If you think the best you can get from an island in the Aegean Sea is a few days on the beach and the sun, think again. I flew over the Aegean to the edge of Europe, all the way to the wonderful green island of Samos, just a 35-minute flight from Athens. There I discovered its small, extraordinary vineyards, planted in terraces the size of gardens on Mount Ambelos. These vineyards give birth to some of the finest Muscat grapes in the world, small, sun-filled berries that yield sumptuous golden wines. I’m meeting Georgios, former captain now winemaker, high up in the mountains of Samos. He took over the vineyard as a third generation winemaker and tends to the vines for six months a year. For the rest of the year he returns to the mainland. He invites me to have a look around the vineyard. He hands me a bunch of grapes and I can honestly say I have never tasted something so delightfully sweet and fragrant. Back at his house he offers me a taste of his deliciously sweet wine, together with some outrageously good pancakes filled with cheese and honey, all homemade. We sit on his terrace looking out onto the sea and he tells me about the different vines. Some of them are more than 100 years old, the youngest a mere 45, growing on unusually rocky ground, perfect for irrigation. On first glance, the vines seem to grow in quite an unorganised fashion, but nothing has been left to chance. “This way the vines get enough space to grow and the quality of the grape is influenced, too,” he says. It also allows him to diversify and control the yield. This year, there has been a mild winter and no snow, the blossoming started earlier and the summer was also mild. The grapes matured earlier than usual, which also made the harvest happen much earlier. “This year, the grapes have an extraordinary quality,” he is happy to say. Georgios’ vines are shaped like a cup, which helps protect them from the sun and the wind. They are kept small on purpose. He explains: “My objective is to have low quantities and therefore a good balance of quality. Each vine will yield one kilo of grapes. Some vines will have more grapes but we cut them during the summer to keep the yield low.”
The island of Samos produces 7.8 million kilos of grapes a year on an area of 15,000m2. Winegrowers are neither using pesticides nor chemicals, but organic fertiliser, a by-product of the wine.
As the quantity is kept low, winegrowing is not sustainable for Georgios and all the other winegrowers on the island. They might be doctors, priests or engineers and produce their wines as a labour of love, a family tradition. And indeed all the family and friends will come together and help when it’s time for the harvest. They will go up the stony ground of Mount Ambelos and are proud to help.
As the sun sets, the moon rises and the cicadas start singing, I say good-bye to Georgios, thinking what an extraordinary life he has here.
The next day I visit the Union of Vinicultural Cooperatives of Samos to see and taste the bottled, liquid results. The island has been producing wines for hundreds of years and in 1934 a union was formed. The approximately 400 winegrowers of the island have organised themselves into 25 local co-operations. They are paid a premium related to altitude – the higher up the mountain they grow, the higher the sugar content and therefore the quality. The Muscat is a small grape and makes for 95% of the island’s grapes. After they are pressed they are aged in oak barrels producing four types of wine:
Vin Doux is fruity and fresh and tastes strongly of dried fruit. It releases an abundance of aromas of apricot jam, overripe melon and butterscotch candy. It is, unsurprisingly, particularly popular with the locals.
Anthemis is more balanced and complex. It develops a dark orange colour with hints of bronze and boasts flavours of caramel, honey, fruit preserves and chocolate.
The Nectar is mellow and amber in colour. It is a wine crafted from sun-dried grapes that have been patiently aged in oak barrels over a period of three years. The Samos Grand Cru is crafted from well-matured grapes grown in semi-mountainous vineyards and perfectly characterises the Muscat variety. It is at its best when accompanying light desserts topped with sweet fruit, but goes equally well with savoury dishes, particularly those with fresh cream, yellow cheese and béchamel sauces.