Nick Harlaftis, the third generation owner of Chateau Harlaftis near the town of Neméa, tells a hell of a good story. As a young man, Mr. Harlaftis got his flight schooling courtesy of the USAF in Texas and returned home to become a leading pilot and eventually a top commander in the Greek Air Force. He was the first Greek pilot to break the sound barrier. Now in his seventies and sitting in the winery on his brand new shiny Lamborghini tractor, he regaled me with his exploits in the air, and more importantly, his family’s history in Neméa.
Neméa is both a town and a province situated two hours west of Athens by car in the larger wine region of the Peloponesse. The Peloponnese is separated from the Greek mainland to the north by the Gulf of Corinth. Neméa, the region, is joined by Mantinia, Argolida, Eleia, Messinia, Achaïa, Lakonia and Egio to form a landmass of 8,325 square miles. With nearly 13,000 hectares planted to vines and 20 percent of the total plantings in the country it’s big, sprawling and like most of Greece, achingly beautiful.
In an area this large and with much diversification in soils, micro-climates and elevation, many grape varieties flourish. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, viognier and even riesling perform well and provide excitement internationally. The star players, though, are the many indigenous Greek grapes that flourish in the region; agiorgitiko, moschofilero, mavrodaphne, roditis, assyrtiko, muscat, malagousia and a host of others, provide a dynamic statement for the power of native varieties coupled with regional terroir.
Though all of the regions contribute in terms of uniqueness in the wines produced, three provinces in particular are the torchbearers. Patras to the northwest produces excellent wines, but the areas around Neméa and Mantinia—the province (and town) located just south of Neméa and at slightly higher elevation—are ground zero for quality in the Peloponnese. Neméa is famous for its Agiorgitiko and Mantinia for Moschofilero.
If you walk into your neighborhood wine shop and ask for a bottle of Neméa, which I strongly suggest you do, by law it will be of 100% Agiorgitiko. Likewise, a similarly sly request for a bottle of Mantinia will result in a delicious bottle of 100% moschofilero, brimming with its wild floral notes; Patras is 100 percent Roditis and redolent of citrus. Theses are the official PDO’s of the Peloponnese with Muscat of Patras, Muscat of Rio Patras and Mavrodaphne of Patras rounding out the top echelon. In an interesting note, moschofilero and rodiytis are both rosé colored grapes.
The Peloponnese is home to some of Greece’s most established and creative wineries: Antonopoulos is in the north near Patras. Domaine Spiropoulos in Mantinia is run by winemaker and next generation owner Apostolos Spiropoulos who works organically. He has a master’s degree in agricultural engineering, an MBA and a doctorate in enology. Domaine Tselepos is in Mantinia as well.
Chateau Harlaftis, Nemion Estate, Papaïoannou and Domaine Skouras are all in and around the town of Neméa. Nemion Estate, founded by Georges Vassiliou who is based in Koropi and is a dominant force in the Greek wine industry, was established to produce and display the excellence of aged agiogitiko as reserve wines from Neméa.
The Mercouri Estate to the west in Elia near Korakochori, is one of the most significant producers in all of Greece. Owners Vassillis and Christos Kanellakopoulos helm an operation with a 150 year old tradition of winemaking and olive oil production. Known for their refosco, the family first imported vines from northern Italy in the 1870’s to plant on Greek soil. Refosco in Greece and on the European mainland for many years was simply referred to as “Mercouri.”
Yiannis Paraskevopoulos deserves special mention. Gaia winery is in Neméa and its vineyards occupy the top appellation of the region plus some of the highest in all of Greece and Europe. He is raising the bar in terms of elegance for Neméan wines. He has been a teacher and mentor to many of Greece’s best and brightest young winemakers and has continually pushed the envelope of creativity both in Neméa and on Santorini.
Iason, in Katakolo on the harbor near Pyrgos, delights with exquisitely prepared seafood and owner/chef Andres conveys a wonderful sense of humor and hospitality. Arapakos in Nafplion specializes in seafood as well. Near the famous archeological site of Mycenae, To Mykinaiko offers hearty rustic fare. In the beautiful town of Vytina local pastas are the specialties in the tavernas rimming the main square.
There are many resorts dotting the expansive coastline of the Peloponnese. The Nafplia Palace or the Amphitryon Hotel overlook the Bay of Argolis 45 minutes due south of Neméa in the city of Nafplion. The Mandala Rosa Suites and Spa is in Kyllini to the west. The Kinsterna Hotel is located in Monemvasia and though well south of the wine trail, it is one of the Peloponnese’s most beautiful cities and home to the ruins of an amazing medieval fortress. Lodging in the countryside is basic with no frills. In Athens, on the mainland, the Athens Plaza is on the central Syntagma Square.
The drive from Athens to Neméa is like a drive from San Francisco to Sonoma. Rent a convertible in Athens and tool lazily along the E94 with the Mediterranean on your left. From Neméa to Mantinia is like driving from Napa to Sonoma. Treat it as a day trip or a starting point for exploring the Peloponnese on an extended road trip. The drive west to Pyrgos from Neméa takes you through the stunning mountainous towns of Vytina and Lagadia. The Gulf of Corinth in the north has a breathtaking national road that winds along the water on both sides. At Patras, you can cross the gulf from either side over the dramatic Rion-Antirion Bridge.
Patras and Kalamata (yes, that Kalamata) have airports serviced by a number of international airlines. Patras has ferry service to and from Ancona and Bari in Italy as well as the Ionian island of Cephalonia. Kalamata in the south is also linked to Crete by ferry.
A tour of the Peloponnese in Photos
Adam A. Caperton is a culinary, wine, and travel consultant and writer. He has been affiliated with The Viking Range Corporation and The Culinary Institute of America on their Viking Life / Worlds of Flavor travel program. A former chef, he lives in Richmond, VA with his wife Stephanie who works with Alton Brown of Food Networks Good Eats and Iron Chef America. Follow Adam on Twitter, @forknbottle