Puffy clouds hugged the distant mountain ridges as Dionysus, the god of the vine, expertly led our tour bus along the edges of a teal sea. Fishing skiffs and red ball buoys gave way to pink oleander blooming against the square, white stucco buildings. For a culinary exploration of the land and sea’s bounty, we had arrived in a no more iconic place than the port town of Aigio, Greece on the southern shore of the Corinthian Gulf. Archaeological evidence shows that the area has been continuously inhabited since the 11th century B.C.
One by one, the modern-day Greeks representing the tourism offices boarded the bus as we made stops in town. Then we rendezvoused with the vineyard owner’s truck which climbed the one-lane road higher and higher above the valley to the Rira Vineyards. At our final stop at an elevation of 1200 feet, we exited the vehicles and climbed a spiral staircase into a viewing platform and tasting room. Row upon row of grape vines extended to the sea.
The relatively new Rira Winery produced its first wine in 2010. The moisture from the sea rises up the mountain and tempers the hot summers which can sometimes exceed 97 degrees Fahrenheit, explained Panagiotis Tsitsas, owner of the winery. They do need to water sometimes during these very hot spells, but otherwise the limestone soil, moderate winters and dry summers are ideal for growing the grapes. Even the hawks circling the 60-acre plot play an important role by keeping down the population of small birds which could wipe out a ripe crop in no time.
Although the fifteen white and red grape varieties of Rira grab the culinary spotlight with their fermented product, the Aigio region is also the major producer of currants, a small dried grape. There is written evidence of dried grapes in Homer’s Odyssey.
We suited up in white gauze lab coats and stepped through a disinfecting chamber before entering the production facility of the agricultural cooperative.
The local growers ship their raw product in large plastic bins. We zigzagged among noisy hoppers, conveyor belts and computerized stations to watch the entire process that washes, removes foreign materials, packages, boxes and pallets the product. A state-of-the-art food lab that monitors every container for bacteriological and chemical contaminants ensures compliance with EU standards. The strict certification bodies require that organic products have no residue.
Although we had been well stoked with co-op product samples throughout the morning, what better way to enjoy the products of the area than a leisurely lunch on the outdoor patio of the upscale restaurant “Refrain” overlooking the main square in Aigio.
“Come to smell! Come to smell!” owner Efstratios Vardakis calls our contingent as Chef George slices and simmers a fresh whole sea bass in a huge cauldron with shrimp, onions, ouzo and tomatoes.
The afternoon fades into evening and evening brings new insights into the growers, producers and restaurant owners of the region who are so proud of their offerings. A simple tour through the archaeological museum results in an impromptu invitation from a mother and son across the street who see some interesting Americans getting back on their bus. Before we know it, they have set up the sidewalk tables and chairs and we are drinking wine and eating flaky, handheld spinach and squash pies.
In terms of grapes, I quickly learned that you can’t necessarily plant whatever you want. Every region in Greece has its own permitted varieties of grapes. And every winery has its own unique specialty. To that end, we could not possibly turn down an after-hours tour of the TetraMythos boutique winery. Twelve massive, dimpled stainless steel vats loomed large on the spotless ceramic-tiled facility. After a quick overview of the process, we moved into an intimate tasting room with a thick, hand-hewn boardroom-style table set up with a display of cheeses, breads and wines produced from the local, organically grown grapes.
As if we hadn’t eaten enough today, we still have a dinner to manage. Surprisingly, I have no trouble wolfing down the most tender, delicious souvlaki I have ever tasted. Comprised of lamb and vegetables wrapped in pita bread, souvlaki was originally invented by nomadic Arabic people as a meal to-go. The Greeks have a way of slowing life down, however, and by this hour we’re a little more sedentary. Watching life go by at the casual sidewalk establishment with a walk-up order counter is the perfect way to cap the day in Aigio.
–David Lee Drotar
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