In 1971 Captain George Trikiriotis left the Greek island of Samos to join the merchant navy. After years tackling the tumult of the Irish Sea, he retired. Still proudly toting a mariner’s hat, his days are now spent tending to his family vineyard on the mountainside of Ampelos, at the north of the island.
I’m hanging out with the man himself, amid hundred-year-old vines, at his pocket family chapel. Perched on benches surrounding a small broken-stone patio, we touch his grapes. Muscat (or Muscat blanc à petits grains, rather) is the variety; aromatic, sweet wine is the result. He explains how the terroir creates fruit that lives like a king in the bottle. Too high up the hill and the cold yeans angry little acid balls; too low and the heat makes plump, sugary brats that’ll age ungracefully.
If someone undeserving asked me to write positively about their product, I’d tell them bollocks. I know a guy who recently opened a pop-up egg restaurant so reprehensibly shit, I had to pretend I’d moved industries.
They grow on hand-built stone terraces that zigzag across his inclining plot. So narrow are these ribbons of viticulture they can’t be mechanically farmed. Even if you did get a tractor up there, the ground – all shale and unforgiving earth – would swiftly dampen any diesel ambition. Apparently this arse ache adds to the quality. As do the deliberately spacious, unirrigated vines. Smaller yields, mightier wines.
I’m here to learn about how Metaxa is made. Before you ask, it’s a brandy (of sorts) blended with muscat wine and a secret-ish (we know they use rose petals) extraction of Mediterranean flora. Yeah, you know the one: that exotic-looking bottle you’ve occasionally allowed your eyes to register on the back walls of European bars. I imagine, like me, you’ve never really known what it is. Or what’s in it. Or what the hell it should go with. When it’s time to order a dee-jes-teev, you opt for a bit o’ French – something that ends with ‘-ac’. Right? Well, as Metaxa is set to launch its latest creation – Angels’ Treasure – this spring, perhaps it’s my job to supplement that happy little booze menu in your mind.
If someone undeserving asked me to write positively about their product, I’d tell them bollocks. I know a guy who recently opened a pop-up egg restaurant so reprehensibly shit, I had to pretend I’d moved industries. But Metaxa merits credit. Of course, that’s easy to say when the company in question invites you to live like Dionysus for a few days. But, see, something more profound has rendered me an advocate. Behind Metaxa, there is romance. And if there’s one thing I can’t resist, it is matters of the heart. At night I weep my way, sub duvet, through period dramas.
I mean look at George for god’s sake. There he is, in his golden years, working the bloody land. Not for profit, but the love of tradition and respect and quality. That, friends, is romance tantamount to the denouement of an Austen classic. Indeed, something pretty special has been happening in Samos for centuries. George explains that selling one’s family plot is not an option: you’d be asking for an ostracising. The work is hard, the financial reward small – he does it because he wants to, and to have grapes is an honour. I like that. I continue to play music in a band that’ll never go further than the pay-to-play pub circuit for similar reasons. Then there’s the atmosphere on Samos: picture elegant Cyprus trees accenting the view, mountain goats bleating somewhere over there, and a hot haze that closens the smell of orange trees. Sign me the fuck up.
The brand claims that it’s the small amount of muscat in each bottle that lends the spirit its smoothness. Though, I imagine Costas Raptis has something to do with it too. He’s been the master blender at the House of Metaxa since 1992. I meet him at their Athens distillery for a tour, where he explains – in an authoritative baritone – how white wine distillates are left to age in French oak barrels. “This wood is favoured over its American counterpart because of a finer grain that reacts with the liquid slower, creating greater complexity”. That’s actually from Wikipedia, but he said something similar.
He then marries the spirit with Captain George’s – and 7,000 other growers’ – muscat, finally adding macerations of a few select ingredients to create the good stuff. For a long time nothing was known about this furtive end process, but in the late 70s an English journalist noticed a shipment of rose petals (like I said, romance) coming in as she was given the tour – and so now the secret’s out.
As we worked our way through the varieties – which spans the balanced 5 Starsto the Last-Supper-worthy Aen – my mind wandered back to the Captain’s patio. As his wife shooed away the cat, he lay out a table of locally made pancakes, olives, honey and goats cheese for us to degust with a little Metaxa. As I snarfed, he explained how the life expectancy on Samos and a few neighbouring islands was one of the highest in the world. Elbow grease, pancakes and Metaxa – clearly not a bad way to live your life.
The newly packaged METAXA 12 Stars Edition is available to purchase at Amazon.com. RRP £30. Visit www.metaxa.com for details