Exploring Alpha Estate: A Journey Among the Terroir Nymphs

By | 7 March 2024

Sarah Kemp is enchanted by Xinomavro and other fine wines made by an outstanding producer in the mountains of northwest Greece.


Sarah Kemp

In an article first published in WFW64 in June, 2019, Sarah Kemp travels to the remote mountains of the Amyndeon appellation in the Florina region of northwest Greece to meet Angelos Iatridis and Makis Mavridis, the talented winemaker and viticulturist producing, among other vinous treasures, some of the country’s most captivating Xinomavro at Alpha Estate.

Skiing in Greece? It probably doesn’t come to mind often. For most of us, the image of Greece is deep blue water, yachts, sandy coves, and, perhaps, if we are lucky, a delicious cold glass of Assyrtiko from Santorini. Greece, the ultimate laid-back sun-drenched Mediterranean lifestyle, celebrated by so many, from Patrick Leigh Fermor to Mamma Mia!, a country of gods and goddesses, Homer, ancient heroes, and idle beauty—certainly, that was my Greece before I visited Alpha Estate and added dappled mountain forests, fierce brown bears, stories of nymphs, and the subtle but intriguing perfume of the Xinomavro grape.

Alpha Estate, a top-rated Greek winery, is beautifully located in the secluded wilderness of the Amyndeon appellation within the Florina region. Positioned on a limestone plateau at an elevation of between 2,030 and 2,330 feet (620–710 meters), it lies close to the boundaries of Albania and Macedonia in the northwest of Greece. This region, surrounded by mountains that are the extensions of the Alps, hosts the stunning ski center of Vigla Pisoderi and Voras-Kaimaktsalan, as well as the captivating historical village of Nymfaio, safeguarded by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture due to its architectural significance.

The village of Nymfaio attained fame for its silver-crafting heritage. Today, it is home to a museum dedicated to this art. It also features a church adorned with newly commissioned vibrant frescoes, depicting Macedonian martyrs in dramatic, blood-chilling scarlet shades. These frescoes were commissioned by a wealthy young banker from this area, who now lives in London. This village proudly houses a charming boutique hotel. Each room therein is named after a nymph, as per the hotel owner. She believes, “The nymphs are the guardians of the mountain. This location is special – it’s entirely about nature.”

Alpha Estate winery, under the protection of nymphs, is located midway up the mountain. It opens every day of the year, excluding Christmas, Easter, and New Year. It also serves as a habitat for brown bears. The bears migrated southwards over the mountains to evade bombings during the Balkan wars. Originally, these were dancing bears left behind by gypsies.

The popularity of the estate has grown to such an extent that around 16,000 visitors annually make their way up the winding forested mountain paths, passing the wolf sanctuary, to sample these exceptional mountain wines. This journey is also undertaken yearly by acclaimed first-growth Bordeaux consultant, Eric Boissenot. It’s easy to understand why: this is the cool-climate mountain region of Greece, a historical land closely associated with Alexander the Great, whose cousin, Amyndis, originated the name of the appellation. Greece’s Piedmont might be a good comparison.

The proprietors, Angelos Iatridis, a winemaker, and viticulturist Makis Mavridis, kindly offer a narration of their history during the drive up the mountain turns. Angelos’s journey from his initial studies in chemistry at a local university, subsequently followed by a profound realisation of his passion for winemaking, is explored in detail. This fortuitous discovery led him to Bordeaux’s Faculty of Oenology to undertake a master’s degree in winemaking. An insightful decision to gain practical knowledge in the vineyards resulted in an enduring friendship with his future consult, all borne from a chance encounter.

His drive for growth and yearning for knowledge found him back in Greece, working with the Boutari brothers. Following his time with them, he decided to start a consultancy business with some of his Boutari colleagues. “Our consulting provided support to wineries across Greece. It was through consulting that Makis Mavridis crossed my path, who was working as a viticulturist”, recalls Angelos. This then led to the start of an exploration into the potential of the various wine regions of Greece. A desire to further his expertise saw him undertake internships with Alain Brumont of Château Montus in Madiran, L’Institut Français de la Vigne et du Vin in Colmar, Alsace, the Station Oenotechnique de Champagne in Epernay, and the University of Wine in Souze la Rousse.

Angelos and Makis, enthusiasts of chill, high-altitude terrains, decided to plant in the Amyndeon region, a decision oddly influenced by NATO. A Science for Peace project backed by NATO sought to create harmony between Greek and Slavo Macedonians. According to Angelos, funds were allocated for studying Amyndeon and its native grape varieties, with workers from both Greek and Slavo Macedonians working the vineyards. After collaborating with Souze la Rousse, a university of wine, he applied and successfully secured a grant which met their criteria.

Amyndeon has been a grape-growing region since the 3rd century BC. The ancient city of Kella which lay within its boundaries was famous for its superior wines. When Angelos and Makis set foot in the region, they found most of the wineries sold their grapes to local cooperatives. Nevertheless, they saw potential in the region with its sandy clay loamy topsoil and limestone subsoil. Despite its semi-continental climate, the cold weather was balanced out by five prehistoric shallow lakes, a feature that led to a temperature fluctuation of +/-34°F (+/-19°C) and a long, slow-growing season. It’s the coldest and one of the driest regions in Greece with hardly any rainfall during the harvest season. In 1995, after their NATO-backed research, they planted 4ha (10 acres) of Syrah, Merlot, and Xinomavro.

Angelos and Makis, although starkly different, form a successful duo. Angelos, with his sharp intelligent face, bearlike physique, and unstoppable dynamism, could have easily been a general in Alexander the Great’s army. Makis, on the other hand, seems like a man who prefers solitude in the vineyards, a man of silence, deep thought, and profound connection to the earth. In 1997, they established the company Alpha Estate, a couple of years after their first vines were planted. Today, Alpha Estate spans across 180ha (445 acres) with 140ha (345 acres) being productive, all in one patch.

The linchpin of the estate is the Xinomavro grape, whose name translates as sour/acid (xino) and black (mavro). It closely resembles the Nebbiolo grape and, like Nebbiolo, beautifully mirrors its terroir. However, its wine profile leans more towards red fruit than black. The region of Florina, well-known for its sweet red peppers, is indicated in Xinomavro’s flavor palette, alongside other red fruit such as wild strawberries and sun-dried tomatoes. It has a thin skin, naturally high acidity, and a bright, mountaineer-like fruit note. Xinomavro is known for its tannic nature and the unusual trait of having three to four seeds, a quality Angelos believes contributes to its phenolic ripeness. Nico Manessis, a leading Greek wine expert, states, “You can tell the grape is ripe when the seeds taste like a walnut.”

The Xinomavro’s bouquet captivated me. It was subtly aromatic, reminiscent of a forest-covered hillside, intriguing and mysterious. The high natural acidity of the grape mixed with the phenolic ripeness offers Xinomavro a strong ageing potential. The older wines that I tasted displayed wonderful tertiary flavors of truffles and dried fruits, all maintained by an acidity backbone that preserves the freshness.

The estate’s ideology revolves around sustainable viticulture. No herbicides are employed and while they do practice organic farming, there are no inspections and therefore, no certification. A cover crop is implemented on the sandy loamy soil, with each unit treated individually as per its rootstock and crop variety.

Modern technology is neatly blended with Makis’s nose-to-soil method. A deficit irrigation system has been implemented, consisting of 370 miles (600km; equivalent to the distance between Edinburgh to London) of irrigation pipes deep buried in the underlayer soil at 16in (40cm) and 12in (30cm) for “controllable stress”.

Since 1995, approximately €30 million has been invested into the winery. As Angelos puts it, “We don’t make compromises”. Almost put their business under in 2005. Technology, advocated by Angelos, and row-by-row walking by Makis work together. Within the 140ha, there are 92 distinct blocks, each being vinified separately. “I could make 92 separate wines,” claims Angelos, “but I don’t think the market would approve.” The grapes arrive at the refrigerators within 40 minutes of picking. Optical sorters are used and the grapes are destemmed before vinification.

Angelos strongly advocates for the incorporation of technology, reflecting on the need to continuously innovate and be proactive. Regardless of his location, whether New York or the beach, Angelos can remotely manage any vat. The significant aspect of their process is the technology’s ability to cater to the individual needs of each plot. Described as micromanagement, each vine, each subsoil having its own unique requirements. The application of GPS and thermal imaging helps monitor the vineyards, and determine the stress level of each vine, utilizing their advanced deficit irrigation system when necessary. This is all a mutual chess game between the methods of the old-style viticulture practiced by Makis, and Angelo’s cutting edge technology.

The Alpha Estate offers wines across several tiers. The ultra-premium is denoted as the Ecosystem which includes single-block Sauvignon Blanc Fumé Kaliva, Chardonnay Tramonto, Pinot Noir Strofi, and Tannat Vrachos; all originating from plots sized between 2ha and 3ha (5–7.5 acres). Alpha One is their flagship wine, and its composition changes every year depending on the performance of the variety. An additional offering includes the late-harvest wine, Omega, a blend of Gewurztraminer and Malagouzia. The Estate wines come next, featuring Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé, and the Estate Red SMX (Syrah, Merlot, Xinomavro). Lastly, the premium range wines, named in honor of the local fauna, include the Alpha Estate Syrah single-vineyard Turtles, Alpha Estate Xinomavro single-vineyard Hedgehog.

I was particularly mesmerized by one wine, the Alpha Estate Xinomavro Reserve Vieilles Vignes Single Block Barba Yannis. This 3.71ha (9.1-acre) block vineyard was established in 1919 with ungrafted, pre-phylloxera vines trained as traditional gobelets. Purchased in 1999 by Angelos and Makis, the wine was named Barba Yannis (“Sir John,” paying tribute to the vineyard’s previous owner). The 2015 vintage embodied controlled strength, robust and pulsating like a Ferrari ready to devour the race track. The delightful blend of red cherries and greengages embraced the palate with a hint of stone fruit, making it deeply complex, with the potential to mature gracefully. The 2014 vintage was a more expansive interpretation and while it wasn’t as refined as the 2015, it still retained its unique combination of spicy, intense, luxurious red fruit seamlessly entangled with rich black-chocolate notes, silky tannins, and a captivating personality. The 2013 vintage did steal my heart, with its mystical, fairy-tale-like aroma that was reminiscent of its hillside origins. It’s one of those wines that transcends traditional fruit notes to capture the essence of its beauty.

Upon taste-testing the wines, I favored the 2015 and 2013 vintages over the 2014 version. The Alpha Tannat 2015 Single Block Vrachos was packed with so much potential energy that it brought to mind a wild, unrestrained dance. Overflowing with juicy black fruit, it reminded me of a passionate dancer letting their hair down, there was nothing timid about this wine. By contrast, the 2014 variant lacked the same gusto.

What is truly exciting is that it is not just the small-plot single-vineyard wines that deliver. The Alpha Estate Blend 2015 (Eric Boissenot is hands-on with the blending) is 60 percent Syrah, 20 percent Xinomavro, and 20 percent Merlot, and it exudes class, generous blackberries, and red fruit, long, elegant, and as harmonious as a sextet at the end of a Mozart opera. It is not only the reds that shine. As a student of “the pope of white wine” Denis Dubourdieu, Angelos has an affinity for teasing out the texture of his white wines. The Alpha Estate Assyrtiko 2015 Aghia Kirianki Single Vineyard enjoys skin contact for six hours, with a controlled alcoholic fermentation by indigenous flora isolated from the specific block and is maintained sur lies for eight months. The result is a generous wine, combining a core of white stone fruit with tangy mineral notes reminiscent of sea shells, lifted and lyrical.

We finished the tasting with a late-harvest Xinomavro 2007, whose bouquet is pure dried old rose petals, the palate a riot of wild strawberries and summer fruit, and the length appearing endless. Extraordinary. It was a mark of the quality of the wines that after the tasting I felt energized and more intrigued than ever. At a time when Burgundy and Barolo prices are skyrocketing, these wines are still affordable: For those who love individuality and terroir, the value for money can hardly be beaten—the majority are under £25.

If Alpha Estate is a torch-bearer for the Amyndeon region, its light spreads wide. Nine wineries are now officially registered. Looking to foster excellence in the area, Alpha Estate has opened an education center on the estate where growers are kept up to speed with everything from vineyard techniques, to the best tractors. Energy is in abundance: “If all goes well, a hotel will open in 2023,” says Angelos.

As I drive back to my hotel through the forests to the top of the mountain, I think about how unique the terroir is, and how relatively undiscovered. While other varieties grow well, Xinomavro is undoubtedly its star, rooted to the soil. It isn’t Pinot and it isn’t Nebbiolo, but it shares their ability to produce brilliant wines of beauty that age with grace and elegance. Back in the village of Nymfaio, as I say goodnight to the owner of my boutique hotel, I ask her whether she believes nymphs protect other mountains. She looks at me firmly. “The nymphs belong here; they won’t travel,” she says resolutely. As I pulled the light cord I thought, how appropriate: Greek terroir nymphs.

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