We didn’t actually want a vineyard, but it came with the house that we bought three years ago on the
Cycladic island of Naxos. Old Yakovos, the previous owner, raised a glass of the house wine to seal the deal; “in a good year, I made 1,500 litres,” he announced proudly. I took a palate-stunning sip of his rusty-coloured brew, discretely tipped the rest into a flowerpot, and wondered how long it would take to uproot 400 vines. Three years later, most of the vines are still there, and we have developed a taste for our mid-sunset-pink rosé with its hints of earth and sea and the hearty kick of an antiseptic mouthwash. I have toiled on the land and tasted the fruits of my labour. And I have neither upset my rural neighbours nor contributed to the 16 percent decline in the little ‘backyard’ ambelia that are squeezed onto pockets and terraces of land throughout Greece.
They’ve been making wine on Naxos for at least 4,000 years: viniferous sediments in a jug found in a 3rd millennium BC graveyard bear witness to the fact. So the locals should know their grapes. Every islander who visits has a different opinion on what I should be doing in my 4 stremmata (1 acre), agreeing only on the fact that the Inglesa hasn’t got a clue. By distilling their wisdom and enlisting their help, I am slowly getting a feel for Cycladic island viticulture. I love my vineyard, and my life revolves around its seasonal needs.
January: Spring-cleaning begins in a leisurely fashion, as I make my tour of the ambeli, untidy with last year’s leftover weeds and dry, straggling tendrils. K. Andonis lets his sheep in; he doesn’t ask, it’s what happens in our little rural community; the animals nibble the dead vine leaves and fertilize the soft, sandy soil.
February: In my first year, a neighbour looked bleakly at my over-zealous, northern-European pruning and declared: “you have destroyed the vineyard.” This year, I hire Yannis, a local farmer steeped in ancestral knowledge. I watch and copy his technique, as he cuts back two or three sturdy offshoots to three or so matia, the eyes from which new shoots emerge.
March: Stark, pruned stubs of vine rise from a carpet of green with highlights of miniature orange marigolds and luminescent gold and cream chrysanthemums. Thick-stemmed mallow, chicory and thistle thrust from deep and determined root systems. The wise viticulteur ploughs before they take over, for they suck moisture and goodness from the soil and harbour vermin. My weeds are already waist-high and woody, and I must strim them to a manageable stubble with a vibrating, whining, man-sized xhortokoftiko. Ploughing is a different matter: manouvring the skaftiko between the vines requires the strength of an ox and the skill of a local. I call Yannis, who, despite his slight build and breakfast of raki and cigarettes, displays phenomenal muscle-power and stamina. The dogs are banned from the vineyard, for the fattening fists of furry buds can be knocked off with a wag of a tail.
April: Young vine leaves uncurl into translucent green palm with a hint of amber. They are delicate and damp to the touch, nearly ready to pick for dolmades. Spring is seriously springing; tendrils and suckers leap and shoot from the vines at a rate that’s almost visible to the eye. Later in the month and into May, the ongoing task of what the locals call ‘koutroulema’ begins: removing superfluous suckers kato (below the fruit-bearing stems), and snapping off spiralling tendrils at the second mati beyond the clusters of tiny spiky white flowers and teardrops of fruit. I feel like a hairdresser as I select, snap and shape each head of bushy green. Some non-fruiting stems must be thinned out to focus dynami and open up the plant, but not those that will bear fruit next year. How do I tell?
May: “Kyria , Kyria!” Yiorgos the electrican interrupts his working day to shout urgently through the window: “you must put sulphur on your vines.” Some advise that the yellow dust, a guard against powdery mildew, must be applied to leaves in the first week of May, and to the fruit only when it is the size of a fingernail in early June; a plant pathologist I met on the ferry suggested every 11 days from early May until the grapes become shiny. All agree, however, that it must be done on a windless day – a rare event on an Aegean island – and in the morning or evening, when the sun will not cause the sulphur to burn the leaves. At 5.30 one morning, when the temperature is coming up to the required 20 degrees Centigrade, I swathe myself head to foot in protective clothing, gloves, goggles and mask, and shake a metal canister with a pierced lid like a flour shaker over each vine. Within half an hour of application, the sulphur has taken effect.
June: Koutroulema continues in a casual, snap-here-and-there sort of way; the grapes are swelling; arching krevatinas and healthy bushes with pendants of Fokiano and Mandilaria, which will darken to purple-red; smoky pale-green Potamisio and Monemvasia, dusky pink Roditis. The island way is to blend well-tried varieties that thrive in the local soil and climate. There will be no rain until September at least. One evening at the end of June, I water the vines; a single soaking should be enough to sustain them through the heat of high summer.
July: In the first year, four months after my first, independent pruning, Kostas the plumber sighed in despair: “Your vines will be burnt in the August sun like English people on the Greek beaches.” A bushy leaf cover is vital to protect the fruit from becoming raisins. In some coastal areas, vines are left to trail along the ground to escape the meltemi wind, which is at its fiercest when the fruit is ripening.
August: Harvest on the low coastal plain of Naxos is early, towards the end of August, and I will be in England. I make a deal with Voula Makaris who runs the Apolavsi Taverna and her sons Irinaios, Spiros and Dimitris. In return for harvesting the grapes, making and storing the wine, and help manage the vineyard, they will have 70 percent of the yield. Year 2 after I “destroyed” the vineyard we have enough grapes to make 500 litres of wine. Irinaios is aiming to double the yield next year.
September: Vines, exhausted by the effort of production, look burned out. Irinaios sends samples to K. Tsakalides, an Athens oinologist for a quality check. The wine is free of disease, but hitting 16 percent alcohol level. Irinaios must add water, keep all equipment clean, stir the wine every couple of days until it stops fermenting (brasmos), and add salt to clear it. As K. Tsakalides says, “You have to make a balance between the local wisdom of many generations and what the scientists say. I don’t have the experience of the local conditions, but sometimes local people keep to traditional ways and don’t understand that hygiene and new techniques can make improvements.”
October: Aromas from a hundred backyard distilleries rises in the still blue of autumn. Spirto/strofilo, the leftovers from grape-crushing, well-rotted after sitting in open barrels for a week and sealed for a further month, are transferred to sacks ready to make raki. Yiayia, in working black, waddles stiffly from woodpile to stove, keeping the fire under control and passing on her experience. Her grandsons are on 24/7 duty at the tinpot stills, snatching plastic cupfuls from the continuous drip of pure spirit to test for strength. There’s a new batch of 10-12 litres of clear spirit every two hours; by evening, spirits are generally high.
November: It’s the official rainy season of the Mediterranean, and spring weeds are already casting a haze of green over the earth. I clear a circle with hand-held hoe around each of the 387 vines to discourage weeds and encourage water.
December: At last there’s a break in the demands of the vineyard… and many of the island Greeks go on holiday. And I leave for England. I don’t take any of my Naxos wine, for I know that without sunshine, a hunk of village bread and a xhoriatiki, it just won’t taste the same.