A Thrilling, Endangered Grape from the Stunning Mountains of Northern Greece

Vertical village (lower left) in the Zagori, nestled on a hillside. Image courtesy www.geozagori.gr

THE ZAGORI region of Greece has only very recently become a hot “alternative” tourist destination — in part since it became a UNESCO protected geopark in 2010.

The Zagori highlands, located within the Pindus mountain range in the larger Greek region of Epirus, are for the most part abandoned, shockingly steep, infertile lands.  As is the case with most of Greece, the Zagori’s beauty stems from its karst landscape; that is to say, a limestone landscape which has been eroded by groundwater.

Natural pools near Papingo, Vikos–Aoös Natural Park.

These karstic landscapes sculpt some of the most beautiful places on earth. Blessed with crystal-clear, turquoise waters thanks to reflective limestone sands underwater, endless underground rivers slowly form haunting caves that often entrap all sorts of potentially long-isolated species, lit by lone shafts of light which penetrate once a roof finally caves in1.

  • One of the many stone bridges of the Zagori. Image courtesy www.geozagori.gr

Nearby Vikos Gorge is the deepest natural valley on earth. The  monasteries that precariously cling to Vikos Gorge’s cliff walls seem to borrow the logic of karst geology: architectural extensions of natural caves formed in cliff faces, where water once rushed out.  While limestone dominates, much of the lower slopes are made up of younger flysch rocks (NB: flysch is the precursor to sandstone, mudstone, and eventually shale, the geological precursor to slate, which the inhabitants of the Zagori use for their notoriously leaky roofs: read all about that geological transformation here).

The Zagori is a wild place: bears, golden eagles, wolves, foxes, deer, and lynxes roam, along with more flying bugs than I have ever seen which await outside your rental car, hotel, or tent. But however trying the bugs may be at dawn and dusk, there’s no resisting the landscape’s beauty.

  • Hallucinogenic dolmen.

As if that weren’t enough, here’s the clincher: the uplifted limestone fault blocks of the Zagori are often arched at a 45 degree angle, leading Brian de Jongh in his Companion Guide (1979) to dub them “(an) uninhabited lunar landscape of strange rock formations, like dolmens, weathered into horizontal, parallel and angular folds (…) the feeling of hallucination provoked by this geological phenomenon is haunting.”

Part of that hallucinogenic feeling is a sense that you’re alone in a wilderness. This isolation is nothing new; Teiresius tells Odysseus that if you wish to get to the region “… you must take a well-made oar and carry it on and on, ’til you come to a country where the people have never heard of the sea and do not even mix salt with their food, nor do they know anything about ships”2.

The Pindus mountains are so steep that they form a natural barrier with the rest of the world. In fact, the Zagori region was ignored for years precisely because it was abandoned; the population dwindled to nearly nothing. Its faraway coast and mountainous elevation meant it was cut off, hidden from access to many travelers; protected … which proved a blessing during any number of invasions. Nowadays, it contains only 3,700 inhabitants — that’s a desolate 4 people per square kilometer.3

But there’s at least one other beautiful, undiscovered thing hiding in the southernmost tip of the Zagori, in the Pindus mountain range.

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  • 2009 Domaine Glinavos Vlahiko; US market label.

There’s something that flies in the face of reason when you encounter an endangered grape that renders a delicious wine. It’s a bit like meeting a gorgeous model that is somehow out of work. How on earth can you be so delicious, and yet not be planted more often? Are you impossible to work with, or were you misused and abused?

One could make the case that the grape’s unwieldy name, Vlahiko, certainly won’t do it any favors in foreign markets. If the grape’s name brings to mind a sneezing vampire, there’s a reason: the nomadic, sheepherding people (Vlachs) for whom the grape is named did actually rule Transylvania at one point4.

Add to that the feral, acidic, cold-climate (read: low-alcohol and earthy) nature of the grape, and you have a wild red wine that at first glance may not be immediately fit for mass consumption.

And yet, somehow, it may be poised to be. Dionysi Greventis, importer of Domaine Glinavos’ Vlahiko, noted that Vlahiko was a mind-expanding hit at recent industry tastings. Here is a wine destined to charm the jaded palates of wine professionals who’ve grown tired of glossy, repetitive iterations of international varietals (like Cabernet or Merlot). These overly polished, completely anonymous wines end up feeling like some filthy extensions of luxury-marketed capitalist nonsense; the vinous equivalent of an oversized, gold-plated dongle on a luxury purse.

Cage, Manolis Anastasakos and Alexandros Vasmoulakis, 2009. If anyone has had time to meditate on the pitfalls of consumerism, it’s Greece.

Vlahiko is like anti-matter, capable of obliterating the slightest thought of a glossy, mass-produced ‘international style’ wine. Today, a mere 3 ha remain of Vlahiko vines.

For their typical one-line intro for the grape, Jancis, Julia and José noted in Grapes:
“VLACHIKO: Greek variety that makes svelte, dark-fruited wines and deserves more attention.”5.

Vlahiko was historically confined to supporting roles; it was most often used in Zitsa sparkling wine blends with another wonderful regional native variety (this one a white grape) called Debina. Only recently has Vlahiko been vinified into a still wine with a bit of Bekari, another rare, indigenous varietal included primarily for color.

Epirus in forest green. Albania is where the word EPIRUS appears.

You may be wondering why there are two different spellings for Vlahiko. That’s because the nomadic people the grape was named after (the word Vlah literally means “foreign shepherd”, something akin to “outsider” or even worse “country bumpkin”) racked up a number of different spellings while moving about the region from their base in the Pindus mountains in Greece, just below the Albanian border. The Vlach language was spoken, not written.

The Vlach (Vlah, Wlakh, Wallach) people were transhumant shepherds who lived in cliff-hanging, vertical towns with vertiginous stone paths twisting upwards, not unlike the town visible in the first picture of this article. The primary Vlach village was Metsovo6, even if the greater Pindus mountain range is also considered their historic cradle7.

There are only three producers bottling Vlahiko these days; Domaine Glinavos, Katogi-Averoff, and Zoinos, a former co-op. Only Domaine Glinavos and Katogi-Averoff bottle a primarily Vlahiko wine, as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) Ioannina. The town of Ioannina is in the southernmost corner of the Zagori.

  • A gated vineyard holds the last hectares of Vlahiko.

As Thomas Glinavos notes, Vlahiko grows at an altitude of over 600 meters in sloping limestone soils. Domaine Glinavos has access to merely 1 hectare of Vlahiko, purchased from local growers with tiny plots in vineyards broken up around the Ioannina and Zitsa area. Vlahiko is a grape marked by low temperatures, limited sunlight and regular rainfalls, as the Zagori has the highest annual rainfall in all of Greece. There was even an inexplicable cloudburst that came and went in the hour we spent visiting the winery (at first I wondered if Thomas’ truck was being washed, or if it was all some practical joke, as it was once again sunny by the time we emerged).

  • Domaine Glinavos.

The Vlahiko and Bekari grapes are completely de-stemmed and vinified in oak vats for 12 days. Not even a two-year aging in a partially new French oak regimen can mask the unbridled, feral qualities of Vlahiko: Glinavos’ wine overflows with tart red fruits, white pepper, and a graphite character.

Even if Vlahiko is blended with Agiorgitiko — as many winemakers in Epirus do, in keeping with the curious tradition of importing Agiorgitiko from faraway Nemea (a region further south) and blending it into a finished table wine, Vlahiko does its thing: there’s no holding Vlahiko back.  Glinavos’ Red Velvet, their bestselling wine, still expressed the Vlahiko character I’ve come to love.

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If you’re planning a trip to Greece, leave some time in your itinerary for these wild mountains; and by all means, make an appointment to visit Domaine Glinavos. The region, and of course the wines expressed by the region, are the wild antidote to the hordes of selfie-stick bearing tourists in bridal gowns which abound in Santorini and other overrun, tourist-y parts of Greece.

And don’t miss Geo Zagori, a gorgeous site created by Environmental and Mineral Resources Engineer Georgia Kanellopoulou. The site showcases the Zagori geopark region, and many of the stunning photos in this post are graciously provided thanks to Georgia.

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  1. One of the most prominent mountains nearby has the following geology: “Mount Tymfi represents a series of uplifted fault blocks and faulted escarpments (…) largely composed of Palaeocene-Eocene limestone, with some exposures of Campanian-Jurassic dolomite and limestone on the northern scarp. The lower slopes are dominated by younger flysch rocks (NB: this is the precursor to sandstone, mudstone, and shale, the first step before slate and schist) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flysch), which consist of thin beds of graded sandstones intercalated with softer, fissile siltstones.” The Pindus Mountain range, which is partially contained in the Zagori, is an extension of the Dinaric Alps further north in Albania (all limestone as well): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinaric_Alps []
  2. Homer’s Odyssey, Book 11. The exact location is inferred as nearby Voutsa, a town which is closest to Greveniti. []
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zagori []
  4. According to Gesta Hungarorum, Transylvania was ruled by the Vlach voivode Gelou shortly before the Hungarians arrived. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transylvania []
  5. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1, 368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz. Ecco: 2012. p 1149 []
  6. http://www.travelioannina.com/voltastaoreina_en.php#!prettyPhoto []
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vlachs. []

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