Untimely rains destroy this year’s vintage in Greece’s fabled winegrowing region of Nemea

NEMEA (AP) – The blood of Hercules has run dry. Normally in the early fall, the ancient vineyards in the Nemea region of southern Greece would be preparing the year’s vintage of the deep red wine often called «Hercules’ blood.» This season, the grapes are rotting on the vine. Unusually heavy rains during the important pre-harvest period in late August have wiped out the Nemea crop. The same immense storm system ravaged central Europe and caused billions of euros worth of damage. For this small patch in Europe’s southeastern corner, the devastation was near total. There will be no 2002 vintage of Nemea red, one of the most popular wines in Greece. «It was looking like a good year, but then it rained every day and the grapes couldn’t take it,» said grower Giorgos Balafas. «I have 2 hectares (5 acres) and nothing survived… We didn’t have a chance.» The typically hot and dry August weather is needed for the Nemea grapes to properly ripen. Strong-tasting and iodine red, the wine is often referred to as «Hercules’ blood» after the mythological hero who strangled a lion in this beautiful valley at the start of the 12 labors that set him on the course toward immortality. The 2,330-year-old Temple of Zeus – the god who was Hercules’ father – stands in the middle of the fabled region’s vineyards, about 130 kilometers (90 miles) southwest of Athens. Winemaking in the area stretches back to antiquity when Nemea was one of the four hosts of the ancient athletic games: Olympia, which gave its name to the Olympics, was another. This year, grapes hang shriveled and marked by patches of mold across about 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) of vineyards. More than 95 percent of Nemea’s trademark grape «Agiorgitiko» was destroyed by the freak weather. Vintners suffered damage across Europe. In Italy, growers in several key regions predict lower yields and quality for this season’s wines. But nowhere was the damage as severe as in Nemea, where individual growers lost between 90 percent and 100 percent of their grapes. The head of Nemea’s wine cooperative, Giorgos Pigadiotis, pulled out a bunch of withered grapes and threw them on the ground. «They are so light, there’s nothing left inside them,» he said. The annual yield of Nemea grapes normally totals more than 15,000 metric tons of wine. «There won’t even be enough wine this year to fill a barrel in my cellar,» Pigadiotis said. Many Greeks favor Nemea over other domestic reds for its stability and price. A bottle of Hercules blood ranges from about 4-8 euros ($3.90 to $7.85) at shops, and costs about 2 euros ($1.95) a bottle if bought straight from the barrel. Consumers in the main export markets – Germany, the Netherlands, France and Belgium – also will be affected, although sales there will be cushioned somewhat because Nemea had a bumper harvest last year. The rain has left Nemea farmers campaigning to get financial assistance from the government, as promised by Agriculture Minister Giorgos Drys, who toured the region in late September. «This would have been a great year… but, unfortunately, the rains and the dampness came before the harvest,» said wine chemist Christos Peppas, who works at the cooperative. «The Agiorgitiko is a very sensitive variety. It’s a big grape and it rots easily.» Next year? «If it rains that often and that hard, there’s nothing farmers can do,» he said. «It depends on the sky.»