A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mavrotragano - Santorini, Greece

It doesn't happen all that often, but it does occasionally happen that I will get an invitation from someone familiar with this site to sample an interesting bottle of wine that I wouldn't ordinarily have access to.  In today's case, what happened was that Joe Godas, the head wine guy over at Curtis Liquors in Weymouth, received a sample bottle of a wine made from the Mavrotragano grape that he invited me to his shop to try out.

Mavrotragano has been on my radar since I picked up a few bottles of wine made from the Mandilaria grape on the island of Santorini in Greece.  In doing the research for those wines, I came across the following passage in Konstantinos Lazarakis' excellent book, The Wines of Greece: "...in terms of quality, it [Mandilaria] is totally eclipsed by the much rarer Mavrotragano...[which] can be Greece's answer to Mourvedre."  I rather enjoyed the Mandilaria that I was able to try, so I was very intrigued by the notion that the little blending partner in the wines I had may be the real star.  I tried to track down a bottle made mostly from Mavrotragano grapes, but it turns out that very few bottles are actually made and not very much of it finds its way to US shores.  The producer for the bottle that I was able to try only makes about 500 cases per year, just to give you an idea.

And, frankly, it's something of a miracle that even that much is made today.  Nearly a century ago, Mavrotragano was relatively common throughout the island of Santorini, but what was grown was typically used to make a sweet red wine for the growers themselves that generally wasn't bottled or sold to the public.  Through the years, a handful of circumstances began to line up that nearly sounded the death knell for the grape.  First of all, Santorini is an absolutely gorgeous place and as the island began to develop something of a reputation amongst tourists, new places for the tourists to stay needed to be built.  Many vineyards were torn up to make way for the hotel building blitz undertaken to keep pace with Santorini's rise in stature as a tourist destination.

This was a problem, but there were still plenty of vineyards around Santorini where Mavrotragano could have been planted.  The trouble was compounded, though, by the belief that Santorini was not an appropriate place to try and make red wine due to its somewhat erratic climate and the incredibly powerful winds that tear across the island's surface.  Historically, the island has been best known for its white wines made from the Assyrtiko grape, and its reputation in the wider wine world has been rising rapidly over the past few decades on the strength of the wines made from that grape (it doesn't hurt anything that it's  usually pretty hot on Santorini and the white wines made from Assyrtiko are very refreshing, much more so than a red wine would be, and a major market for the wines made here are the tourists looking more to unwind than to explore the island's vinous range).  Further, Assyrtiko is easier to grow in the difficult conditions on Santorini than Mavrotragano, and many growers uprooted their Mavrotragano plantings for new Assyrtiko plantings in greater and greater numbers through the years until Mavrotragano occupied less than 2% of the vineyard land by the year 2000. 

As happens in so many places, though, there were a certain number of growers whose curiosity and experimental spirit wouldn't allow them to be content with the one-dimensional view of Santorini wine that had begun to take hold.  A few of them looked to the native red grapes that they had on the island and saw that Mavrotragano might have some potential.  There were some experimental trials run in the late 1990's that began to show promise, and a few estates began to plant over small vineyard sites to the Mavrotragano grape.  Production is still small, but there is a buzz growing about these wines in the international community that seems to indicate that Santorini may have found a red star to complement its already famous Assyrtiko.

As mentioned above, the wine that I was able to try was a sample bottle.  I tasted the wine with Joe and a few other locals in a back room at Curtis Liquors following a public tasting of some Italian wines that the shop had put on.  The wine was from the 2008 vintage and was from the Domaine Sigalas, who apparently has about 8 hectares of land devoted to the Mavrotragano grape. I'm not entirely sure what the SRP is for this bottle, though Decanter has it listed at £12 in the UK market. In the glass, the wine was a deep crimson ruby color that was opaque in the center to a narrow crimson rim. The nose was nicely aromatic with spicy blueberry, blackberry, black cherry and boysenberry fruits with a touch of smoke to them. The nose was very deep with a lot of interesting fruit aromas. On the palate, the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acid and medium tannins. The flavors were very ripe with rich black and blue fruit flavors throughout. There were flavors of blueberry pie, black cherry and blackberry with some baking spice and chocolate and a touch of black pepper. The oak influence was incredibly pronounced here, and the back label confirmed what a lot of us in the room were picking up on. The wine spends 18 months in new oak, and it wears it very loudly. The wine wasn't necessarily bad, but I know that I was somewhat disappointed that so much oak was applied to the wine, as it really masked what might exist for varietal character or any real sense of place. Instead, the wine came across as most similar to a California Zinfandel or an Aussie Shiraz, an overripe fruit bomb (14% abv for those interested) slathered in new oak that can be enjoyable in its own way, but which is interchangeable with any number of other bottlesOak tastes like oak no matter what and it's disturbing to see something so rare hidden behind all that make-up.


Joe G said...

Hi Rob. Excellent post per usual. I,too,was saddened to have my maiden Mavrotragano voyage shipwrecked by the excessive lumber. Hopefully the Pugnitello follow-up served as redemption and will be the focus of a subsequent post.

Nico Manessis said...

Wholeheartedly agree. I suggest the 2009 Mavrotragano by Argyros. Oaking is well done with none of the gamey character found in Sigalas. For rare Greek grapes, such as Limniona, search at www.greekwineworld.com

Fringe Wine said...

Hi Joe:

Thanks for posting. I just posted the story of the Pugnitello today as a follow-up to this post. You can read all about it here: http://goo.gl/9LNo8

Also, thanks for commenting Nico. I'm sure I've used your site to research some of my Greek wine posts and I also own a copy of your _The Illustrated Greek Wine Book_, which I've found very helpful. I'll keep my eyes open for the Argyros Mavrotragano, but doubt seriously it'll pop up on many shelves around here.