The magic of Greek Macedonia lives through its ancient history

Aegean genie

Greek Macedonia
The magic of Greek Macedonia lives through its ancient history, its seductive coastline and a very well-kept secret – its rapidly expanding wine industry.

I was halfway up Mount Olympus when I saw it: an immense pine tree whose gnarled trunk was so wide that three people would have had to link hands to encircle it. Its vast branches shaded a small plateau, from which I could see the hazy blue of the Aegean Sea. Two small metal milking cans, looking like a pair of battered drop earrings, dangled from the tree’s massive heart and an aromatic wave of pine essence hit me with an almost physical jolt as I drew closer. It was only when I got to within a metre of the tree that I realised that the cans weren’t intended for dairy production. Instead, they were receptacles for the sticky sap that oozed from cuts in the trunk. Someone was making a batch of retsina.

For most visitors to Greece, retsina is Greek wine, end of story. But it’s doubtful whether most of them realise they’re drinking a bit of living history. The tradition of making resinated wine goes back to antiquity, when the best way of making earthenware jars watertight (or winetight, for that matter) was to seal them with resin. It was an easy step from that to the realisation that pine resin could help make the wine last, and a short skip to an acquired taste for resinated wine. Although the taste for pine-flavoured wine died in the West, it endured across the Byzantine Empire and led, eventually, to the stuff most of us end up drinking (often grudgingly) when we eat in Greece’s beachfront tavernas.

Even those of us who pride ourselves on our oenophilic nous have made little more than an exploratory foray into the world of more modern Greek wines. If you have managed to get your hands on a bottle, the chances are you’ve tasted assyrtiko (pronounced ass-ear-ti-ko), a thrillingly mineral-laden white grape from the volcanic island of Santorini. Other Greek wines that are beginning to make an impact in the outside world are reds made from the voluptuous red grape agiorgitiko (pronounced eye-or-hee-ti-ko) and sweet muscats and vin santos. But for most, the north-eastern corner of Greece, Greek Macedonia, remains a mystery.

This is a shame on many levels. To begin with, it is an area of stunning natural beauty. From the forested slopes of Mount Olympus, home of the ancient gods, to the sinuous curve of the coastline, you can hardly turn a corner without finding a view to take your breath away. A trip to the lakes that lie behind the mountains may lead you to the bear sanctuary at Nymphaion, where, if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of brown bears ambling through the woods.

Alternatively, an exploration of the Halkidiki peninsula, whose three fingers jut into the Aegean, like a hand grasping for an unreachable prize, might see you on your way to a visit to Mount Athos’ famous monasteries. Or rather, you can visit the monasteries if you happen to be a man; women have been banned for centuries. No matter, it’s arguably even more thrilling to charter one of the boats in the small port of Ouranoupoli and make your way past the monasteries to the tip of Mount Athos by sea. You might even spot a school of dolphins carving their way through the water in your wake.

History buffs will delight in the fact they can visit Aristotle’s birthplace, Stagira, and his school at Mieza, or visit the archaeological site at Vergina, once thought to house the tomb of Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great. You can stay in quiet fishing villages that time has almost forgotten or sip strong Greek coffee and watch the world go by at a cafe in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-biggest city. Those who’d rather make their own coffee or stock up on olives of all shapes, sizes and colours might prefer a visit to Thessaloniki’s market, where you’ll find stalls piled high with all manner of edible – and drinkable – goods.

But what of the region’s wine? The truth is that, until fairly recently, there was little in the region to excite wine lovers. Traditional wines, if not resinated, were oxidised, faulty or otherwise undrinkable until the 1970s, when John Carras, a local shipping magnate, hired the Bordeaux oenologist Émile Peynaud to help him make Greece’s best wine. So intent was Carras on achieving this goal that, when Peynaud told him some of the hills that surrounded his vineyards were in the wrong place, Carras had them bulldozed. Or so the story goes.

Carras was one of the first to plant Bordeaux varieties in the region, sparking a debate that continues to this day. Should Greek producers stick to their indigenous varieties, which, although full of character and well adapted to the local terroir, are not that known outside the domestic market? Or should they eschew their heritage and go for the easy commercial hit of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay? One alternative that’s proving increasingly attractive to many winemakers is to blend indigenous and international varieties. “I believe we have to start off by promoting wines made from these blends,” says Alpha Estate’s Angelos Iatrides. “Once we’ve succeeded in convincing people of the value of Greek wines, we can then move on to educating them about our native grapes.”

The most important of the region’s native grapes – in the eyes of most growers at least – is xinomavro (pronounced ksee-no-mav-ro), whose name means sour or acid black. Unsurprisingly, this red grape tends to be high in acidity, although pinpointing its organoleptic qualities can be difficult, especially given that there are three main clones of the grape, each of which have different aromas and flavours.

White grapes include Santorini’s assyrtiko, although I failed to find an example that convinced me the variety could thrive in the north; the wines all seemed to lack that distinctive mineral twang that makes the grape so appealing, and many were flabby and lacking in acidity. This is a problem for white grapes in the area. Although this part of northern Greece isn’t as warm as you might think, especially at night, the temperature on a summer day can reach heights that can burn the acidity and flavour out of more delicate varieties.

Nevertheless, there are some sites located either close to the sea or at higher altitudes where white grape varieties can thrive. One indigenous white grape to have been rescued from obscurity to find a new seaside home is the herby, apricot-flavoured malagousia (pronounced mal-ah-goo-zi-ah), which is grown successfully by Evangelos Gerovassiliou (a student of Peynaud’s and one of the early winemakers at Porto Carras). Other varieties that can thrive in northern Greece include the fruity, pink-skinned moscophilero (pronounced moscow-fi-lair-o) grape, whose wines are similar in flavour to muscats, and roditis (pronounced row-dee-tis), another aromatic grape that has migrated north from its original homeland in the Peloponnese.

Red or white, these are all wines that reveal their best when paired with food, so it comes as a relief to discover that the local cuisine isn’t all taramasalata and kebabs. Indeed, the further inland you travel, the more likely you are to be served hearty stews of wild boar or a slow-roasted haunch of young goat – after you’ve consumed vast quantities of meze, of course, all washed down with tsipouro (pronounced tsee-pu-ro), the local anis spirit. And watch out for the puddings: they’re so sweet you can bring on a diabetic crisis just by looking at them. Still, the hospitality of the locals is such that you’ll be lucky to leave the table without an extra glass of the local brandy or a jar of spoon sweets (jam and candied fruit treats eaten by the spoonful as an accompaniment to coffee).

Greek Macedonia and its landscape, its food, and its welcoming people are light years away from the Greece seen by most visitors – the one with loud tavernas, clichéd food and tourist-weary residents. The wines, too, are light years away from the tourist retsina, which makes this part of Macedonia a must-visit option for the wine buff who prefers to take the path less travelled.

There are plenty of good hotels and restaurants in Greek Macedonia. Sadly, in my experience, they’re rarely located in the same town. However, if you’re prepared to be flexible, you can find plenty of reasonable compromises. It’s worth checking out the Wine Roads website as it offers lots of suggestions for places to stay and eat.

If you’re after luxury, book a room at Thessaloniki’s Makedonia Palace Hotel (2 Megalou Alexandrou, 54640 Thessaloniki, +302 310 897 197), from “200 (A$384) per night. What it lacks in soul it makes up for in sea views.

The chic place to eat in Thessaloniki is Yamas (Leoforos Nikis 15, +302 310 253 097), whose name means ‘cheers’. The best tables are those on the upstairs verandah overlooking the harbour. Ask for the meze menu (there are fish or meat options) and go for it; whatever you choose will be fresh and very good.

If you venture into the Olympian foothills, leave enough time for a meal at Gastrodromio en Olimpo (Kentriki Platia, 60063 Litohoro, Pieria, +302 352 021 300). The chef serves real country cooking, including trachanopitta, a flaky-pastried pie filled with a kind of semolina mixed with fresh herbs; a dish of smoked beef with lentils, apricots and honey and a risotto with wild mushrooms, truffle oil and nettles.

Not far away you can stay at the exotically decorated Vaela Pallas (60100 Palio Elatochori, Pieria, +302 351 082 955), from “60 (A$115) per night. The 17 rooms are all individually decorated to reflect stops on the owner’s travels, from the rustic charms of Buffalo Bill to the ethereal beauty of Stefani.

Staying in Drama is, er, no drama if you check in at the family-run Jennifer Home Hotel (66100 Taxiarhes, Drama, +302 521 030 005), from “95 (A$182) per night. It offers pretty, modern rooms with views of the surrounding mountains, and it also has a swimming pool (great news after a hot day of winery visits).

While in town, the place to eat is the incredibly funky Berdema (Verginas 187, Drama, +302 521 047 333) with its large flower photos and vibrant colour scheme. The food, while simple, is very good, relying on top-notch ingredients and a light hand in the kitchen.

If you happen to be visiting Ktima Kir-Yianni at lunchtime, make a point of stopping off at Rakokazano (Strantza, Naoussa, +302 332 048 362). Take a seat at one of the outdoor tables and prepare for an onslaught of meze. Just at the point that you think you couldn’t possibly squeeze any more in, the main courses will be brought out, but try to save some room for the wonderful home-cooked desserts, including hand-rolled phyllo pastry in syrup and ice-cream perfumed with mastic gum.

One final recommendation combines a pleasant restaurant with simple, rustic accommodation. Kontosoros (53072 Xino Nero, Florina, + 302 386 081 551), from “50 (A$96) per night, is one of those country restaurants where you get the feeling all the produce comes from within a 10-kilometre radius. In fact, chances are your veggies will have travelled no further than the back garden. For a small, out-of-the-way place, Kontosoros boasts a sophisticated wine cellar and, best of all, you get to sleep off any excess in one of the quiet, little upstairs rooms.


This article appeared in the April/May 2009 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE.

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