Top pairings | The best food pairings for Xinomavro

Top pairings

The best food pairings for Xinomavro

With its vibrant acidity, unusual aromatics, and loud flavour profile Greece's Xinomavro is not for the faint-hearted but it makes an ideal food wine. The best pairing, as so often, depends on the style says Peter Pharos.

Traditional Xinomavro

Traditionally, Xinomavro has given red wines that, while relatively light bodied, are almost aggressive in their youth, with rough tannins and intense acidity that can easily take more than a decade to calm down.

It is no coincidence that Nebbiolo is often used as a simile when the grape is introduced to foreign audiences. Xinomavro’s aromatics, however, are very different. Particularly in Naoussa (or, more correctly, Naousa) in central Macedonia, arguably its finest terroir, they show notes of olive paste, sun-dried tomato, and dried herbs.

Macedonia includes two other well-known Xinomavro terroirs, Amyndeon and Goumenissa. These higher altitude zones tend to give gentler, and a tad sweeter, aromatics, with strawberry and raspberry notes, but maintain the fierce acidity when young and benefit from decanting.

The star of the Greek Orthodox Easter table, whole lamb roast on a spit, is the mother of all pairings for this traditional style, but any type of roast lamb is an excellent match, especially if garlic and herbs are involved.

Imam bayildi by Didebashvili.GE at shutterstock.com
Imam bayildi by Didebashvili.GE at shutterstock.com

On the vegetarian side, aubergines are an exceptional match, in almost any form. Imam bayildi, loved in Greece almost as much as in Turkey, is a classic. Other options include baba ganoush, ratatouille, or its Greek take, briam.

Bringing together lamb and eggplant, as in the Turkish Hünkar BeÄŸendi, also works very well. I would, however, steer clear of moussaka. Despite the insistence of many Anglophone recipes, this is typically prepared not with lamb, but with a sweet-ish beef mince sauce, and a rich mornay-like topping, which results it a rather dissonant combination.

High quality traditional Xinomavro with fifteen years of age or more, meanwhile, is a thing of wonder. The fierceness of youth translates into an ethereal wisdom and delicate, elaborate aromatics. A (French-trimmed) rack of lamb with baby potatoes (or, even better, Jersey royals) and some delicate greens is an excellent combination. (As is grilled lamb with a mustard glaze which featured as a pairing for a 25 year old xinomavro in this Match of the Week. FB)

 If you are out for a more adventurous pairing, I particularly like it with grilled octopus.

Top producers for traditional Xinomavro include Dalamara (especially the Paliokalias label, though it has seen a vertiginous price rise the past decade), Markovitis, Kelesidis, Boutari, and Artisan Vignerons de Naoussa, while in Goumenissa Tatsis do an excellent job. Macedonian powerhouse Kir-Yianni produce Ramnista, which is remarkable value for money, and whose style is nearer to the traditional, though it has turned more immediately approachable in recent years. I also love Melitzanis but, unfortunately, this is rarely seen abroad.

New Wave Xinomavro

Giouvetsi by Slawomir Fajer at Shutterstock.com
photo by Slawomir Fajer at shutterstock.com

There are few people that have changed the profile of a variety singlehandedly, as much as Apostolos Thymiopoulos did with Xinomavro. His various bottling, from the instant classic, premium Earth & Sky, to the entry-level Jeunes Vignes, to the newer Naoussa Alta, pioneered a new winemaking take on the grape.

Fresh, vivacious, fruit-forward, and drinkable on release, but without losing trademark the Xinomavro aromatics in the process, they were a huge success on the domestic market and helped substantially to increase the visibility of the grape internationally.

This more approachable style also expands substantially the culinary possibilities. I’ve had Thymiopoulos’s wines with anything from aubergine and ricotta involtini to Iberican-style cod and potatoes in various tomato-based sauces with great success.

With Xinomavro being increasingly planted around Greece (or at least north of Athens), many newer producers, such as Oenops, seem to aim for this style.

In the top terroirs, meanwhile, most producers today follow a middle-of-the-road take. Not the dusty, traditional Xinomavro, but perhaps not as fruit-forward as Thymiopoulos either. In Naoussa, this would include producers such as Karydas, and most Xinomavro-based wines of Kir-Yianni, including the premium, Barolo-esque Diaporos, In Amyndeon, Alpha Estate’s Hedgehog and Barba-Yianni offer an excellent balance between strength and freshness.

Finally, in the last great Xinomavro terroir, Rapsani, in Thessaly, near Mount Olympus, Thanos Dougos follows the local tradition of blending it with the lesser known Krassato and Stavroto for his excellent Rapsani Old Vines. Blending with international varieties is also not unknown.

These wines are perhaps the most versatile of all. While roast lamb and aubergine are still hard to beat as food matches, the more tempered style means more options, from both Greek and international cuisines. 

Giouvetsi, a Greek orzo casserole, which can be made with anything from lamb, to beef, to octopus, is a firm favourite. I was more surprised with how well it worked with Bekri Meze, a wine-braised pork stew. Beans, especially white, are also a great match. I love it with Gigantes (baked giant beans – available in Greek delis such as Maltby and Greek), but Xinomavro’s robustness means you can throw much spicier fare at it. There are few spur-of-the-moment oddball pairings I’m as proud of as matching a bottle of Oenops’s wild Xinomavraw with Punjabi rajima and rice.

Recipe: Norma alla greca

photo by Ale02 at shutterstock.com
photo by Ale02 at shutterstock.com

We drink a lot of wine from southern Italy in my household, and we eat a lot of pasta alla Norma, the Sicilian aubergine-based classic. We also drink a lot of Xinomavro, but it is not a good match: Norma seems to be a tad too delicate for Xinomavro’s aromatics. I developed this twist on the Norma as a response.

Ingredients (serves 2)

250g wholewheat pasta (I particularly like wholewheat casarecce)

1 small aubergine

1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped

1 level tbsp tomato paste

50 ml of dry red wine

400g can of chopped tomatoes

½ teaspoon of dried basil

pinch of chili flakes, or to taste

a bit of all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon of dukkah (optional)

crumbled feta (to serve)

fresh basil (to serve)

Method

Slice the aubergine (if desired, peel first) in 2 cm rounds. Season and dust with flour then fry in olive oil, in medium-high heat until golden. Drain on kitchen paper.

Wipe the pan clean with kitchen paper and add a spoonful of olive oil in medium heat. Add the garlic and fry for 30 seconds. Dissolve the tomato paste in the red wine (it is better to do this in advance), then add to the pan until the wine evaporates. Add the tomatoes, then add salt, pepper, dried basil, and, if using, the chili flakes and dukkah. Leave on medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes.

While the sauce is bubbling, cook the pasta in plenty of salted water. Remove two minutes before al dente, reserving some of the cooking water. Bring together the sauce, pasta, aubergine, and a bit of the cooking water.

Serve with crumbled feta and fresh basil.

See also The best food pairings for assyrtiko

Top photo by Irik Bik at shutterstock.com

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