Οld vines

Old vines are spread throughout different Greek PDO and PGI regions and are a common feature of Greece’s vineyards. Be it in the region of PGI Attiki (ΠΓΕ Αττική), the 50+ bush vines of Savatiano grape planted after phylloxera has passed, or the centenarian old basket-trained “kouloures” in Santorini, these vines hide a great ampelographic heritage that is unique to Greece.

In more isolated areas, such as the southern part of Crete, field-blends of old, bush-trained vines are planted to almost extinct grape varieties that the new generation of Greek winemakers are keen to explore. The mountainous part of Achaia, the so-called PGI Slopes of Aigialia (ΠΓΕ Πλαγιές Αιγιαλείας) is also a treasure chest of ancient grape varieties that were preserved from old vine-growers and nowadays are re-discovered and add to the diversity of the Greek vineyard.

Cephalonia (Kefalonia) and the Ionian islands are also home to a great number of old vines from rare indigenous grape varieties. In the most remote Greek regions phylloxera didn’t arrive and thus a number old, own-rooted, vines have been preserved. In other regions, such as Santorini or Amyndeon, due to the sandy soils, phylloxera cannot survive. Where phylloxera did not manage to attack the vines, there is still a significant number of old vines.

In many cases old-vines are perfectly adapted to their local environment. For example, the old Savatiano vines in Attiki are extremely resistant to the dry, warm climatic conditions of the region. Very often, such old vineyards display a great biodiversity among the vines, contributing to great complexity and enhancing the sense of terroir in the wines.

The term old vines, vieilles vignes, or similar, indicate an old vineyard on the label. According to the Greek wine law, the use of these terms in PDO and PGI wines applies only to ungrafted vines with a minimum age of 40 years old.

The mountainous vineyards

Greece is not just about the blue of the Aegean and the Ionian Sea, as this is most of the times what is has been imprinted into visitor’s mind. Greece is predominantly mountainous and almost 80% of its total acreage is covered by high mountains. Mountains exist not only in mainland Greece but also in the islands. For example, mountains account for a large proportion of Crete, the largest Greek island, forming a spine that runs across the island from west to east. Mountain Ainos is also an imposing figure of Cephalonia and in its slopes lies the vineyard of Robola.

Mainland Greece is dominated by the Pindos Mountain range which is an extension of the Central European Alps and forms an arc that continues to the southeastern part of the Peloponnese. The PDO Zitsa vineyard (ΠΟΠ Ζϊτσα) is located in the highlands of the Pindos mountains. Olympus, the highest peak in Greece, is located east of Pindos and close to the sea. On its slopes stretches the beautiful vineyard of Rapsani. Consequently, a great majority of the Greek vineyards are found on the slopes of the hills and the mountains. These mountains, provide high elevations that escape much of the summer heat and a sheer number of different altitudes, aspects and soils suitable for grape-growing. In many cases altitude is more important than latitude.

A typical example of the above is the vineyard of PDO Mantinia (ΠΟΠ Μαντινεία) which rests in the heart of Peloponnese. Although the latitude is southern, the vineyard plateau is located at an altitude of 660m, above sea-level. As a result, Moschofilero grape is capable of producing low in alcohol and full of freshness wines that are close in terms of style to a central European wine than a Mediterranean one.

At a point when the world-market is looking after finesse and elegance and the climate change leads to a constant rise of alcohol levels, the Greek mountains offer the possibility to Greeks winemakers to produce wines that are bursting with energy and freshness. However, working a mountainous vineyard is labor intensive and needs great effort and dedication from the grower. And this should be always part of the discussion.

Climate change in the Greek vineyard

Greek producers are already discussing the impacts of climate change and this is a “trendy” and much worried discussion among the industry members. Climate change is not just about the global warming. With so much depending on the soils, the slopes orientation, the grape variety and all those factors that determine the local terroir, the impact of climate change on the grapes and the wines can be very different.

Increasingly, severe weather – especially late spring frosts, violent hail storms, severe droughts, prolonged heatwaves and frequent flooding – are proving nightmares for winemakers as well as other crop growers. A combination of earlier ripening and spring frosts significantly reduces the growth cycle of vines. In the longer term, it seems possible that varieties could gradually be changed because they may become unsuitable for their wine regions. Does this mean that Naoussa will become unsuitable for the production of Xinomavro in the future?

All the above create mixed feelings and such theories although existing will not apply any time soon. The positive thing is that Greece has a few great advantages against the severity of climate change and this is something that not every country can count on. First of all, it has a wealth of indigenous grape varieties found in the Greek vineyard. Many of these old grapes are extremely adapted to difficult wine-growing conditions. This vinodiversity is a major advantage against the rapid changes that climate change brings.

A second tool against the climate change is the mountainous topography of Greece. In warm regions, such as PGI Drama (ΠΓΕ Δράμα) producers are tackling climate change by planting new vineyards at higher altitudes. The increased alcohol levels and the loss of freshness can be counterbalanced by altitude, which delays the maturation process and leads to later harvests of technologically matured grapes.

Words such as sustainability, environmental protection, responsibility, awareness are heard more and more often among the conversations that take place. With a wonderful climate and human scale of production, Greece can contribute to the fight against the phenomenon of global warming.

Integrated management

Integrated management in agriculture (and, by extension, in viticulture) in reality is not an alternative method of farming, but more a way of restricting the chemical inflow and farming interventions so as to reduce the negative results on the environment without putting the financial survival of farming at risk.

Integrated management is based on the “right dose at the right moment”. This means close and continuous monitoring of the farm so that any problem can be immediately detected and dealt with appropriately—as opposed to letting the problem get out of control and needing stronger interventions. Before fertilizing, the soil and leaves are closely analyzed to determine the quantity and type of fertilizer necessary. In order to deal with the insects, traps and predatory mites are used as well as some bio-preparations, wherever they can be applied.

The system of integrated management appeared in the 1990s in the European north. This was a logical place for the movement to start not only because of its history of heavy chemical interventions in the fields and the subsequent increased pollution (noted in the environment and in the water sources), but also because of an increased demand from the consumers for healthier and more environmentally friendly products.

At the EU level, no specific “certification” of integrated management has been yet established and each country has its own control organizations.

Biodynamic viticulture in Greece

Biodynamic viticulture in Greece was first introduced by amateur farmers who were experimenting in “nature farming” practices of a Japanese biodynamic leader named Masanobu Fukuoka. A few years ago, a Greek branch of Demeter International (a prestigious biodynamic certification organization) was established.

Some viticulturists and winegrowers apply the methods of biodynamic viticulture in Greece in various wine producing zones. Frequently, seminars on the topic are held in Greece—led by Pierre Masson and Enzo Nastati. As of yet, Greece does not have any winegrowers officially certified with the Demeter label. However, some Greek winegrowers participate in international biodynamic fairs such as: Renaissance des Appellations (in Loir, France) and Vini di Vignaioli for “natural wines” (in Parma, Italy).

Organic Viticulture

The official practice of organic farming in Greece first appeared in the 1980s with the implementation of the EU regulation 2092/91; the first organic certifications started a few years later in 1993. Organic viticulture is the second most prevalent form of organic agriculture.

Viticulture in Greece benefits from many of the conditions necessary for organic farming: the temperate climate, the unusual landscape relief, and the small size of wine farms. As a testament of the prevalence of organic farming practices used in Greece, approximately 50% of all Greek wineries currently recommend wines made from organic grapes. The EU has set the foundation for the future establishment of a European organic wine certification by updating regulation 2092/91 with regulation 837/2007.

Apart from the vineyards that are applying strategies of organic farming in Greece, many wineries meet the requirements for food safety and quality management established by the well known ISO and HACCP. Additionally, wineries may receive an organic certification through one of eleven local Greek organizations; two of which certify the majority of local organic wines. The organic viticulture movement has become so extensive that since 2005, there has been an annual wine competition for wines made from organic grapes.

The vineyards that practice organic viticulture in Greece cover an area of nearly 397,000,000 ft²; 156,000,000 of those are in a transitory stage according to data from 2007. These vineyards follow world-wide protocol for organic agriculture and only use very mild plant protection and fertilization practices. Such mild practices allow for a more balanced vine-environment and keep the soil rich in nutrients.

The aim of organic viticulture in Greece, and world-wide, is to have vineyards with zest and reduced sprouting. If the vine yield is low and the surface of the leaf is large, the leaf will photosynthesize well while providing sufficient ventilation. Oxygenated vines are one of the “secrets” that prevent unwanted fungi from seriously affecting the vine. Sulfur (in liquid or powder form) is occasionally used in organic viticulture in Greece to combat powdery mildew, while copper sulfide is used to treat downy mildew (and indirectly botrytis). Copper sulfide is especially useful in the wine regions of Northern Greece and in other similar regions that experience increased rainfall in spring and summer. Copper, as a heavy metal, is seldom used by Greek viticulturists. Organic wine farmers restrict the use of copper to such great extents that there are times when they repeatedly refuse to treat their plants with it, resulting in the loss of part of their crop (a normal phenomenon for bio-farmers). Luckily Greece benefits from both strong winds—such as the Meltemia from the Cyclades and the Aegean islands—and high summer temperatures which favor the vine and do not allow for an extended development of microorganisms; two to three sulfur interventions are usually sufficient in treating the disease.

There are many fauna species which are very beneficial to conserving the balance of the environment surrounding the vines—the importance of such fauna to organic viticulture in Greece is not to be overlooked. Certain insects, such as the vine moth, can be easily treated with Bacillus Thuringiensis, while others must be dealt with manually. Most weeds are controlled through mechanical methods. The soil stays nutrient-rich because of the bio-preparations (both animal and organic) that are used to fertilize the vineyards. Quite often viticulturists use digested stalks and skins of grapes from organic vines to enrich the soil.

Many farmers who practice organic viticulture in Greece make use of what is called “green manure”. “Green manure” is an ancient agricultural technique achieved by plowing nitrogen rich plants into the soil and consequently to the grape vines. In regions where water is sufficient, bio-culturists do not have to resort to this method because other forms of vegetation grow naturally and create a healthy level of competition against the vine, ultimately leading to livelier vines. In regions that are hot and dry, however, the “green manure” is added to the soil with the first spring plowing.

Innovation in Viticulture

The soil was a rather disregarded factor in viticulture until a few decades ago. Since then, however, the importance of nitrogen, potassium, calcium and the other ingredients of the soil for the proper growth of vine stocks has been the subject of considerable study. The result has been extensive innovation in viticulture -depending on the type of farming (conventional, integrated, organic, biodynamic)- and the soil is now a “canvas” able to highlight the colorful palette of the new wines of Greece.

Equally important to where something is planted is what is planted. Agencies, producers, laboratories and university institutions carry out important research work in the field of determination and selection of the most appropriate clones for many local varieties. Some of this research has led to new plantings, spearheading innovation in viticulture and further strengthening the uniqueness of Greek wines.

New types of formations in many vineyards seem to point in the same direction. Taking also into account differences in climatic conditions, linear planting is tested and replaces other types of formation wherever it is proven more appropriate. This, of course, does not mean that tried and tested traditional systems (e.g. goblet- or basket-shaped vines) are abolished. If they prove more efficient, they are maintained along with innovation in viticulture. Furthermore, the density of planting increases in many Greek vineyards, leading to low yields per vine stock, which is the necessary condition for the production of high-quality wines.

In a country with a Mediterranean climate, such as Greece, the needs of vines for water are higher than in northern, more humid climates. Irrigation systems are thus a common feature in many good quality vineyards, especially in regions with low rainfall and humidity. Indeed, the installation of the first underground irrigation systems in vineyards in Europe places Greece among the pioneers in innovation in viticulture on the continent.

Special care is also required so that the sun, the great ally of the Greek land, is not turned into an enemy. This difficult task is undertaken by management of the vineyard’s foliar wall, a factor to which innovation in viticulture is paying increasing attention. The height, shape and ratio of foliage to fruit are relevant to the protection of the grapes and the proper photosynthesis,  a necessary requirement for producing excellent grapes.

Innovation in viticulture also includes the necessary, absolute control provided by the use of meteorological stations installed in many Greek vineyards which provide wineries with valuable data on the weather outlook. An equally valuable ally is the ultramodern foliar-diagnostic laboratories which practically study the leaves under… a microscope, allowing the producer to diagnose and deal with any problem found in the vines.

Another part related to innovation in viticulture is the experimental planting which is done in Greek vineyards. Agencies and private entrepreneurs, either separately or jointly, systematically experiment on new varieties: foreign ones, that seem to be suitable for the Greek climate, as well as local ones, the potential of which is yet unknown and can hide many more veritable treasures than the ones already discovered.

New blood in the vineyards

The veteran Greek viticulturists, with the valuable wisdom and their considerable experience, have seen the entry into their sector in recent decades of a new generation of colleagues, who may not have the choppy handsof the elders but do possess scientific knowledge and visions from their contact with famous educational institutions and important winegrowing plots in the world. This is the new blood in the vineyards of Greece.

The changes in the Greek vineyard started from drastic cutbacks in yields – an action necessary for each vine stock to transfer to its grapes the strong personality of the Greek land. Furthermore, wherever and whenever needed, the green vine harvest relieves the vine from the excessive load, giving to the remaining bunches of grapes strength and robustness. Another modernity brought by the new blood in the vineyards was the proper irrigation and, generally, the consolidation of the proper perceptions about water and vine: “water whenever, wherever and as much as required” so that the vine can produce excellent raw material (in many cases there is a meteorological station inside the vineyards).

Now, next to the watering lines in many Greek vineyards one finds not only the traditional varieties of each region but also new ones -the fruit of viticulturists’ quest for new wine experiences to offer to restless oenophiles. Furthermore, the continuously increasing concern for the environment accompanies the reform in Greek viniculture, indeed to such an extent that a large part of the new wines of Greece derive – although this is not always mentioned on the labels – from grapes of organic farming.

Unique Viticultural Practices

Winegrowing was first organized in Greece thousands of years ago and has been continuously practiced around the country eversince. As time went by unique viticultural practices were developed according to the peculiarities of Greek vineyards. The following factors played a significant part in their establishment:

  • Cultivation of countless native varieties, a practice not commonly encountered in other countries
  • The existence of isolated but numerous small winegrowing zones on the islands and on the mainland
  • Inaccessible and forbidding terrain which hampers the application of winegrowing practices possible on large expanses of flat terroirs

A number of these unique viticultural practices entail cultivation tasks carried out by hand which vintners still engage in concerning grapes  for vinification. The most common of these tasks are:

  • The picking of the grapes
  • Pruning, especially into a basket (kouloura) on Santorini and goblet shapes
  • Planting on tiered stone terraces

Apart from such ordinary tasks it is not uncommon in 21st-century Greece to encounter other unique winegrowing practices which seem to have traveled down the tunnel of time: a vine dresser pruning back his vines into basketshapes; another one digging into his vineyard’s arid soil with a grub hoe; a mountain vineyard being tilled by means of a horse-drawn plough; or a donkey carrying large, woven baskets overflowing with freshly-picked grapes… And all the while, superb yields of grapes come out of unique and “ancient” terroirs which for better or worse mechanical winegrowing will never access.