An encounter with wines that are unique in style is an unforgettable experience. The aromas, flavours and texture make them stand out. I also find that this information is then permanently stored in my memory. I wish this could be the case with every wine I taste, but unfortunately I do not possess such ability.
Just three days ago such an encounter took place. Christos Aivalis started his small winery in 1997. He is a garagiste winemaker from Petri, just a few kilometres away from Nemea, Peloponnese. In this zone the Agiorgitiko grape is king. Aivalis owns just 4.5 ha of vineyards, and they are scattered across many different areas. Some of the plots have been in the family for generations.
Christos invited me for a visit. When I arrived at noon, he was busy grilling steaks, liver and sausages. “My wines need food, they are not meant to be drunk on their own”. A large table was set outside in his garden, but before lunch was served, we engaged in an easy flowing conversation. Every year, Christos buys a lot of top wines from around the world. He constantly compares his own quality with the best wines money can buy. His assessment does not come at a surprise: “There are very good wines being made in Greece today. There are also some great wines available. I would qualify about 20 estates from Greece as the top range of producers. If any of them could label their wines with product from Italy instead product from Greece, the prices achieved would certainly be a multiple. You can still get the highest quality at bargain prices.”
Christos is not a shy man by all means. He has strong views and is not afraid to voice them. He asked me about my favourite wines – as soon as I mentioned Xinomavro as a grape variety, he told me that he did not like it at all, as most Xinomavro wines are still being made in a far too rustic way. When raving about Assyrtiko from Santorini, he complained about the lack of fruit. “Great minerals, great structure, clearly terroir wines, if only they would have more fruit character”.
He selected four of his wines to accompany the lunch. The first three were all made from 100% Agiorgitiko: Aivalis Nemea is produced from several parcels across the appellation. Monopati is a single-vineyard selection from a site with forty-year-old vines. Tessera comes from the top single-vineyard. The fourth wine is produced from a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Syrah. The first thing that struck me was the extreme ink colour of all the wines. Judging by the colour only, I would have mistaken them for a very young Syrah wine from Australia. I have poured many Agiorgitiko wines over the last years, yet I rarely encountered such a deep colour before. I asked Christos at what temperature he allows fermentation to take place – he answered that for extraction purposes, fermentation happens between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius. Maceration is long and might last up to 50 days! In addition all his wines are unfiltered and produced biodynamic, although he does not bother to apply for the official certification, as in his view biodynamic production should be standard for all serious wine makers.
The next thing that stood out was the sheer density of his wines on the nose and on the palate. I have only encountered such densely made wines from Christos Kokkalis before – the Aivalis wines share a similar thread, the bouquet is captivating and changes several times in the space of a few hours. These are wines that I long to smell again and again. They need a lot of air, large glasses and ample time. Under these conditions, they thrive. A word of caution though, I do not believe the Aivalis range are crowd-pleasing wines. They will not appeal to drinkers who look for easy satisfaction.
Aivalis owns a plot of land that still has un-grafted vines. It has been owned by the Aivalis family for well over 100 years and was never replanted. Phylloxera never attacked the vines. Christos estimates the age of the vines to be around 150 years old. Yields are below 8 hectolitres – from this plot of land the Tessera is produced in minute quantities, the 2006 harvest yielded just 420 bottles. Tessera spends a total of 36 months in new oak barrels – every 12 months it is racked into new barrels and is the only wine I know off that receives triple new oak treatment. The result however is pure magic – while the new oak is evident indeed, Tessera is a very dense wine that tastes extremely ripe and concentrated. It is totally dominated by sweet fruit aromas and reminded me of the strawberry jams my grandmother used to make. This is an elegant wine, nearly feminine in style, although the tannins have a firm structure.
The Monopati 2008 on the other hand is rougher, like a boxer in the ring hitting every punch with precision. This is Christos’ personal favourite, and I agree that it is a remarkable wine. While the Tessera has an amazing fruit concentration, the Monopati is allowed to run wild, it toys with a variety of flavours that enhance the body while reducing somewhat the elegance. The result is a much more masculine wine.
The Aivalis Nemea 2008 is the basic wine and is produced from different parcels within the appellation. It is a very good full-bodied Agiorgitiko. Although it is not quite as pronounced in style than the two single vineyard labels, it is a serious wine. It receives the shortest maceration, but with 20 days it is no featherweight.
The Cabernet/Syrah 2007 blend was also impressive with its dark purple colour, dense nose and rich palate. But Aivalis has mastered the Agiorgitiko grape, and I would rather like to see a slight increase in the production there, rather than additional production of international grape variety wines.
All wines should be cellared for quite some time, the Monopati and the Tessera should be fascinating in 10 years, and I have the feeling that even the basic Nemea will improve over the next 5 years.
I spent four hours with Christos and time just flew by. He is extremely passionate about wines, and this passion is not limited to his own production. He is not afraid to speak his mind, has firm believes and a personality that matches his wines.