This second installment of my columns on, “Wine and Food Adventures in Greece” takes us to the Ionian Islands of Zakynthos and Cephalonia which, at first glance, do not seem as obvious for wine culture as, say, Santorini and its famous Assyrtiko grape. But in visiting both islands last month, I discovered wine and food pleasure that matches their impressive history and culture.
As with any trip to touristy locations, beware of tourist traps. Even though I speak decent Greek, I let myself be sucked into a “con artist” style restaurant in the main square of Zakynthos city, where the owner talked up the “traditional” nature of his tavern with Greeks playing guitars and singing songs. So, I took a chance and regretted the “grilled octopus” that most certainly came from a can or at least wasn’t fresh. Next day, having made the mistake of swallowing tap water for a pill, my stomach also wasn’t in top shape (avoid drinking tap water on most islands), so I ordered boiled rice at a better location, which was decent enough, along with good grilled squid. With unpleasant experiences out of the way, let’s move to pleasures – culinary and otherwise – on Zakynthos and Cephalonia.
A Bit of History
These Ionian Islands – along with Corfu, Ithaca, Kythira, Lefkada and Paxi – have a different history from the rest of Greece. Before falling under Roman rule (first the Western, then the Eastern Empire), Greeks settled the islands some 1,200 years before Christ. By the 4th Century BC, the Macedonian Empire took over. When Rome fell, the Ottoman Empire hardly touched them. Indeed, centuries of Venetian rule followed the Roman era, starting as early as the 13th century. A Greek national independence movement began on Zakynthos in the 1700s. One Zakynthos highlight is the Saint George Chapel, also the base of the “Society of Friends” in the mid-19th century: a revolutionary group aiming to establish an independent Greek state. Indeed, this society initiated the Greek War of Independence in 1821. But Zakynthos and the other Ionian islands were under British tutelage until the mid-1860s, when the British Empire bequeathed them to the Greek government.
On Zakynthos, you can walk up a hill in the main town to see a statue of Dionysios Solomos overlooking the island. Born on Zakynthos, he is commonly referred to as Greece’s “national poet,” known for writing the Hymn to Liberty, which was set to music by Nikolaos Mantzaros and became the Greek (and Greek Cypriot) national anthem in 1865 and 1966 respectively. Many island sites are named after him, from a winery to the main town square.
Wine … and Food
At first glance, I was not so impressed by the wine culture, after having been justifiably amazed by Assyrtiko on Santorini in the Cyclades, for example. But thanks to the advice of several Greek connoisseurs, including Yiannis Karakasis MW and Ted Lelekas, among others, I happily discovered otherwise.
Robola is King in Cephalonia
A slow, hot ferry ride in mid-August from Zakynthos took me to Cephalonia, which is home to the grape variety Robola, whose high acidity and low pH can outpace even Assyrtiko. One of the best wineries to visit is the Gentilini Winery – just near the airport, and not far from the Argostoli town center. The wines reflect focused, clean expressions of the grape, thanks to owner Petros Markantonatos and his team.
Markantonatos enthusiastically notes that “Robola is perfect for oysters,” and he is correct. It is ideal for local razor clams and mussels served with linguini at Kyani Akto, a lovely seaside taverna in Argostoli where we lunched. The grilled octopus, leafy greens (horta), homemade “French fries” and sea urchin also proved excellent.
Markantonatos hails from Australia and he, his wife and team are most welcoming at the winery, where you enjoy a pastoral setting amidst shady trees. I highly recommend a visit: both for the warm welcome and excellent wines.
A vertical of his flagship Robola of Cephalonia proved consistent in high quality. It is available in Europe for about €15 retail and in the U.S. for about $23. But for a bit more money, approaching $28 in the U.S., go for his “Wild Paths” Robola, as grapes for this limited-edition wine come from a single vineyard at 850 meters above sea level around Fagia. Planted in 1956, the old vines on a south facing vineyard enjoy many hours of sunshine on the rocky limestone soil. Low yields lead to a more complex wine.
A bit higher in price is the “R series” of his Robola, with more body and nuance, due to the 8% Solera method blended into the wine from a few earlier vintages. It comes as no surprise, given his Australian origins, that he stresses very clean winemaking, such as chilling grapes to 7°C (45° F) overnight and destemming and crushing before gently pressing to extract only the best juice in optimal conditions.
A sign of quality for any winegrowing region can be reflected from its cooperative, and the wines I tried from the Orealios Vine Growers of Robola are good. Widely available in food shops, they have a range of prices, and even the most basic is tasty. The sweet spot can be the cooperative’s San Gerasimo Robola, which retails in Cephalonia for €10.60 and is available in the U.S. for about $17 retail. Frank notes of grapefruit and hints of acacia come with crisp acidity, leading to a clean and fresh medium finish. Founded in 1982, the cooperative today counts some 300 winegrowers with privately owned vineyards occupying approximately 80% of the Robola Zone, including Omala and surrounding areas like Troiannata, Vlachata, Mousata, Faraklata, Diklinata.
Another fine producer is Sclavos-Zisimatos. The organic Lacomatia Robola reflects wet stone, lemon, and freshness, fermented with native yeasts and with careful extraction – and sulfites at very low levels, if at all.
Indeed, I enjoyed the wine at an unpretentious Cephalonia dining spot, Blue Sea, in the charming seaside village of Kateleos on the southern tip of the island: a 15-minute drive from Skala, where I stayed for some great beach time. The wine nicely matched sardines with onion and tomato and grilled octopus. While the octopus was very good, added vinaigrette annoyed me, as I prefer just olive oil and lemon. The star serving however was their homemade taramosalata, among the best I have ever tasted anywhere, made from small batches of fish eggs blended daily into a smooth spread with breadcrumbs, olive oil, lemon, and onion. Family owned since 1970, Blue Sea’s appeal showed: far more people here than at adjoining restaurants. Lena Manedis, daughter of the co-owner served me. I later met chefs Dionysis Pantilios, whose grandmother Doxa, co-founded the restaurant, and Stavros Manedis, Lena’s brother. The service was as excellent as the food quality and dinner ended on a high note with a complementary serving of homemade panacotta. The tab including food and the bottle of wine and bottled water came under €50. Open from May to October, Blue Sea is worth a detour for a picturesque dining experience on Cephalonia, where you should rent a car because taxis are absurdly pricey, and bus service almost non-existent.
Sometimes, you may hear of comparisons with Assyrtiko. Indeed, both Robola and Assyrtiko exude wet stone “minerality” and you see much limestone on Cephalonia. Indeed, excellent Robola grow on tiny, low-yielding vineyards within the high plateau of the Omala Valley and on steep slopes of Mount Ainos whose peak climbs to 1,632 meters and dominates the microclimate of the surrounding area. The limestone at high altitudes ensures cooling on the hot island, with potential for quality wines, characterized by citrus and mineral aromas, balanced acidity, and medium body with a long finish.
And yet while on Cephalonia and Zakynthos, I purposely tried Assyrtiko, which to me has greater depth and nuance. Of course, it is hard to compare on a price level. Even as phylloxera is killing Robola vineyards in Cephalonia – the grape grower cooperative should double efforts to graft vines with resistant vine roots – the cost of Robola grapes is three times cheaper than that of Santorini Assyrtiko.
Zakynthos Verdea – and an Indigenous Red Worth Discovering
On Zakynthos, the star white is Verdea, which owes its name to the Italian “verde” or green, referring to the color of under-ripe grapes that had been used to increase the wine’s acidity. But the Verdea wines I tried were not “green” in nature. Readers should not confuse this PGI zone on Zakynthos with the Italian grape variety of the same spelling. Indeed, local grapes like Skiadopoulo, Pavlos, Asprorobola (“white Robola”) and Goustolidi are used to make Zakynthos Verdea PGI wines, of which I had the chance to taste some excellent examples.
We can start with the Dimitris Kefallinos Verdea, with its colorful label. It was somewhat dark for a 2020 vintage, which scared me. But the sommelier at the upscale Dominicale Seafood Restaurant, in the Argassi area, just three kilometers from Zakynthos town, reassured me. Indeed, some skin contact during the winemaking explains the color, and the wine – a blend of Skiadopoulo, Pavlos, Robola, Goustolidi, Makrypodia grapes – was the opposite of tired: bordering on opulent, but nicely fresh given the acidity. It was delicious and counts among the very best examples of Verdea I tried on the island. Citrusy in character, with lemon peel, bergamot, and orange zest, with hints of acacia, its medium body and smooth texture, with excellent verve, accompanied very well the – you guessed it – grilled octopus. Available in France for €21, this wine should be available in the US, and many Greek friends had already recommended it to me when I arrived on the island.
I recommend this restaurant for a posher setting, with seating just along the seaside and with a classy, wood interior, where daily fish catches are on display. The grilled octopus over aubergine and tomato clocked in at €18, so prices are still quite reasonable for the setting. I did not quite understand the olive tapenade on the side, but it was a fresh octopus. The restaurant deserves its high Trip Advisor (and Google) ratings, and do not let the ultra-touristy center of Argassi fool you. Just walk past the overcrowded area and you will find Dominicale.
Any vacation on Zakynthos must include a visit to the Grampsas Winery under Giannis Grampsas and his father. Greek wine experts like Yiannis Karakasis MW hold this estate in high esteem with reason. Although the winery itself has been operating for only about 10 years, the Grampsas family has been harvesting grapes many decades before that time. Giannis’ great grandfather had planted vines before the great 1953 earthquake, known as the Great Kefalonia Earthquake that struck the southern Ionian Islands on August 12. It was so violent that it raised the whole island of Cephalonia by 60 cm (24 in) and caused widespread damage throughout both islands. Yet these “root of the mountain” vines grown on red soil, clay and limestone, a pre-phylloxera vineyard, have survived.
Today, Giannis and his father work hard with a wide variety of indigenous grapes to craft red, white and rosé wines, at various price points, and the viticulture and winemaking has been evolving positively. While not every wine I tried excited me, I found enough at various prices to make this worthy of a visit and future purchasing.
Take for example the fruit forward Allegro dry white, a blend of 70% Skiadopoulo and 30% Moscatella. It conveys melon, citrus fruit, and a touch of white flower. The palate is pleasant, white stone fruit-driven, rather light at 11.5% alcohol, and ideal for summer sipping. It sells on island and in Germany and Belgium for under €12. Meanwhile, I preferred the pricier dry white made from 100% Pavlos, named after this rare on-island variety. With 24 hours Cryo-extraction, the wine obtained color from the skins, and at 12.5% alcohol, it conveys greater depth and refined density, exuding aromas of jasmine and a palate recalling juicy white apricot. The estate’s Verdea 2020 is excellent, blending Goustolidi, Skiadopoulo, Pavlos and Robola and aged in lightly toasted oak barrels for six months. I like its aromatic complexity including green apple, pear, lemon, and orange rind, with subtle lemongrass. The palate, fresh and juicy, remains dry and focused, ready to drink upon release, but can but can age two to three years, as evidenced by a mini vertical I did.
More intense is the Verdea Reserve, as tasted from barrel, clocking in at over seven grams of acidity per liter, blending the same grapes above. It had seen 11 months in barrel, which, once bottled, will be kept one year in bottle before release. There is suggested tannin from eight days of skin contact at cold maceration. Fermented at 16°C temperature (60°F), it sees no new oak, but rather lees stirring once a month. I like the dry herb notes of oregano and thyme. Its bracing acidity is balanced by the roundness of the fruit.
Stealing the show for me however was a red wine made from the local Avgoustiatis variety, which I consider on par with better known black grape varieties from Greece such as Agiorgitiko and Xinomavrao. Merchants should take note of these Grampsas Winery Nefeli reds, named after Giannis’s daughter. In their celebrated book Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding, and José Vouillamoz write that the variety “produces deeply colored wines with soft tannins and highish acidity.”
Grown on primarily old bush vines at elevations higher than 350 meters, the wine matures in French oak for 12 months and another 12 months in the bottle. The estate struck veritable gold with its first 2017 vintage: the wine’s savory earthy characteristics remind me of Sangiovese and its cool, peppery aspects of northern Rhone Syrah. I really liked subtle truffle notes, exhibiting complexity and refinement, but also drinkability. The 2017 vintage clocks in at 14% alcohol. While the 2019 is more concentrated and certainly more intense, at 14.5% alcohol, like the 2018, I prefer the more “diaphanous” aspect to the 2017. Merchants tell me that it would retail for some €50, given the small quantities made. It is a very special wine.
One more reason to visit Grampsas is its exemplary restaurant with relaxed outdoor seating. You will need a ride to get there however, as it is not in the center, but the taxi (or your car rental) will be worth the time. Chef Stavros Yfantidis only arrived this year, after having studied at Le Cordon Bleu in London, with prior experience at high-end locations (sous chef at the three-star Michelin Fat Duck in London for example).
Order the lamb kritharaki, a divine combination of lamb, tomato sauce from fresh tomatoes and “orzo”, although the Greek word is kritharaki, topped with grated local cheese. It reached the level of my own mother’s recipe, which is amazing. A starter – for the absurd price of €13 – proved delicious and texturally and visually pleasing. It was fresh caught octopus, grilled perfectly over a bed of lentils and with a fava bean spread of super creamy texture, ideally contrasting the outer crunchiness of the grilled octopus and the lentils. A Verdea paired nicely. For meats, go for the Nefeli.
I could not end this review of these Ionian Island adventures without another Zakynthos restaurant recommendation: Prosilio Restaurant is hidden in plain sight at the main town, where one encounters (again) many touristy places, including that awful experience I had with a taverna. Hidden behind the Greek telecom building and bank, you find haute cuisine here. The only available seat was at the bar because it was packed. Calls kept coming with the reply: “We’re so sorry, but we are fully booked.” And there is no pretentious aspect or a “trying too hard” feeling that one can sometimes get. While the wine list includes pricy and superb international wines, such as Riesling from Dönnhoff, Petrus 2004, high profile Champagne, and Opus One, thank goodness for its slew of fine wines from all over Greece, including from Zakynthos. Food choices include fish and the catch of the day. I started with a superb blue crab salad (€21), neatly presented with lightly sautéed squid, coconut, cashews, and grilled pineapple, which was a nice touch. The main course (€22.50) was sea bass over a mix of zucchini noodles and mussels. The bass was crisp outside and tender inside: just delicious. Kudos to the delicately flavored locally sourced sea salt that accompanied warm homemade bread and local olive oil. Just be sure to call ahead if you want a table here.
Visiting Greek islands without enjoying the sea is like going to a wine bar and ordering water. On Zakynthos, take a cruise to the Blue Caves, where you can dive into the sea. Located between the Agios Nikolaos port and Cape Skinari, these natural caves are named after the blue reflections of the Ionian Sea. Organize a charter to be able swim in and out of the caves at your leisure. And you should visit Navagio beach, aka “Shipwreck Beach:” the rusty boat carcass, framed by steep limestone cliffs, the turquoise sea, and light beige sand make for dramatic photos. However, you tend to have far too many people there, so I would suggest visiting other nearby beaches for more quality swimming.
Cephalonia also has many excellent beaches, from sandy to stony, but a truly “cool” visit – in every sense of that word – is the Melissani cave. In Greek mythology, Melissani was the Cave of the Nymphs. It measures but 160m (525 feet) long and 40m (131 feet) wide, but its stunning stalactites date back 20,000 years. Excavations revealed 3rd and 4th century BC female figures of the famous Nymphs. The main appeal comes from the cave’s inner lake, where part of the roof had fallen many years ago, creating the cool effect of blue light in the water when sunlight shines over the lake. Although a short visit (barely 15 minutes on a boat, equal to the wait in line), it was almost cool enough down there (15 degrees Celsius, 59 Fahrenheit) to store your wine – and refreshing from hot summer temperatures, which in 2021 were the hottest since 1987.