Some thoughts on the Nemea terroir “Οινοπέδιο Νεμέας”
Nemea is a region loaded with historical references (as most places in Greece), and lots of tangential wine references. Till very recently, however (1950s), it had not gained prominence in wine making. Nowadays, it is one of the largest wine producing areas of Greece and a huge commercial success within Greece. It has always intrigued me to delve into its history, as much as I have enjoyed drinking the wines of the region. Last weekend, Nemea, the largest red wine-AOC-producing region in Greece, celebrated the “Great Wine Nemea Days” dedicated to “the celebration of the wine production heritage and potential of the region”.
In this post, I will briefly present the region and the wines produced, with reference to its historical development and the potential future prospects. The following posts will describe 14 wines I tried at a general wine tasting, the 3 wineries of the region I had the chance to visit, and the respective wines that I tried in each one (in total 25 wines).
It is worth to read the following for a more in depth discussion of the region (on which I have based most my research):
Definitely worth reading his book on “The Wines of Greece”
Gregory Michailos AIWS recent post of the same event (in Greek)
The amazing wine journal of Gregory Kontos (worth reading for many reasons)
An outstanding publication on the history and potential of Nemea, edited by the “Grand Lady” of Greek wine Dr. Kourakou-Dragona, “Νεμέα, Διός και Διονύσου χώρα Ερατεινή” (worth reading also her latest book on Nemea)
Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages on Nemea (the region is still not in her Oxford companion to wine 3rd edition)
An excellent site from a lover of Nemea wines
Other online sources that I will try to reference/link throughout this post.
“Let them pour the wine, sweet prophet of revelry,
and serve the vine’s strong child in the silver cups
his horses won for Chromios once and brought home with
wreaths of Apollo from holy Sikyon. Zeus father,
I pray that with the Graces’ aid I may sing his excellence and
on many occasions
honor success, throwing my spear right close to the Muses’ mark.”
Nemean Ode Pindar
Located approximately 30 kilometers southwest of Corinth, the wider region was first noted for its winemaking by Homer who called it Ampelóessa, “full of vines”.
It is interesting to note that within today’s AOC (high-quality wine producing region), we find the ancient Greek cities of Nemea (meaning animal grazing land, famous for the athletic games held in to honor Zeus, part of the larger Pan-Hellenic games that took place every two years – Plato the philosopher was one of the winners in these games – and Pindar the poet wrote hymns for the winners) and Fliountas (named after the son of Dionysus god of wine with Arethyrea – the beautiful place- to denote its gifts from its parents).
It has been conjured that “The wine of Fliasion became popular in antiquity due to its widespread consumption during the ancient Nemean Games that attracted crowds from various areas. Unfortunately, there are few archaeological finds providing information on the ancient history of wine. This may be due to the limited excavations in the Fliasion Field and the destruction of ancient buildings and facilities caused by deep ploughing and the illegal hunt for antiquities.” One can easily remark however that the wine of the region was not amongst the famously quoted wines of antiquity like Samos wines for example. This continued throughout Roman and Byzantine and medieval times, when Malmsey / Malvasia wines from the Peloponnese, Cycladic islands and Crete were dominating and after the creation of the modern Greek state, when the stage was taken by Mavrodaphne from Patras and retsina from Attica.
There are only scant historical evidence and references to the wines of the region amongst others from the excerpt of a verse from an ancient Greek comedy, to the notes of Sir William Gell (who “in his travelogue published in London in 1817, describes Aghios Georgios as a large village producing excellent red wine”) and to the notes of the Swiss traveller Wilhelm Vischer (“the Greek wine of Saint George should be made known to the rest of the world”).
It is therefore highly (and pleasantly) surprising that in our days, the appellation of Nemea is the most important red wine AOC of southern Greece and arguably of all of Greece. “In Nemea, the indigenous Greek Agiorgitiko grape (“Αγιωργίτικο; also known as Mavro Nemeas is a widely-grown heat-resistant Greek wine-making grape variety that has traditionally been grown in this region. It can take on a large range of characteristics, depending on factors in the growing and winemaking processes.”) is used and produces wines famous for their deep red color with violet and blue hues, complex aroma and long, velvety palate.”
Besides the hard work of the people of Nemea and the terroir, the versatility of wines produced, and the determination of the people that created the wine cluster there, account for much of its success these past 50 years. One can only expect that with the breadth and depth of the historical and cultural heritage of the wider area, a strong wine tourism cluster will follow suite, which will further strengthen the wine industry of Nemea.
Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, states this more elegantly: “Nemea is arguably the most exciting viticultural region in Greece and one of the most vibrant in all of Europe. Easy to pronounce, easy to get to, within close proximity of some of the most breathtaking Greek antiquities, blessed with a dynamic local grape varietal, and brimming with history, wine-making traditions, and visionary wine makers, Nemea and its versatile wines hold the key to opening the whole Greek vineyard to foreign markets. Nemea is unique for many reasons, none more important, however, than the most basic: the indigenous vinis vinifera grape, Agiorgitiko, or St. George, which is perhaps the most multifaceted grape in the whole of Greece. Agiorgitiko takes its name from an old village right in the heart of the region. The Agiorgitiko grape produces wines with a deep, but never opaque, red-cherry color. The nose is usually intense but never too obvious, full with the aromas of red fruit, sweet, noble spices, and the odd hint of Mediterranean mountain herbs. It also possesses an unquestionable aromatic affinity to high-quality oak, making oak aging an important stylistic element for Nemea wines.”
The Nemea AOC appellation was established in 1971 for wines made from Agiorgitiko. Jancis Robinson states that “the marl and limestone slopes are definitely better for Agiorgitiko than the alluvial valley floor in this landscape but the variety is versatile and can be used to produce soft, fruity, early-drinking wines as well as those that age well and gain in complexity. The tannins are remarkable - they can be soft and velvety even when the wines are young and yet they still provide structure and remain positive and smooth over a long period - it’s as if they emerge from the womb smiling at the wine drinker and yet have surprising staying power. There’s a spectrum of fruit flavors depending on the local climate but often soft dark flavors of cherry and dark berries - but almost always generously flavored.”
Others claim that “the Nemea wine-growing region can roughly be divided into three zones according to the altitude of the vineyards. At the lowest altitudes, in the valley of Nemea (250m-450m) light reds and dessert wines are produced. In the next zone (450m-650m) some of the best age-worthy reds are produced and at the highest altitudes, up to 900m, aromatic roses and fresh reds are made.”
Winemakers describe as follows the characteristics of the region: “Relatively cold and humid winters with low temperatures that rarely drop below the freezing point. Summers are warm, without excessively high temperatures and with few showers during June. Typically, a long Indian summer follows summers. Warm September days with significantly colder nights and relatively dry conditions synthesize an ideal weather pattern for a good maturation. The total rain precipitations (600-700mm annually) occur mainly (80%) between October and March. Soils consist of a shallow (70-80cm) clay layer that lies upon the lime mother soil. This type of clay - called marls - unlike others can retain humidity and release it to the vines ones needed, thus helping in naturally monitoring water stress. The vineyard starts at about 250m altitude and stretches up to 850m. There is a large variation of environmental conditions inside the P.D.O. area. Hillsides on calcareous soils and stony soils on foot slopes are considered the best for long-ageing wines.”
“Agiorgitiko is a multifaceted grape from a moderately vigorous and productive vine. It matures in mid to late September, depending on the site and the yield. The wines have deep red color and aromatic descriptors of red-fruit (ripe strawberries, black-current) and butterscotch when young. Older wines from the best plots have aromas of confected or dried fruit (fig, raisins, plums). Tannins are remarkably soft and evolve in time very slowly. On the mouth, Agiorgitiko is medium to full bodied, broad in the middle palate, while tannins, even when extracted to a high degree, always taste ripe and alluring. Agiorgitiko needs at least 12% alcohol to start being expressive and can reach levels up to 14.5%, although most wines achieve a perfect balance within the range of 12.5% to 13.5%. In good versions, the interplay of acidity with the rest of the structure is very interesting.”
I have had the chance to visit some of Greece’s most well-known wineries that are located in Nemea and tasted their wines. I will describe in following posts the three I visited recently, Palivos Vineyards, Domaine Skouras and Ktima Papaioannou, representing three different approaches to winemaking in Nemea (a 5th generation winery, a 3rd generation winery experimenting with ‘modern’ techniques and a very focused/boutique/’scientific’ winery) and the evolving reality of this wine region. The best will follow in the near future as we will see more out of Nemea.