Angelos Iatridis makes wine in northern Greece with as much high-tech precision as anyone in the world.
So when you taste them, knowing that, they're a shock. Sure, there's ripe red fruit in the Xinomavros. But the unifying thread is minerality; one wine, his Old Vines Reserve Xinomavro 2009, tastes like plum juice squeezed from a stone.
This isn't what we've come to expect in 21st century winemaking. When you hear somebody talking about harvesting one block three times to make sure he gets each grape at the peak of ripeness, you expect a fruit-forward blockbuster. And when you taste a wine with savory, stony flavors and an umami-laden mouthfeel, you expect to hear the winemaker say he did as little as possible after crushing the grapes with his feet.
Iatridis is a hybrid: A control freak with a naturalist side. He installed an Israeli-developed sensor system in his vineyard that sends signals about the moisture content of the soil to a server in Austria, so he knows just how much to irrigate each individual vine.
But he also keeps a farm with pigs, chicken and sheep because he doesn't believe in monoculture. And he says "ecosystem" in sentences where most winemakers use "terroir."
"Terroir is a certain time, the time the grapes are growing," he says. "Ecosystem is full time. And it includes the people. We have every year to adapt to nature, and to extract from nature what the best is."
Iatridis, a dynamo in his mid-40s, is also the type of determined businessman that many Europeans don't believe exists in Greece.
Iatridis is not from Amyndeo, where his winery and vineyards are; he commutes 90 minutes to work each day from Thessaloniki. There are vineyards and wineries available for sale, advertised or not, all over Greece. But Iatridis didn't simply buy one and start making wine. He methodically bought 85 different small tracts of land in Amyndeo. He had to track down the owners and their descendants in Australia, the United States, Canada and New Zealand. Some of them didn't even know they owned land in Greece, which meant they were happy enough to take a money order for it.
While Iatridis was putting this 82 hectares together, the Amyndeo region was making nothing more than crappy co-op wine. It has always been remote. When a new highway opened a few years ago, there was a flurry of travel from Greeks curious to see huge lakes that had previously taken days to reach. But the novelty has subsided, and it's still one of the least-touristed parts of the country.
But there is charm here. Developed in isolation, the cuisine uses more sweet peppers and saffron than the rest of Greece. The winery sits in view of mountains that separate Greece from Macedonia and Albania; one of these is Mt. Olympus. The mountains create a rain shadow: an area of very low rainfall which is great for summer lake visitors, and for vineyard owners who don't mind irrigating. Iatridis clearly doesn't.
"In 1993 we had an experimental project with a Rhône Valley university," he says. "They looked here, in Santorini and in Crete. The agronomist from the university ask me, 'Why does nobody invest here? It has the climate, the soils'."
So Iatridis got to work, in his spare time. His main business was as a flying winemaker/consultant, with a Bordeaux education and experience at three French wineries. "I saw all of Greece and I want to invest here," he says. "This has the coolest climate in Greece. It's best for the aromas. Because of the climate change, the best vineyards in Greece are going to be up in the mountains."
Iatridis grows 14 varieties. His main ones are Xinomavro, Syrah, Malagousia and Sauvignon Blanc. He also makes room for experimental plots, such as one of Xinomavro grown as a wild grape, with long arms trailing on the ground, and one of native wild plants that he's using to catalog the insects of the region, friend and foe.
To ensure that his wines taste of what the grapes have to give, he used food oil and natural color on the roof and walls of the winery, and he ferments in barrels that have been steamed, not toasted. Some of his wines are tannic, but none of them taste of oak.
His best wines are complex and surprising. Alpha Estate Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro 2009 has a tangy, smoked orange peel top note on top of the precise red plum fruit you expect from his winery. The tannins give it good umami, and there's a mushroomy low note on the finish that comes in unexpectedly, demanding another sip to taste it happen again.
Alpha Estate "Axia" Malagouzia 2012 at first seems out of line with the rest of the portfolio: it's light, pretty and fruit-driven. But there's more savoriness than first noticed, which keeps it interesting several glasses in.
One of his best wines is itself unexpected: Alpha One 2008 is made from 100% Merlot, and it's savory and lip-smacking, offering delightful dark red cherry fruit in a fresh style reminiscent of the best of, not Bordeaux or California, but Tuscany. Like all of Alpha Estate wines, it's ripe, but that's not all it is.
"I don't like to have green character of some varieties," Iatridis says. "Because in my scientific approach, that means a lack of ripening. I like having this minerality for balance. This is our Amyndeo appellation. The minerality is here. At the same time the wines have the acidity because of the cool climate. This is what is Amyndeo."
And that's why he calls it an ecosystem: Because this Amyndeo, this taste of Amyndeo, never existed until Iatridis arrived, but in the earth and sky it was there all along.