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Vice President Athenee Importers

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gentilini wines flying under the radar - part 2

When we talk about Mavrodaphne, we automatically think of the sweet, often poorly produced Mavrodaphne of Patras.  Very few know that there are certain parts of Greece that produce dry wines from this grape variety.  Cephalonia's red wine appellation is called Mavrodaphne of Cephalonia and requires the grapes to be grown in specific zones on the island.  Dry styles of wine made from this grape are made in small quantities and the majority of the wines are produced in the Western part of the country.

In 2002 when Marianna & Petros took over control of the winery from Marianna's father, the estate was planted with 3 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay.  In 2006 the couple decided to remove these vines and replant them with Mavrodaphne of Cephalonia.  This was done primarily to keep with their vision of promoting local varieties while highlighting their potential.

For a small winery, this decision was a risky ones since the vineyards had to sit inactive for 2 years until they were able to replant in 2008.  After the vineyards were replanted they had to wait an additional 3 years for the new vines to crop, vinify, mature, etc.... In all the lead time until the first vintage was released was 7 years!!

In order to begin production, Marianna & Petros decided to buy top quality grapes from a specific producer within the appellation zone.  In 2008 just a few days after a lunar eclipse, the first grapes were picked, thus giving birth to the name.  The wine was tasted by professionals from around the world and all were enthusiastic about its potential.  The 08 production was sold out within 3 months of its release.

According to Marianna, "The 2009 is looking superb. It was bottled a few days aging and will be released towards the end of 2011".

Gentilini Eclipse 2008
For the inaugural vintage, the winery bought the Mavrodaphne grapes from a single vineyard site within the appellation zone near the village of Lixouri.  The Mavrodaphne grape is grown on clay soils with no irrigation.  Yields are extremely low - 3 tons per hectare.  The winter on the island was quite rainy then followed by a hot & dry spring & summer.

Vinification: After harvest, all grapes are brought to the winery for vinification and bottling.  The bunches are de-stemmed and crushed.  Both fermentation & extraction takes place in open stainless steel vats.  Every 6 hours the wine is pumped over and punched down in order to extract the desired color and flavor from the skins and to develop complexity.  Additionally, the fermenting skins are pressed and the juice is added to the fermenting vat where it completes fermentation.
Malolactic fermentation is then induced and the wine is transferred to French barriques and let to mature for 12 months.  Once cask maturation is complete the wine is transferred to bottle and is left to age another 23 months before release.

In 2008, only 1700 bottles were produced.

Tasting notes: I was able to taste this wine as a barrel sample earlier this year but it was still too young to form any lasting opinions on it.  Its potential is definitely there and since I do not have too much experience or exposure to 100% dry Mavrodaphne, I will revisit the samples I have in my cellar over time to see how they progress.  I do hope to get my hands on some 2008 to try in the near future....

According to the winery, this wine is inky black in color with complex, intense aromas of red fruit and notes of licorice and wild mint.  In the mouth it is rich & complex with soft, round tannins and a persistently long finish.  It is recommended to pair with rich meat dishes and aged cheeses.

Since 2008 was the first bottling & release, its aging potential isn't known yet.  All we can do is wait and see how it develops over time.  In early 2011 a small quantity will be sold through New York's Molyvos Restaurant. Hopefully Petros will have some sampels for us during the 2011 Road Show.....

Gentilini wines flying under the radar - part 1

In the Ionian Sea lies Cephalonia.  It's an mountainous island with many vineyard areas still unaffected by phylloxera.  The island's most important grape variety to date is Robola, which is not to be confused with Italy's Ribolla Gialla - they are not the same grape.  Since the early 2000's we have been working with the Gentilini Winery importing their Robola and more recently their Aspro, Syrah and Red.

Over the past few years on our trips to Greece, Marianna & Petros have been showing us new/experimental wines for our feedback.  Two of the most recent releases are the Robola Cellar Selection & Eclipse.

According to Marianna (winery owner), the main philosophy behind the decision to produce these two wines was to take the island's most important varieties - Robola & Marvrodaphne - and vinify them in a way to show their maximum potential.  After lengthy experiments with different yeasts, vinification techniques, barrel types and months of aging, they were satisfied with the results and decided to release them.

Gentilini Robola Cellar Selection 2009
Robola is a rare, ungrafted low-yielding variety that thrives on the poor limestone and gravelly soils of the island's mountainsides.  Robola is considered one of Greece's finest white varieties.  It is known for its weight and for its distinct aromas of stone fruit and citrus.

Grape Origin: Robola for the Cellar Selection come from a specific vineyard that is located 800 meters above sea level in the area of Fagia.  the vines were planted back in 1956 and are ungrafted.  The vineyard faces due south and is extremely steep.  The extended ours of sunlight, limestone (rocky) soil and low yields (2.5 tons per hectare in 2009) contribute to the intense flavors and aromas present in this wine.

Vinification: All aspects of vinificaiton are performed at the winery.  After harvest the grapes are chilled overnight to 7C and is then the whole bunch is pressed so that only 60% of the juice is extracted. This juice is then inoculated with a specific yeast and is then left to ferment for 6-8 weeks at 15C.  Once fermentation ends the wine undergoes battonage (lees stirring) for two weeks to promote the development of the wine's body and aromas.

20% of the must is fermented in French oak barrels which adds to the complexity of the wine without making it "oaky".  Once all fermentation is complete the wine is blended, stabilized and filtered before bottling.

In 2009, only 1400 bottles were produced.

Tasting notes: I originally tasted the 2008 and really liked it.  While I'm personally not a fan of oak at all in my whites, it added subtle vanilla notes that complimented the weight of Robola nicely.  The 2009 has more intense minerality to it.  It is fresh, crisp and aromatic, yet not over the top.  It has aromas of vanilla (very subtle), white peach and lemon.  It's weight is medium + with balanced acidity and a long finish.  This wine reminds me in some aspects of Chablis and would be amazing with oysters, sushi and crudo plates.  While this wines is really unique, it will never become a major presence in the US market simply because so few bottles are produced annually.  At this time you can enjoy it in New York's Molyvos restaurant on 7th Avenue between 55th & 56th streets.

We hope to have the 2010 available to taste during our 2011 Road Show....we'll see if it's ready!!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Who we are - a brief history

Athenee Importers was established by my parents, Tony & Giota Englisis back in the late 1970s/early 80s. Back then wines out of Greece we mainly bulk wines with a pretty low quality threshold.  They decided to part ways with their business partner (who wanted to focus on French wines) and focus on Greece's emerging wineries.  With this thought in mind, they began working with Boutari.  Back then you really only had a few big players in the market and everyone else sold their juice to them.

After about a decade of working together, Bourtari & Athenee parted ways.  Afterwards, my parents decided to turn their backs on the big boys of the Greek wine industry and focus their time & efforts on the smaller, boutique producers that were starting to make a name for themselves.  Their first major winery that they worked with was the Hatzimichalis Estate.  The estate is located about an hour and a half north of Athens and is situated between the Bay of Evvia and Mt. Parnasos.  Here is a link to the winery's website: http://www.hatzimichalis.gr/en/our-philosophy.

While many like to turn their cheek to the winery and criticize it for it's emphasis on International grapes, if you think back to the wine drinking population in the 1980s, anytime they thought about Greek wine (or much of anything else for that matter) retsina would immediately come to mind.  For a winery to be producing international varietal wines that were good said allot. All of their efforts back then helped make the road easier for those who came after them.  As a result, the name Hatzimichalis holds a place of respect in many people's minds for what the winery helped establish.

As the market began to realize that there were better quality wines beginning to come out of Greece, demand grew and the company's portfolio began to grow and the market started to change.

Even though I was always exposed to the business, I didn't get involved full time until I graduated college.  The first few years were a HUGE learning curve.  Trying to get a grip on the laws of the industry, the way things were done, and learn about wines was pretty intense.  After a few sales calls on wine people, I quickly realized that I needed to get some formal wine education under my belt so I could be taken seriously.  As a result I decided to take classes through the New York chapter of the WSET.  All of the education culminated in my receiving the Diploma in Wine & Spirits in 2005.  The Diploma is a great foundation but you always need to keep on tasting to keep your mind & palate sharp.

The late 1990s through the early 2000s were a period of intense change.  Many of today's top wineries came into fruition then and our portfolio kept growing.  A perfect example is GAI'A.  I remember meeting Yiannis P at a wine tasting at Milos in 1996-97 when they had just released their first vintage of Thalassitis.  A wine of that caliber had never been seen before and there was a great buzz behind it.  We have been fortunate to work together for so many years and make a joint name for ourselves in the market. You can read more about them at: www.gaia-wines.gr

The 1997 vintage was an excellent one in Greece.  Once the wines were being released into the market, people began to pay attention to us and the wines.  Where we could only sell Greek wines to the ethnic establishments, some of the more adventurous sommeliers started seeking us to taste and work with the wines.  It was an uphill battle however to get more mainstream people to taste the wines.  Many a door was shut in our face when we walked in.  However, for every 10 rejections, there has always been someone interested, positive and willing to learn.  Those are the people that "get it" and have helped us get to where we are today.

The 21st century has seen immense change for our company.  In 1997, Anthony Englisis, my father, passed away while on vacation.  While it came as a great shock, we kept on moving forward.  I am proud to say that Athenee Importers is owned and operated by my mother and I.  In addition to running the day to day operations, we are always looking out for new and exciting wines and wineries to add to our portfolio.  The internet has also been a great tool to keep those interested in our products updated on our events and happenings.  Our website is quite comprehensive and has info relevant for both the consumer and professional alike.  Twitter & blogging are now the next layer of getting the message out there.

On the distribution side, we have been fortunate to establish partnerships with some of the leading distribution houses across the United States.  This had given credibility to our cause and has helped to establish Athenee Importers as the leading importer of quality products from Greece.  Our focus is on educating the public while consistently expanding our distribution network so we can get more of our products into the hands of more consumers.  We expand into a new market when we feel we've found the right partner.  We prefer to be out of a market for the right reasons than be there for the wrong ones - those decisions only end up as a headache.

2009-2010 has been interesting to say the least.  It's amazing to have demand for products in the middle of a financial crisis and not being able to fill the orders.  The strikes in Greece really did a number on our ability to increase sales simply because we could not get product here.  On many occasions people ask me what is the most difficult part of what I do and one of the top 10 responses is getting product to the US.  Another difficulty that all importers face is product compliance.  Since our laws in the US are so different than the rest of the world, many find it hard to believe that they need to have separate labels for the US with all of our required info on them.  With the internet it makes life easier to get labels approved and keep on top of it.  However, there are still times when I get the random e-mail asking whether or not we need an approval for a major change.....

With 2010 pretty much wrapped up we start to plan for 2011.  We are currently planning our 2nd annual 3 city Road Show.  We will be in Boston, NYC and Chicago in March.  While there have been other tastings organized in the past, the largest criticism on them is that while there are many wineries present, the quality of the wines were all over the board.  I like to think that our producers represent some of the best that Greece has to offer and that when an attendee stops at each table they will find at least 1 wine that they like and can relate to.

We also will be working on expanding our distribution network.  Just last month we entered the Illinois market with Winebow of Illinois.  We work with them in their other markets and we feel confident that this relationship will be a good one for us.  There is also allot of opportunity to expand our presence within our distributors portfolios as well.  Overall it will be a busy 2011 for us.

Stay tuned!!!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Inaugural Blog Post

While I consider myself technologically savvy, in the past year I started Tweeting & now I think it's time to put some of my thoughts, tasting notes and tidbits of info passed along to me by the wineries out there for all of you to read.

This blog will be a place where I will post my thougts on new vintages, wines and stories behind the wineries we represent.  I hope that it will be informative and give you a better understanding about Athenee Importers and our goal of educating the public about great Greek wines that are avaialble in the US.

Stay tuned and as I get more used to this blogging thing, I will begin posting to the site.

Here's to a leap forward into another form of social media!!