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24th June 2020

An Odyssey to Mount Athos - Mylopotamos

One of the world’s most spiritual and mysterious wine places.

Mount Athos is an autonomous region of Greece. It is the holiest site of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and is home to 20 monasteries, and about 2000 monks, on the easternmost of the three peninsulas of Chaldiki in Northern Greece. Apart from support workers, only the monks live there, and, although part of the EU, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is only open to male visitors. There are several potential origins for this regulation (the whole place is regarded as one big monastery), but it goes beyond only humans. The only females actually permitted are cats, which is just as well as they hunt the rats and mice (whose females are presumably tolerated because it has to stop somewhere!)

It is idyllically beautiful, which is perhaps to be expected of an unexploited area of almost entirely Aegean coastline. The beauty is enhanced by the architectural qualities of the many monasteries and churches, with influences from every major period and many origins, from Byzantine to Serbian and Ottoman, the latter giving a vaguely Venetian feeling in places.

View of Mount Athos from Mylopotamos Monastery

I had heard about Mount Athos on my first wine visit to northern Greece back in 2001. One of the wineries we visited, Tsantali, uses grapes from vineyards in Mount Athos to make some lovely wines. Because our group was mixed sex, and we could not split up, we could not visit. Instead, the mountain came to us, as it were, in Thessaloniki, and we were presented with an exquisite book about the area, its monasteries, wine and way of life. I was (and still am) entranced by it, and decided that one day I would visit.

This year, I was invited to judge at the Thessaloniki International Wine Challenge, and so I made the request – “would it be possible to add on a visit to Mount Athos either before or after the competition?”
It took nearly twenty years, but finally my pilgrimage could be made. I was to be a guest of the Mylopotamos monastery and winery, and the trip was organised by Nikos Zacharis, a thoroughly lovely guy and I hope a new friend. He works for Mylopotamos, which is the only one of the monasteries actually to export their wines. And as part of the trip I was to discover why. We were joined by a mutual friend, Theodoros Pastourmatzis, who I first met in Samos, but who lives in Thessaloniki. He is a food writer and chef and clearly the reincarnation of some Greek god of energy or something. He looks like a cross between Agamemnon and Einstein, and has a winning smile which could disarm equally tyrants and toddlers.

The first Mount Athos vines were planted in 973 by Saint Athanasios, and the black variety Limnio is indigenous. This despite its name, because fairly obviously that comes from the neighbouring island of Limnos. It does also grow there, but they call it Kalabaki, and its plantings are dwindling to almost nothing.

Mylopotamos Monastery and vineyards

Prior to the arrival of phylloxera in the 1950s, the largest monasteries had exported wine (to rest of Greece, even to Russia) by specific three-masted ships. But subsequently, only Mylopotamos exports, and although most of the other monasteries make wine, it is for domestic use, and occasionally for sale, but in situ only.

Although a peninsula, the odyssey to get to Mount Athos is accomplished by boat, which sails – and only in good weather – to the southern end. You need a visa to accompany your passport (which has to be granted in advance, and numbers are limited). We started very early from the city, rewarded by the most spectacular sunrise, and drove to Ouranoupoli, where documents are inspected and stamped, and which is the departure point for the boat to Dafni, within the holy area. Here, also we met our host, Father Epifanios of the Mylopotamos monastery. I think he speaks, or understands, rather more English than he acknowledges, and is fluent in German, but Nikos and Theo acted as translators. Father Epifanios is a giant of a man, and with his full beard and black robes, appears a little daunting. But just one word from him, and his heartwarming compassion and gentleness come across. He is obviously very well respected in Mount Athos as people parted to allow us through because we were led by him. Or maybe some of the visitors were just plain in awe of his stature!

Father Epifanios of Mylopotamos Monastery

We arrived in Dafni and Father Epifanios drove us over the hill, on a modern road still under construction, although in a big 4x4 because many of Mount Athos’ roads are not yet surfaced. We stopped in Karyes, the administrative centre, and while Father Epifanios was fetching provisions we had a walk around, including buying bread from the amazing-smelling bakery and a view inside the church. Photography is not allowed here, but inside is a treasure trove of priceless Byzantine orthodox art and antiquity, apparently much of which remains to be catalogued.

The sun broke through on our arrival at Mylopotamos, which is a sub-monastery of the very first, Great Lavra. It is very beautiful and steeped in its own history. I was given a room (the one the archbishop gets!) with a view of the sea on three sides. A traditional travellers welcome of Loukoumi (which it is probably offensive to describe as Greek Turkish Delight) and Tsipouro (which it is probably offensive to describe as a slightly more complex, if not necessarily any more sophisticated, Ouzo). Traditionally these were to revive the weary who had arrived on foot. As they were offered to us by the person in whose car we had just been driven, it was the tradition and flavour that was more restorative.

Mylopotamos Monastery

Soon I was to discover what a great (and noted) cook Father Epifanios is. In fact he has published a book, an autographed copy of which now proudly sits on my shelf. No meat is consumed in Mount Athos at all, although fish and shellfish is, and traditionally Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days with no oil or wine either. A tradition that seems to have some, er, flexibility when visitors are around, mercifully, as our arrival was on a Friday.
Father Epifanios’ cooking, and in particular his soups, is mouthwatering and superb, and I can see why he is invited to visit by restaurants and culinary schools throughout Europe and the world. It also provided a first taste of his wines. He is completely in charge of the winemaking and although he has assistance, this is the largest production winery (100,000 bottles) on the peninsula, with awards, and external distribution. Despite all this, Father Epifanios says that he makes “Decent wines with their own personal taste. Not for money or for medals.”

I asked how many monks live at Mylopotamos. “Two” he replied. “Well, two and a half.” His fellow monk is Father Iokeim and the ‘half’ is Kostas, who helps around the buildings and grounds, and speaks excellent English. He arrived as a pilgrim many years ago and just stayed. I can see why.

A white is made from Assyrtiko (which Father Epifanios planted in 1990) along with Muscat, and reds from Limnio, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Some sweet red wine from Black Muscat completes the range. All the vineyards are organic and the wines are really good. They are exactly as Father Epifanios describes them (although they do win medals!) and his top red, Epifanis, is a sumptuous deep, oaky rich Limnio from the oldest vineyards.

We also went to visit two other larger monasteries, both of which make wine, although largely for consumption on the premises only. The wealthy and enormous Vatopedi which has 130 resident monks, and many visitors – including, I discovered - Prince Charles who has stayed several times. I was told that Vatopedi is a significant owner of land elsewhere in Greece, and the astonishing complex of buildings and their restoration is testament to this. As is the newly refitted winery. Father Efthemios is their winemaker and he took over in 2012. A variety of Greek and international varieties is grown over 54ha of idyllic vineyards overlooking the crystal sea. The rich reds are all quite high in alcohol “Well” he explained “when you are only allowed one glass a day...”

Vatopedi Monastery

A little more down to earth - if that is an appropriate way of putting it - is the similarly impressive Iviron monastery. The building is a bit more ‘name of the rose’ than Vatopedi’s ‘show me the money’, but equally rich in history. It is home to 35 monks and they receive 1300 visitors per year. So the vast majority of their 3000 bottle production stays on-site, and probably not for very long. In charge is the very charismatic Father Ioannis, who was a local fisherman until he joined the monastery and he fell into the job of winemaker. With the help, experience (and barrels!) of some of the best secular producers of northern Greece (Gerovassiliou and Pavlidis among them) he is making some lovely wines with quality and character.

Iviron Monastery

Mount Athos is a beguiling and beautiful place whose many charms will live long in my memory, and one day I would love to return, and spend longer than two days, to achieve the slowed-down pace of life and walk among its olive groves, vineyards, beehives and shady forests in the shadow of the holy mountain. A curiosity in its male-only status (which was a significant bone of contention for Greece’s accession to the European Union) but then religion can be generally anachronistic in so many ways, and some of them are no bad thing.

Efharisto to Fathers Epifanios and Iokeim and to Nikos for organising this very special and magical visit. And to Theo for accompanying us and for being Theo.

Although the Mylopotamos wines are exported a good start is their own online shop:
Mylopotamos Monastery Wine Shop

There is more information about the monastery itself, but in Greek only, here.

A general online store for Mount Athos features the wines of Mylopotamos, and wines and other produce from several of the other monasteries.
Mount Athos online



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