Friday, December 22, 2017

Off The Rock: Ktima Pirgakis

Upon exiting E65 on our drive north from Kalamata to Agiorgitiko's home in the Peloponnese, the small town of Nemea—its main road like that of any sleepy village seemingly decades removed from a major metropolis—slumbered away. 

There is nothing particularly remarkable about the town that lends its name to one of Greece's major wine regions; a few wineries announced by brown signs sit along the side of the road, old men and women lounge on stoops drinking coffee, a mishmash of architectural designs rise above the sidewalks.

View of Asprokabos from Ktima Pirgakis
Once you leave Nemea, however, and trudge along narrow potholed roads to Asprokabos, an up-and-coming sub-region just south of the Corinth, that ingrained idea one has of what wine country should look like reveals itself with each turn. Grapevines—perfectly lined up in a domino rally waiting for father time to tap over—extend uninterrupted towards the sea with nary a sign of concrete to impede their march.

We arrived at Ktima Pirgakis to find Konstantinos Pirgakis, his charming wife and their two daughters waiting for us. Upon arrival we notice that the winery, which sits at 815 meters above sea level, rewards its visitors with an awe-inspiring view of the vineyard-covered hills of Asprokabos.

For those of you not in the know, Asprokabos, which stands between 650 and 850 meters above the Mediterranean, is a distinct Greek terroir equipped to make phenomenal wines. According to Yiannis Karakasis, one of two Greek Masters of Wine (MW), this specific region of Nemea "is one of the coolest mesoclimates in the country" where "there is [a] big diurnal temperature range of about 15 ºC in the winter and even 20 ºC during summertime, which is crucial for the preservation of acidity and for building tannin structure." Considering its relative coolness, says Karakasis, this remote region, which is at present inhabited by only a handful of wineries, is capable of producing "a more exotic version of Nemea, more Old World in style perhaps."

Konstantinos Pirgakis
Obviously, one of those five is Konstantinos Pirgakis' growing operation, which, at the time of our visit in July, was undergoing a significant expansion, one that should facilitate the winery's hosting of wine tourists like The Wife, Ph.D., Little Miss Despot and myself. Rooms for rent, a kitchen for culinary events, and two separate wings for red and white wines are in the works and should be completed, if my memory serves me well, by 2018. Still, among the bricks, bags of cement, naked rooms and rows of grapevines swaying at a distance, Konstantinos, in a mix of broken English and harmonious Greek, played the role of host to perfection.

Today, he told us, Ktima Pirgakis consists of twelve hectares of land. For years, Konstantinos' father owned and cultivated vineyards in his native village with some plantings now only a decade removed from being a half-century old. Upon starting the winery in 2008 and inheriting his father's vineyards, Konstantinos initially dedicated his efforts at producing and selling Agiorgitiko. He quickly realized, however, that with the market saturated by these jammy, velvety wines, it was a better bet to diversify a bit and introduce grape varieties alien to Nemea. Perfectly in line with his penchant for experimentation, Konstantinos planted the unique—by Greek standards—Tannat and Petit Verdot to grow alongside other international and local varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Malagouzia, Assytriko and the region's ubiquitous Agiorgitiko.

The Big, the Bold, the Beautiful
Konstantinos believes that ninety percent of wine quality comes from the grapes and holds Asprokambos' grape growers in high esteem. He praised the sub-region's growers for being trustworthy, organized and professional, churning out high-quality grapes on a yearly basis in a terroir that requires no irrigation. As proof, Konstantinos compared the vineyards in Asprokabos to those down in central Nemea: as evinced from our drive up the hills, the first are symmetrical and evenly laid out, while the latter take on a more haphazard and disorganized pattern. Obviously, Konstantinos recognizes that the ten percent left to the human hand remains important since a loose screw, wrong turn or weak wrist can turn perfect grapes into high-end vinegar.

In addition to the work done by the local growers and winemakers, Asprokabos' unique microclimate helps the sub-region's grapes preserve their acidity, freshness and overall structure. Thanks to its cooler temperatures, harvest happens in September, often several weeks later than what's normal for the rest of Nemea. This sub-region is so much cooler, Pirgakis mentioned, that temperatures during the winter can drop to as low as -15 ºC.

Where the Magic Happens
Konstantinos' wines are not for the faint of heart; they are big, bold and powerful yet retain plenty of sophistication. His dad thought he was crazy making such massive wines. However, Konstantinos, who's somewhat obsessed with experimentation, meaty bodies and high alcohol content, repeatedly told us he makes what he loves to drink.

Several barrel samples of his latest vintages attest to this preference. For example, his Chardonnay, which sits in barrels for two years but still showcases plenty of delicious tropical fruit, is outright opulent and unctuous, an acquired taste for those who might prefer their Chardonnays more Emily Ratajkowski/Ryan Gosling than Kim Kardashian/Gerard Butler. Likewise, the Pirgakis Petit Verdot—we sampled the 2014 and 2015—had robust tannins, were earthy and meaty, and, above all, felt like dabbing your tongue on a black pepper mound. And that's a wonderful thing for a pseudo wine blogger obsessed with hot sauce.

Here are some of the tasting's other highlights:

The 2014 815 alt. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot blend is Pirgakis' flagship wine. Konstantinos told us that this bottle, which retails at about 18 Euros, is in very high demand in places like Santorini, where restaurants sell it to clients in the know for up to 120 Euros. A pretty nose that touches on bright red fruit like raspberries and red currants, some pepper, coffee, dark chocolate and dustiness, and a nice hint of meatiness to it. It's well rounded, silky and refined with well-integrated tannins, great acidity and plenty of freshness. Started off a bit closed (and spicy) but opened up after an hour sitting in our glasses. Personally, I'd recommend decanting this big boy.

The 2016 Ktima Pirgakis Malagouzia is marked by an intense aroma of stone fruits, canned peaches and cream, Turkish delight, orange peel and lemon blossom. To the palate, it has a nice mineral backbone, a sour, almost peppery finish, some salinity, and a lovely hint of apricot and peaches that runs unencumbered through the mid-palate.

Ktima Pirgakis' Lineup
The 2016 Late Harvest Agiorgitiko is highlighted by plenty of light red fruit on the nose, some raspberries and candied strawberries, brown sugar and a lively acidity that makes it enjoyable as a simple yet somewhat enticing dessert wine. I would even dare drinking it with spicy food.

The 2014 Ktima Pirgakis Assyrtiko, which is aged sur lie, has a compelling, slightly oxidized nose marked by sweet spice, orange peel, and a pleasant nutty component. To the tongue, it has a nice breadiness combined with notes of apricots, quince, baked pears and honeysuckle. An interesting mainland Assyrtiko that might have benefited from greater acidity. Then again, maybe I'm dreaming of Santorini.

The 2014 Spilia Agiorgitiko was a revelation. I'm not a big fan of Agiorgitiko as I sometimes find wines made from this variety to be too jammy or like dipping my face in a vat full of cooked red fruit and cloves. This version, however, drank remarkably well, showing a finesse I rarely see from other Agiorgitiko wines. Dark cherries, blackberries, licorice, chocolate, smoke and plenty of meatiness dominate the nose, while the palate is marked by sour cherries, blackberries, a lovely herbal finish and great acidity that screams for this bottling to be consumed with food.

You can get in touch with Konstantinos Pirgakis via his website, Facebook (personal profile & winery page) and Instagram. His wines are usually available on The Rock at Cava Oinon Pnevmata in Nicosia.