There’s the thrill of the hunt, and there’s the thrill of the shock. An example of the former is my current search for a decent Chilean Carmenere for under $20. I’ve heard such beasts prowl the mighty seas, idiosyncratic predators who keep mostly to themselves, sneaking out from under some distant coral formation once in a while to swallow prey and return to their well-hidden lairs. I haven’t yet speared one of these white whales, but I’m staying on the boat and will report back.
Meanwhile, all you can do is hope for a shock, and prepare yourself to be receptive when it comes. The shock arrives when you’re not looking for something momentous but something momentous just happens, shakes you out of your routine torpor enough for you to actually notice it. A successful hunt yields satisfaction; an acknowledged shock yields a forever widened perspective.
So it was for me with the wines of Domaine Spiropoulos, a family winery based in the small, mountainous Mantinia region of the Peloponnese. These are wines to make you stand up straight, look around and ask anyone nearby, “Did you just see what I saw? Did I imagine that or is it real?”
I first drank Spiropoulos’ sparkling brut, the Ode Panos ($25, SoPo), a couple of years ago, and instantly felt it to be a wine unusually well suited to Maine. Serrated, salty, almost kelpy in its intense marine flavor profile, it’s like our state’s coastline, biosphere and personality all wrapped together: direct and unadorned, invigorating dryness half-cloaking a soft and giving character, nook-and-crannied, rigorously bracing.
Though it has always been made from a single year’s harvest, until the 2012 vintage, Mantinia’s appellation regulations prohibited sparkling wine from listing a year. In large part due to Spiropoulos’ efforts, the rules now allow it, so look for a vintage Ode Panos from here on out. Though made in the charmat style (where secondary fermentation occurs in a large tank rather than in individual bottles), the wine spends a relatively long time on its lees (the dead yeast cells), thereby gaining a richness and yeasty tang usually unavailable from sparkling wines made in this style.
For whatever reason, I never followed up to try the still white wine from the domaine until several weeks ago, when I had my revelatory moment. The Mantinia 2012 ($15) is made from 100 percent organically grown moschofilero grapes, like the Ode Panos.
The Mantinia white is a lot of wine for 15 bucks. The pinkish-orange hue of the wine, like a blanc de noir’s, is due to the naturally dark moschofilero, a gray-skinned grape that gets to almost black in ripe vintages such as 2011 and 2012. Spiropoulos leaves the crushed grapes in contact with their skins, at cool temperatures from four to seven hours depending on the vintage, imparting textural and aromatic complexity as well as the astonishing color.
Apostolos Spiropoulos is chief winemaker and export manager for the winery, overseeing vineyards that have been in his family since the late 19th century.
“We could put in some fining agents on the Mantinia and take the color out,” Spiropoulos told me, “but I like to do the minimum, and I don’t like to lose the aromas, and people should learn that this wine comes from dark grapes.”
It’s a scintillating wine, with side trips into flavor fjords and an overall length that far outpace its moderate price. Anyone captivated by Loire sauvignon blanc, Muscadet, albarino, vermentino or any other grape or region better-known than Greece for vivid, razor-etched mineral whites ought to try it.
If you ever hear wine professionals (waiters, retailers, writers, whoever) toss around the terms “minerality” and “acidity” with troubling disdain for the distinctions between them, drink this wine to know what “mineral” means. It means saline and flinty, like the Spiropoulos. Acidity, that zip of refreshment, isn’t absent from this wine – there are distinct lemony, green-grape flavors – but it’s not as prominent as that firm, bony, racily energized black-rock character, without a milliliter of fat.
The climate of Mantinia is very hot during growing season daytime (Spiropoulos told me 105 degrees and higher is quite common), and the sun has a direct line to the vineyards, which grow on a plateau 2,000 feet above sea level. But the nights consistently grow cold, which allows the hardy grapes to integrate their heat-blasted ripeness and rest a bit before the sun’s maturing effects take hold again the next morning. (Snow and bone-chilling wet cold obtain through the winter.)
Spiropoulos’ viticulture is certified organic at this point, though the winery always made wine in the same way, refraining from the use of pesticides, fungicides or herbicides before there were regulations to codify such practices.
“When my father established the winery in the late 1980s with his brothers (before then the family sold their grapes and made a small amount of wine to sell locally), they just wanted to continue the natural tradition from their grandfather and great-grandfather,” Spiropoulos said. “But he began reading more about it, and became sort of a fanatic for not only organic grapes, but a whole natural way of living.”
Much of my thrill with these wines has been through the whites. But there are two reds worth paying attention to as well. The Red Stag ($16) is a chewy, dense wine from 100 percent agiorgitiko, grown at around 2,000 feet at Spiropolous’ second winery in Nemea, a roughly 20-minute drive from Mantinia. It’s dry and unmistakably southern-European, but with an uncommonly gulpable freshness, despite 14 percent alcohol.
Spiropoulos Porfyros 2008 ($25) is the more ambitious Bordeaux-style blend: 40 percent agiorgitiko, rounded out and emboldened by merlot and cabernets sauvignon and franc, all vinified separately then blended after a longer time in oak than the Red Stag receives. While the Red Stag presents a refreshing vibrancy, the Porfyros is a long-haul trucker, rugged and with some of the woodsy, leathery traits that signify “serious.”
The whole line-up is thrilling: traditionally made wines that represent meticulously their origins and the light touch of their caretakers. I hope you’ll see what they’re about, even if my recommendation means you won’t get the same out-of-nowhere shock I received upon first taste.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at [email protected]