“The silence will hurt your ears,” master distiller Anestis Babatzimopoulos warns me from the driver’s seat as we head from the plains of Langada up the winding roads of Mount Vertsikos in Central Macedonia, northern Greece. As soon as I step out of the car when we reach our destination, I get what he was talking about. I look out at well-tended vineyards, while behind me is woodland with stately oak, beech and chestnut trees. Only the fluttering of a bird or the passage of some small animal through the leaves upsets the absolute silence in this 55-hectare paradise.
“I have plenty of friends here: geese, wood pigeons, hares, storks, herons, deer and foxes,” my host says, laughing. “And above all, I have my vines. Look at them! Isn’t it wonderful how this plant has the power to grow more beautiful by the day? I see this and it gives me so much vigor. I know nothing of weariness and age, even though I’m 74.”
It is a delight to listen to Babatzimopoulos tell his stories, be they of his family – which hailed from Constantinople and created a famous brand of raki – or of his own personal journey.
“A few days ago a group of elementary school children had come for a visit. We have a lot of school visits all year round,” he tells me. “I gave the children a bit of grape must to try in a plastic cup. Then we climbed up the hill and they filled their cups with dirt – after writing their names on them – and planted an acorn in them. When they come back in the spring, we will take the shoots and plant them in the woods. That’s the only way they will understand the cycle of nature, and of life.”
Babatzimopoulos came across the location of his future estate while working as a delivery man for a family-owned distillery that made ouzo and tsipouro.
“Most of the fields were abandoned because many of the area’s young people had emigrated to Germany. It broke my heart,” he says. He bought his first parcels of land in 1970 and started planting his vines in 1974.
“From an easygoing life in Thessaloniki, dancing and hanging out with my friends, I found myself digging holes on Mount Vertsikos.”
Babatzimopoulos was fortunate to draw the attention of Stavroula Kourakou, a great lady of Greek wine.
“Her advice was invaluable,” he says. “With time I learned to respect the vines. I did a lot of reading and started discovering the wealth of foreign varieties. I began planting Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.”
Today, beside these international varieties, he also grows lesser-known grapes such as Ugni Blanc and Greco di Tufo, as well as Greek staples like Xinomavro, Roditis, Malagouzia, Moschofilero and Malvasia.
The vineyard is at an altitude of 620 meters and enjoys an ideal climate: cold winters, fresh springs and moderate summers. The grapes are grown organically and yield around 150,000 bottles a year. The on-site oenologists are Christos Vavatsis (Babatzimopoulos’s nephew) and Malama Giatreli, both well-educated young scientists who love their work and the estate in particular.
Babatzimopoulos finished building his winery in 2000 and then embarked on the business of wine tourism, adding a restaurant-cafe to the premises. The two buildings are made of local stone sourced from the property itself. “It gave the vines some air and I didn’t have to pay anything,” says the entrepreneur.
The next leg of our tour takes us to the cellar. The armchairs and brazier come from the office of Babatzimopoulos’s grandfather in Constantinople, and a 260-year-old still is displayed in all its glory. He tells more stories: about his collaboration with the Pierre Cardin house for a spirit, his long-distance relationship with Seguin Moreau, the owner of the emblematic cooperage, who advised him on wine aging, and, of course, about Stelios Disilis, his mentor.
“He taught me two of the most important things I know: how to taste wine and how to give my best to those around me, starting with a smile and a ‘good morning,’” says Babatzimopoulos.
Later, at the restaurant, we see the other side of Babatzimopoulos, who other than winemaker is also something of a chef. He enjoys cooking and puts his natural panache into it.
“My two favorite dishes are pork with leeks in a white egg sauce and coq au vin – and they say I do them well,” he comments. What does he serve them with? “Barrel-aged Chardonnay for the pork and Xinomavro with the fowl. What else?”
We enjoy a snack he has prepared and try the white Kioski, a blend of four varieties dominated by the wonderful bouquet of the Muscat. Our conversation turns to the next generation and his son Christos, who has studied in Germany.
“We are so different,” says Babatzimopoulos. “He is clever and does a good job at anything he turns his hand to. I just hope he gives me a grandchild or two, so I can enjoy it before I get too old.”
* This article first appeared in the December 2014 issue of Kathimerini’s Oinochoos wine supplement.