Over a recent dinner at Loring Place in New York City, I tasted some exciting Greek wines with winemaker Vassilis Papagiannakos of Domaine Papagiannakos. He’s the third generation to shepherd the family winery — each generation has made its imprint, but what Vassilis has done has completely changed the game in a number of ways. The obvious physical impact is that he built a brand new bioclimatic winery, the first of its kind in Greece. But that facility is simply a tool built to help highlight what he does in the vineyard: allow the grapes to shine.
The most important change Vassilis made was to increase the quality of wine produced by focusing on the vines. Savatiano, the predominant local indigenous white-wine grape — used primarily in Greece to make retsina — sits at the heart of the operation. There are several other varieties planted, too, including small amounts of international varieties such as merlot and cabernet sauvignon. These, Papagiannakos explained, are aimed primarily at visitors to the winery tasting room, who may not be familiar with savatiano. When they taste the more familiar varieties and realize that Domaine Papagiannakos is producing them at a high level of quality, their interest in indigenous offerings perks up.
The family farms 100 acres, and their total annual production is roughly 15,000 cases. The focus on the vineyards includes identifying how various parcels of the same grape mere yards away from each other respond differently. By doing this, Domaine Papagiannakos is able to produce vastly different wines from the same grape. We tasted seven different examples of savatiano. This included completely different expressions of the grape as well as a couple that were represented by multiple vintages. In addition to the differences in growing conditions between the vineyards, production methods also vary. What is clear is that savatiano, when tended as carefully as it is by Domaine Papagiannakos, can produce wines that are distinct, delicious, and surprisingly age-worthy too.
Two things stand out about these wines: Each one provides drinking pleasure that well exceeds its price, and they are all remarkably food-friendly. I sampled all seven of them many times over the course of a leisurely meal. Each worked well with the varied dishes and distinct flavors that were in front of us. It’s clear that Papagiannakos's non-interventionist method of letting the vineyards speak resonates loudly when you pour his wines.
While savatiano is a grape that will work well on your table all year, summer is a perfect time to introduce this Greek treasure to your senses.
Domaine Papagiannakos 2016 Natural Savatiano (N/A)
As the name indicates, this wine is made utilizing natural methods, including spontaneous fermentation. Minimal filtration occurs prior to bottling. This is truly a grape-to-glass wine. If you enjoy freshness, this is what you want to drink. Citrus and apricot leap from the nose. Savory herbs, minerals, and lemon ice are evident on the palate. The finish is crisp, clean, and really refreshing. This would serve as an excellent welcome wine for a summer party.
Domaine Papagiannakos 2016 Old Vines Savatiano ($16.99)
Temperature-controlled fermentation took place over 20 days. Insanely appealing aromatics are led by oodles of lemon notes. White peach and apricot flavors dominate the palate alongside pepper spice. Mineral notes drive the long, crisp finish. Grab a case and drink it all summer.
Domaine Papagiannakos 2015 Old Vines Savatiano ($16.99)
After being picked by hand, the grapes were fermented over 20 days in temperature controlled stainless steel. Lemon curd aromas are buttressed by hints of savory herb. Orchard fruit flavors dominate the palate. There’s richness to the mouthfeel here that carries from the first sip through the last bit disappearing on your tongue. Toasted hazelnut and wisps of spice are all part of the weighty finish.
Domaine Papagiannakos 2015 “Vientzi” Single Vineyard Savatiano ($16.99)
After being hand-harvested, the grapes were fermented over a period of 20 days. A year of bottle age followed prior to release. Bartlett pear and white fig provide enticing aromatics here. The palate is studded with fresh pecan and papaya. White pepper and limestone notes dot the long finish.
Domaine Papagiannakos 2013 “Vareli” Single Vineyard Savatiano ($22.99)
Fermentation began in stainless steel tanks and concluded in new French oak, where the wine spent four months. Gentle wisps of vanilla emerge on the nose and underpin a substantial range of citrus-based characteristics. Hints of Golden Delicious apple play alongside continued citrus on the supple palate. Racy acid lends to the crisp and mouth-watering nature of this wine. While every one of these wines works well with food, the Vareli practically screams for it.
Domaine Papagiannakos 2008 “Ktima Papagiannakos” Savatiano (N/A)
Temperature-controlled fermentation took place with skin contact. This wine didn’t see oak of any kind, but had substantial bottle-aging before release. Every now and again, almost out of nowhere a wine appears and just blows my mind, this is one of those wines. At 9 years old, this is an expression of savatiano that differs in many ways from each of its younger counterparts. It still shows off some fruit, but it’s really all about secondary and tertiary characteristics now. Hints of petrol lead the nose followed by mineral notes to spare. The fruit that does show up on the palate is tinged with an inherent bit of toasted nuttiness. It brings to mind a dried fruit tart surrounded by a toasted almond crust. The finish is impossibly long, spicy, and mineral-laden. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many wines you’re tasting — there’s one you don’t want to let go of, and this is one of those. It’s also a wonderful argument for aging well-balanced acid-rich whites. In other words: wow.
Domaine Papagiannakos 2012 “Ktima Papagiannakos” Savatiano (N/A)
Again, there was temperature-controlled fermentation with skin contact and no oak. Four years of bottle age preceded release. Mexican vanilla bean and bits of spice are evident on the nose. The deeply layered palate is stuffed with yellow peach and apricot characteristics. Bits of marzipan and mesquite honey are evident on the lengthy finish. This is a really interesting wine that, at four years younger than the 2008, still shows off a lot of fruit. It’s impeccably balanced and blessed with racy acid, giving every impression that it’ll evolve as impressively as the 2008 has.