Grape harvesting in September is one of the oldest and most beloved traditions in the Greek countryside. Family, neighbors and friends all get together to harvest the precious bunches of green and purple pearls which will be pressed to make wine.It is a ritual that has been repeated since time immemorial in Greece.Like every ritual which has survived for so long, grape harvesting for winemaking has customs accompanying it which have been passed from one generation to the next. In the past, grape harvesting was seen as an important annual celebration, even taking on religious tones. It was by no means just another agricultural task.
Since the weather is unpredictable in autumn and all the chores in the vineyards must be completed fairly quickly before September’s sudden rainstorms — which could ruin that year’s grapes — Greeks have grown accustomed to helping one another during the harvest.Friends, neighbors and family gather together and begin working in the vineyards from early in the morning throughout the day, while they sing popular songs or playfully tease one another.All the participants are appointed to a specific task: youngsters and women usually are in charge of harvesting the grapes and placing them with care into the large baskets, while the strongest men carry and stack the loaded baskets on the trucks.The grapes are then transported to another, central area, where they are put through another important stage in the winemaking process, the pressing, where another group of people labor together to help make the finished product.In the past, the traditional pressing was accomplished by the stamping of feet, after which the wine was then fermented in wooden barrels for a period of three months. Today, in modern facilities, the traditional foot-stomping process has been replaced by more cost-effective (but surely less enjoyable) methods.
Age old rituals and customs
Since the times of ancient Greece, the annual grape harvest was considered sacred, making harvesting time one of the most joyful and meaningful of all annual celebrations. In those days, young men dressed as women, and holding bunches of grapes, would race from the temple of Dionysus in Athens to the temple of Athena in Faliro.Many individual grape harvesting customs are particular to each region of Greece which has vineyards. The most common one is the communal stomping of the grapes inside the presses by the owners of the vines, including neighbors, relatives and friends, a process called “patitiri.”In Lefkada, the wives of the vineyard owners would first fill baskets with selected grapes, covering them with leaves. Then they would lick a stone, and then hide it in the baskets. The grapes would then remain there until winter, in a place that only they knew, kept in nature’s natural refrigerator.In Macedonia, it is a tradition at the beginning of the grape harvest that the vineyard owner’s wife gives a wool apron to the women who will work in the annual harvest.
In other parts of Greece, winemakers traditionally leave a small area of the grapevines undisturbed, as an offering and thanks to God.In the old days on the island of Ikaria, on July 20, the feast day of the Prophet Elias, winemakers took bunches of grapes from the first crop to the church of the Prophet Elias to be blessed by the priest so that the rest of the year’s crop would be good.On Santorini — home of the oldest known vineyards in the entire world, which date back 3,500 years — the annual grape harvest is called “Vendema.” Preparations for the great annual event begin back in the first days of August.The grapes are transported to the winery in Kanava, and depending on their color, white or purple, they are thrown into separate presses.Anyone who entered the winepress had to withstand the fumes of the must, which are extraordinarily unpleasant. The pressing started at night; those who stomped the grapes had to wash their feet well and be dressed lightly, and they also had to wear scarves on their heads, for cleanliness.The stompers were also known to have tucked basil leaves in back of their ears so that they could smell them during the stomping and block out the unpleasant odor of the must. The wine would then be stored for aging in wooden barrels.On the day that all the foot-stomping ended there was a great celebration, to thank God for the bountiful harvest that year.Every September, despite the march of time and the many ways in which harvesting has been modernized, it is a good time to appreciate the age-old importance of the grape harvest in Greece and to ensure that the ancient ways will never be forgotten.
Most famous products
Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world and among the first wine-producing territories in Europe. The earliest evidence of Greek wine has been dated to 6,500 years ago where wine was produced on a household or communal basis. In ancient times, as trade in wine became extensive, it was transported from end to end of the Mediterranean; Greek wine had especially high prestige in Italy under the Roman Empire. In the medieval period, wines exported from Crete, Monemvasia and other Greek ports fetched high prices in northern Europe.
The origins of wine-making in Greece go back 6,500 years and evidence suggesting wine production confirm that Greece is home to the second oldest known grape wine remnants discovered in the world and the world’s earliest evidence of crushed grapes. The spread of Greek civilization and their worship of Dionysus, the god of wine, spread Dionysian cults throughout the Mediterranean areas during the period of 1600 BC to the year 1. Hippocrates used wine for medicinal purposes and readily prescribed it. Greek wines and their varieties were well known and traded throughout the Mediterranean. The Ancient Greeks introduced vines such as Vitis vinifera and made wine in their numerous colonies in Italy, Sicily, southern France, and Spain. The Vitis vinifera grape which thrives in temperate climates near coastal areas with mild winters and dry summers adapted well and flourished in the Northern Mediterranean areas. The most reputable wines of ancient Greece were Chian, Coan, Corcyraean, Cretan, Euboean, Lesbian, Leucadian, Mendaean, Peparethan wine, Rhodian and Thasian. Wine was also important for ancient Macedonia. Two other names may or may not be regional: Bibline wine and Pramnian wine are named in the earliest Greek poetry, but without any reliable geographical details.
In 1937, a Wine Institute was established by the Ministry of Agriculture. During the 1960s, retsina suddenly became the national beverage. With rapidly growing tourism, retsina became associated worldwide with Greece and Greek wine. Greece’s first Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard was planted in 1963. In 1971 and 1972, legislation established appellation laws.
- Agiorgitiko (“St. George’s [grape]”) is a variety native to Nemea that grows mainly in the Peloponnese area, producing a soft, fruity red in many styles. Its sensory attributes are similar to Beaujolais Nouveau but, unlike its French counterpart, the St. George ages well for about 5 years.
- Kotsifali is a variety mainly grown on Crete. It is blended with Mandilaria or Syrah to enhance its color.
- Limnio, or Kalambaki is an important red grape variety that is indigenous to the Aegean island of Lemnos and has been used in red wine production for more than 2000 years. As a varietal wine Limnio is full-bodied, high in alcohol and very herbaceous, with a distinctive taste of bay leaves.
- Mandilaria, also known as amorgiano, is mainly cultivated on the islands of Rhodes and Crete. Wine from this grape is often very tannic and frequently blended with other grapes to soften the mouthfeel.
- Mavrodaphne, or “black laurel”, is a variety that grows in the Peloponnese and the Ionian Islands. It is blended with the Black Corinth currant grape to produce a prized fortified dessert wine made in the Solera style.
- Mavroudi is one of the oldest Greek grape varieties and supposedly the one on which Odysseus got Polyphemus drunk. It is found in Thrace but also in central Greece and the Peloponnese
- Negoska is found in Northern Greece and also produces rose and red wines of carbonic maceration worth mentioning, with the expected aromas. blended into the PDO Goumenissa wine.
- Romeiko is a red grape generally found on Crete, most prominently in the region of Chania.
- Vertzami is a thick, dark-skinned grape variety, best known for single-varietal wines produced on the Ionian island of Lefkada. It is also grown in central Greece and Peloponnese, where it is often blended with other Greek wines, and Cyprus, where it is known as “Lefkas”.
- Xinomavro (“sour black”) is the predominant grape variety in Macedonia, centered on the town of Naousa. This variety has great aging potential with a palate reminiscent of tomatoes and olives, and a rich tannic character. It is often compared to Nebbiolo.
- Assyrtiko is a multi-purpose variety which maintains its acidity as it ripens. It is similar in character to Riesling, and is mostly island-based, being a native variety of the island of Santorini, whose old vines have been resistant to Phylloxera.
- Athiri is a lower acid variety and one of the most ancient. Originally from Santorini, it is now planted in Macedonia, Attica, and Rhodes.
- Debina is a white Greek wine grape primarily in the Zitsa region of Epirus. The grape’s high acidity lends itself to sparkling wine production.
- Lagorthi is a variety mainly cultivated on high slopes (850 meters) in the Peloponnese. The grape produces a very malic and fruity wine.
- Malagousia is a grape growing mainly in Macedonia, with a special aroma leading to elegant full bodied wines, with medium-plus acidity and exciting perfumed aromas.
- Moschofilero is a Blanc de gris variety from the AOC region of Mantineia, in Arcadia in the Peloponnese. Its wines offer a crisp and floral character in both still and sparkling styles.
- Robola is most grown in the mountainous vineyards of the Ionian Island of Cephalonia. It has a smokey mineral and lemony character, excellently complementing seafood.
- Roditis (the “pink” or “rose” grape) is a grape that is very popular in Attica, Macedonia, Thessaly, and the Peloponnese. This variety produces elegant, light white wines with citrus flavors.
- Savatiano (the “Saturday” grape) is the predominant white grape in the region of Attica, where it displays excellent heat resistance and shows a distinct floral and fruity aroma when cold fermentation is practised. When fermented without cooling, it makes retsina or rustic unresinated wines that complement Mediterranean dishes well.\
Tsipouro (Greek: τσίπουρο, romanized: tsípouro) is a un-aged brandy from Greece and in particular Thessaly, Epirus, Macedonia, and the island of Crete (where Cretans call it tsikoudia). Tsipouro is a strong distilled spirit containing 40–45% alcohol by volume and is produced from either the pomace (the residue of the wine press) or from the wine after the grapes and juice have been separated. It comes in two types: pure and anise-flavoured and its usually not aged in barrels, although barrel aged versions do exist.According to tradition, the first production of tsipouro was the work of Greek Orthodox monks in the 14th century on Mount Athos in Macedonia, Greece.
Method of production
Ripe dark grapes are passed through crusher/destemmers. The mass is left to settle for a few days, just enough to get fermentation started. Formerly, wine would be collected and only the solid residue would be used for tsipouro in an attempt to get the most out of the plant. Today some producers use the whole of the pulp, without taking out the must for wine production. This results to a superior product, called “apostagma”, sold at approximately twice the price of tsipouro.In the next stage, the mass is fed into distillation units, where temperature and pressure are closely monitored. The first and last distinct batches (the ‘head’ and the ‘tail’) are discarded. Only the intermediate batch (known as the ‘heart’) is kept to make tsipouro. This process is repeated to obtain doubly distilled tsipouro, which might be superior.Finally, the distillate is left to settle and mature in stainless steel tanks. It can also be aged in wooden barrels to give ‘aged tsipouro’, a relatively new beverage that can be compared to whiskey.