The Life of a Flying Winemaker, Parts 1-5

Contributing writers Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen conclude their five-day journey through Greece's finest vineyards with winemaker extraordinaire, Yannis Voyatzis.


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Part One

Dionysus—the Greek god of wine and agriculture—has a new incarnation, and his name is Dr. Yannis Voyatzis. As chief enologist at Greece’s Boutari Wineries, Voyatzis is the force behind more than 40 different labels produced at Boutari’s six facilities. From early August to late October, this soft-spoken winemaker follows the harvest through Greece, from the volcanic, windswept islands of the Aegean, through the mythical Peloponnese, and into the mountainous, Balkan north. And this week, he invites us to travel with (and work alongside) him from island to mainland, from vineyard to winery, as grapes are picked and wine is made.

The journey began this morning, when we arrived to Athens, well-rested after a trans-Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Aegean journey, not of epic proportions, but rather of great comfort. We were not forced to slaughter our own cattle or steal food from the Cyclops, yet we enjoyed a feast of meat and wine fit for a demigod. A leisurely meal on Delta, accompanied by wines chosen by Andrea Robinson, set the scene as we settled into our cocoon-like seats, Kindles in hand. We should mention that in preparation for our five-day voyage across Greece, we downloaded books to set the mood; Between the two of us, we're reading Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad—obviously.

The Odyssey’s opening line, "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course," came to mind when winemaker extraordinaire Yannis Voyatzis (who comes off as more rock star than scientist,) greeted us. Wasting no time, he described to us a season of high temperature, minimal rain, and low yields, a season that is currently in harvest.  Despite Boutari’s size, we're extremely impressed with both their indigenous varietals—Xinomavro, Malagouzia, Agiorgitiko, Moschofilero, and Assyrtiko among them—and their better-known international grapes.  But more than that, we are charmed and amazed by the winemaker in the funky glasses and gold sneakers who flies countless miles every year, bringing the latest enological technology to some of the oldest vineyards in the world. 

After finishing his studies at the University of Bordeaux, Dr. Voyatzis returned to Greece, where he has spent twenty-five years working with Boutari. He is a treasure-trove of information on grape varietals, soil types, and winemaking techniques. And over the next five days, we'll observe him as he meticulously manages his twenty-sixth harvest, capturing the day-to-day triumphs and frustrations of the man who leaves his mark on every bottle of Boutari.  And if our first dinner at Ayoli in Thessaloniki is any indication of the week ahead, both our bodies and minds will be well-fed.

Part Two

Voyatzis (right) with his head viticulturist, Demetris Taskos Leaving Thessaloniki and the coast under an overcast sky, we drove an hour north to the original Boutari winery in Goumenissa. Soft classical music was constantly interrupted by the hum of Voyatzis’ phone; he spoke with vineyard managers and winemakers in Crete, Santorini, Nemea, and Naoussa in rapid succession. The landscape eventually gave way to a rolling checkerboard of fruit orchards, cotton fields, and vineyards. Stopping quickly at the small, rustic winery to pick up head viticulturist Demetris Taskos, we continued to a vineyard block about 20 minutes south of the F.Y.R. Macedonia border. Goumenissa is a P.D.O., or Protected Denomination of Origin. The main grapes grown here are Xinomavro and Negoska, both of which will be ready to pick in about a month. We tasted the grapes together, and all agreed they need some time before they can be harvested.

Driving on to Naoussa, we were met by winemaker Vassily Georgiou, who showed us the tanks and barrel room while Voyatzis attended to emails and met with contract growers. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Malagouzia are currently under fermentation, and Voyatzis joined us to taste the musts and determine their progress. We then tasted 36 Boutari wines, including Naoussa Reserve vintages 1969, 1974, 1982, 1990, 1997, 2000, 2004, 2005, 2006n and 2007.  Unlike Odysseus, who drank ruddy wine from a wooden bowl, we drank from crystal glasses and found each vintage better than the last.  

Needless to say, we almost missed our flight to Crete, and are pleasantly surprised to discover that we and Voyatzis are sharing the original winemaker’s cottage among the vines. A simple dinner of grilled seafood and Cretan whites was the perfect end to a busy day. Tomorrow, we'll tour the vineyards and winery, and even have some time to visit a local archeological excavation.

Part Three

It is true that drama is a Greek word. The grape pickers did not come to work today, the final day of harvest, so there was little sense rushing to the vineyards. While Voyatzis hastily made phone calls, we toured the ruins of the magnificent Palace of Knossos, built by King Minos during the height of the Minoan era on the island of Crete.

Upon our return, Voyatzis and his on-site winemaker, Vivi Papaspirou, sat us down with a glass of 2009 Fanaxometocho ("Haunted Domain," the name of the vineyard in which we slept) and glasses of 2010 Malvasia Aromatica and Chardonnay musts, which are blended into this delicicious wine. We discussed sugar and alcohol content, acidity and balance, and Voyatzis and Papaspirou planned the ongoing vinification. (We exchanged knowing glances on learning the origin of the domain name, as we thought we saw a ghost last night, which could have been real or the result of too much ouzo at the taverna.)  A vertical of Skalini, 2001-09 preceded sampling the 2010 Kotsifali and Syrah musts. There were multiple samples, as Voyatzis and Papaspirou are vinifying grapes from individual blocks separately and are considering introducing a Reserve Skalani.

All good dramas are resolved in the end, and pickers who could start harvesting in the late afternoon were located. Voyatzis and his vineyard manager walked the rows and directed the workers so that only the finest grapes bunches would make it into the latest vintage.     

We then headed into the nearby city of Heraklion for dinner, and as the restaurant owner approached our table with the first round of plates, this passage from the Odyssey came to mind:  "She hurried towards us, decked in rich regalia, handmaids followed close with trays of bread and meats galore and glinting ruddy wine. And the lustrous goddess hailed us warmly, 'Ah, my darling reckless friends! Come take some food and drink some wine, rest here the livelong day and then tomorrow at daybreak you must sail."                

Part Four

Yannis Voyatzis with winemaker, Ioanna Vamvakouri Winemaking is not the first thing that springs to mind when thinking about Santorini; between the populated white cliffside villages and vast sea, lies farm. The nondescript low plants that fill much of the open land are grape vines, which look completely different from those anywhere else in the world. Trained into nest-like wreaths called ampeles, they shield Assyrtiko grapes from harsh sun and wind, and hold in evaporating moisture from the volcanic soil. Last night, after assisting Voyatzis and Papaspirou in the final hand-selection of Syrah, we left Crete by high-speed catamaran for the two-hour voyage to this beautiful island.

We were greeted at the winery by winemaker Ioanna Vamvakouri and winery manager Petros Vamvakousis, who are concurrently working on this year’s fermentation and last years’ bottling. As Voyatzis caught up on phone calls that he'd missed during our two hours at sea, Vamvakouri summed up what we had heard from every other winemaker this week:  “Doctor Voyatzis is like a professor to us. He encourages us to experiment. He wants the personality of the individual winemaker to show through in the wine, and he wants us to work with each year’s differences, allowing the character of the vintage to show through.” 

Assyrtiko is vinified into the crisp, refreshing Santorini white, as well as the more complex Kallisti and Kallisti Reserve. Today was mainly spent tasting several vintages and tank samples of must, and determining which would be set aside to make the higher-end wines, and how to best further the winemaking process. We did the same with 2006 Vinsanto, the sweet wine of Santorini, which is also made from Assyrtiko, but the grapes are first sun-dried and the wine undergoes extensive barrel-aging. Formal tasting concluded with one of Boutari’s “Experimental Wines,” Mandilaria, a red grape that is more common on Crete. Voyatzis and his team make small amounts of these at each winery, and 2000 bottles of each is sold only at their tasting rooms. 

We are currently sitting on our hotel terrace watching the sun set over the Aegean, and after a glass of Nyxteri, we will walk the cobblestone streets in search of dinner. Finding inspiration in the Odyssey yet again, we follow Homer’s call: “The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently, and rouses him up to dance.”

Part Five

Roxane Matsa, of the rambling French-style estate, Domaine MatsaWe’re sorry to leave the sunny and windswept island of Santorini this morning, but duty calls! A one-hour flight brings us back to the bustle of horn-honking Athens—away from the farms and vineyards—or so we thought.  Just five minutes from the Athens airport lies Domaine Matsa, a rambling French-style estate, dominated by a chateau, chapel, 10 hectares of grapevines and Roxane Matsa. A joint venture between Matsa and the Boutari family since 1980, Domaine Matsa produces mainly Savatiano and Malagouzia. This land has been in Matsa's family for generations. Her grandmother was forced to sell off half of it after World War II, so in between the main house and the larger of two vineyards are a few blocks of Athenian suburb.

As Voyatzis attended to the 14 voicemails he received during the flight, Matsa whisked us into her vintage sky-blue Citroen for the quick drive to her main vineyard. Along the way, this force of nature explained that although the land on which she cultivates grapes is highly valuable to real estate developers, she has gone against the advice of almost everyone she knows in order to engage in her passion:  The art of viticulture. We witnessed the end of the Malagouzia harvest, and returned to the chateau as the grapes were transferred to an antique cistern to be cooled before the crush. 

Several times a year, the Boutari family—patriarch Constantine, his wife Niki and daughters Marina and Christina—meet at each winery with the on-site team to discuss the past, present, and future of the wines made there. Today was such an occasion, and we were invited to participate in their tasting and conversation. Winemakers Alexandros Tzachristas and Dina Makra, and plant manager Paras Evageliou (who we'll also work with tomorrow in Mantinia, where the rose and citrus flavored Moschofilero is made) rounded out the group. Tastings of the Domaine Matsa Savatiano/Assyrtiko blend and Malagazouzia  helped the team to settle on a flavor profile for the new vintage, and a decanter of brand-new organic, unsulfured Syrah sparked a lively debate on how this could best be brought to market.

Roxane had prepared a feast of cold salads and keftedes, and the corporate business meeting shape-shifted into a family meal. As Homer put it, “And wine can of their wits the wise beguile, make the sage frolic, and the serious smile.” As we watched the interplay and exchange of ideas unfold, we realized that Boutari is more a family than a business. We will be very sad to part with Yannis tomorrow evening, as he returns to his home in Thessaloniki. Our time with him will be complete, but as harvest, fermentation, and bottling continue, he will fly around Greece through the fall and winter, putting his magic touch on the wines we will taste when we return next year.

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