The Road to Rapsani

The road to Rapsani is little used by tourists. Most pass the turnoff near the railway station on the Greek National Highway from Larissa to Thessalonika, through the Pinios Gorge and the legendary Vale of Tempe, without even a glance. But up the road to Rapsani, on the southern foothills of the Mt Olympus, some of the best red wine in Greece is being made.

Rapsani was not initially on my radar. It was following @drinkGreekWine (New Wines of Greece) on Twitter, and their retweets of a North American sommeliers visit, that alerted me to it. I wondered if I too could arrange a visit to this unique wine region. After all, it fitted in with my brief.

My trip to Greece was to follow the route my father had take in 1941 when he fought with the Allied Troops in the ill-fated Greek campaign. Any wine regions I visited had to be more or less on the way.

The New Zealanders were in defence of all the passes around Mt Olympus and while Dad’s 18th Battalion had been north of the mountain, the 21st Battalion had been defending Pinios Gorge and Platamon on the coast. During the retreat there had been plenty of action in the gorge and anyone in Rapsani (or Rapsane as it is sometimes written) who was there in 1941 may remember the relentless air dive bombing attacks on the Allied Forces in April that year.

I made contact with Tsantali Wines, via Twitter, to see what could be arranged. Many DMs later and there we were on the morning of July 16th 2013, driving the road to Rapsani. Tsantali’s viticulturist, George Salpigidis was our host.

Rapsani sheepThe road was sealed and good, as are most roads in Greece, but then we turned off on to what was little more than a two wheel track on sandy coloured clay. I was glad we were in George’s utility.

Apart from the olives and fig trees, and the orange-roofed white houses of the village in the distance, the scrub covered hills looked very much like parts of New Zealand, the only difference being the shepherds and their flocks and the occasional plots of vines in between the dense bush covered slopes. Some of the vines were trellised in a thoroughly modern manner but most seemed to be bush wines and they had been growing that way for many years. The vineyard we stopped at display exhibited both old and new.

Three grape varieties are used in Rapsani appellation wines – Krassato, Xinomavro and Stavroto. They are intermingled within the bush vineyards but are evidently easy to identify by their leaf and bunch shape.

It is interesting to me that the Greek name for wine is Krasi, and here we have a grape variety Krassato. Is there any relationship here?

rapsani grapes

Krassato is a grape that is unique to the Rapsani region, as is Stavroto. Stavro translates to cross (crucifx) and you can see the crucifix shape in the bunch shape with some imagination.

Xinomavro, on the other hand, is the most distingushed wine grape in northern Greece. It’s a highly acidic grape, in fact its name translates to acidic (xino) black (mavro).

The resulting wine is what is roughly one third of each grape variety. Krassato does a great job in harmonising the acidity of the Xinomavro, which provides the stuctural backbone and imparts spiciness too.

All of the vineyards are owned by local farmers. Tsantali contracts the farmers to supply grapes to them and currently take 95% of the region’s production. The pedigree of the wine is so important that top prices are offered. George tells us that some farmers wanted to venture into other varieties, like Syrah. He said they can do that, but the farmers will earn more growing grapes for Tsantali if they stay with the three traditional grapes, the grapes that signify the Rapsani Protected Designation of Origin.

After clambering through the old bush vineyard, with me hoping there were no sleeping snakes amongst the sprawling tendrils, and chatting to the father and son who were leaf plucking their vines in preparation for verasion and the last stages of ripening, we went to Rapsani Village itself to try the wines. George took us to a little taverna, one of several in the shady town square, one aptly named Krasomana, which translates to ‘mother of wine’ (on Facebook here).

We tasted the wines then accompanied them with barbecued meats and salad, the Rapsani lamb being one of my Greek meal highlights. In the photo below, George is on the left and I am on the right.

Rapsani George & Sue

Rapsani 2010 (the white label on the right in the picture above)
13% alc. 5-6 days extraction, aged for 12 months in oak barrels, bottled and released.  A dark ruby red colour and a deep smooth creamy true red wine bouquet. Intriguingly spicy to the taste with moderate tannins, svelte vinosity, earth, tobacco and leather. Just ever so slightly salty on the finish.  Later, with the wonderful barbecued meats, this was truly excellent with the Rapsani lamb. We had seen this on the wine lists of traditional tavernas in Athens. It was selling around 15-16 euros a bottle.

Rapsani 2009 (in the centre in the picture above)
13.5% alc. 5-10 days extraction, aged for 24 months in oak barrels, bottled and released. Rich ruby colour. Lovely bouquet with depth of earth and clay. Rich, smooth and full in the palate with an earthy, savoury, leathery undercurrent and a dry, softly spicy finish. Tannins firm but well integrated. Harmonious.

Rapsani Grand Reserve 2007 (on the left in the picture above)
13.5% alc. From the best parcels, this is aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels and for a further year in the bottle after that.  A rich almost black red colour, it has a smooth full red wine bouquet with a hint of game meat and leather. Savoury to the taste and a little spicy with acidic brightness, earth, leather, game and cigar box. Very smooth when accompanied with the food but still considerable grip and lift to the finish. Best match was actually the feta that came with the salad.

In summary these wine had unique characters, not reminiscent really of any other variety I know.

George also had a bottle of the Rapsani 1996 for us to try, but there was no time left so he gave the wine to us to try later. This we did while cruising the Adriatic Sea on our ferry from Patras to Venice. We had plenty of time to enjoy the wine, which we enjoyed immensely, especially as it seemed to get more and more complex with every sip.

Rapsani 1996 (label pictured right)
rapsani1996It is a bricking red in colour and has those lovely sweet leathery, integrated cedar characters and the nose brings up nuances of dried rose and dried sweet berries. The first taste is berries and liquorice, the tannins are still making their presence known – suede textured tannins, sweet earthy tones, leather and then there’s a spicy flourish to the vinously ripe juicy finish of this intriguing dry wine. Dusty brambles with an incredible blackberry intensity to the finish plus pepper and I suppose there could be olive – it is just not a description that readily springs to mind – but we’ve eaten enough olives in Greece to know. The olive aftertaste of eating olives can be attributed to the aftertaste of this wine! Also a bit of a metallic bite at the end – the acidity – perhaps this is what is referred as tomato paste?

This wine was unaccompanied by food. It didn’t need it in this situation as we sat at our table. To sum it up, ‘Simply Amazing!’

Thanks to Lily and George of Tsantali for arranging this visit. If you are in Greece and ever get the opportunity, seize the moment. Where else can you walk the vineyards and drink wonderful full rich red wines, truly blessed by the Olympus Gods.

For the Rapsani location, click here.

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