Acclaimed wine writer Nico Manessis, author of The Greek Wine Guides, has travelled nationwide for decades discovering grape varieties. Here he shares the grape moments that shaped his life.
By Nico Manessis
My first memory of grapes is of one particular summer holiday. It was not in a bucolic setting, just a few rows of vines by a fishing village. Two hands: one holding a ferendini, the hook-shaped cutter used to harvest grapes, and in the other a cluster of Vertzami grapes. This Ionian island specialty is known for its – rare for a red grape – high-acidity and dark purple-blue hue.
Drama unfolded as the hand slowly squeezed the bunch tightly, with juice dripping through the fist. I had never before experienced a blood-of-earth scene and it is still with me.
The next grape is deeply etched in my mind and more existential for a number of lovely reasons. Picture the then-empty sandy beach of Agios Gordis on the western shoreline of Corfu. As a carefree teenager, the agenda of the day was to spend as many hours as we could submerged in the sea. Usually, in the afternoon, the swollen waves added another joy as we attempted body surfing, which at the time was a step of growing up. Salt and sand encrusted on our bodies was the closest to embodying a peeling reptile existence.
Siesta was unheard of; we slept early and rose at sunrise. Our rooms were behind a beach taverna surrounded by Moshatela grapes – one of the many Muscats. A village woman with a colourful headscarf handed me a cluster of golden grapes and suggested in her singing accent that I go and wash it in the sea before eating it. En route, the burning sand made my bare feet pick up pace as I rushed into the cool, foaming waves. As I pulled the grapes from the seawater, I tasted their sweetness, immediately followed by salt, which added a sensory twist to the whole experience. How can I forget a tasting profile as diverse as a fruit salad with the added bonus of juices running down the sides of the mouth? It was bliss.
There is another subplot to this Moshatela. As the sun was setting on the green doors and ochra-whitewashed rooms, I was approached by a girl who was holidaying there too. Amongst the flickering dusk rays, her lovely smile gave me my first kiss. Truth be told, I remained speechless for most of that evening as I gazed at the stars above. Now, when I drink dry Muscats, a smile spreads over my face.
The Mediterranean scenery was removed when I moved to London for my studies. Human adaptability is a marvel. The weather did not affect me; I loved the rain and grey skies. People were more reserved, and I learned to exist in a new environment.
It was on a weekend’s invitation to a distant relatives’ cottage that looked straight out of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series when the third experience came when my host, who was in her 70’s, offered me a glass of Madeira. There was a choice of Sercial or sweeter Bual. The bone-dry Sercial instantly struck a chord: burnt sugars with searing acidity. Not yet able to articulate much in that direction I mumbled “now this is wine!” or something to that effect.
I still had no real interest in wine until I visited a friend in northern Italy. While walking in thick fog by the river Arno in Pavia, I spotted a dimly lit wine shop. We entered and in my best Corfu-Italian voice I asked them for a really good bottle of red wine.
The shop was owned by two brothers. One of them asked me, “why”? I told them that I was 23 and looking for a starter experience of “a really fine wine.” They turned away and spoke in hushed tones. One of them asked me to go down to the cellar with him. He handed me a bottle of Barolo Maurizio Fracassi 1967. He informed that it was ” a miracle vintage”, as the weather only picked up in late summer, yields were tiny, so it managed to properly ripen.
The wine was exactly what I had wished for. Its tannic structure, high acidity, and staying power left me in complete awe. It was my Road to Damascus moment.
I will be forever grateful for their brilliant recommendation, that put me on the always thrilling, lifelong wine road.
You can find more of Nico’s grape adventures at greekwineworld