In the early 1900s, my grandfather, Vassilis Papayannakos, went to America, lived in Chicago for 10 years, worked, collected money and when he returned home, he invested it in vineyards, married my grandmother Marika, who also owned many vineyards, and began to expand professionally. My father succeeded him, but he decided to become more involved in the business by making wine from the vines of his uncles as well.
He has developed sales and he is the one who basically transformed the family winery into a business. At that time, Markopoulo was the main supplier of Athenian wine consumption due to proximity. My father, Yannis Papayannakos, got the first French presses in the early 60’s; he was one of the first to bring presses to Greece. He was a man passionate about both the vine and the winery.
So I was born in this job; I was born in the smells of “moustia” (grape must), as we say here at Markopoulo. Every September, all streets used to flood with must, and grape juice dripped from the carts. There was an intoxicating aroma all over Markopoulo.
My family home was a “closed” house, of Mesogeian-like architecture that looked like a fortress with a large door at the entrance. Next to the house there was the barn, then the winery, the cask warehouse and the chicken coop at the end. It had everything around its perimeter.
My childhood memories regarding the vine harvest are very intense. The winery’s facilities were in the backyard of the house, and the fermentation tanks were located six to seven meters from my bedroom, so I heard the ferment all night long. Smells pouring out all over the place, wines “fermenting” all night. Not to mention the scents in my house, where as small children we played in tsipoura (grape pomace) and all our children’s games had to do with wine must.
My father used to leave for the vineyard at the crack of dawn. The preparation started when the rooster crowed and lasted for about an hour, getting the horse ready to saddle up, to harness it to the cart before the workers came. I was a little kid who heard all this noise knowing Dad was getting ready for the vineyard. And for a strange reason, the rooster still reminds me of all those intense images and memories. It incarnates all the intensity of my father’s preparation to go to the vineyard.
We, residents of Markopoulo, have always been wine-growers and we remain so; to most of us it is a hobby. The impregnation of vines in our DNA is so great that a friend, who is a top engineer with work experience in NASA, has never lost a wine harvest. He comes every September and does the harvest himself, transporting the grapes the traditional way in the cups, because his father has always had an old press, like every big family that owned a lot of acres had their own wine press.
We went to the new winery in 2007. I grew up in a village, because Markopoulo was then a village, whereas today it is a city. Having experienced the urbanization of Markopoulo with the demolition of the old beautiful houses and their replacement by apartment buildings, I decided to move because I sensed the difficulty of the new inhabitants to tolerate the inconvenience that accompanied the harvest. Had I not foreseen to leave the center of Markopoulo, it is quite certain that they would have shut me down. With the locals, things were different. The days of harvest everyone was alert, doing everything possible to facilitate the wineries, and the motto of the day was: “Summer, Harvest, War”. To make you understand, around ’93, ’94, a machine had broken down and made terrible noise. A motor had broken and the noise was unbearable. We managed to repair it the next morning. A neighbour told me about the noise. When I asked him, “Why didn’t you let me know last night?” he replied, “I was ashamed, to let you know, Vasilis, so that you wouldn’t think I wanted to scold you. I did not want to wake you up, because you would be tired”. My neighbours did not sleep all night long, but they did not complain.
And in 1999 I started the new project. I got the license in 2001 and started work in 2003. An ancient well and a monastery are located opposite the winery. The monks would go to the well to get water. So they called it the “well of the monks (kalogheroi)”. In the local dialect, the well is called “poussi”. Poussi Kalogheri.
At the new site of Kalogheri, between Markopoulo and Porto-Rafti, I wanted to construct a building included in the landscape, so that it would be harmoniously embodied in the natural environment.
I had been looking for the architect to design it for three years. The team that designed and implemented it did not accept any suggestions from me. Elena Stavropoulou, the architect whom I originally addressed, had specialized in bioclimatic architecture and proposed to make it bioclimatic at an additional cost of 20-25%. The whole project was constructed from the little I had and with a tremendous over-loan, without compromising on quality materials at all. This winery is a dream and at the same time a project of a lifetime. It started as an idea in 1996, but in 1999, by resulting in this particular architect, I prepared all the documents for the commencement of the construction. It was the era when everyone gambled in the stock market and people lived in another dimension. In addition, our country undertook the organization of the 2004 Olympic Games and a frenzy of constructions began. In this climate, I was planning a new winery, which is “state of the art” today, in 2017.
Savvatiano was the only variety I had known until I became an adult. Both the locals here and my family actually thought it was the best wine in the world. As an adult with postgraduate studies in marketing, I realized it was an entirely anonymous product. That was when I told my father that the French had a designation of origin and he told me that they were saying all that because they had not tried our wine. What my father convinced me of was that our grapes were very good. Working in the natural way, without technological interventions, we had a “diamond” grape, as my father called it, a true gem. He understood that we might have not been making wine the right way, but he knew our grape was excellent. He did not try to persuade me about the wine, but convinced me of the vine. He said: “It is not possible not to have the best wine with these vines!” That was engraved in my memory and a few years later, in 1991, when I took over, I faced a challenge. Since we have such a good raw material, why not make a very good wine? So I started the first vinifications in ’94, with controlled fermentation temperature, early vintage, that is I changed the vinification factors. Until then, we did not know either what qualities the Savvatiano had, or its aromatic potential. Certainly a very good vinification had been made by Peter Kollias, chemical at MARKO co-operative. He had made a ferment of a selected Savvatiano pouring cold water into an iron tank above the well, by showering, sprinkling. An excellent wine came out in ’91-’92. He had managed to lower the temperature to 19-20 degrees and the wine was incredibly crisp, fresh and very qualitative. This gave me the impetus to make a big investment in 1992-93. I bought stainless steel tanks with a cooling mantle, a pneumatic press. The newspaper Eleftherotypia had written a tribute to me in its Info section then, titled “High-tech Wine”, because it was made with fermentation controlled by special instruments that provided refrigeration at any needed time. Since 1995, I had already begun to experiment at the vineyards “playing” with lower fermentation temperatures.
This year I have made a tank of wine in a completely natural way, sulphite-free and spontaneous fermentation. The wine has come from a must without “mud”, fermented at a low temperature.
This is not the first time I’ve done that. In 1994 I had experimentally vinified a large tank with spontaneous fermentation. The wine that had been produced then was so aromatic, that one could smell it all over the neighbourhood. Natural wines are trendy nowadays, so we can control the fermentation factors even more by cooling in smaller tanks.
Savvatiano Papayannakos is our most successful label. It is a wine with many virtues. When it’s fresh it is cool, crisp and fruity with a friendly acidity that easily accompanies Mediterranean cuisine.
In ’94 -’95 when my first label, Papayannakos Estate came out, as well as the Savvatiano Kokoraki (little rooster), other small estates started to appear in the Greek market. Having studied marketing in England and having worked with Achaia Claus, I knew the whole marketing circuit. I then met my graphic designer – and I asked her to design me a label that looked like no other. I wanted some original work because I wanted to go to the market with my own identity. One of her suggestions was the little rooster label, which I adopted immediately because of my childhood memories.
We have no indication or irrefutable testimony for the origin of the word Savvatiano, but there is evidence that it was the variety of ancient Athens, planted mainly in the area of Votanikos, where Eleonas is located. The ancient temple of the goddess Demeter was situated there and during the Christian era churches used to be built on ancient temples. Upon the temple of Demeter, they built the holy temple of Saint Savvas. The people of Mesogeia used to go and take vines from there. They would call them Savvatiano, named after Saint Savvas. I cannot accept that, because the vineyard of Mesogeia existed before that time. In fact, during Roman times, the Attic vineyard produced a Grand Cru wine, “Chryssattiko”. There is relevant bibliography on this.
I am one of the oldest winemakers who insisted on making the Savvatiano a brand name, that is to write Savvatiano with big letters on the label. Many before me had produced Savvatiano, but did not write it on the label. I insisted on writing Savvatiano on the label of a premium wine, but also at a premium price. When I did, I found myself under attack, as I was considered provocative. In 1999 I worked with the best distribution company, which in cold blood asked me to remove the word Savvatiano from the label. But I was unwavering, because I knew it would take time, but it would eventually be recognized. I argued that, “When it is established, because to me this is a historical necessity, sales will develop. My history lies here and so are my roots and this is what I want to fight for”. All these years I have been deprived of good sales and investments that would allow the winery to grow its business. Nevertheless, I had my goal. The promotion of the variety. And with that, I knew the sales would come. The winery as a building helped the whole picture as well. Because of its bioclimatic design and its particular architecture, it attracted the lights of publicity and, along with it, so did the variety. So all that came together nicely.
The great revolution had begun in ’95 and in ’98 I produced amazing wines, which appealed to the world, but one wouldn’t order a Savvatiano easily in Greece. In 2000, our Savvatiano got its first Gold Medal in the 2nd International Contest of Thessaloniki. In 2003, Savvatiano Papayannakos was among the 9 best white wines from all over the world, which were exhibited at the London Wine Fair by Decanter’s wine-journalists, who tasted the wines of the exhibition incognito.
A while ago, we received the Best of Greece award at Mundus Vini. This is not the first time Savvatiano is awarded a gold medal in an international competition but is the first to be awarded as “Best Greek White” and this gives us a particular satisfaction. Today, Savvatiano Papayannakos is on Michelin star restaurant lists, both in Greece and abroad.
Savvatiano ages wonderfully. With the passing of time, it acquires complexity, depth of fruit; its mineral properties are highlighted. Papayannakos Estate 2008, aging in the bottle, is still an amazing wine. I think we can also make fresh Savvatiano wines in a more PREMIUM category, as our “Savvatiano Single Vineyard” wine, for example. Such wine is sold abroad for 50-60 USD and there is great demand. It puts Savvatiano in another dimension.
In 2015 the WINE of ATHENS cluster was created, consisting of 5 wineries aiming at strengthening the image of the Savvatiano and the Attic Vineyard. A prerequisite for a winery to participate in the group is to produce a product from Savvatiano and to be awarded at least twice in international competitions. Through the Wines of Athens, my colleagues reinforce the Savvatiano brand name by creating a category. Our team is very strong; there is mutual respect, appreciation of efforts and recognition of the venture by the media and the world of wine. We have recently been presented in a tribute in Blue Aegean Airlines magazine. Millions have learned about the Attic vineyard and the Savvatiano. I feel it is a vindication. When you connect a vineyard with Athens, you elevate Greece in terms of culture and wine. By saying Wines of Athens you give another dimension to the Attic vineyard. You subconsciously guide the tourist back to Dionysus and this automatically gives historicity to all Greek wine. So Wines of Athens works in the direction of the triptych: Greece, Athens, Wine.
Tell us a story behind the label.
A story behind the label is the well-known little rooster we mentioned earlier, and 2007 is a milestone. It is the year when we had our first harvest at the new winery, labeled Kalogheri -Malagouzia and Cabernet Sauvignon – with the olive tree that I have in front of the building as a trademark. Malagouzia has become a sensation, because it is a wine with a standpoint and is placed within the five wines with a representation of the terroir of the area. It is the first Greek wine to win a Gold medal at the very important Sommelier Wine Awards in 2015. It is mineral, crispy, fine, delicate. I am very proud of my region; the terroir gives me such confidence, because I live within it, I experience it and I see it and I believe that in the next decade our wines will become great.
I have recently been asked about my goals and strategy.
My main objective is to maintain the level I have reached. I want my wines to be steadily on the same high level every year, and improve where necessary. The experiments continue, they do not stop. I also want to establish Savvatiano in Greece as a classic quality wine, never needing to hear the phrase “… the misunderstood Savvatiano”. Savvatiano does not need such attributes. At least not from the wine mavens.