From Hellenic Navy to Master of Wine

“I wanted to pursue my dream in the wine world, and for me it was very specific, I wanted to become a Master of Wine. It comes a moment in your life that you want to take a big challenge or at least try, because if you don’t try you don’t get any chance to succeed.” We have interviewed Yiannis Karakasis, Master of Wine but also WSET educator, blogger and consultant.

Would you like to tell us something about you, how you started your career in the field of wine? How and when you have become MW?
My story on wine is rather unconventional, because I was in Hellenic Navy for 21 years, I used to be a Navy Officer. At the same time, I started studying WSET. In 2010 I took the diploma and I was also the commanding officer of the helicopter squad, so completely different worlds. At that time, I face the dilemma of what to do if I wanted to pursue my dream in the wine world, and for me it was very specific, I wanted to become a Master of Wine. It comes a moment in your life that you want to take a big challenge or at least try, because if you don’t try you don’t get any chance to succeed. But, while I was in the Navy, wasn’t possible for practical term and I realized that to be part of the wine world I had to work a lot. I left the Navy and to my friends and I started working on my Master of Wine. I started in 2011 and I finish the Master of Wine in 2015. So it took me 4 years to finish it. It is quite hard but I have discipline, I’m a well-organized person. I look only at the goal.

We know you are doing so many activities right now. Would do like to tell us?
After becoming MW I had to be selective on what to do. I educate people through WSET in Cyprus, I educate people through Masterclasses in Greece and abroad, I have a blog (www.karakasis.mw) which is my voice, where I write every week about Greek wine, but also about Piemonte and I would like to write article about Sicily and Etna as well. Besides, I consult a Hotel Group in Santorini and some very nice restaurants, one in London.
I’m also always very interested to wines from abroad. I like to travel and tasting wines.

What’s 50 Great Greek Wines?
Last year I launched a revolutionary wine competition called 50 Great Greek Wines (www.greatgreekwines.com). For this contest we buy samples from the market and only 50 wines are awarded as we don’t communicate the rest of the wines. Basically it’s a blind tasting where we don’t give lot of information to the judges, like region or price. We want wines to start from the same point. We try to ensure the highest degree of transparency. Last year, which was the first, we had 421 wines participating at the competition, despite the Covid-19, from 140 wineries, which is a big number because everyone is quality oriented, from very good wineries. The awarded wines are then promoted, not only in Greece but also to wine professionals abroad like in Madrid, Poland, Bordeaux. The idea is that by promoting some of the best Greek wines, we get more attention for all Greek wine. 50 Great Wines is a step to promote the greatness of Greek wines. The fact is that the performance of Greek wines is fantastic, they are very interesting, but what they don’t have is the reputation, the story like a good Chablis can have. Santorini is a recent revelation. How you can compete with wines that has established story for century? What to do is finding the right people, talking with them and present the best of Greece. The feedback for the contest was very positive.

What do you appreciate from Italy and what are the most interesting wine regions in the world?
I think it is always a matter of balance. I have great respect for the classic wine regions: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Barolo, Barbaresco, Montalcino, Chianti, but I always look to the new stuff, to the new regions that has risen recently like Etna, Cyprus, Israel, looking for new messages to communicate. It was a revelation for me when I visited Alto Piemonte, the northern part of the region, and I discovered a new world of Nebbiolo, more friendly in terms of prize but equally exciting in terms of terroir. I want to learn; every day we learn. You can have a general idea but no one from the people I know can call himself specialist in many regions, you never stop learning and this is the idea behind the master of wine for me. Italy has a special place in my heart because my family loves it, it is a bless country, it has common things with Greece like the mentality, the Mediterranean character, as well as history and future. I think both countries have strong connection to the past, and wine is part of our culture.

What do you think about Greece and Mediterranean area in terms of wine? What are the strengths and the weakness of those wines?
Regarding Greek wines, I think the big advantage is indigenous varieties, we have more than 220 indigenous varieties and the majority of our vineyards are planted with indigenous varieties. The big strength in these wines is the combination of freshness, acidity and minerality. Not high alcohol despite the general warm climate. I always try to communicate to wine lovers that wines from Assyrtiko for example, they transport you immediately to the place of origin. And also if we talk about winemaking process: wine makers are artisan, small producers try to do great wines. Crete, Peloponnese, Kefalonia, Central Greece are very important. There are places in which we can find very interesting wines. And the best things for me is that Greek wine mainly is undiscovered, under rated. You can find fantastic wines that don’t cost a lot. If you hear the story of Santorini you have some of the oldest vines in the world (200-300 years old), planted in volcanic soils, special soils, they are own-rooted, phylloxera cannot survive in Santorini, because of the very low clay content. Low yields per hectar, about 15 to 20 hectoliters per hectar, so the production is low. Very specific training system called basket that protects the vine from the wind, that could be very aggressive in the area. All these are planted on the slopes on one of the most dangerous volcano in our times. I think that it is a very unique story.   

Yiannis Karakasis

What will change after Brexit in the approach towards wine? Are English people will drink more English wines? The climate change will determine a new interesting prospective for the production of wine in UK?
Brexit makes things very complicated in terms of trading wine. Even sanding samples to UK is difficult, duties and taxes are expensive. Everything is very complicated, but traditionally the British market is quite strong, I don’t think that they will drink less wine outside UK, but I think that English wine will start rising because all this climate change, and especially some vintages can work well for the South England, this could be a strong point for English wine. Some companies from Champagne is investing in south England. I think over the next 5 years we’ll see more stuff from UK, so far we know some very good producers and some very good sparkling wines, like Hambledon and Nyetimber. I’ve tasting some still wines but of course the vintage is extremely important in UK. Still some vintages are to cold and this maybe a problem. It was snowing in London in late April. So the weather is crazy. The climate change will determine the research of new places, new viticulture. The prevision for the future (for the next 15 years) is not optimistic even for countries like Greece and Italy, but at the end we have a very important strategic advantage. Our indigenous varieties are well adapted; they can survive because they have adapted in that place for several years. That means is important to preserve our heritage, the indigenous varieties and the old vines. For me one of the most important and exiting thing in wine world is old vines. I’ve make some prephylloxera tastings and this is one of my passions.

I can deduce you are fan of Etna wines then. Isn’t it?
Of course I’m a big fan of Etna and its indigenous varieties such as Nerello Mascalese and Carricante that, for example, has very similar character of Assyrtiko, maybe lower alcohol but very elegant, with its volcanic heart and texture and the brightness of fruit. These wines are evolving and you get really distinctive flavour and texture and of course they are very versatile. I also like other Sicilian varieties like Grillo and Nero d’Avola. I think Sicily is very important for its special identity.

What are the 3 best wines you have tasted since you become MW?
Usually I don’t tell that, but I’ll do an exception for you. The first one is from Pomerol, Vieux Chateaux Certan 1947, it’s a taste that I cannot forget. Then there is an Italian one, even if for Italy it’s difficult because I’ve tasted very amazing wines from Barolo. It’s Borgogno Barolo Riserva 1974. The third one is from Greece: Boutari Santorini 1989, which was a revelation for me. In general, I tend to go back to all vintages to find the highest complexity. Regarding new vintages, I can say that wines from Pietradolce or Benanti are fabulous.

What do you think about the first Italian Master of Wine?
I’m happy and proud of Gabriele Gorelli. I attended a lot of boot camps with him. He always looked like a very focused, disciplined, hard worker and very smart person. I’m really pleased that Italy finally has a Master of Wine and above all MW like Gabriele. Italy has lots of great wines and I think Italy needs more than one MW, and I’m sure that in the next 2 years will be talented people emerging.


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