Robola: the Voice of Cephalonia’s Limestone

Melissani Cave, Kefalonia, Greece.
Melissani Cave, Kefalonia, Greece.

Robola is often touted as Greece’s second noblest white grape1, forever trailing on the coattails of Assyrtiko. If Assyrtiko has a greater footprint in consumers’ minds, it’s in part due to the crushing influx of tourists to Santorini and the enduring affective link they build while traveling in Greece.

But Robola remains a total mystery to the rest of the world: no one seems to have heard of it outside of Greek industry tastings.  And unsurprisingly, no one has heard of its home: the stunning Ionian island of Cephalonia itself.

Only Italian and English tourists seem to have discovered the Cephalonian secret. Historically, they’ve an unfair advantage, as the Venetians and later the English ‘protected’ the island after the Turks lost control in 1460.

Poor Robola. No one speaks of this silver medalist, this silent prince, who lives in the shadow of its Santorinian counterpart.

Or — more precisely — who lives in the shadow of Mount Ainos.

  • Mount Ainos, the darkest peak, with typical clouds nearby.

The Robola grape grows on the slopes of this highest peak of Cephalonia (also spelled Kefalonia). A fair share (10-30%) of these are ungrafted vines, over 100 years old, planted at up to 2600 ft (800 m).

Which is to say: this is the real deal. Here is a unique wine expressing Cephalonia’s limestone terroir in the most raw, direct form possible.

GETTING DEEP INSIDE LIMESTONE

Cephalonia is a shimmering, turquoise-watered island paradise; yet another otherworldly, karstic limestone world in Greece, whose crown jewel is the Melissani cave.

The Melissani cave’s roof fell in thousands of years ago, and left a 50 x 40 m gateway to a cavernous lake world.  The cave beneath had been hollowed out by the gradual solvent effects of rainwater, pulling acids downwards deep into the limestone until it formed channels.

Even if a line of tourists means you’re far from having a solitary spiritual experience in the Melissani cave, you can’t help but be touched by the beauty; by a sense that nature is showing something transcendent to you. The water is so crystalline that boats seem to float as if suspended in turquoise ether, all thanks to the white reflecting limestone below.

Antique religious statuettes were found in the cave, and many thought it harbored cults dedicated to Pan and nymphs; some even contend it is the Cave of the Nymphs described in Homer’s Odyssey.2

  • Robola grapes, part of Gentilini's 2015 harvest.

This same dolomitic limestone which forms the Melissani cave covers the most celebrated Robola vineyards of Cephalonia: the vineyards in the shady slopes of Mount Ainos are at times so steep that there is nothing visible but limestone scree, and the vines seem to rise out of pure limestone.

Throughout Greece, two major color variations of white limestone are visible: each was marked by a chemical impurity during its formation, which colored it. Red/brown/yellow limestone was infused with iron oxide; grey/black/blue limestone was infused with carbon.  And of course, white limestone is typically untainted3. Reddish soils lay under portions of Mount Ainos’ limestone scree in layers; these ruddy soils are quite possibly completely decomposed iron oxide-tainted limestone (click here for a video cross-section of Cephalonian vineyards soils).

These steep slopes of Mount Ainos make machine-harvest impossible. This suits Robola just fine, as it’s by nature a particularly high-yielding vine that renders better wine from poor soils on well-drained slopes, often left in bushvines to allow for shaded, capillary hydration.4

Even if there are plenty of growers working in the limestone vineyards of Cephalonia, there aren’t many independent cellars. We’ll look at the three who are imported to the New York market — the Robola Co-operative, Gentilini, and Sclavos 5. Each yields a slightly different expression of limestone via the Robola grape.

The Robola Co-op, located nearest the vineyards of the Omala Valley, purchases the bulk of growers’ grapes from their 110 hectares of vines, and produces 85% of all Robola made on the island.

  • The Robola Co-op welcome.

The co-op has dedicated 10% of their production to a purely organic wine, while still inoculating with cultivated yeasts. This 2014 Organic Robola, along with the the 2014 San Gerassimo Robola, were the finest wines at the co-op. As always, the limited production, barrel-fermented and aged wine was markedly less energetic than the stainless steel-fermented version.

The co-op’s 2014 San Gerassimo Robola was a surprise favorite for me among Robola. A typical shortcoming in Robola wines can be a sudden, sharp dropoff on the midpalate: this is entirely visible in the co-op’s burlap-wrapped entry level Robola wine, which seems to disappear from the palate before briefly reappearing in a weak, lemony finish. The San Gerassimo was ravishing by comparison: dry and refreshing, with a round, supple mouthfeel, a saline mineral drive, and that slightly honeyed, honeysuckle-laden midpalate entry to an ever so slightly pineapple fruit, ending in a gentle, bitter almond finish.

I’ve yet to taste a Robola that was hot, as the wines typically peak at 12.5% ABV. The San Gerassimo does not suffer from the dropoff at the midpalate as does other Robola — it has the conviction to get to the finish, which accumulates to  evoke matcha tea a bit. A very, very drinkable wine, named after the patron saint’s monastery just near the co-op facilities.

Petros Markatonatos, winemaker at Gentilini.
Petros Markantonatos, winemaker at Gentilini.

Gentilini is a certified organic estate as of 2006, with a firebrand now at its helm: Petros Markantonatos, who seemed so energetic I initially wondered if he had some chemical assistance. Soon after, I realized he was simply a man high on life, living his dream during harvest.  Petros has his hands in some exciting winemaking experiments: different barrel-fermenting ideas, indigenous vs cultured yeast, or tinkering in wacky varietals like Gewurztraminer and Tempranillo. Here was a man in his element, driven by his passion to seemingly boundless energy, and eager to enlist modern techniques from other winemaking regions in order to seek out a unique voice for Cephalonian wine.

Gentilini's wines.
Gentilini’s wines.

The 2014 Gentilini Robola has a pristine, crystalline feel to it.  The palate is all chalk and lemon, and it’s an incisive, screamingly pure wine.  Its gripping acid conjured all the foods I’d like to try alongside it.  It did feel a touch more linear than the San Gerassimo, which by comparison offered a chunkier, more honeyed midpalate. But Gentilini’s Robola showed the most ornate, pure, chiseled nose of all the Robola I’ve tried; proof of harvesting at just the right point to retain acidity, and the result of reductive, stainless steel winemaking — the modern face of Greek white wine, a trend led by Gaia’s winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos.  The Gentilini Robola feels fragile on some level, like a delicate crystal; indeed, some of the bottles sampled here in New York lacked the incisive freshness that bowled me over while tasting with Petros at the Gentilini winery.

Perhaps the chiseled style takes inspiration from the limestone quarry directly across the street from the Gentilini cellar in Minies. A massive wall of limestone lingers like a suspended tsunami wave, with veins chiseled out of it.

  • Gentilini's cellar in Minies, across from a mine.

Finally, on the complete opposite side of the winemaking spectrum, Domaine Sclavos (aka. Sclavus, on labels) farms a mere 4 ha and welcomes an oxidative6 Robola, allowing the oxygen-prone Robola grape to do “what it wishes”. Vladis Sclavos is a mystic winegrower who farms biodynamically, names each of his vines, and talks to them all; he seeks a hands-off approach in winemaking which renders a very different Robola from Gentilini and the Co-op. His wine undergoes a low temperature fermentation and spends 8 months on its lees in stainless steel, with very little sulphur added, all indigenous/no added yeast, undergoing no filtering or fining.

On the palate, you can sense oxygen has had its way with the nose: it has conferred a more toffeed aroma upon the wine, in addition to a creamier mouthfeel, joined by some spritz that helps lighter the ensemble with a freshness. Some allusions to mountain herbs like thyme gradually arise from the palate. The 2013 Domaine Sclavos Robola has a similar bitter almond finish, which I now consider proper to the Robola grape, but given the oxidative caramel layer, this feels less incisive and energetic than the reductive-styled wines (as ironic as that may be, given the biodynamic, polycultured vineyards).  I’m eager to try forthcoming vintages of this wine.

***

  • Lunch on the pier in Sami, Cephalonia.

Naturally, these wines pair with fish. One of the strangest pairings which Cephalonians evoked with Robola was lamb; I was able to validate that, and I can’t think of another white that works so well with a red meat. Perhaps it’s the bitter almond finish?

Aside from lamb rib chops, the greatest Cephalonian specialty is meat pie. I can attest to its addictiveness; the nutmeg adds an alluring layer to the meat and crust. A debate between Cephalonian villages concerns whether one should use ground lamb, beef, pork, or a blend. Here’s a recipe — cheat with prepared phyllo or even a pie crust.

Robola is meant to be drunk aside Cephalonian meat pie and screaming fresh seafood on the piers of Sami or Argostoli; or in the stunning ports of Fiskardo, after leaving the Cephalonian pines for a dip in the shimmering turquoise waters to explore karstic caves.

Even if Robola may never taste quite as good as it does in Cephalonia, Robola still merits its title as a noble Greek white variety — one more folks need to try, hopefully in Cephalonia before revisiting it back home to relive its magic.

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  1. Malagouzia has also risen in fashion, and has more recently acquired this moniker. []
  2. Ithaka is the next island over, after all. []
  3. http://geozagori.gr/geotrails/bistiries-and-ovires-zagori-papigo/ []
  4. Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, Jose Vouillamoz. Ecco: 2012. p 899; RE. hydration, cf.  http://www.robola.gr/?page_id=18. []
  5. Other producers include Bazigos; or Foivos, Divino, and Vassilakis whose wines I did not encounter. []
  6. https://www.thewinedoctor.com/blog/2011/05/oxidised-or-oxidative/ []

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