Olga Antoniadou – Athens for wine lovers

The first of our 2019 competition entries to be published. Old hand at our competitions, Olga Antoniadou has provided just the sort of thing we were looking for. You can find links to all the other articles in this series in Writing competition 2019 – latest.

Oh damn! This Jancis Robinson woman and her colleagues have tormented my thoughts for more than a couple of nights, as I was trying to do the maths of how to fit all that I wanted to write about into 1,500 words. I think I was sort of dozing on and off; I wasn't sure what was part of a dream and what was part of my conscious thinking. Every now and again an idea would pop up in my head, and then I was fully awake staring miserably at my alarm clock and wondering how on earth I would get any work done the following day. Even worse! How would I manage to stay alert, without my comfortable armchair enveloping me in a much-coveted snooze.

End of game. I have to choose. Very centrally located Athenian wine bars that stand out for their character and atmosphere (one in Pireaus, port to most islands), centrally located wine shops (two in Pireaus), a reference to the gorgeous vineyards of Attica and the five producers who make up Wines of Athens. Stay an extra day in Athens and combine your visit to the wineries with a visit to the ancient temples of Artemis at Vravrona and Poseidon at Sounion. Here comes the Irish stepdance wine guide to Athens (Greece, not Georgia).

Near Syntagma Square:

  1. Oinoscent, 45-47 Voulis St. This is wine-lovers’ paradise. Take a seat. Look around you. The people who frequent this bar are wine groupies. The people who work at this place are wine disciples. The atmosphere, which is always bustling with voices and enthusiasm, reminds me of a college campus. The small menu complements the 700+ labels and the 50 choices of wine by the glass. Well priced.
  2. Warehouse CO2, on the corner of Ipereidou and Nikis St. A tiny, fizz-focused venue, on a tiny 'square' with a downward slant that makes you feel like sitting in a boat. I like the idea, I like the spot. Cute, cosy with the bubblies representing different regions of the world. Small cold-dish menu. Prices are fair. They also make excellent coffee.
  3. By the Glass, 3 Souri St, across from the Russian Church. The first wine bistrot in Athens, and the first, to my recollection, that had many choices by the glass. Situated in the beautiful Ralli arcade; I always think of it as having class. In the summer it expands to the lovely square. Nice menu (what is now termed creative cuisine) to complement the 400+ labels of wine, with about 150 offered by the glass.  More upscale in terms of price.
  4. Heteroclito, Corner of 2 Fokionos and 30 Petraki St. What a location!! As my friend Erica says, ‘this is what people think of as Greek. Relax, stretch out, your wine, the tidbit you’re nibbling on, watching people go by...’ Over 200 labels of Greek wine. It recently 'grew' bigger and has included a cold-dish menu and international labels. Well priced.
  5. Materia Prima,  Fix underground station, 68 Falirou St. Lovely, cosy, friendly, laid-back. A glass walk-in cave centre stage, wine books in a bookcase and spread out everywhere. The tiniest, cutest yard. 800 labels, 50 by the glass and a themed selection each month. Cold-dish menu. Well priced.

Wine shops:

  1. Wine Story  21 Nikis St. A small selection, but very centrally located.
  2. Cellier 1d Kriezotou St. Large selection of wines and spirits. Also their own imports. Beautifully showcased.
  3. Mr Vertigo 15 Filikis Etairias Square (on the corner of Kolonaki Square across from the British Council). Wonderful selection of wine, with a particular focus on natural wines. Also their own imports. Some spirits.
  4. Kylix  20 Karneadou str., Kolonaki. Large selection of wine and spirits, plus beer, cigars and a deli. Also their own imports. Go upstairs!
  5. Cava Anthidis 45 Patr Ioakeim St, Kolonaki. Large selection of wine and spirits, plus beer, accessories and a deli. Also their own imports.

Pireaus:

Paleo 39 Polydeukous Str., Pireaus. Beautiful old industrial building that has been, just about, restored and has the air of its age. A temple of wine, with two wine lists, one for most people and one for the devoted. Kaymenakis, the owner/somm has brought much from his travels. Nice, small menu to complement the wines. Well priced.

Cava Halari 74 Akti Moutsopoulou and at 74-77 Chatzikyriakou Ave, Pireaus. Huge selection of wines and spirits, cigars, accessories and a deli. Also their own imports.

Wines of Athens (my famous five)

A few years ago, five of the most promising producers of Attica joined forces to promote the main local variety, Savatiano. They argued that Savatiano was underrated because it hadn’t been handled properly in the past. They changed practices and their wines became the talk of the town. They highlighted the potential of the variety and they even alluded to possibilities of aging. They often organise joint events and tastings, and advocate Savatiano in all its possible versions.

Although in an area with age-old traditions in winemaking, the particular grape variety was considered of inferior quality, as it had mostly been used in the making of resinated wines that went on to be sold in bulk to tavernas around Attica. The farmers of those days had to make a living. The more the crop, the heavier the grapes, the riper they were harvested, the farmer could increase the already petty sum he was getting paid for his produce. In the 1980s and 1990s the younger generation took over the vineyards and the scene changed. These people were trained in winemaking, they introduced modern technology, and farmed more meticulously. The once diluted, overripe, flabby, heavily resinated wine gave way to interesting varietal examples with acidity, with finesse, with interesting aromas, with promise. [See, for example, Julia's Give retsina a second chance - JR]

Savatiano is one of the most widely-planted varieties in Attica and central Greece. It is resistant to heat and most diseases and its aromas are reminiscent of stone fruit, melon, even  banana (in riper versions) and lemon blossom. Its acidity and flavour profile make it a very food-friendly wine, and when cleverly resinated or slightly oaked it can tolerate food which is fried and/or pungent in its aromas (sardines or garlic, for example).

When you do visit the wineries, don't expect to see hectares of vineyards all around you. The vineyard area of Attica is split into small parcels of land; it has survived despite urban pressure. Each farmer may actually own 10-20 different parcels at completely different locations. It is only reasonable that this increases the difficulties and the time needed to work in the vineyard. Nevertheless, this very same thing makes the wines more interesting.

All of the wineries (except Anastasia Fragou) are open to guests by reservation and usually the winemakers themselves are hosting the tour. The charge for a tasting and tour will depend on the number of participants. Give them a call for more details. Better to rent a car, but they are accessible by train or bus and a small taxi ride. My picture shows the five participants (from left to right: Markou, Fragou, Mylonas, Kokotou, Papagiannakos).

Domaine Papagiannakos A ‘bioclimatic’ winery which has been awarded for its architectural design and is about 25% energy saving. Set in the area of Poussi-Kalogeri of Markopoulo Mesogaia. A lovely building split into two. As you enter you go straight into the winery, which is followed by a small courtyard to which the hall for tasting and events is attached, with a lovely view of the vineyards. Tours/tastings in English or French.

Ampelones Markou They have two separate locations, the winery (the original location) in Peania, and the wine museum that features old tools and wine-making equipment that is next to a huge events area, with a pool and garden. Both are worth visiting. Tours/tastings in English.

Mylonas Winery Smaller-scale winery set in Keratea. It is in the process of completing the area for the tastings, upstairs. Nevertheless, it is open to tours and visits (up to eight persons) and Stamatis, the winemaker, is a very enthusiastic guide. Tours/tastings in English.  

Anastasia Fragou Unfortunately, a part of the winery burnt down in last year’s fire and Anastasia is still in the process of battling Greek bureaucracy so as to manage to restore the damage. For now, she can’t receive guests.

Ktima Kokotou I left it for last only because it is located in a different place from the other four of the group, in the north east of Attica, in Stamata. Anne Kokotou is a British lady who fell for the beauties of Greeks and Greece, married George and set up her family here. I always think of her as the mastermind behind the communication of the farm. I said farm because it includes a vineyard area, olive grove, bee hives, chicken coop and of course an area for tastings and events. This last part is situated on the top of a little hill and overlooks the entire farm. Tours/tastings in English or French.

Wines of Athens wine producers (from left to right: Markou, Fragou, Mylonas, Kokotou, Papagiannakos).