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Sotiris Bafitis: Bringing Great Greeks to the USA
By Michael Franz
Jun 13, 2006
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What is the most important development for wine lovers in American wine during the past five years?  Not direct shipping litigation or the greatness of 2005 Bordeaux or the rise of screw cap closures.  I'd be happy to join in friendly argument with anyone who wants to make a case for one of these, and when doing so, I'll contend that the most important development is the arrival of great wine from grapes we didn't know from a country we didn't appreciate:  Greece.

I know that this is a Big Claim, and I'll gladly defend for anyone who writes in response to this column.  But since it is important to express gratitude for good fortune, we should first consider whom we should thank for the recent arrival of great Greeks.

As is usually the case, credit goes first to Mother Nature for gracing Greece with superb growing conditions.  These include brilliant sunshine, varied soils, and an abundance of growing sites at upper altitudes near the cooling waters of the Aegean and Ionian seas.  Greece's bountiful blessings also include roughly 200 indigenous grape varieties, an endowment rivaled only by Italy.

On the human side of the equation, a new generation of Greek viticulturalists and winemakers is pushing the quality envelope in many ways, most promisingly by combining innovation on the technical side with a traditionalist fidelity to Greek grape varieties.  As a consequence, Greek wine has undergone a remarkable renaissance during the past decade, and though revitalization has really only just started, it is already clear to me that Greece will eventually earn a place in the front rank of producing countries.

However, all of this could have happened without most Americans having a realistic chance to taste the vinous fruits of the Greek renaissance.  If the best wines never made it to our shores, or if they came here but remained constrained within the Greek-American community and its restaurants, they'd be effectively useless to most of us.

So, when considering whom we should thank for the recent arrival of great Greeks, we should not forget the crucial role of the importer.  And to my knowledge no importer has has done more to bring excellent, modern Greek wines into America and out of the Greek restaurant subculture than Sotiris Bafitis.

You may need to taste a few wines imported here by Sotiris Bafitis Selections before agreeing that we owe a collective debt to Mr. Bafitis, but there's no question that I owe a personal one to him for opening my eyes to Greece's high-end potential.  Before meeting him five years ago, I had tasted some (mostly uninspiring) Greek wines and had benefitted from the tutelage of Miles Lambert, a writer with an extensive familiarity with Greek wines based in the Washington, D.C. area.  However, I had never tasted a lineup of wines that I found truly distinctive and compelling until tasting with Sotiris in the summer of 2001, and since that time I've remained intensely interested in the Greek wine scene.

Bafitis was born to Greek immigrant parents and initially raised in Maryland, but moved back to Greece at the age of 10.  His family settled in Rogitika, a small village on the outskirts of Patra, a notable port city in the northwestern Peloponesse.  His initial exposure to wine production involved harvesting and making Roditis with a man from across the street at age 12.  He reflects that "the wine was oxidized by October, but the first batch after the harvest each August was excellent."  These early experiences of a discrepancy between what Greek wines were and what they could be at their best seem consequential in retrospect.

Sotiris returned to Maryland at 16, and after completing high school, studied history at the University of Maryland.  His interest in wine and food made restaurant work a natural sideline during student years, and his interest depened during a stint at Jaleo, which may be the finest tapas restaurant in the United States.  Excellent staff training and the friendship of some knowlegable co-workers had a strong influence, as did the courageous example of Jaleo's owners and managers, who developed a wine list comprised entirely of Spanish wines in a time when few diners or even wine critics took them seriously.

Bafitis started a modest wine collection in his early 20s, and soon took a job at Calvert Woodley, a leading D.C. wine retailer.  Summer vacations in Greece were increasingly devoted to touring wine regions, where he found wines of high quality made from indigenous varieties.  A very strong Dollar enabled him to experiment widely and buy bottles to take back to the USA.  Doing so was the only alternative to drinking lackluster Greek wines when in America during the mid-1990s.  The few widely available bottlings were blandly "traditional," and the few ambitious wines made from varieties like Moschofilero or Xynomavro that could be found (usually only in New York) were almost invariably too old or otherwise oxidized.

By contrast, the wines that Bafitis brought back to the States were enthusiastically received by friends who tasted them--especially when they tasted them "blind."  Encouraged to go into the importing business, Bafitis initially laughed off the idea.  However, discovering that he wasn't cut out for a desk job when working in Athens as an intern for the U. S. Department of State, he began kicking the idea around with Greek wine producers when traveling on weekends.

Few Greek producers had any expertise or interest in trying to sell high quality wines in America, and fewer still were inclined to try their luck outside of the Greek-American market.  However, Bafitis' conviction from the start was that Greek wines would never really be taken seriously until they could hold their own in the wider American market.

He understood (and continues to appreciate) the importance of showcasing his wines in New York restaurants like Milos, Molyvos and Parea that pursue sophisticated expressions of Greek cuisine, but the standard-issue Greek restaurant was never his target, and he spurned the conventional distribution channels within which Greek wines have typically been segregated.  Thanks to tireless efforts and a very strong portfolio, Bafitis' wines can now be found in restaurants such as Gramercy Tavern, Craft, Hearth, BLT, Fish and The French Laundry.

When suffering some initial rebuffs from importers and distributors who liked his wines but wouldn't gamble on the commerical prospects of modern Greek bottlings, be took on both jobs himself.  Thanks to hard work and considerable critical notice for his wines, Bafitis is now able to concentrate on importing by working with distributors in the metropolitan areas of New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Las Vegas and around the San Francisco Bay Area.  All of his wines are shipped in refrigerated containers and stored only in refrigerated warehouses, which is rare or even unprecedented treatment for Greek wines.

Looking ahead, Bafitis' plans and objectives are as clear and straightforward as the man himself.  He doesn't seek to impose a particular template on his producers, but rather encourages them to pursue individual espressions of their vineyard sites, favorite indigenous grapes, and personal sense of style.  Toward these ends, he tries to persuade growers to use oak sparingly with whites in particular but also with reds, often recommending larger casks that have a more moderate impact on the fruit of their vines.

Believing that even his best producers have only started to show the greatness that can be attained in Greece, Bafitis continues to search for new grape varieties, new vineyard sites at upper elevations, and new blood in the ranks of young winemakers.  Based on his impressive accomplishments as a young man confronting long odds, he looks like a sure bet for a bright future.


Top Current Releases:

Argyros Estate

Argyros Estate, Regional Wine of Aegean  (Greece) Aidani 2005 ($18, 500 ml, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  This is the only wine that I have ever seen made entirely from the Aidani variety, but it sure makes me hope to see more in the future.  Juicy, green melon fruit is given great linear thrust by a bright streak of citrus acidity, and interesting mineral notes in the finish make this as interesting as it is refreshing.  89

Argyros Estate, Santorini (Greece) "Atlantis" 2005 ($14, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Composed predominantly of this island's great Assyrtiko grape with dashes of Athiri and Aidani, it shows impressively substantial fruit that has a nice impression of fruity sweetness despite a dry finish.  Flavors of golden apples and mandarin oranges are structured with bright dash of lime and augmented by mineral notes.  90

Argyros Estate, Santorini (Greece) "Canava" 2005 ($17, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Made entirely of Assyrtiko with no wood employed, this shows some fruit but is most impressive for its marvelously expressive, exotic notes of straw, smoke and minerals.  With excellent acidity lending form to flavors that are substantial and persistent, this is a very serious wine.  90

Argyros Estate, Santorini (Greece) Estate Assyrtiko 2005 ($24, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Those who enjoy oak notes in their whites will perhaps prefer this all-Assyrtiko wine to the "Canava" bottling, and though it is quite good, I don't find it as distinctive or interesting.  Spicy wood notes work well enough with the smoky, mineral character of the grape, but they also obscure them to some extent.  87

Argyros Estate, Santorini (Greece) "Atlantis" Rosé 2005 ($14, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Temperatures get seriously hot on the island of Santorini, so it is easy enough to understand how it would give rise to rosé wines.  A blend of 80% Assyrtiko and 20% Mandilaria, it shows a flamboyantly flowery nose that suggests a hint of sweetness, but this is counterbalanced by a pleasantly bitter note that marks the wine's finish.  Light mineral notes on a base of cranberry fruit lend additional interest, and the whole package is quite interesting and enjoyable.  88

Argyros Estate, Santorini (Greece) Vin Santo "Mezzo" 2000 ($36, 500ml, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Although Vin Santo is widely associated with Tuscany, many on Santorini argue that originated there, and the European Union found enough credibility to this contention to authorize the use of the term for wines such as this.  The grapes were dried for six days in the sun after harvesting, and the wine then spent five full years in second-fill oak barrels.  It features a fantastic bouquet of golden raisins, exotic spices and dried apricots, followed by penetrating, persistent flavors that are driven by abundant acidity.  A fantastic Vin Santo!  92

 

Biblia Chora Estate

Biblia Chora Estate, Pangeon (Macedonia, Greece) White 2005 ($15, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  This blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Assyrtiko shows lots of aromatic intensity, with notes of smoke, straw and freshly cut grass on a base of melon and citrus fruit.  Although it shows real substance and depth of fruit on the palate, a serious blast of crisp acidity provides a refreshing counterpoint in the tightly focused finish.  89

Biblia Chora Estate, Pangeon (Macedonia, Greece) "Areti" White 2005 ($15, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Made entirely from the indigenous Assyrtiko grape (which is associated most closely with the island of Santorini but is also showing promising results in other areas), this features subtle fruit notes accented with nice nuances of grilled nuts and straw, along with prominent mineral aromas and flavors.  87

Biblia Chora Estate, Pangeon (Macedonia, Greece) "Ovilos" White 2005 ($30, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Blended from equal portions of Semillon and Chardonnay and entirely barrel fermented, this dramatic wine features rich fruit recalling ripe figs and peaches.  Smoky, spicy wood notes are very expressive, but the wine has enough richness and depth of flavor to balance them effectively.  A great choice for grilled fish or chicken dishes.  90

Biblia Chora Estate, Pangeon (Macedonia, Greece) Red 2004 ($20, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  The straight Biblia Chora red is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, and it shows a classic leafy, herbal aromatic profile that works very well with the core of black plum and cassis fruit.  Medium-bodied but quite flavorful, with a nice textural balance between ripe roundness and tannic grip, this is very well made from strong raw materials.  89

Biblia Chora Estate, Pangeon (Macedonia, Greece) Merlot 2003 ($36, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  A lot of people won't get fired up for Merlot from anyplace these days--much less from Greece--but this excellent wine will prove very rewarding for those with sufficiently open minds to give it a try.  Soft fruit notes of plums and red berries are marvelously pure and expressive, with a nice herbal accent and subtle oak providing additional complexity.  A tender, fleshy texture is nicely framed by fine-grained tannins, and the whole package is exceptionally symmetrical and balanced.  91


Domaine Gerovassiliou

Domaine Gerovassiliou, Epanomi (Macedonia, Greece) Malagousia 2005 ($17, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Evangelos Gerovassiliou is predominantly responsible for saving the indigenous Malagousia grape from extinction two decades ago, and the consistently excellent wines he now makes from it shows that it was well worth saving.  With subtle aromas of peaches and a light mineral tinge, this is medium-bodied and nicely rounded in texture, with a clean, refreshing finish.  89

Domaine Gerovassiliou, Epanomi (Macedonia, Greece) Chardonnay 2004 ($28, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  An exceptionally well made wine, this is very complex and very well balanced and integrated.  Lovely fruit notes of peaches and ripe pears are augmented by accents of bread dough, woodsmoke and spicy oak.  A dash of citrus acidity in the finish lends freshness and focus to the finish.  90

Domaine Gerovassiliou, Epanomi (Macedonia, Greece) "Avaton" 2002 ($40, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  This would be a remarkable wine from any vintage, but coming from a very tough growing season in 2002, it borders on the miraculous.  Blended from 40% Limnia (a grape noted by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C.), 40% Mavrotragno and 20% Mavroudi, it shows lots of subtle aromatic nuances of mushrooms, roasted meats, saddle leather and smoke on a core of dark berry fruit.  Ultra fine-grained tannins are perfectly tuned to the weight of the fruit, and the whole package is completely convincing.  92


Karydas Estate

Karydas Estate Naoussa (Macedonia, Greece) 2003 ($24, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  This is the absolute essence of a boutique producer: one family working with one grape on a single site and doing virtually everything by hand.  This makes perfect sense because that one grape is Xynomavro, which is notorously difficult but which can make profound wine when lavished with care.  This fine vintage shows very expressive aromas of ripe, sweet red berries, fresh meat, spring flowers and smoky oak.  Although there's a lot of tannin in this as in most renditions of Xynomavro, there's also lots of concentration and ripeness in the fruit.  Ready now if paired with rather fatty meats, this will really hit its stride in another two or three years and hold for a decade.  91


Ktima Kir-Yianni

Ktima Kir-Yianni, Florina (Macedonia, Greece) "Samaropetra" 2005 ($13, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  This winning blend of 60% Sauvignon Blanc and 40% Roditis shows very nice aromatic notes and excellent acidity to accent the fresh fruit notes of limes and green melons.  88

Ktima Kir-Yianni, Amyndeon (Macedonia, Greece) "Akakies" Rosé 2005 ($10, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  This consistently excellent rosé is crafted entirely from Macedonia's star cultivar, Xynomavro.  Fresh and fruity without showing overt sweetness, it features expressive notes of strawberries and red cherries.  Excellent acidity lends definition and refreshment value, and light tannin gives this just the right bit of grip in the finish.  88

Ktima Kir-Yianni, Imathia (Macedonia, Greece) "Yianakohori" 2003 ($18, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  A blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Xynomavro, this medium-bodied reds shows very nice fruit with notes of plums and black cherries, along with lots of fine-grained tannin and nice aromatic accents of leather and mushrooms.  89

Ktima Kir-Yianni, Naoussa (Macedonia, Greece) "Ramnista" 2001 ($22, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  This flagship Xynomavro is just starting to hit its stride by showing some bottle bouquet, and yet it remains very fresh, with lots of sweet-seeming primary fruit.  Nicely structured with acidity and ripe tannin, this is a great bet for the future but also excellent for current consumption with moderately robust meats like pork or veal.  91

Mercouri Estate

Mercouri Estate, Pisatis (Peloponnese, Greece) "Foloi" 2005 ($12, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Made entirely from the Roditis grape, this wine is light and fresh but remarkably expressive in terms of aroma and flavor.  Notes of limes, straw, dried herbs and minerals are very appealing, and the interplay between ripe fruit and zesty acidity is excellent.  89

Mercouri Estate, Ilia (Peloponnese, Greece) "Antares" 2003 ($15, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  A 50/50 blend of Avgoustiatis and Mourvedre, this is medium-bodied but packed with intense fruit, tannin and smoky oak.  The tannins are fine in grain but abundant and a bit dry, so this will need time to integrate and soften.  86


Parparousis Estate

Parparousis Estate, Patra (Peloponnese, Greece) Roditis 2005 ($17, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Rounder and softer than the excellent 2005 Roditis from Mercouri Estate, this is also a very admirable expression of a grape with strong merits.  Peach fruit is ripe but still subtle in flavor, with nicely intergrated acidity.  It seems akin to a very fine Pinot Blanc, and could prove just as versatile for food pairing purposes.  87

Parparousis Estate, Patra (Peloponnese, Greece) "Cava" 2005 ($28, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  A 50/50 blend of Assyrtiko and Athiri fermented and aged for 9 months in new, 500 liter French oak barrels, this impressive wine shows balanced oak notes of woodsmoke and spices working well with green melon fruit, intense mineral and dried herb notes, and a refreshing blast of lemony acidity in the finish.  90

Parparousis Estate, Nemea (Peloponnese, Greece) Reserve 2003 ($35, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Made entirely from the potentially excellent Agiorgitiko grape (sometimes Anglicized as "St. George"), this wine features impressive depth of fruit recalling black cherries and dark berries.  Interesting accents of tobacco leaf, fresh meat, vanilla and spices lend real complexity, and ultra-fine tannins contribute backbone without drying the gorgeous fruit.  Fresh and pure despite excellent complexity, this is an exemplary rendition of one of Greece's leading varieties.  92


Voyatzi Estate

Voyatzi Estate, Velvendos (Kozani, Macedonia, Greece) Estate Red 2001 ($20, Sotiris Bafitis Selections):  Yiannis Voyatzis, who holds a Ph.D in oenology from the Univerity of Bordeaux, is doing interesting work with Roditis, Malvasia and a local red variety called Tsapournakos, but the real star here is a special clone of Xynomavro.  Voyatzis blends this lead component with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a couple of local red varieties (Moschomavro and Vapsa) to make this flagship red.  Nicely developed at this point but hardly played out, the 2001 shows interesting accents of flowers, leather and spices on a core of dark berry fruit.  Medium-bodied but quite flavorful, it is nicely balanced with ripe tannin.  89


Questions or comments?  Send them to me at mfranz@winereviewonline.com