A trip to the vineyards of the island after an invitation of the newly established Association of the Winemakers of Cephalonia.
The tiny wheels of the Kia Piccanto stubbornly refuse to "cooperate" with the limestone stones that make up the narrow uphill lane in the heart of Robola's wine-growing area. Petros (Markantonatos) from the Gentilini winery tries – in vain – to unstick the small car, and a few moments later, obviously defeated (Petros on the wheel, Aris (Sklavenitis) co-driver and me in the back seat), we decide to give up the effort and we make a 180 turn to return to the "normal" road.
A couple of days ago, together with Evriviades Sclavos (Sclavos-Zisimatos winery), we were gazing at the famous area of Robola from a different angle, on our way to the top of the imposing maintoun of Ainos at 1628 meters. This “picturesque” image of the plateau and the surrounding slopes of the area from above is etched on my memory. Behind of us was Ainos mountain and in front of us numerous small scattered vineyards were lying at the base of the plateau and the surrounding slopes. At our feet was Epanochori village, on our left hand behind the mountain, Fagias region looking south to Zakinthos island, Lakomatia on our right (to the north) Kokkinopelia, Lanou, Drymonas and Stenomata. Straight in the background, looking towards Italy to the west, was Argostoli ,the capital of the island and of course the deep blue sea.
If you were trying to cross the zone from north to south with a drone, you would follow a wavy (snaky) route, with surrounding mountains, which at some point opens like a fan forming the "heart" of Omalos plateau and ends in the southern steep slopes that overlooking Zakynthos. On the plateau of Omalos, the twin villages of Valsamata and Fragata, the monastery of Agios Gerasimos, the forty wells dug by the nuns of the monastery and the impressive winery of the association of Winemakers of Cephalonia (Orealios Land) dominate.
When viewed from above … #1
…you cannot easily understand what it means to be a winegrower in the Robola zone. You are simply enchanted by what you see.
It took that turn with the Piccanto uphill for me to understand clearly that the phrase "Vino di Sasso" (the wine of the stone) used by the Venetians for Robola wine was not an exaggeration. And it's not just the poverty of the soil and the fact that Robola literally grows on the stones... Descending on bikes from Epanochori, along with Kostas Bazigos, manager of the association, the signs from the past earthquakes, the invasion of phylloxera and also the recent hail, were more than evident. Add to your vocabulary words such as altitude, steep slopes, terraces, lots of different orientations and then you have a good idea of what it means to be a winegrower in the Robola zone.
Taking down the road to the co-op, Bazigo's words about the phylloxera problem were heartbreaking. "In 5-10 years from now there will be no pre-phylloxera vineyard in the Robola zone." The first signs of phylloxera appeared late enough, in the 1980s. 10 years before I visited the area more than 70% of the vineyard were ungrafted vines. I couldn't get my head around it... Α few hours later I made the same question to Evriviades Sclavos who was a bit more optimistic. "We do everything we can, we take care of our vines and we do believe that with the proper cultivation practices that we use ( Sclavos is one of the pioneers of biodynamic cultivation in Greece) we could be able to save some of the few vines that are left"... "If only", was the word that came spontaneously out of my mouth for a vineyard that has been abandoned due to its difficulty…
Despite the difficulties… #2
…Robola’s value is such as few white wines of the Mediterranean vineyard and luckily the people of Cephalonia are too stubborn to give up the fight easily. By borrowing some of their stubbornness, and with a little help from Giorgos Potamianos from ”Cephalonia Outdoor Activities”, we managed to hike above the clouds, through an ancient path, reaching the peak of Ainos at 1628m. Having "sucked up" all the energy of the mountain and all the oxygen we were deprived of the previous winter we began to descend to lower altitudes.
Evriviades (Sclavos) had taken with him one of the few bottles of Lakomatia wine of 2016, a single vineyard Robola from a magical vineyard, to accompany our walk up the mountain. I don't know how often does a wine shock you, but that was such a tremendous moment for me. Few drops of rain that had begun to fall, a world-class wine in our glasses, an authentic producer confiding that he wants to believe that nature will give him the opportunity to bring such a result to our glasses again, and the incomparable beauty and energy of mountain Ainos surrounding you. My mind had stopped, maybe even my heart for a moment, and I felt that time had stopped too.
But do you wanna know the real magic? Robola did not give me only one memorable moment on this trip… I experienced the same energy and excitement in the amazing vertical tasting that Petros (Markantonatos) had in store for us with the different Robolas of the Gentilini winery. The year of 2017 was towering but this is what I believe: If all the great wines are characterized by the "signature" of the terroir, the character of the year and the soul of the winemaker here you could notice all these elements. From the calmness, harmony, depth and completion of the Sclavos’ Lakomatia, to the super energetic with smoky minerality and awesome intensity Gentilini's Robola.
At some point, I was listening to Costas Bazigos, the manager of the Association of the Winemakers of Cephalonia talking about the etymology of the new name of the Association, which changed to Ορεάλιος Γη (Orealios Land), from the combination of the words “Όρος” (mountain) and “Άλς” (sea). At the same time I was trying the organic Robola “Truth” and “San Gerasimo”, wines from different years, and I was lost in my thoughts as usual..
I haven’t taste such a good wine for so long. Balanced and multi-complex, a proof of the great value of the Association for the island and the prominence of Robola variety. The Association manages 80% of the area's vineyards, 90% of the wines come from this particular variety, 10% of its producers practice organic farming and since 2010 has implemented a system of prioritizing the quality of the grapes that come to the winery. 700 different vineyards available and a small wine producer philosophy…
Talking about small wine producers, I had heard a lot about Sarris' vineyards in Epanohori and Fagia. Just looking at them made me dizzy. Some very old uncrafted vines were planted on a 70% slope. By using natural vinification Panos Sarris produces a masterful Robola (the one with the black label) with amazing complexity, structure and incredibly ripe acidity in the mouth.
As for Petrakopoulos’ wines, I will discuss it further in the second part that will follow. And yet for his Robola I traveled from the firm character of “Thyme Petras”, to the alcoholic and wonderfully ripe character from the “Old Armakia”, to almost "jump" to the expressiveness, to the honey, the honeycomb, the mineral expression of the petrol and the phenolic bite of a 2016 Robola Natural Melissinos (the winery's previous name), with low sulphides.
In conclusion… #3
The road to the Robola zone is uphill and the few producers of the area have to fight with way more difficulties than the ones I mentioned above. And yet the wines I tasted managed to give me the exact same feeling that I experienced when I reached the top of mountain Ainos. That they can travel everyone and the Greek wine in general above the clouds.
After witnessing the dedication of the producers, their passion to overcome difficulties and their effort to fight all together, I can only express my absolute admiration for this particular terroir and its people.
Grigoris Michailos Dip WSET
I would like to thank all the wine producers as well as Anthia Kotsi for the great organizing of our visit.