Sustainable Viticulture Is A Big Topic In Greece. Here’s What Wineries Are Doing About It.

Food & Drink

Sustainable viticulture refers to a method of grape growing and wine production that prioritizes environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and economic viability. This approach involves managing vineyards in a way that preserves natural resources, reduces waste and pollution, and promotes biodiversity. Angelos C. Iatridis, the winemaker for Alpha Estate in northwest Greece, believes the Greek wine industry has made significant progress toward implementing sustainable practices. “There is growing recognition among winemakers in Greece that sustainability is essential to the long-term success of the industry, and many wineries have already adopted sustainable practices in their vineyards and winemaking operations,” he says.

Located in the heart of the Amyndeon PDO, the coldest winemaking region in Greece, Alpha Estate faces different challenges from climate change than wineries operating further south. However, most Greek winemakers agree that practices must collectively change, starting with sustainable viticulture.

Sustainable viticulture encompasses a range of practices that promote the long-term health and productivity of vineyards while minimizing their environmental impact. These practices include using cover crops, composting, integrated pest management, and reduced chemical inputs.

All of Alpha Estate’s vineyards are certified sustainable viticulture (integrated crop management), under European Union AGRO 2-1 & AGRO 2-2. The winery’s Vieilles Vignes ungrafted Xinomavro ‘’Barba Yannis’’ block is under organic conversion, with other blocks to follow. The winery is certified under ISO HACCP. All Alpha Estate wines are certified vegan.

Some of these practices are easier to accomplish in the Amyndeon PDO zone, says Iatridis. First, the cooler climate in Amyndeon offers natural pest control by limiting populations and reducing disease, thereby reducing reliance on chemical treatments. Second, the region’s cooler climate and higher altitude result in less evapotranspiration, which means less water is needed for irrigation. Third, the region’s unique ecosystem supports various plant and animal species, including beneficial insects that help control pests.

Wineries in the Amyndeon PDO zone, however, face a unique threat from working in a cooler climate: late spring frost. As the weather gets more extreme and less predictable, some experts call it “weather weirding,” frost is happening later in the season at unexpected times. Given an already short growing season, this can reduce the productivity of vineyards and the quantity of the region’s famous red wine, Xinomavro.

The main grape grown in Amyndeon is Xinomavro. This dark red native variety produces medium- to full-bodied wines with firm tannins, high acidity, and a capacity to age for years. These qualities, combined with tart cherry, fennel, and spice flavors, earned Xinomavro the moniker the “Barolo of Greece.”

While Amyndeon is exclusively known for producing Xinomavro, Alpha Estate’s vineyards produce a variety of grapes that fall within the PGI appellation of Florina. Vibrant, aromatic white grape Malagousia is the primary wine of the appellation, though other white grapes such as Assyrtiko and Sauvignon Blanc thrive there, too. Florina PGI sits on the northern edge of Greece, bordering Bulgaria and Albania, and harbors similar cool-climate viticulture benefits and challenges as Amyndeon. Malagousia faced near extinction until the mid-’70s when professors and growers decided to revive it. Malagousia offers aromas and flavors of flowers and stone fruit ranging from rose and jasmine to peach. The best examples deliver complexity and power with bracing freshness.

To ensure the future viability of its vineyards in Florina PGI and Amyndeon PDO, Alpha Estate has taken strides in its conservation practices, from energy consumption, water conservation, and waste management to its carbon footprint. For example, Iatridis says they use recycled water for cleaning, have installed solar panels and LED lighting, and compost organic waste. “We’re using eco-friendlier packaging materials, and in the last 5 years, we have reduced the average weight of our glass bottles by 20 percent,” he adds. They also work to source ingredients and materials from sustainable sources to promote these practices throughout the supply chain.

Further south in the Peloponnese PGI, Domaine Skouras is also tackling sustainability in the vineyard and the winery. Aris Spaidiotis, the winery’s export manager, says sustainability, for them, consists of “fulfilling the needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care, and social well-being. We take guidance from international standards through the certified body of QMSCERT.”

Spaidiotis says the benefits of working in the Peloponnese zone, and specifically in the Nemea PDO zone, include great weather. “Less rain means less humidity which means less danger of disease for our vines. This allows us to spray less and when only necessary,” he says. Conversely, the constant heat, “especially during summer,” makes them more dependent on refrigeration to keep wines cool after bottling.

Winemaking in the Peloponnese PGI, which covers the southernmost tip of the Balkan Peninsula, dates to antiquity. Mountains traverse the peninsula and divide it into two main wine-growing regions: the central and northern parts, including Mantinia and Nemea, and the western part, which includes Achaia in the north and Ilia and Messinia in the south. The vineyards of the Peloponnese long enjoyed a mild Mediterranean climate due to the moderating effect of water and wind, though, with climate change, the risk of heat waves has increased.

There are seven Peloponnesian PDOs, all working exclusively with native grapes, which account for approximately 25 percent of all PDO wines produced in Greece. Spanning both white and red grapes, the seven appellations include PDO Mantinia, PDO Nemea, PDO Mavrodaphne of Patras, PDO Patras, PDO Muscat Patras, PDO Muscat of Rio Patras, and PDO Monemvasia-Malvasia.

Domaine Skouras produces wine in Nemea, where the priority is the red grape Agiorgitiko. Wines can be dry, semi-sweet, and sweet. The best-known wines, however, are typically dry and medium-bodied with the capacity for aging due to balanced acidity and ripe tannins. Agiorgitiko looks bright red in the glass and entices with aromas of black and red berries laced with baking spice.

Spaidiotis says Domaine Skouras has made changes to improve its sustainability bona fides. In the vineyard, that work includes the reduction of fertilizer and chemical sprays, the use of rain catchment systems, and dialing back the use of heavy machinery in the vineyard to decrease soil compaction. They also compost organic matter for use in the vineyards.

In the winery, Spaidiotis and his colleagues recycle as much as possible. They have installed solar panels and LED lights with timers, use electric instead of gas forklifts, and take advantage of cooler weather to lower reliance on refrigeration.

“Our corks have a certification on how many CO2 grams are absorbed by making it. This is something that not many people know, but the making of a cork has a positive influence on the environment. Which means that its carbon footprint is negative,” says Spaidiotis.

Continuing south to Crete, where increased heat, drought, and fire threaten viticulture and the livelihood of islanders, Natasa Stavroulaki of Douloufakis Winery speaks to the benefits and challenges of winemaking within the Crete PGI.

“The Mediterranean climate and fertile soil make sustainable practices easy, as we have abundant sunshine and natural resources to work with. However, the terrain can present a challenge as many vineyards are located on steep hillsides, making farming and irrigation more difficult and costly,” he explains.

Crete, like its neighbors to the north, has a history of winemaking dating thousands of years. The Minoans, a Bronze Age civilization, are credited with establishing the island’s robust wine culture and trade. In 1989, the modern Crete PGI was created. Today, it’s the second most prolific region in Greece after the Peloponnese PGI.

For nearly a hundred years, the Douloufakis family has produced high-quality, traditional Cretan wine. One specialty of the winery is Liatiko, a delicate, transparent dry red with a ruby hue. Liatiko is a classic variety of Crete’s Dafnes PDO. It’s known for its freshness; herbal, berry, and floral notes; and a vivid elegance comparable to Pinot Noir. The island’s flagship white grape is Vidiano. This ancient indigenous variety of PGI Crete can produce many styles, from light and fresh to rich and complex. Old vine Vidiano is considered one of the island’s viticultural treasures. The grape is also resistant to heat and drought, making it an asset to Cretan winemakers.

Douloufakis Winery has been certified organic by IRIS, the first and only European Organic Products Certification body based in Crete. In accordance with organic certification, Douloufakis Winery doesn’t use herbicides; rather, the team works with organic insect control formulations such as pheromones and sulfur. Other labors in the vineyard include the implementation of drip irrigation to reduce water usage, composting to reuse vineyard cuttings, and preserving the local ecosystem by planting diverse species of trees and maintaining native heritage trees like cypress, pine, oak, and olive.

Stavroulaki thinks Greek winemakers have made notable progress in protecting the land and communities it sustains, especially now that many are certified by organizations such as AGRO 2.1 and Bioland. However, there is still room for improvement. “Through incentives, appropriate training, competent bodies can encourage wineries to adopt sustainable practices,” she says.

By working together and taking targeted actions, winemakers, government bodies, and other stakeholders can help to promote sustainability in the Greek wine industry, ultimately improving the environmental, social, and economic sustainability of the sector. The question remains how rapidly such a sea change will occur.

If you’d like to support sustainable wineries in Greece, including those from PDO Peloponnese, PDO Crete, PGI Florina, PDO Amyndeon quoted in this article, check out Diamond Wine Importers.

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