Investing in the future of Greek grape varieties

As we drove along the winding road through olive groves, a small touring train full of foreign visitors reminded us that we were just 2 kilometers from the northwestern Peloponnesian port of Katakolo, where the cruise season had already started. Reaching the Mercouri Estate in Pyrgos, we were greeted by two Skyros ponies and Lara, a Saint Bernard looking for a belly rub. Beautiful peacocks roamed free around the estate.

“We started with one pair and now have around 40,” explained Vassilis Kanellakopoulos before going on to tell us about the history of the Mercouri Estate, possibly Greece’s first chateau, with a warning that we would have to go quite far back in time to meet the revolutionary young man, Thodoris Mercouris, with whom it all started.

“He was a hot-blooded youth. He couldn’t hold his tongue and often made disparaging remarks about King Otto in public. It was not long before he had to leave the country. So, in the mid-19th century, he left Epirus, crossed to Zakynthos and decided to head for Italy,” said Kanellakopoulos.

Mercouris worked at a few vineyards and then decided to become a seaman, until his ship ran into trouble during a storm somewhere near Malta. He survived the wreck and made his way to Egypt, where he became involved in the cotton trade and started making good money.

“When King Otto left Greece, Mercouris decided it was time to come back home.”

On his travels back in Greece, he came across the area of Korakochori in Pyrgos and purchased 60 hectares of land in 1864. The area produced raisins at the time, but Mercouris decided to plant Refosco, a red grape variety from northern Italy that he had learned to cultivate while there.

“Business was going well, the wine was exported in oak barrels to Trieste and in 1880 he built an imposing mansion on the estate, styled after Tuscany’s countryside villas,” Kanellakopoulos said.

Around 1890, however, the vines became infected with downy mildew and did not yield any grapes for two years, forcing the winery to declare bankruptcy and pass into the hands of the National Bank. Mercouris later died of a stroke and his son, Leonidas, rented the estate back from the bank and began cultivating the vineyard once more to pay the estate’s debts. He later expanded the vineyard, built what was a state-of-the-art winery for the time, and planted olive trees in order not to rely on just one crop.

Leonidas was succeeded in the business by his two daughters. One of them, Maria, is Vassilis Kanellakopoulos’s mother. The two sisters managed to keep the business growing at great personal cost through turbulent times and after World War II, in the 1950s, tried to upgrade it. They failed, however, because of the economic uncertainty at the time, keeping only the vineyard going and shutting down the winery.

After nearly 20 years out of operation, the winery was restarted by Vassilis and his brother Christos, who brought it into the new century and have created a lovely estate that is open to visitors, with a vineyard that covers approximately 16 hectares. The Refosco variety is still grown there, covering about a quarter of the vineyard, alongside Avgoustiatis, Agiorgitiko, Assyrtiko, Robola, Roditis and Mavrodaphne.

“We are currently producing about 100,000 bottles a year,” said Kanellakopoulos. “We had reached a level of 140,000 but had to scale back production as demand dropped when the crisis started. We have the capability to produce as much as 200,000 bottles a year if the market conditions are right. What’s important is that exports account for 45 percent of total sales, with 55 percent going to the domestic market. We sell to several countries in Europe, but also to the United States and Canada, and even China. That is where the future lies. We have to admit that the crisis has been good in some ways: It made us more outward-looking.”

The Mercouri Estate also produces excellent olive oil, which is exported to the US, Germany and France.

Neither Vassilis Kanellakopoulos nor his brother knew much about running a business when they got started. In fact, the estate was about to be divided into smaller plots that were to be put up for sale. That was until Kanellakopoulos made a gift of a bottle of the wine his family made for its own consumption to Gerasimos Vassilopoulos, a native of the area and also one of the entrepreneurs behind the successful Alfa Vita (AB) supermarket chain, who encouraged the two brothers to give it a go on a bigger scale.

“In 1989 we bottled the 1987 harvest and produced around 1,200 bottles because we were wary of going too big at first,” Kanellakopoulos remembered. “The first market test was very successful and we sold out in a couple of months. We doubled the quantity the next year and then production got seriously under way.”

The Mercouri Estate wines continued selling solidly even up until 2009, when the crisis had already hit foreign markets and was starting to be felt in Greece. Domestic sales started dropping in 2010, sliding as much as 40 percent, until the big crunch in 2013.

“The climate is starting to change gradually. Of course, the crisis was not the only problem. It was also the fact that when I started there were just around 50 wineries in Greece and at some point later there were around 200,” said Kanellakopoulos. “A lot of people entered the market because they thought it was a good investment even though they knew nothing about it. So production swelled and Greek wine experienced a bubble. The crisis has helped rationalize prices and clear out the opportunists.”

Most of the vineyards at the vanguard of Greek wine production, such as Averoff and Carras, grew popular foreign varieties, as did the Mercouri Estate. With time, however, they all realized that the best way to sell abroad was to grow Greek varieties.

“As good as a Greek wine of a foreign variety is, it does not stand a chance against the same variety from France or Napa Valley, for example,” said Kanellakopoulos. “However, Greek varieties are unknown abroad and foreigners are interested in trying them. That is where the future of Greek wine lies.”

What do foreign buyers like about the wines?

“They are intrigued by the flavors. Then there is also the fact that it’s good value for money. At the Mercouri Estate we have never believed that our wines should be very expensive. We have always been reasonable and tried to satisfy consumers, allowing them the opportunity to have a second bottle as well if they fancy. And this has worked well for us. We have built relationships of trust both with domestic and international buyers,” said Kanellakopoulos.

“Wine starts with the land, so a winemaker must love his land,” Kanellakopoulos said, describing the attributes needed in this business. “It is also important not to see wine as an industrial product. But consistency is key. Innovation is good, it helps you be open to new things, but consistency is the real mark of a good winemaker.”

And after him and his brother, will the fifth generation take up the estate?

“They have their own ambitions. This generation is very worried about the situation in Greece right now but I am sure it will emerge stronger for it. If you’re asking whether we want to become a really big winery, the answer is no. Our main concern is to keep complete control over the quality of what we produce.”

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