The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
To the average Canadian wine consumer, the name xinomavro presents an intimidating prospect on two fronts. First comes the pronunciation. It's ksee-NOH-mah-vroh, with a hard "k" to start and an accent on the second vowel. Not always an easy go for English speakers, but well worth the effort for those wanting to experience a grape at the forefront of Greece's fast-evolving wine industry.
For the record, here's an amusing short video clip of Greek wine producer Constantine Boutari stressing the phonetics four times, Henry Higgins-style, to ensure that we're all prepared to embrace ksee-NOH-mah-vroh as "probably the best red variety in Europe in the years to come."
Then there's the translation. In Greek it means "acid black." The descriptor – apt, to be sure – might cause fans of smooth, rounded reds to recoil. Which, fortunately, will help ensure there will be plenty of intriguing xinomavro around for the rest of us.
A dominant red grape of northern Greece, specifically Macedonia, xinomavro is usually pale in colour, with a brick-like hue that stands in contrast to its bold and complex flavour. High in acidity, yes, it also sports formidable, angular tannins, which give it astringent backbone and the stamina to age gracefully years. Fans of Piedmontese reds from Italy might be inclined to draw comparisons with nebbiolo, the high-acid, high-tannin variety responsible for the glorious wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. Others liken it to delicate yet complex pinot noir from Burgundy.
Often redolent of plum, dried cherry and strawberry, xinomavro can carry overtones of black olive, sun-dried tomato, tar and earthy mushroom or leafy underbrush. Like Barolo and Barbaresco, it makes a sturdy and handsome match for braised red-meat preparations, such as lamb shank and osso buco, as well as hearty dishes featuring tomato sauce.
Producers have been learning to tinker carefully with this finicky grape, sometimes permitting the berries to "cold soak," or sit in a tank, prior to fermentation to extract more skin colour without drawing too much contribution from those astringent tannins. For a Barolo lover on a budget, xinomavro can be as welcome as a Greek holiday. Good examples can be snapped up for $13 to $25, one-half to one-third the price of a decent Barolo. Note: Often the producer will simply list the appellation on the front label, such as Naoussa or Amyndeon. Good brands include Boutari, Kir-Yianni and Tsantali. Just don't ask me to help with the pronunciation of those last two. It's all Greek to me.
The Flavour Principle by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol recently took home top prize for best general English cookbook at the Taste Canada Food Writing Awards. Published by HarperCollins.