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Hard-Grown Grapes

It's September and the grape harvest is well under way. The plain of Nemea or Phliasia in the north-east Peloponnese is famous not only for the lion slain by Hercules, whose skin he wore round his shoulders for ever after, but also for its wine. Phlios was one of the handful of wines mentioned by name in antiquity and Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, drank it at his court. One particular variety of grape has become synonymous with the region and is so acclimatized to the local conditions that it is said not to grow well elsewhere. This is the Agiorgitiko or St George variety. The red skins are left in with the must for the first four days of fermentation, giving the wine a dark, rich colour and releasing tannins which are then mellowed by aging in the barrel for at least one year.

Over the past 30 years Greek wine-making in general has seen a transformation from the production of low-quality retsinas and sweet 'altar' wines to that of high-quality table wines on a par with those from any other country. In Nemea one of the local wineries which has led the way is Papaioannou, established by Thanasis Papaioannou on a 1½-acre vineyard in 1984 and now covering 600 hectares.

Talking to Mr Papaioannou, I found a grower with plenty of observations relevant to mediterranean gardeners. From the beginning he had declined to follow the growing advice of the ministry agronomists who had been trained in the practices then used in the vineyards of France. He baulked at the advice to give fertilizer, irrigation and regular sprays for mould and insect pests. He observed that the Nemea conditions — less summer rain and less fertile soil than, say, the Burgundy region of France — were indeed more compatible with growing healthy plants. This was the theme of his reflections: how to grow healthy plants producing a healthy crop which would produce a ‘healthy’ wine. And his answer was to grow the plants so that they were hardened to their situation. Without the lush growth resulting from extra fertilizer, the vines are less attractive to insects — which find the plants literally hard to eat. Where he found that the soil of a newly-bought plot was too fertile, Mr Papaioannou would actually leave the crop on the vine for a few years until the land reached the 'right', as he described it, exhausted level of fertility. Without irrigation the humid conditions loved by moulds and mildew are avoided and the plants learn to fend for themselves in the summer drought. As a result, the only spray used on the vines is the mix approved for organic growers, yet Mr Papaioannou described his whole journey of discovery without once mentioning organic cultivation. He reached his conclusions independently, with the quality of his wine as his only goal.

I came away with a renewed conviction that I had been sparing the stick and spoiling the child in my efforts to grow true Mediterranean plants in my garden. Too much compost in their planting holes and too much irrigation have weakened their natural hardiness to our conditions and laid them open to attack from pests and diseases. As I replace another crop of dead plants this September I'll remember the lesson.

Agiorgitiko, the famous, local variety of grape of the Nemea region,
being delivered to the Papaioannou winery.
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