She made the big step from the construction sites, the asphalt and the large-scale infrastructure projects to the cultivation of the land, and more specifically to attentive winegrowing. Yliana Stengou managed not only to revive Domaine Porto Carras, reinstating its prestige, but also to transfuse into it a new finesse, combing wine making with the development of wine tourism and the management of the largest undivided proprietary organic vineyard in Greece.
When does your relationship with wine begin?
The beginning of my relationship with wine dates back to 2001. I am a civil engineer –Ι studied at National Technical University of Athens– and in 2001 I was already completing a decade of professional work in construction sites, out of Athens. I was always very fond of the countryside. Suddenly, the company (Technical Olympic) bought, after a competition, the Porto Carras Grand Resort, which is an expanse of 1.780 hectares. Till that time, we didn’t have corresponding experience neither in hotel industry nor in the wine production field. We are five brothers in the family –all of us engineers– so some got involved with the field of hotel management, but as far as wine making is concerned…the lot fell upon the bravest one (laughs). I am thinking that I have always had an inclination towards nature and I have always wanted to become a farmer, despite the fact that I come from Athens. Ι love the land and I was given an opportunity to devote myself to a subject completely different from what I used to do till that time. Obviously, it was a challenging undertaking due to its high demand: if you don’t know well enough the field of wine, you cannot administrate accordingly. So, I was compelled to start again from ground zero and to go back to “school”. In the beginning, we started with Dimitris Hatzinikolaou the seminar cycles about wine as well as certain other specialized seminars, and later on, when Konstantinos Lazarakis brought his Institute in Greece, I was one of the first ones to attend. I have now reached a very good level regarding these studies, despite the fact that I don’t give exams and thus I am not a very punctual student (laughs). I believe that the learning process concerning viticulture and oenology is endless. I adore the Domaine and also the products that it is capable of giving me.
You leave from construction sites and asphalt, and you find yourself working in the vineyard. How were things there?
In the beginning, we focused on restoring the vineyard in agricultural terms, as we realized that, after the bankruptcy of Yannis Carras and under the management of Ethniki, the estate was not at its best. During that past period, cultivation and care of this nice piece of land were not the proper ones. I have as a principle the proverb: “as you sow, so shall you reap”.
As long as you take care of your raw materials, that is the grapevines, the vineyard and the soil, you will receive the best outcome. So, working along with vine growers, agronomists and other specialties, it took us about 7-8 years in order to restore the vineyard. We are still low regarding yield, because we have not yet managed to water the vineyards – although in some parts this is a deliberate decision, as we consider that dry farming gives better quality wines. Our vineyard is organic and all of the wines that we produce have organic certification. Besides that, we have also expanded our activities into the field of biodynamic agriculture. We are currently experimenting with Assyrtiko and Limnio to see what kind of particular expressions can be produced.
And what about the commercial aspect?
Since 2007 we are focused on commercial production, but we had to deal with the economic crisis. We are trying to expand into markets where Carras used to export, although these commercial relations faded-out in the course of time. Believe me, it is easier to create a new brand –e.g. the “Ktima Yliana” brand– than to take a “wounded” one and bring it back to life. It is very hard to move a brand from below zero to above zero and further on, to develop it in order to regain the place that it deserves. At first, commercial management seemed like a thriller. Wines from the previous decade had remained into the market, and you could see in every wholesaler’s and every foreign importer’s place deserted palettes and wine cases. The red wines may have been exceptional, preserving the history of Carras’ red wines, but the white ones were beginning to get spoiled. So, we encountered many clients dissatisfied with the Domaine, even if my family, who later bought it, was not responsible for this discomfort. In the past, “we were spanked”, I could say. We were treated with mistrust, and some people were ironically saying “now, the constructors, the diggers came along”. But the truth is that if it hadn’t been for Technical Olympic to take charge of this mega project, of this costly venture, nobody would have managed to respond to the high operational costs of the PDO viticultural zone Plagies Melitona and of the PGI zone Sithonia, so that this exemplary vineyard could exist.
Yannis Carras’ vineyard was created at a time when Greek wine was broadly stigmatized abroad due to the bad quality retsina. He proceeded to modern forms of vinification of foreign and Greek varieties, and also to experimental cultivations of deserted Greek varieties, such as the famous now Malagousia, which owes its revival exclusively to the Domaine Porto Carras. Experimental vinifications from French varieties planted in Greek soils and microclimates were made back then, with the assistance of internationally known oenologists, such as Emile Peynaud, who is considered a revolutionary in the field of winemaking and also the father of modern oenology. In our estate, he created the first and unique PDO red wine from a blend of French and Greek varieties: the internationally known wine Chateau Porto Carras, “the best Bordeaux blend outside Bordeaux’’. A new glorious page in the history of Greek wine was written back then.
You mentioned earlier that it would be easier to create a new brand than to maintain the old one. So, what made you decide to keep this brand name?
We really examined this issue through detailed research, and we concluded that we are dealing with a historic brand name. In Greece, we have some difficulty preserving history: once something negative happens, we tend to consider the whole enterprise as a past, we tend to ignore it. But it should not be like this. When you hold in your hands the history of a man and his vision of creating a modern Greece, it is a pity to throw them away. We live in a place that is blessed geographically and dreamy as a touristic destination. The vision of the Domaine’s former proprietor was to make it a fully-featured destination, a Greek “promised land”, and we considered that we cannot throw away all this history and this richness. When Carras was culminating, his name became a place name. Porto Koufo and Porto Carras are now indicated on the region’s maps, regardless of the fact that Porto Carras was initially created as a residential complex and was not a preexisting village. Gradually, it became a benchmark on the map of Sithonia. This is a fact that we could not ignore. We decided that we must keep its history and its legendary past alive, in order to ensure a bright future for this place.
And did this decision have an effect?
No effort pays off as fast as we initially expect. Today, 16 years after the start of our undertaking, we can finally see our efforts rewarded. Everyone understands that the revival of the Domaine was crucial, and people now “take their hat off to us”. If it wasn’t for us, another chapter of the region’s history would have been lost. Porto Carras was indicated everywhere, on all the wine maps. If we had changed that name, it would have been lost forever. I believe that our decision will have even greater impact in the future.
What stage are you in at this point?
We believe that wine tourism is a central aspect of the tourism sector. Wine tourism represents a whole chapter of the tourism industry and also a dynamic travel trend that impels many visitors from all over the world and also from Greece to come to our region. Wine tourism can contribute to the extension of the tourist season, even in Halkidiki, which is considered to be mainly a summer destination.
Greece could become a significant attraction pole for oenophile tourists. It is already a major international touristic destination thanks to its geomorphology, its climate and its touristic infrastructure. Furthermore, we should not forget that Greece is a forerunner of wine in the western world, and disposes a unique biodiversity of indigenous varieties and also microclimates that render this country capable of producing wines really worth discovering.
Concerning the commercial aspect of our activities, we have now created many etiquettes: we count 22 wine etiquettes, plus the wine distillates. We enlarged our initial selection, in order to respond to the demands of various different markets. For the first time in the Domaine’s history, we created sparkling wines –the Yliana white sparkling and the Zoe rosé sparkling– as well as a dessert wine, which comes from the sun-dried Liasto – the Greek red variety, recorded as the world’s most ancient wine variety!!! This variety is mentioned in Homer’s, Aristotle’s and Polydeukis’ writings, 6500 years ago.
We also have many blends and several mono-varietal wines, in order to respond to every market’s needs. For example, there are markets who ask for Greek native varieties exclusively, and others such as the Asian markets that prefer a blend of Syrah with a Greek variety. We don’t produce an excessive number of bottles per etiquette, as we wish to remain flexible. And every year, we use 10-15 hectares either for new plantings –e.g. mavrotragano, mavrodaphne, xinomavro– or for restructuring vineyards, in order to experiment. We have a full selection of wines for the accompaniment of a meal from start to finish.
Porto Carras disposes not only the vineyard, but also the hotel. Are you entering in a phase of whole expanse utilization?
We have implemented different usages of the estate’s land. We sowed medicinal plants, choosing as principal crop the cistus incanus – a plant with many therapeutic properties, used in many medicinal treatments. We currently export it as a whole, but shortly we will sell it in a sachet as herb. We have, of course, our olive grove that produces our organic extra virgin olive oil “KELYFOS”, which we use in the hotels’ restaurants and we also export it.
Two years ago, we created a big kitchen garden, which now fully supplies the restaurant kitchens of Porto Carras. We are also cooperating with honey producers, who work voluntarily in our vineyards and produce aromatic honey in many flavors.
In the summer of 2015, we initiated our cosmetics production, using grapes as the basic raw material. We used the grape seeds and skin, along with all the other beneficial ingredients of grapes, and we made facial cream, body oil, body lotion and tonic water. We created the ZOE Grape Collection and a new, special cabinet, where our clients have the opportunity to enjoy Jacuzzi in condensed red must, massage with grape oils, slimming and detoxication treatments with wine-muds, and also exfoliation with seed-scrubs coming from the last vine harvest. So, our customers can enjoy all the beneficiary properties of grapes.
Moreover, we are pleased to announce that we started producing a high-quality handmade dark chocolate, with wine filling based on Malagousia, Chateau Porto Carras, Syrah and shortly on Assyrtiko. It is a truly amazing product, which will soon be available in selected selling points.
What are the market’s characteristics abroad, comparing to Greece?
In order to export to foreign countries, you must have reserve and quality. With 10,000 or even 20,000 bottles, you can’t be extrovert towards markets that assimilate much bigger numbers, because you will not be able to deliver as ordered. You have to meet certain standards. It is true that during the economic crisis, we all struggle to raise our exports. In Porto Carras we have made a big step towards this direction, as we reached an 24%-25% export quota, while in the past it was 12%. Our future goal is, of course, much higher, but it is not always easy. The domestic market remains our principal market. However, the consumption patterns and the distribution have changed. The amount of consumption is not greatly decreased, but bottled wine is gradually replaced by bulk wine. The economic crisis pushes consumers to buy more easily bulk wine.
But, bulk wine –no matter what they tell you– is a product of questionable quality, because the price lists don’t write on neither its origin nor its producer as they should according to the law. Naturally, there will always exist consumers that prefer buying a bottled wine, but we observe a decreasing tendency because of the final price of bottled wine in the price lists.
The government imposed an unjust tax, ignoring the consequences that it would have for the wine industry. According to the data of the National Inter-Professional Organization of Vine and Wine (NIOVW) and of the Greek Wine Federation, the special consumption tax on wine did nothing but boost underground economy and smuggling. The illegal trafficking of wine represents 65% of the produced wine. There are people who trade illegal wine, in levels that reach the ones of the legal wine. We, as the Greek Wine Federation, did our part to inform the state, and we expect from the state to organize the proper institutional mechanism in order to eliminate this problem. We have a common will to help towards the elimination of illegal trafficking.
What is Yliana Stegou’s dream about the Domaine Porto Carras, and the Greek wine in general?
I deeply believe in the cause of Greek wine. I believe that our country has a distinctiveness, a uniqueness. We have many varieties that are rare in other parts of the planet, and remain yet undiscovered for many consumers. So, if we coordinate our activities and present ourselves collectively as Wines of Greece, we could achieve great things. No one wants to taste a wine from one particular producer only. People want to taste wines from the entire Greek vineyard. We must act collectively and help one another. The branch needs a “steam engine” like Greek Wine Federation to move forward. Τhe “Wines of Greece” umbrella has room for all of us. It is very important that Greece becomes a wine tourism destination, so that people ask to taste and drink our wines.