If Zeus were to celebrate his earthly joys in any one place, this surely would be it.
Tucked into a pocket of sun-drenched Mount Olympus slopes, sturdy rows of Xinomavro catch a cooling mountain breeze, their gentle rustling creating a whistling song at 1,640 feet above sea level. After a jaunty, open-top 4×4 ride up the storied mountain, we wander the Rapsani plot in silence, feeling privy to a secret garden known to few.
Special indeed, but singular it is not. As one of Europe’s most mountainous countries, Greece is a hotbed of excellent high-altitude wines. A large percentage of those made here are produced from vines grown at jaw-dropping heights. The resulting elegance, acidity and balance, thanks also to the winemaking know-how that cultivating a vineyard at these elevations requires, adds to the country’s reputation for world-class and terroir-driven bottlings.
How high can you go? Read on to discover some of the country’s most dizzying vineyards, with wines that deserve top billing at your table.
Meteora’s surreal landscape, with its massive columns of natural rock jutting thousands of feet from the Plain of Thessaly, is just one of its many appeals. Eastern Orthodox monks began settling here around the 11th century, building precipitous dwellings on nearly impassable land; today, visitors can still amble up the thousands of steps to tour the six remaining UNESCO World Heritage monasteries that cling to Meteora’s cliffs.
Wine has been made in the region for thousands of years, but for modern wine drinkers, organic producer Tsililis in the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) appellation of Meteora is growing a wide range of varieties in the hills among the Meteora and Theopetra rock formations. The winery’s vineyards range in elevation from 918–1,100 feet, with 10–30% inclinations. Everything from ancient variety Limniona to Malagousia to Xinomavro benefits from long sunny days and cool mountain nights, says Chief Enologist and Master Distiller Ioanna Tsilili. Drought, low yields, shallow soil and rocky subsoil are just some of her obstacles, but Tsilili says that the battle is precisely what gives her wines their verve and concentrated character. The family’s first vineyards were planted in 1996, but Tsililis has been making Tsipouro, an alembic distillate native to Thessaly, since the 1940s.
Tsantali Vineyards & Wineries
Mount Olympus, Thessaly
Whether or not you believe the tales of ancient gods living and concocting mischievous plots against their human counterparts here, one story is for certain: The first mention of wine being made on Mount Olympus was written in 300 B.C. The Tsantali family has been investing in and planting grapes on the impossibly picturesque slopes of the Rapsani Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) since the 1980s, and has gained an international reputation for its Rapsani reds (a blend of equal parts Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto, the latter two of which are only grown in this designation). Flanked by forest, shrub land and rivers, vines in their small plots date up to 35 years and, with some locations clocking in at 2,625 feet, offer the dramatic conditions that add to the vibrancy and uniqueness of the wines. Slopes range from 2–20% inclines, and temperatures swing dramatically both during the day and between day and night, sometimes by almost 30˚F.
Those conditions require expert maintenance, led by Dr. George Salpingidis, the head of Tsantali’s viticulture department. The family is widely credited for reviving the region, which was almost abandoned in the early 1990s, via education on vine growing for local farmers. Today, Tsantali wines offer robust but mineral-driven elegance for collectors of truly one-of-a-kind and ageworthy selections.
Despite a long association with its native volcanic island of Santorini, Assyrtiko has historically had a home in other regions of Greece. Thanks to the intrepid Yiannis and Mihalis Boutaris of Kir Yianni, that includes an enviable situation in the Amyndeon PDO of Northern Greece. Planted in 2003 at around 2,000 feet near the four lakes of Florina, the 30 acres of Samaropetra Vineyard contain Malagousia, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer, along with Assyrtiko. The region’s cold winters, warm summers and lake-induced climate result in crisp but floral whites and an expression of Assyrtiko that’s less bracing minerality and more aromatic than its Cycladean cousin.
Still, poor soils give the Kir-Yianni Assyrtiko a balancing acidity and a regional salinity that offers typicity while also speaking of its unique mountain terroir. Owner Stellios Boutaris points to Amyndeon’s overall challenge as “achieving maturity” since a very late harvest “creates all sorts of problems for the vines,” but says the earlier maturation dates of whites like Assyrtiko, plus a deft harnessing of reds like Xinomavro, Merlot and Syrah at lower elevations, help viticulturist Vassilis Mylonas “produce fantastic results” and “wines of elegance, finesse and high acidity.”
Ano Diakopto, Peloponnese
Ensconced in his mountain lab or poking around vines in deep and murmuring thought, Oenologist and Winemaker Panagiotis Papagiannopoulos evokes a combination of mad scientist, naturalist and poet. The experimental vintner sits atop a wide-ranging, largely indigenous varietal selection produced in sky-high vineyards overlooking the Gulf of Corinth, and he’s just the man to wrangle these plots and grapes into organic wines that win awards. The 34 total acres of Tetramythos plots are planted between 1,968–3,444 feet and range from just under an acre to a little over four acres in size. Varieties like Malagousia, Roditis, Muscat Mikrorago, Agiorgitiko and Black Kalavrytino make up more than 85% of the overall production. Cultivating grapes here requires organically managing high natural acidity as well as a variety of soils that range dramatically from rocky to limestone to clay, says Papagiannopoulos. Beyond incredible views, he insists the location offers more triumph than trial.
“The gulf provides a nice salinity to the wines, and the main mountains of the Peloponnese behind us protect from hot summer south winds from Africa.” Wines of note include the Retsina, 40% of which is fermented in clay amphorae; the Mavro Kalavrytino, made from a single grape variety and the only of its kind in Greece; and the Malagousia.
Katogi Averoff Winery
Born of a vision to create French-inspired wines from Greece’s mountain soils, this intrepid winery was established by Evangelos Averoff-Tossizza in the late 1950s and still boasts one of the highest altitude vineyards in Greece, at more than 3,100 feet. The first planting of Cabernet in the country, today the winery’s 12-acre Yiniets Vineyard also contains Merlot, Pinot Noir, Traminer and indigenous varieties like Vlachiko. Its extreme setting challenges Chief Winemaker Dimitris Ziannis with the kinds of harrowing pests you’d expect in such a place, including brown bears (who “do not miss the chance to pick as many [grapes] they can,” says Ziannis), frost (the altitude also results in one of the latest harvests in Greece) and among the heaviest rainfalls per year, which is thankfully tempered by the intense incline.
Each parcel also requires meticulous customization in its cultivation, thanks to a difference of more than 300 feet between the lowest and highest parts of the vineyard. The winery’s comprehensive line of wines includes some sourced from other northern Greek regions like Naoussa and Macedonia, but its Metsovo bottlings are the result of traditional Epirus region vineyard techniques that deliver lower yields, with concentrated aromas and phenolic content.
“In the cellar, our main objective is to maintain the primary fruit aromas, enhance the harsh conditions of the environment where the vines are grown and respect the quality of the grapes,” says Ziannis. “In general, our philosophy is to make terroir wines rather than technological wines.”