The grape harvesting season in Greece – and every wine-producing country – is a celebration almost as sacred as a religious festivity. Coinciding with the end of summer and the kick-off of the school year (which eternally symbolizes new beginnings), it incorporates the intoxicating aroma of the sun and the warm tenderness of autumn.
The exact harvesting time is carefully chosen (based on science and experience) since it determines the sweetness, acidity, and flavor of the wine. The grapes are hand-picked from the vineyards, handled with the gentleness reserved for a woman’s breast. These fruits are the result of years of careful cultivation, investment, and anticipation: they represent a part of the wine-producer’s soul and breathe at the tempo of his heartbeat, so they are always welcomed with the respect and joy they deserve. Laughter and conviviality fill the area, wishes for a good year ahead, fun activities, singing and dancing, lots of food, and, of course, wine. And then, there is silence, as the must initially ferments, before entering the shrine of the cellar where it ages – a baby in the mother’s womb – surrounded by the scent of the wood, the protection of the stone, and the devotion of the vintner. Despite the science involved, winemaking is an art which, like life itself, requires long-term patience, passion, and faith; that’s why every milestone is honored, and even in our modern, widely-urban era, the grape-harvesting period perpetually keeps us connected to the power of the land and the significance of the seasons.
This September, just like every year, we drove to Peloponnese for the “Great Days of Nemea” celebrations: the days when the wineries of the region open their doors to the public, inviting everyone to become an integral part of the harvest. Nemea – an area where viniculture continues non-stop for 3,500 years and which today is often referred to as “the Tuscany of Greece” – still bears the marks of the mythical Lion that, once upon a time, thrived in its forests before it was slain by Hercules, its pelt becoming the hero’s familiar symbol. Legend has it that the blood of the lion spilled on the vineyards and, ever since, the famous Agiorgitiko variety (traditionally indigenous in the valleys of Peloponnese) produces wines renowned for their ruby-red color, aromatic complexity, and superior quality.
After crossing the holy temple of Ancient Nemea, we get overwhelmed by the numerous signs that point towards all directions, showing the way to the wineries nestled in the vast flatlands and the surrounding mountainous area. With so many available options, it is really tough to choose. We have prepared a tentative plan, but it seems ambitious. Let’s see how many of the estates we will manage to visit this time!
Our first stop is at Palivou Estate which owns one of the two largest vineyards in the zone of Nemea, planted mostly with the Agiorgitiko variety but including Rodites, Malagousia, Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah as well.
As soon as we arrive, we dash into the fields, baskets and pruners in hand, ready to harvest. Bunches quickly pile up, the baskets get heavier and heavier to carry, and, with our amateurs’ ignorance, we soon realize that this is not an easy job – the scorching sun making the whole experience even harder. We are relieved to recede after a while under the shadows of the kiosques for the typical farmer’s meal – boiled potatoes, tomatoes, onion, olives, smoked herring, bread, and wine – while the children continue to rejoice as they engage in grape stomping. I recently heard that the first drops of each year’s must in a winery always belong to the angels who are present, celebrating with humans alike. Maybe it is true: for millennia, this process is being blessed by divinities whose names may change over time, but whose impact and significance remain intact.
I left the winery with a bottle of Viognier – a white wine whose intense aromas of apricot, nectarine, peach, mango, pear jam, vanilla, and white flowers were simply irresistible – and, naturally, a Palivou Estate Nemea, a dry red wine with aromas of dark black cherries, vanilla with chocolate notes, and toasted wood.
Moving away from the valley and up onto the hills, we find the impressive facilities of the Semeli Winery. According to the Greek mythology, Semeli was the mortal mother of Dionysus (the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, ritual madness, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy) – the father, of course, being Zeus. I was fascinated though to learn that Semeli was also the daughter of Cadmus and Harmony – Cadmus being the Prince of the Phoenician city of Tyre and Europa’s brother, who went after his abducted sister and became one of the most prominent Greek heroes. I always find the interconnectivity of the cultures around the Eastern part of the Mediterranean basin breathtaking: a constant reminder of how the threads of our existence always blend at some point in the past, and it is these crossroads that create and define us.
Semeli Winery is possibly my favorite one in the region. I love standing on the terrace by the entrance, observing Nemea from above, its vine-covered pleats unfolding indolently across valleys and slopes. It is always a meditative moment, a pause in time, a merging point of past, present, and future. And then, the main hall opens its doors like a welcoming hug, and the visitor can repose in the couches next to the round-shaped fireplace, looking at the view through the large windows with a glass of wine in hand and a small plate with cheese, breadsticks, and fruits on the table nearby.
From the large variety of wines displayed, I chose this time the Semeli Thea (a white one with rich volume and an aroma of bergamot, citrus, yuzu lemon, and rose), as well as the Semeli Syrah Rosé, that combines the essence of the rose petals with that of strawberries and sour cherries. I ended up buying a bottle of Semeli Espera, a delightful dessert wine whose production will, unfortunately, discontinue, so I rushed to stock up for my cava.
Domaine Vassiliou – Nemeion Estate Winery
We pass through several fields where grapes have been spread on the earth to dry under the sun (turning into raisins) before we reach our next stop: Domaine Vassiliou, a family winery, smaller in size compared to the others, but very classy and elegant. George Vassiliou, the current owner, a 3rd generation winemaker and oenologist, welcomes us himself, shaking our hands heartily, a big smile and a joke ready on his lips. His presence, as well as that of the rest of his family, permeate a homey feeling and a unique, cozy ambiance: it feels more like entering a private abode than some faceless business facilities.
Our wine tasting here is much more extensive – one of those times you just cannot say “no”! We start with the aromatic Setini and Siban (two charming white wines); we proceed with Fumé Savatiano (a smoked wine with which I fall in love instantaneously); we are lured into trying a more modern version of retsina (which we initially resist, till we taste the unique blend of mastiha flavor that turns this rather ordinary wine into something exceptional); and we end up with a series of red wines including the famous Igemon Sovereign Grand Reserve, the winery’s flagship.
Around a table with homecooked food, we continue the discussions, which, as time passes by and more wine is consumed, become more intimate: the vintage that has been destroyed in Attica due to the extremely high temperatures of last summer; the challenging taxation that cripples the producers’ growth and competitiveness; succession scenarios; exports’ options and plans; upcoming festivals and exhibitions; thoughts, worries, hopes at personal and professional levels. The whole spectrum of human life unfolds in just a couple of hours, the way it usually does when food and wine are shared with friends.
The day is nearing its end and, as suspected, our initial plan was too ambitious: we need to head back to Athens, postponing our visits to the rest of the wineries for another time. The columns of Zeus’ temple cast long shadows and the valley gets covered in softer, golden-yellow hues. Nemea seems to transform, fading away in front of our eyes; the imprint left though from the vineyards walked, the wines tasted, and the conversations shared remains robust – and, possibly, this is the deepest impact of the harvest era.
Disclaimer: This article is not sponsored by any of the companies named inside. It represents my opinion based entirely on my experiences during my trip.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou