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Depending on your preference, it’s either Mavromati, or Ancient Messini, with the latter the more immediately appropriate name for a Greek village that sits directly above one of the most celebrated archaeological digs in Greece. From a full track and stadium, to amphitheatres, to the remnants of villas that brimmed with life two thousand years ago, it’s a frozen snapshot of Hellenic history – which leads to the central challenge of this small, charming village in the Peloponnese: given the elderly nature of some of the residents, it’s often tough to distinguish between historical artefact, and one of the locals…
And that’s a tribute to both the Mediterranean lifestyle, and this particular xorio, where the gentle meander of daily life is supplemented by an arresting view that sweeps down over the ruins and valley below. It’s a view I’ve come to know well over the last few years, mostly from the deck of the Ithomi Taverna, the laidback social heartbeat of the village, for Mavromati is my wife’s family village, and now, by welcome extension, my Greek home. And it’s a home I like to drink wine in – particularly wine from a trio of self-taught winemakers.
My first visit to the village came several months after I got married: the slow climb through the hills above Kalamata to a charming village teeming with relatives waiting to meet the new Irish-South African addition to the extended family. Memories of arriving are blurred: a cacophony of high-volume Greek, aunts simultaneously kissing me hello and trying to feed me, my wife trying to handle a dozen translations at once. But recollections of the following morning are a lot clearer: a breakfast spread of fresh bread, olive oil, tomatoes and feta (all from the village), multiple games of tavli, or backgammon (all judiciously lost), and my first taste of Greek wine.
Yori is the oldest of my wife’s uncles, and over that gloriously simple village breakfast, he asked if I’d like to try some of his wine. My response was clearly a little too enthusiastic, as moments later breakfast was supplemented with a small, chipped glass beaker filled with wine as homemade as it gets: grapes picked from a small allotment a hundred yards from where I was sitting, wine made with expertise handed down from the previous generation, and the resultant vintage procured from a plastic drum in the garage behind me. Chateau Lafite it isn’t, which made for a slightly hesitant drinker.
But with an expectant Greek winemaker watching on, flanked by assorted family members eager to see my reaction, I set aside the wine’s modest origins, the deep yellow hue, and slightly abrasive nose, and slipped a mouthful past a fixed smile – and discovered that wine made in a plastic barrel in a garage of a small Greek village, by a man armed with passion and tradition, can be surprisingly pleasant. Not earth-shattering, not drop everything and ship a case to Robert Parker, but pleasant. Robust, uncomplicated wine, drunk under a huge tree beside a fountain, with the Greek sun slowly climbing over another cloudless Mediterranean day: close your eyes, and you could happily be back in ancient Greece, for the roditis varietal that is Mavromati’s blue collar signature, goes back a couple of thousand years.
It’s the wine of choice of Yori’s younger brothers, an indistinguishable pair of moustachioed twins with whom I’ve enjoyed hours of delightful company, despite the small barrier of my Greek and their English occupying a similarly modest space. Yianni and Vasilli produce their roditis in the same manner as their elder sibling, and the label scrawled with handwritten Greek notes belies bottles brimming with simple, rustic enjoyment. The wine is acidic, but sipped away in small glasses, accompanied by the endless stream of food my wife’s aunts insist in producing, it’s lovely.
And so there’s the first of the places I like to drink wine: the small terrace beside thea Ritsa’s kitchen, flanked by the smallest and most charming of Greek churches, surrounded by the family I now count as my own, in the village of Mavromati. Hellenic cuisine as timeless as the ruins below, competes for attention with the chorus of family voices all talking at once – while I sit back with a bottomless glass of roditis, thanking the Greek gods for the village I’m now part of.
What I’m drinking this week
Chenin Blanc of the cheap and nasty variety is a certain path to a three-day hangover, but thankfully it’s the more polished chenin that we’re happily seeing more and more of. From Ken Forrester’s brilliant FMC (I had a bottle at Aquavit in London last year – 75 quid a bottle, and it flies off the wine list), to the glorious Hope Marguerite from Beaumont, there are plenty of rock stars there for the drinking.
But with prices climbing as reputation grows, here’s a slightly more affordable option that’s not too far off the aforementioned big guns: the 2016 Merwida Family Vintners Chenin from the heart of the Breedekloof. Pete Goffe-Wood of MasterChef and Ultimate Braaimaster fame has been championing the region’s Chenin of late, and with good reason – collectively the local cellars are producing some excellent Chenin, with Merwida one of my favourites. Rich and smooth with a crisp mouthful of stone fruit, it’s good value at R120 a bottle, and another rousing endorsement of a grape we’re doing wonderful things with in South Africa.
Dan Nicholl is the host of Dan Really Likes Wine, an online show with a light-hearted approach to wine.