Aivalis and The Beginning
It is not easy pinpointing a single moment, a single day, or evening, on a wine lovers journey that fundamentally shaped the perception, understanding, philosophy of an entire wine region, in this case -Greece. After all, I have been enjoying wine for almost 30 years, drinking some fine examples from well known regions, as well as up and coming. But what was it, and when? How can a single wine experience become so profound, so earth moving, that became the absolute beginning of a love affair with Greek wines? Besides, I have been following the wine industry for 20 plus years, witnessing the quiet revolution taking place in that southeastern corner of Europe; and there is no denying that what has been happening in the Greek wine industry is nothing short of amazing.
They say that a well trained wine palate doesn’t forget. So, back to the original quest, that one moment in time. It was a beautiful August evening in the picturesque town of Nafplion, in 2012. Situated about an hour and a half southwest of Athens, this was Greece’s original capital after the war of Independence. It’s a port town with a beautiful promenade, filled with restaurants and cafes. It was dinner time, at one of these places. I recall asking for a local red wine. I wasn’t particular, but I knew local meant a wine from the region of Nemea, some 25 miles to the north. This is red wine country and the local grape, Agiorgitiko is king. The waiter presented a wine I had never heard of, from a producer I was not aware of, either. Still, I trusted his selection. The label was beautiful, I was very curious and eager to dive in! As soon as I smelled the wine and took that first sip, I was hooked. Sure, Agiorgitiko was not something new, but this wine broke away from all that I knew about the grape and the wines it can produce. Unlike the more typical fruity, lighter styles that I recall, this was not. Fruit up front, yes, but there were serious tannins, very well integrated oak notes, balanced acidity, fine structure, and a finish that went on and on. The wine was Monopati (the path) 2009, by Christos Aivalis. Luckily, I got the winemakers phone number.
The next day, of I go, north to Nemea. Had to meet the man behind that label, the person that changed all that I knew about Greek wine. I recall, when I called him to make the appointment he said “Be at the winery at noon, and don’t be late”. Thankfully, after 24 years living in the US, I had become far more punctual that most Greeks, so at 11:59am I arrived. It’s a small place in the Nemea valley, surrounded by vineyards, as far as the eye can see. I was greeted by a German shepherd dog, Ivan. Talk about intimidation, then again I love pets, so I made a friend. "He likes you", a voice said as I was petting Ivan. I said hello, and there he was the man himself; Christos Aivalis in all his 5’5” stature. I gathered he was in his early-mid 50’s wearing a T shirt, shorts and sneakers. Not five minutes had passed, and he started with a myriad questions; who are you, where do you come from, where’s your family from, what do you do for a living, what wines do you like, and why, and most important, what do you know about Greek wines? I felt I was retaking my SAT test, although at times it felt like an interrogation. As he realized I had a decent knowledge, he opened up, even cracked a smile and said “welcome to my world”. We tasted wines from his barrels for a while, and he asked me to stop by the next day, for lunch. Be here at 1pm, and don’t be late, he said; naturally I arrived at the exact time, happy to see him again. This time we were joined by his son Sotiris Aivalis, who had just finished his wine studies in Burgundy. We sat down for lunch; the table was packed with local products, cheese from near by, olives, tomatoes, freshly made bread, and just of the grill, aged steaks. As for wines, his entire armada of red ones was lined up; remember, there are just three of us. Over the next three hours we tasted some profound wines; his (not that simple) Nemea, Monopati, his elusive Tessera (Four), and the impossible to find Armakas. Plus an Agiorgitiko-Syrah blend. Aivalis explained that all his vineyards are on higher elevation (at least 1500 feet), non irrigated with very low yields; some of the vines are over 100 years old (pre phylloxera and their own root stock). That would explain the density of his wines; they are tannic, full body, yet balanced and age worthy. His annual production is around 4,000 cases, but he wants to reduce that. His style is big and bold, so I asked him why did he sent Sotiris to Burgundy for wine studies; after all that area of France is famous for elegance, finesse, purity and earthiness; hardly his style. He simply responded “ so we can argue”! How appropriate, Aivalis likes to be challenged and pushed to the limit; I recall, at that lunch at the winery, there were plenty of empty bottles lined up above the fireplace, all from famous producers, from around the world. I asked about that, and he explained that one can never rest on his laurels, a winemaker must try to achieve perfection. These are his inspirations. Why not, after all, it takes a perfectionist winemaker to produce a Big wine, and Aivalis is such a man.Since 2012, every Summer trip to Greece includes visits to wineries, and it all begins with a visit to the winery that changed it all. A sort of a pilgrimage, if you will. This was the beginning of my love affair with Greek Wine.