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Dodecanese Islands: Food & Wine Treasures

Twelve Islands, a cluster of sizable islands located in the southeastern corner of the Aegean sea. Each of these islands-jewels feature its own gastronomic heritage, shaped by economic constraints and limited resources. These islands remain isolated and self-sufficient for most part of the year. The majority of visitors arrive in the summer months. So, they rely on themselves to produce sustainable food.

On islands like Kalymnos, where most food comes from the sea, recipes feature seafood – fresh or preserved. Kalymnos is world renowned for its sea sponge fishing, having a tradition in training the best divers. When they would dive for sponges, often times they would bring up to the boat fish, sea urchins, various crustaceans and let them dry in the sun -with a bit of salt. “Bonito” is such a meze from Kalymnos.

In other islands -Rhodes, Karpathos, Kasos, Patmos, that are more mountainous, there are more farmers and shepherds than fishermen. Between the 12th and 16th century, inhabitants had to move inland and live on the mountains to protect their families and belongings from pirates that were roaming the Aegean Sea. In these islands, we have dishes that feature beans and pulses, cheese, traditional pasta made from wheat flour -“Makarounes” from Karpathos, “Pitaroudia” from Rhodes.

Each island has an array of indigenous flora and edible greens. In the island of Astypalea, they cultivate Krocus flowers and make aromatic saffron and sweet potatoes. Capers grow wild in all the islands and are featured in many dishes. Wines are made in Rhodes, Kos and Lipsi. Rhodes holds the largest production of sparkling wines in Greece. In recent years, on the island of Lipsi, they revived an old vine variety, the Fokiano grape. It produces a sweet wine that used to be sent exclusively to the Vatican.

Each of these islands, Nisyros, Patmos, Astypalea, Karpathos, Kos, Kassos, Leros, Lipsi, Symi, Rhodes, Halki, Kalymnos have their own history, people, traditions, waiting to be discovered.

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Winter: what happens in the vineyards?

Harvest in the Greek vineyards finishes by November: even in the northern vineyards of Greece -Naoussa, Amyntaio, Drama -they have picked even the last parcels of Xinomavro and Cabernet, Merlot grapes. The months from December, to early March, mark the “winter dormancy” period of the vines.

The leaves quickly turn brown and fall. By Christmas time, the vineyards are bare -only the wooden trunks and the shoots are left on the trellis. The green shoots that carried all grapes and leaves, now turn to wood and are called canes. The vine begins its ‘downtime’: it switches from the photosynthesis mode, to merely storing carbohydrates that will help the plant begin the next growth season.

One of the main concerns that vine growers face in winter is frost- especially in higher altitude vineyards with continental climate. Pruning, on the other hand, is the most important maintenance task in the vineyard during the winter.

In Greece, tradition and religion are very much intertwined: on the 1st of February, we celebrate Saint Trifonas – the patron saint of the vineyards. In most of the paintings, he is holding the cross on one hand and a pruning sickle on the other. On his name day, vineyards workers have the day off: they will attend church service and receive holly water. They will then bless their vines with it, sprinkling some water straight on the vines for good luck. Pruning will start the following day, depending on the area and the weather conditions.

Pruning is done by hand and by expertly trained personnel. It is considered one of the most important jobs on the vine as it will determine next year’s grape yields and wine production. In the most traditional wine producing regions, we see older, more experienced men pruning.

In a Greek proverb, the vine is quoted saying: “Βάλε νιους και σκάψε με, γέρους και κλάδεψε με” which roughly translates to: “Ask the young men to dig me and old men to prune me.”

As the vineyard enters a quiet time to gather its strength, let us all take the time to nurture ourselves, collect our thoughts and get ready for the New Year 2022. Wish you all a great year, full of good wine, good food and good company to share it with! Cheers!

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Winter in the Greek vineyards

Photo credit: Lyrarakis vineyards in Crete

Does it snow in Greece?” That was one of the most common questions I would get when I was a student at BU in Boston. The answer is “Yes, it does snow in Greece, as it is a mountainous country, covered by almost 2/3 of its area in hills, mountains, and large mountain summits.” Greece is known as a summer holiday destination. True, our islands and coastline welcome more than 30 million travelers each summer. Some winter travelers, mainly from continental Europe, have discovered the joy of winter in Greece – low temperatures, snowcapped mountains, ski resorts, beautiful traditional mountain villages and charming hotels with open fireplaces.

Many vineyards are located in slopes of hills and mountains, throughout the country. Some of these vineyards are located 2,200 to 2,500 feet above sea level! To name a few: Mantineia and Nemea in the Peloponnese penninsula. There, in slopes reaching well over 2,500 feet, the Moscofilero grape produces aromatic, crisp white wines. Further north from Mantineia, in the famous region of Nemea, home to the Agiorgitiko grape. On the western side of Nemea, in Asprokampos and Koutsi, the Agiorgitiko grape produces some of the finest red wines with ageing potential and the fragrant aromatic rose wines of the same grape.

Further north, on our Way to Thessaloniki, we find beautiful vineyards in the slopes of mount Olympus -Rapsani is a well known region producing the Rapsani blended red wine and a few more notable wineries in the area. In Northern Greece, Florina and Amyntaio are the northern most vineyards in Greece. There, altitute reaches 2,000 feet above sea level. The local star grape variety of Xinomavro produces red and rose wines with high acidity, healthy tannins and ageing prospects. Amyntaio is also the area where most of the sparlkling wine is being made.

Many islands that are the perfect summer destination, have mountainous vineyards that set their wine production apart: Samos island with its floral dessert Muscat wines, Crete (as shown in above picture), Kefalonia, Robola white wines.

The highest vineyard in Greece is found in Metsovo at the Katogi Averoff estate. There, at an altitude of almost 4,000 feet, the Averof family have been cultivating vines since 1959, mostly the white Traminer and the red Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, the grandfather Averoff brought the first Cabernet Sauvignon vines from France in the 50’s and they produce award winning wines to this day.

A few years back, I participated in a tasting of the Katogi Averoff wines with Alexandros, the grandson of Evangelo Averoff and the current CEO of the estate. When he was asked what is the greatest challenge growing and tending vines in such high altitude, he answered: “The brown bears. They come down from the forest and munch on the sweet Traminer grapes! It is impossible to keep them away!”

This picture has stayed with me and every time I recall it, it puts a smile on my face.

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The Wine Bar Culture in Greece

Along with the Greek wine renaissance, we witnessed the arrival of the modern meeting place, a new ‘steki’, namely the wine bar.

Even from the early 2010’s we welcomed the first wine bars in the capital and in Thessaloniki. At about the same time, Greece went into a serious economic recession. Monthly salaries and pensions were severely cut, making Greeks more cautious on how and where they were spending their money. Wine, fitted nicely in the new budget as it was half the price of their usual hard liquor or cocktail consumption.

Wine bars fast became the new meeting point -after work with colleagues, meeting up with friends, romantic dates -wine is a good ice-breaker! Women felt more comfortable and safe in the wine bar environment to have a drink, midweek with their friends. In most central wine bars, visitors from other countries would seize the opportunity to taste Greek wines by the glass. Often they would do a tasting of 3-4 different wines and choose, delightfully, their favourite Greek wine! They new wine discovery would become their ‘go-to’ wine for all their social meetings in Greece!

Soon as, locals and visitors alike, discovered the new and improved wines of Greece, drinkers became wine lovers: they started attending special tastings, winery presentations, “meet the winemaker” events and gradually they were training their tasting palate. The more they learned about wine, the more they enjoyed this divine drink! Soon, the wine bars started extending their ‘by the glass’ wine list, offering wines from single varieties and exclusive labels from boutique wineries. Most wine bars now offer a good selection of wines, both Greek and International labels. The ‘meze’, the food offerings have been upgraded, pairing nicely the wines on the lists.

In all large cities across the country, Athens, Thessaloniki, Heraklion, Patras, Volos, and the Greek islands, one can find a number of wine bars of excellent ambience aesthetics, good vibes, warming atmosphere. Most are in central locations, near hotels and on squares. All offer both inside and outside seating, accessible with public transportation. The crowds tend to be a mix of professionals, students, travelers, foreigners, all ages and the stay open well pass midnight. Next time you visit Greece, make certain you visit a wine bar and experience this special wine drinking culture.

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Greek Rosè Wine

It’s October and harvest across Greece is at its full swing. Most small to medium size wineries harvest by hand and many folks work or volunteer at friends’ vineyards.

Summer is slowly fading. Now, during the night, we cover ourselves with a light weight blanket. When day time comes, the sun is shinning and people still enjoy a swim at the sea. Autumn is the best time to drink rosè wine. In the last few years, Greece has seen a rise in rosè wine production and sales, shaking away the taboo that rosè is a girly wine choice! Greek rosè showcases a broad selection of wonderful wines that vary in style and character, from all corners for the country. So, for example, we have the light, crisp refreshing roses made from Xinomavro variety from the northern vineyards of Naoussa and Amyntaio. We have excellent rose wines from Thessaly and Central Greece -more aromatic, floral notes, medium bodied made from Limniona and Muscat grapes. Further south, the colour becomes deeper and more pronounced red fruits character: Agiorgitiko from Nemea makes sensational rosè wines: good body, balanced acidity and gorgeous colours depending on the vineyard location and altitude. Aegean islands vinify their rosè wines from Mantilaria and Mavrotragano varieties found on the islands.

Rosè wines match beautifully an array of Greek summer dishes: vegetarian ladera -green beans, gemista, okra, tomato salad, Greek cheese boards, fried kalamari, and chicken. They are enjoyed lightly chilled, outdoors and with good company. Wine is meant to be shared. So remember: if you want to feel a little bit more summer, have a glass of a Greek rosè wine.

I am Ourania Margomenou, aka Margo. I was born in Athens, Greece. My family and I have lived in many countries around the globe. I completed my BSc in Hospitality Administration at Boston University.

There, in this wonderful city, I fulfilled my practical requirement for my degree at the two most prestigious hotels of the city: namely The Ritz-Carlton and The Four Seasons Hotel. READ FULL BIO >