Rhodes, situated in the southeast Aegean practically in the shadow of Asia Minor, is one of Greece’s most auspicious wine regions. Its climate is highly favorable to viticulture: rain is plentiful during its short winter, absent during the entire growing season. Consistent cooling winds mitigate soil temperature during the worst heat of the summer. It has also entirely escaped Phylloxera.
There is reason to believe that the island was the first stop in the westward migration of wine culture from Asia Minor: before the Greeks, Rhodes had been inhabited by the Phoenicians, who were more than likely the first to introduce the wine to the island. By the 7th century BC Rhodes had become an important exporter of wine to the rest of the ancient world. As a result of its significant role in the production of Malmsey (Malvasia), Rhodian winemaking continued to thrive through the Middle Ages, surviving centuries of Ottoman rule with exceptional privileges, faring poorly only under inhibitive Turkish administration in the late nineteenth century. Although a brief, thirty-year period, 1912-1943, spent under Italian rule had surprisingly little reviving effect on its wine industry, it was during this time that the framework was established for what would eventually become one of Greece’s most impressive cooperatives.
Rhodes was fortunate in being spared Phylloxera. The varietal composition of its vineyards, therefore, has been largely preserved, even in spite of increasing augmentation with Western cultivars. Two varieties performing secondary roles elsewhere in the Aegean are particularly well-adapted to Rhodes. Mandilariá (known locally as Amorgianó), a blending grape in Crete and suitable for mono-vinifaction only in the most talented hands on Santorini, ripens easily on Rhodes’ lower-elevation vineyards area to favorable alcohol levels and to the full development of fruit and aroma. It is the sole variety permitted under the island’s red OPAP appellation. Due to the favorable climate, the aromatic Athiri, which occupies higher vineyards, and is traditionally blended with the strong, but volatile Asyrtiko on Santorini and which is increasingly vinified alone elsewhere, has always naturally achieved sufficient strength on Rhodes. Likewise, it is the sole variety permitted under the island’s white OPAP appellation.
Rhodes has a third appellation for sweet Muscats. The law, which includes a Grand Cru designation, requires the use of both the traditional Moschato Aspro and Trani Muscat, the latter having been introduced more recently to the island. Although the Muscats are grown at low elevation, a prioritization of the natural elevation of alcohol over acidity, and represent a small percentage of plantings, they are an important part of the face of Rhodian wine.
The island’s largest producer is the Cair cooperative. Like many other Greek cooperatives, they are the champions of the local appellations. They are one of Greece’s most respected cooperatives. one of the few that stayed on top of trends in the domestic market during the the last two decades. Cair produces not only first rate Mandylariá and Athiri, but has also extended its varietal pallette with red blends featuring Xynómavro (grown at what must be its lowest latitude), Cabernet, Grenache and Syrah.
The Triantafyllos family, long time traders and purveyors of wine and distilled products, became négociants in the 1960′s. In the 1970s they opened what can be described as a prototypical boutique winery under the name Emery in the village of Embonas. Their products have been in the vanguard of quality for almost thirty years, making the family old hands in this relatively young segment of the industry. To this day they are still at the acme of quality Aegean production, focused exclusively on the mastery of the difficult native varieties. Their Athiri and Mandelariá wines are more elegant—but also more fragile—than the lower-elevation versions produced by KAIR, but their fearless approach is known to result in resounding successes. Vintage after vintage, they have received great accolades for their Granrosé from Dimitina, a local clone of Mandelariá. They have the distinction of being the first in Greece to produce and market a Methode Champenoise sparkling wine, a brut and demi-sec, both made from Athiri.