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.