The 12th published entry in our wine writing competition comes from Olga Antoniadou, who introduces herself thus:
I saw my first light in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I was born, but in my teens I was hauled off to Greece by my Greek parents, and this is where I still live, in Athens, after trying my luck in Washington DC and London. I'm 52, married, no kids.
I'm a self-employed private psychiatrist group and family analyst. Last year I passed my WSET level three and am in the process of organising a career change in my life, as I have decided that I would like to turn to the world of wine, but hold on to the experience that I have from the world of people.
This is my first attempt at writing anything at all, but it was an interesting challenge, putting down thoughts I've had about different people that I've met.
I appreciate the taste of good wine. It has become an ingrained part of my life. Tasting, discussing the nuances of different varieties from the multiplicity of terroirs and winemakers, has become a pleasure in its own right. But, as a psychiatrist, I'm a people lover, watcher, follower and supporter. So it stands to reason that winemakers themselves are also in the centre of my focus – not only their wines. I am always fascinated by their stories. Who started it all, where people came from, how the wine evolved as the history of the family unfolds, who takes credit for the wines, and so forth. You see, I have this theory that if you look at the winemaker, his character shines through in the wine. How could that not be the case? And that singular point made me think of Christos Aivalis.
Almost eight years ago, I met Christos, in Nemea. My husband and I were touring Nemea, as we do each year, the first weekend of September, when Nemea celebrates the harvest in what they call 'The Great Days of Nemea'. We hadn't managed to visit the Aivalis winery before, so I called to make sure it was open to guests. A man answers the phone. Not particularly welcoming. It almost felt as if one was intruding. I ask him if we can visit. Almost austerely he says: 'I don't have any wine for you to taste. You can come if you would like to meet me'. I thought to myself I'm not going to let this guy get away with this attitude, so in a rather teasing mood, I answer: 'Well, are you worth meeting?' He takes my cue and says: 'I imagine you're sitting right next to your husband, while asking me this'. I had to say: 'Well, you're right. But I would still like to meet you'.
Off we go, the winery is in Petri, Nemea. Nothing fancy. Rather garage style. The man who meets us, is rather small, but so absolutely full of himself, he could have been a peacock. Dressed in the most excruciating style, a combination of brand new phosphorescent track shoes, an old worn T-shirt, and really tight pants. Big lips, a wide nose, dishevelled hair, something very hedonistic about him. The way he smacks his lips, the way he eyes you, a kind of man that, for a reason beyond myself, I could imagine in some kind of orgy. Savouring anything one's senses can take in. Being rather prudish myself, this fantasy rather excited me.
He greets us politely and looks us up and down. He's definitely sized us up. He's sharp. Slightly cautious, but he has definitely, very quickly, decided on whether he approves of us. He 'interrogates' us on whether we know his wines and I very timidly reply I have only tasted one. As we continue talking he's bold, cocky, provocative, on the limit of rude at times. Nevertheless, I have made up my mind that I quite like this man, pictured below. Above all he's earnest.
He tells us that he used to work for the local prefecture in the agricultural division. Vines have been in his family for as long as he can remember, but in the times he was growing up, wine was made in bulk and sold in bulk. Quantity, rather than quality, made your living.
He started making wine as a hobby for his home. He gives tribute to the winemakers in the region who changed things from bulk to bottle and to better quality. He feels he was inspired by them and he wanted to outrival them. He knew how to cultivate vines because that is what he'd done since he was a child, but he felt he should do so in a more educated way, so he started reading about wine and viticulture. He also set out to regularly taste premium wines from different parts of the world, and particularly France, since it is the French wines that set the standard. He thinks of that as an investment. He compared his own wine with the wines of great fame and lustre that he tasted. He decided that his wine is definitely comparable. He bought books and journals, even in languages that he did not understand, in his endeavour to improve his knowledge and technique. So he marketed his first wine in 1996 and in 2000 he started the winery.
This man is most definitely a believer of terroir. Ηis vines are not irrigated, nor fertilised. He says: 'I treat them like the Spartan soldiers of Ancient times, with minimal means, in order to inspire in them the survival instinct and to force their root system to grow deep into the soil, looking for elements and nutrients that will make them express their special growing ground, the peculiarities of the soil and microclimate, and this difference can be found in the glass of the consumer'. I think to myself: 'and definitely the peculiarities of the viticulturist'. This is when I realised what they mean when they say that the viticulturist/winemaker is also terroir.
As he starts talking about his vines, I see a different man. A man full of fervour, determination, passion, obsession and perfectionism. Definitely special and gifted. He tells us how his production is low, with fruit that has 'perfect' phenolic ripening and character. His star wines, all PDO Nemea - Nemea, Monopati and Tessera - are made of Agiorgitiko. The variety which is typical of Nemea. No stabilisation, no filtration. Beware when opening a bottle of his wine. It definitely needs decanting.
That very first visit to the winery we got lucky. Very soon after we got there, a prestigious Greek wine journalist, Simos Georgopoulos, happened to visit. Aivalis got it in his head that we were in his company, and when Simos asked to be taken to Monopati, we were taken along. That was my very first experience visiting a vineyard itself. Simos amplified the visit with his experience and knowledge. He gave us many tips, complementing what Aivalis was showing us. Just looking at the vineyard you could see it was very different to most of its neighbours. Even to us, the inexperienced, the difference was blinding. The plants, the smaller more robust fruit, the pruning, the soil. That day actually changed me. It was then that I decided I wanted to know more about wine and started the wine-tasting studies at WSET. I wanted to be able to stand there next to this man and have an opinion, although that is generally hard with Aivalis. To give him credit, in all of these years that I have known him and have followed his evolution, it seems as if he never listens to advice. He always overrides what you say with a: 'listen to me, I know better' type of attitude. Later you find out that, in actuality, he was listening. He rethinks things and will take serious advice, very seriously.
I think it only fair to show how character meets the wines. If I were to refer to them collectively, I would say they're all as intense, profuse, complex and characterful as the winemaker.
Each vineyard is vinified separately in five-ton inox vinifiers. He owns about 50,000 square metres (12.3 acres) of land, so that definitely puts him in the boutique category. Low yields, from 150 to 400 kg/1000 m2. The altitudes vary from 270 to 650 m. For Nemea, this is the premium zone.
I will not go into formal information about the soil, the vineyards, ageing and so forth, nor into formal tasting notes, as all of these you can probably find on many sites, with all the detail one might need. I will tell you what his wine feels like. What images I bring to mind.
Nemea is the baseline of the winery. Amazing value for money. When I drink this wine I see myself at a beautiful local fruit market in the summer, with all those red fruits calling at you to quench your thirst, and then some genie pouring dark black chocolate, smelling of sweet spices on the fruit.
Monopati starts getting serious. You know you've moved up in category. I'm still in my fruit market, but now the fruit is more intense, like it was when I was a child, the aroma is unforgettable, my genie is still around with the lavish, flowing dark chocolate and the spice, but now you've got to wait a little to give your head some time to take in the beauty.
Tessera is very hard to find and it means business. A bomb in your hands that you feel lucky to be holding. You want it to explode so that you get a hold of all those tiny little pieces flying in the air. You hope it's going to take hours for you to find them and it actually does. So full, so succulent, so enjoyable, as long as you've kept it for many years.
Sotiris is the next generation. Christos's son. He's returned from his Burgundian winemaking studies a couple of years now and has already become an important addition to the winery. In the last two years he has made two amazing wines, Le Sang de la Pierre, and Les Deux Dieux. He is strong-willed, like his father, but more placid, with more finesse, like his mother, Areti. In 2011 he was in the top three in Burgundy who took part in the Concours des Jeunes Professionnels du Vin, part of the Concours Général Agricole in Paris, and there, positioned himself in the top 20. Sotiris is a young man who is worth a chapter on his own.
Domaine Paul Blanck
Have you ever met a prince? I'm talking about the kind that you get in fairy tales, who is kindhearted, magnanimous, peaceful and just. I know it probably sounds a little silly alluding to fairy tales, but in my line of work, when you meet people, you try and understand what they need from you, how you can offer what is most appropriate. But you also make a fantasy about the person sitting across from you. Not something binding, or irreversible, but a sort of working idea. Mostly this fantasy is created by more inconspicuous information you pick up, and is not your conscious, focused, plan.
Well, Philippe Blanck is a prince. He is also a giant, by my standards, at least. He reminded me of the time I worked in Uppsala for a month, as a student, and felt like Gulliver in Brobdingnag. Standing next to him I felt small and inconspicuous. But, this giant prince is good-natured, polite, and - maybe - a touch restrained. He somehow gives me the feeling of a burning fire, beneath what you see.
About a year ago Dr Hatzinikolaou had invited Philippe to Athens for a presentation and tasting of Domaine Paul Blanck wines. Paul Blanck was the grandfather of Philippe and the one who started the present-day company. In 1927, Paul, together with a handful of other winemakers, received recognition for making a pilot project of presenting the long tradition of superior quality wines from the Schlossberg vineyard [later Grand Cru Schlossberg]. Paul was not the first to make wine. The family actually has a tradition in winemaking since 1610, when Hans Blanck, an Austrian ancestor, bought vines in Alsace.
So, at this instant, I met Philippe for the first time. Warm, unpretentious, friendly, with a good sense of humour, and obviously very scholarly. That evening he gave us one of the most lively and stimulating presentations. He talked about the infinite diversity of the soils in Alsace and the geological formation of the different strata, the varieties they use, the emphasis of the winery on terroir and organic farming, and, of course, the wines. He also pointed out that he and his cousin are vigorous supporters of screwcaps as 'they represent the safest bottling system to guarantee the quality of our wines'.
We tasted 12!! of his wines and he encouraged as many people as possible to offer their opinion about them. He made sure that their goal 'Pleasure in a Bottle' was shared by his audience. So, with his very subtly passionate way, he managed to bring about a culmination of joy, which left us all with a feeling of aspiration.
In July 2016 Dr Hatzinikolaou organised a trip to Alsace, in which about 40 of us participated. Three wineries a day proved quite a feat, but we all returned captivated by the beauty of the area and the wines we tried. Of course Kientzheim and Domaine Paul Blanck were included in our itinerary.
Philippe met us at the courtyard of Château Schwendi, right next to the Museum of the Vineyards and Wines of Alsace. He met us dressed in a rather germanic touring-style outfit, trekking boots, very 'let's enjoy the countryside' type of look. Nothing fancy. Nothing showy. Smiling, welcoming, and worried about whether the caterers of the picnic he had organised for us would get there on time. At some point, as we were waiting for everyone to gather, I trotted up to him and said: 'In Athens you were amazing. I think we all fell in love with you'. He grabbed my hand, bending his two metres of a body in half, and kisses it saying: 'Thank you very much. What a lovely way to start your day!' I was so flustered and taken aback by his gesture. I'm sure I blushed to my ears. How amazingly polite, humble and sentimental.
We started our walk from a little fountain near his home towards the vineyards. He reminded us that he and his cousin Frédéric are a team and that the Blanck estate has always been a family endeavour. Frédéric is in charge of the vineyard and making the wine, and Philippe communicates the wine. He apologised that Frédéric couldn't be with us, as he was out of town, but from the little said about him, I concluded that Frédéric must be adventurous and fun-loving.
At the vineyard, he reminded us that they support organic farming and soil management. They grow grass in alternate rows and plough several times a year, to force the vine to grow deep roots. He compared their vines with those of a neighbour who farms biodynamically and another who is a mass producer. What made a positive impression on me, was that he spoke with respect for both. The reason being, I would have expected him to be slightly contemptuous of the mass producer, but I never felt he was, even though people in the group provoked him. He tried to convince us that everything depends upon the choices one makes. Very careful, obviously not impulsive, he did nobody any injustice.
As the day progressed, and we slowly walked towards a statue of Jesus on the crucifix, which he explained is put at the side of vineyard areas to protect the crop, it turned out that he is also deeply religious, he practises yoga, and is an encyclopaedia of philosophy. A man intent on finding inner peace (my kind of person!).
He then walked us through a beautiful piece of woodland, uphill (groan!) to finally reach the 500 m (1,640 ft) Schlossberg vineyard, from where we were rewarded with a splendid view of the village, the surrounding villages, the backdrop of the Vosges mountains and the Black Forest. Schlossberg was actually the first site to be recognised as a grand cru site in Alsace in 1975, and Bernard and Marcel Blanck, Philippe's uncle and father, played a decisive role in this. Then the other 50 sites followed. Of these 51 grand crus, the family has vineyards in five: Schlossberg, Furstentum, Mambourg, Sommerberg, Wineck-Schlossberg; and in three lieux-dits, Patergarten, Altenbourg, Rosenbourg. They own 90 acres (36.5 ha) of land, spread over eight villages. A third of the vineyard area consists of grand crus.
Philippe had set out a feast of a picnic for us. After the walk we were all ravenous. How on earth they had carried tables and benches for 40, plus all that food, and most of all the wines, in huge cool boxes with ice and water, is beyond me. So, a most generous man, as well. Still, one could think, 'well it's a way of doing business'. No, it was a lot more than that. It was hospitality and a genuine wish to please his guests. We would have been grateful with a lot less. Actually, visiting a winery in the area on a Sunday is impossible. He took it upon himself to entertain us on the Sunday, so the day would not be wasted. To give him even more credit, he had a business appointment with some wine buyers from the USA, but he did not allow that to interfere with his hospitality toward the group.
This time we tasted the Schlossberg Riesling 2014 out of a magnum bottle, the Patergarten Riesling 2014, Pinot Noir F 2011, Furstentum Gewürztraminer Vendanges Tardives 2011 and Furstentum Riesling Sélection de Grains Nobles 2011. We were meant to have a vertical wine tasting in the afternoon, but after all the food and wine on that day, we all felt it would not do the wines justice. Again, if I were to collectively connect Philippe to his wines, I would say the wines are pleasurable, generous, characterful, impressive and with great finesse.
The Schlossberg Riesling 2014 reminded me of a beach in northern Greece called Kakoudia. Granite boulders immersed in the sea. It made my mouth water with the lively acidity. I would love to try it again when it hits its 'teens'.
The Patergarten Riesling 2014 was a beautiful round ball that we played with in the sea. No edges, just pure pleasure, fruity and subtly floral.
The Pinot Noir F 2011: a silk shawl with patterns of red and blue.
The Furstentum Gewürztraminer Vendanges Tardives 2011: a painting by Paul Gaugin.
The Furstentum Riesling Sélection de Grains Nobles 2011: have you ever had honey dipped dried fruit and nuts with a touch of lemon zest to take away the sweetness? I have a friend who swears that when she has something she really loves in her mouth, she will hold onto her bite for as long as she can, without swallowing. I came close to that.
Later that evening he met us in Kaysersberg, where he was presented with two gifts. A book and a hand-painted icon made by Dr Hatzinikolaou's son, Ioannis. A copy of the icon he had admired in Athens. He was so touched by this, his eyes filled with tears. He didn't try and hide his emotion. This is something I find very bold. To allow oneself to be publicly vulnerable is, I think, something only really strong people can do.
On the day we left, he had suggested a place for us to have lunch before our evening flight, and the wines were his treat to the group.
I won't say more. Nobility lies in the heart.