A few years ago one might scoff at the prospect of a visit to a Greek winery. The memory of old-school Retsina lingers on. That wine had more in common, to non-Greek taste buds at least, with that in which one might clean paint brushes. But those days are gone and now Greek wineries are taken seriously in the international arena; they are winning awards against more familiar wine-producing countries. Viticultural snobbery has been, in most circles, swept away and wine aficionados are now able to appreciate some very fine vintages. We have Papagiannakos Winery!
Vassilis Papagiannakos is a leader in the reinvention of the Greek wine industry. After decades of hard work he is now enjoying recognition and international respect. He and his wife Antonia started building this new and technologically advanced winery in 2003 and it was opened in 2007. It is designed on bio-climatic principles: it saves 25% energy by using natural light and ventilation to control the temperature inside, making it cool in summer and warm in winter. It was the first energy-saving winery in Greece, and the design has received architectural awards.
Architectural good taste
We spoke to Vassilis in the state-of-the-art winery which ticks every box for technology, eco-friendliness, and architectural good taste. “It took me almost 2 years to find the architect. Most were saying that they wanted to visit wineries in France, Italy, California, Australia, New Zealand, to take photographs and I would choose what I liked. I did not like that approach, and when I told a friend of my concerns he recommended an architect who had worked in the UK on bioclimatic buildings. At last we had found someone with original ideas. The first vintage in the new building was in September 2007. Similarly with our label designer: she is English, married to a Greek and had designed for many international brands.
“The design of the winery puts everything underground. I wanted to incorporate the building into the surroundings, adapted to the environment. But when we dug the foundations over 5 metres down we discovered an ancient river, which we could not block. So we had to fill the bottom of the excavation with a metre of big stones, and build the winery on top of that!”
Vassilis Papagiannakos explained the history and ethos of his building and production. “My ancestors were grape-growers, like all the villagers of this region for thousands of years. But my grandfather emigrated to the United States at the beginning of 1900. He stayed for ten years, and worked very hard. When he came back he married my grandmother, who owned some vineyards; with the money that he had saved he bought more vineyards and built the first winery.”
320 days of sunshine
“My father worked to improve the technology in the 50s and 60s with equipment from France. It was always a family business, as it is today, and we cultivated the main grape of the area, Savatiano. This is mostly a limestone soil, and we have mild winters, and hot and dry summers. We have a minimum of 320 days of sunshine, and no rain from the middle of May until October, and low humidity.
We are very lucky as we are close to the sea: it surrounds us, on the east coast of Attica, and we get the breeze from the Aegean, and there is a strong wind that blows in the afternoon, until sunset. This cools down the grapes. The advantage of this grape variety, Savatiano, is that it is very well adapted to this climate. 95-97% of our vines are not irrigated. Because that grape has been grown here for thousands of years it is well established,and the roots go very deep – perhaps 20 to 25 metres – and the yield is very low.”
Why did Vassilis Papagiannakos step away from traditional Retsina? “I saw that Savatiano was associated only with Retsina and my father and grandfather were producing mostly just that, because this was the market at that time. In the 70s and 80s we started making wine without resin, but it was simply called ‘aretsina’, without retsina! So I took the decision to cut back on making Retsina and focus on using Savatiano to produce a conventional white wine. I don’t advertise our Retsina, but most of it is exported, our best market being Paris! Our white wines can compete and be compared with other international grapes and wines from other countries; but Retsina is unique to Greece.”
“We have planted grapes from other regions of Greece, like Malagouzia, and international varieties like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which we support on wires, and we always irrigate those at least twice during the summer to avoid hydro-stressing the vines. The vines only get a sulphur spray in May, and otherwise we do not need to spray, as we have no diseases in this area due to the hot, dry climate. We rarely suffer from mildew – just once in 48 years. We are naturally organic. Although we are not certified, laboratories here and in Germany and Canada acknowledge that our wines are organic.
“All our vineyards are maintained by hand. We have about 10 people regularly working for us in the fields; that goes up to 50 at harvest time. That lasts 2 months, from the beginning of August until the 20th September. Malagouzia that I planted 15 years ago is always the earliest to ripen. Then Assyrtico, then the reds (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Agiorgitiko), then at the beginning of September, Savatiano, which is our main production.
Mostly we use grapes from our own properties for our wines. But we do buy grapes from vineyards owned by members of our extended family and friends. Land prices are very high in this area, so it is not economic to extend our own vineyards. Because of the geography of Greece, the terroir, and the break-up of property by inheritance, production is very artisanal and we have very high costs. I think that the selling prices are still too low, but we don’t have the reputation of somewhere like Burgundy. We deserve it, but we will have to build up the awareness and reputation.”
New French oak barrels
“Because of the many different terroirs, altitudes and climates on the mainland and on the islands, we have more than 400 varieties of grape in Greece, although only 15 to 20 are used for wines exported to international markets. Production is generally 70 to 75% white wine, due to the climatic conditions. We produce about 200,000 bottles per year. Our best market at the moment is Germany, (in part because there are more than 5000 Greek restaurants there!); then the United States, Canada, and Britain.
“Red production is 15 to 20 % of our total, mainly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (5000 – 7000 bottles each) and some Agiorgitiko. We keep it in the barriques (barrels) for 13 to 19 months, depending on the year. We always buy new barriques – we have experimented with various ones, and we have settled on wood from two forests in France, and focus on two particular suppliers. And we also produce a barrel-aged Savatiano white wine called Vareli (which is the Greek for ‘barrel’). We keep that wine in new French oak barrels for 5 to 6 months. In early 2000 I planted Malagouzia, Assyrtiko, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. They take five years to produce grapes, but to come fully into production takes 7 to 8 years, as we need two years for experimentation.”
I would not settle for second-best
This beautifully presented winery is outstanding and can compete with wineries anywhere in the world. They have the best of wine-making facilities, and elegant social space in which to host group gatherings and receptions in striking fashion. The building has open vistas over fruit trees, figs, pistachios, herbs and of course vines. This noteworthy winery has inspired a lot of other winemakers from all over Greece and other countries. Students studying architecture use the building as a project because of the bioclimatic and energy-saving design. “Many want to copy our building,” says Vassilis Papagiannakos, “I am very proud because this is the first one. We used the best materials, and it was a very big investment for us, and it was a very tiring time, but it was my dream – I would not settle for second-best.” And he hasn’t.
Vassilis Papagiannakos has charisma and charm. He is an international traveller and has a taste for curry when visiting London. Yes, he is a citizen of the world but his heart and passion are in Greece. He has struck the right balance between hard work and family life, with both his daughter and wife working by his side, and his undoubted success is well-deserved. I look forward to tasting more of his admirable wines in the future.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018