sauvignon Blanc, 2016
Clean, vibrant, modern fresh style, passion fruit, and textured on the palate, full flavoured with a smart lime acidity to soften the texture. A modern grown up Sauvignon with plenty of freshness.
Alpha, Sauvignon Blanc Fume, 2016
Kaliva Single Block
Luxurious but fresh, textured but crisp, bright flavours but complex, a perfect Pouilly-Fumé style, citrus peel and spring flowers with some juicy stone fruit add vibrant acidity and balance.
Alpha, Axia White, 2015
Assyrtiko 50% & Sauvignon Blanc 50%
This is a lovely wine that excites – the citrus, bone dry and minerality of the Assyrtiko balances well with the exuberance of the Sauvignon.
Alpha, Single Vineyard Turtles Malagouzia, 2016
Rose petals, sweet spices and vibrant aromas, a touch of rosemary, full on the palate, honeysuckle, melon and lychee. Soft finish, wonderful gentle and aromatic.
Alpha, Chardonnay, 2016
Toumpa Single Vineyard
Perfumed, perfectly ripe, peeled Provençal stone fruit, creamy texture, sits perfectly on the palate, long persistent finish.
Alpha Estate Rosé, 2016
Made from Xinomavro, a rich red grape variety, giving this a classic upmarket Provence Rosé style, with a similar bottle shape design as Chateau d’Esclans. Restrained berries help balance the sweet, meaty, juicy wine, redcurrants dance on the palate: a wonderful, dry-textured and balanced Rosé, perfect on a cold winter’s day in the UK.
Alpha Single Vineyard Hedgehog Xinomavro, 2014
Vibrant clean and fresh, focused, red berries, spices, soft gentle waxed leather. Vanilla, pepper and cloves all balanced together with a forest floor aroma.
Alpha Xinomavro Reserve Vielles Vignes, 2013
Single Block “Barba Yannis” Ecosystem
Savoury, spiced and dark fruit to start, then cranberries, evolves on the palate with pomegranate (orange and Campari) sweet spices, star anise, roses this is a a full wine but is balanced and delivers a long velvety finish.
Alpha Pinot Noir, 2014
Clean and pure, bright wild cherries and raspberries. The delicate fruit is balanced well with a tiny complexity of forest floor, saline and minerality, juicy and lingering this is a class Pinot with an alluring acidity.
Alpha Axia Syrah-Xinomavro, 2014
Lovely aromatic Syrah-induced perfumed nose. This is a Rhône style wine with rich dark fruit, savoury greengage plums, with a lovely complexity.
Alpha Turtles Single Vineyard Syrah, 2014
Peppery, leather and spice on the nose, blackcurrant and vanilla on the palate, followed by mocha, toffee and great elegance, a classic Syrah; I love the luscious, sweet, lingering finish.
Alpha Axia Red, 2014
This is a new blend and the first ever release of this wine made from Xinomavro and Tannat. Savoury, lamb roast blood dripping, fruity nose, seductive, alluring, light on the palate (fresh) but then there is a long luscious after taste – the tannins are still there gently evolving.
Alpha Estate Red Blend S.M.X. 2014
Syrah 60%, Xinomavro 20%, Merlot 20%
Violets, bilberries and roses all burst out of the glass; gentle oak gives it a savoury lift. This is a wine that is still brooding but it is spectacular and will benefit from a few more years in bottle.
Alpha Utopia Tannat, 2012
Alpha One, 2011
100% Syrah, and oh what a beauty of a wine – still evolving but this is a dark, brooding masterly wine. It is hard to throw descriptive words at it as it is so well balanced, layered, complex and subtle all in one.
We concluded with a glass of Omega Late Harvest 2014 before going off to hit the higher mountains and the bears. This is a gentle sweet wine made from Gewürztraminer and Malagouzia giving a quince, buttered brioche, tangerine and rose petal lusciousness.
This press visit was organised by Hallgarten Wines
Three days and visiting three wineries does not seem to be, on paper, the most economic way of conducting tastings, but this was one of the best wine trips that I have been on.
So impressed with the quality, depth and range that these wineries offered, I have persuaded all of them (together with Gaia Wines) to come over in July where we are hosting a two day Greek Festival in a marquee in our grounds at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn together with Hallgarten Wines, one day for consumers and one day for the trade (8th & 9th July).
There will also be wines to taste from other wineries that Hallgarten represent from Greece including a fabulous Retsina, and the wines of Idaia from Crete.