Meli Ligas: Juice Podcast Interview with Emily
This is transcribed from a recorded interview between Emily and Meli for Juice Wine Podcast
w/ Melissanthe Ligas of Domaine Ligas Winery, Greece
Emily Harman, host of Juice Podcast, recently met with winemaker Melissanthe Ligas, of Domain Ligas Winery in Northern Greece, to talk about what brought her to the vineyards of Pella, her unique approach to winemaking, and of course, about the stellar wines she’s come to share with us, here in Berlin.
E: Welcome to Juice Podcast! I’m your host Emily Harman and today I’m joined by…
M: Meli - well, Melissanthe Ligas, but most people call me Meli.
E: Tell us a bit about your winery, Domaine Ligas.
M: We are located in the north of Greece, in the region of Pella. I am the second generation, since my father started the winery back in the 80’s. He had always wanted to study something in science, but unfortunately he couldn't enter the university in Greece to study pharmacy, so he went to France instead, where he first discovered bio-chemistry and oenology. That’s also where he met my mother, who followed him back to Greece.
When you study wine, it’s a lot of chemistry. They make you study winemaking like it’s a recipe; it’s not really a natural approach. My father always wanted to make sense of what he was doing and he didn't understand, for example, why he had to add enzymes and yeast to wines. Eventually, he chose to be on his own and created Domaine Ligas.
He started out by renting land and making very small quantities of wine, and he always believed in Greek grape varieties. He didn't use the approach of mixing Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah into the wines, which was popular in Greece at the time.
E: Greek winemaking, like we saw in so many parts of the world, was drawn to making international wines with grape varieties that people would recognise. There were loads of wood and dark coloured wines…
M: … typical French wines, like in Burgundy; this was the fashion.
They had replaced all of the native selection that we had in Greece, with vines that were not appropriate for the environment. My father always wanted to do things differently and he believed in the native variety Rodytis, which at the time in Greece was mostly used to blend because it was being mass produced, which results in its low intensity. He always believed that if he worked the vines well, then he could reveal the full potential of the variety.
Now, we are a whole family working together. I’ve been following his path for the past ten years, and since 2018, I’ve been vinefying on my own. My father is still by my side, since he’s the patriarch of this winery, so he’ll be there until the last day of his life.
E: What’s quite interesting about Ligas is the approach to farming; it isn't just about using local varieties but about being really committed to working in a conscious, caring way towards the environment.
Are you a biodynamic winery?
M: We are certified organic, but we are not officially certified biodynamic in Greece. Most of our practices are even more natural (then the biodynamic standards). We don't buy any preparation, and we try to make the most of our approach with herbs that we pick ourselves. We go into the mountains to pick horsetail for our preparation and we dry the herbs to make our own teas. Zeolite is a mineral found in the local environment which we use to regulate the water and heat of the vines.
It’s another approach, not necessarily described in the biodynamic dogma, but some principles are shared. For example, we follow the lunar calendar for bottling and harvest, for everything. It’s a sustainable approach, since we are energy independent. We’ve had solar panels at the winery since the early 2000’s and a dyke with water. We’re interested in consuming more consciously. All the wines are naturally made with low intervention, meaning that we don’t interact at all. We try to respect the juices.
E: So, what this means is that the wines aren’t filtered or fined and nothing is added to them, right?
M: It’s just the juicefrom the grapes which we let ferment naturally - that’s it. We follow their evolution but we don’t interact by adding something from outside, whether it be with chemical or physical methods. We just let the fermentation occur.
E: You make it sound so easy when you put it like that, but it’s really not that easy to make wines like this!
M: It’s not easy, but you need time!
Actually, I always say that we are lazy because we don’t work the wines as you are taught you can work them. We are often waiting and are respectful of the time it takes to allow gravity to do its work and knowing the right time for bottling. We don’t work a lot. In Greece, we love to take coffee breaks!
There are very few of us at the winery. It’s just my family; my father, Thomas; my brother, Petros; the cousin of my father, Yiannis, a good friend since 15 years; Alex, who is a friend of Petros; previously, my uncle Tiakkis; and myself. We have some people that come to help for the harvest and for pruning, but that’s it.
That’s why we work on a smaller scale, and slowly. It takes time, but by the time it’s February or March and the vines are done pruning, we start bottling. We work, but not intensively; we schedule our time with the seasons.
E: I think that’s part of the beauty of having a family project; it gives everybody purpose.
M: We complete each other, but we also yell at each other.
I’m the only woman, trying to figure out my place between so many men. In Greece, men are very proud and women are not counted. They often don’t let me do the dirtier work, like literally putting my hands in the dirt, but I love that kind of work. They tell me to keep away, that they can do it for me.
E: You’re not able to do the things they think are men’s jobs, basically.
M: They won’t let you, to conserve your beauty or… I don’t know.
E: I guess you can kind of use that to your advantage on days you’re not feeling up to it. Like, ‘I don’t know, I just got my nails done…’
Last year during the harvest, when I was pregnant, I was telling them, ‘You have to take advantage of me!’ I was weighing more than usual, so it would be easier for me to crush the berries than them. They said, ‘If you go in you won’t be able to get out after, you’re so fat’, so I said, ‘Okay, fuck you!’
E: So, did you get in?
M: No! They wouldn't let me! They also didn't want to take any risk because of the baby.
E: Maybe that’s not unfair, in that case…
M: But I was full of energy and I just wanted to work. Until the very last day before birth I was still doing things. But now that I don’t have a baby in my belly…
E: So, what have we got to taste today?
M: As some of you who are listening may know, we (at Domaine Ligas) have a lot of Cuvées, because of the selection on the vine. Each vine corresponds to one Cuvée. We try to keep it simple and label according to the variety type because in Greece you have several smaller fields spread all over. We have plenty of wines, but today I’m going to pour just five of them.
M: We’ll start with our Roditis, a variety which my father believed in since the beginning. He was one of the first to work with it as a mono-varietal. He believed that if we could grow the vines well, that it would reveal the grape's identity. Previously, in Greece, Roditis has been mostly used for blending and for making mass produced wines.
E: Is that because of the high yield you can get from it?
M: It’s because of the profile of Roditis . Normally, it’s something of low intensity; neutral, flat and with low acidity, but it's really easy to grow. If you grow it intensively you will get a big quantity from the vines, but we don’t do that. We have just four or five grape sets per vine, and that’s how a more complex identity can be revealed. My father also started back then to use skin contact before fermentation, for more extraction, because we never use any yeast or chemical approach. For Roditis the wine is left in contact with the skins for three days and fermented in stainless steel. I let it ferment on the lees for just 6 months and bottle it immediately after, so it’s an early bottle as well.
E: With all your wines, even if they’re fermented in steel, they’re usually spending around a month in wood to help stabilize them, right?
M: Always, during the winter time, we do this just to let the wine rest. Fermentation demands a lot of energy to transform a juice to wine, so it needs time after to settle down and to cool for the malolactic fermentation to occur. We bottle the wine when it’s a little bit more stable after winter and before the heat of springtime. We also let it settle down in the bottle again before selling.
E: I really like this Roditis. It is definitely more savoury as well, out of all of the whites - well, white slash orange
I love how fresh it is; it’s not a demanding wine to drink. The vintage we are tasting now is 2020. I remember the 2019 it was definitely a little bit lighter and fresher, but I actually quite like the extra texture in this wine.
M: Me too. Normally I would make the wine with just one or two days on the skins but I figured out that extra day gave me more complexity and realized I got more of the texture that I wanted. It’s also to do with the soils of the region. I didn't speak about the soils yet, but in Pella we have a lot of clay, fossils and minerals in the soils and we want to extract that through the roots of the vines.
We have this natural acidity in all of our wines, which has to be balanced with complexity. If I have more acidity in one year, I will harvest later, and will extract a little bit more to balance the flavour. It’s a feeling. Every year, I try to stay on schedule for vinification, but it can always change for the length of skin contact. The approach is really adapting to each year.
Back then, we were stabilizing our wines in oak barrels, but I figured out that I prefer to leave them in stainless steel for the whole winter.
E: So this wine is never in oak, but the previous vintages were, right?
M: Yes, but since 2019 I no longer use oak for this range. In previous vintages, we used it because we put the vines in the cellar downstairs to cool down faster in the barrels. They were oak barrels, around 20 years old.
E: It was never an oaky wine.
M: No, it was just to settle down after fermentation; to make them sleep better in a dark place.
E: The annoying thing about a wine like this is that I can only imagine how delicious it’s going to be in 6-12 months, but it’s already going to be sold by then.
M: Sometimes, I think I should keep some wines on the side, but I don’t have time. It’s a problem, that’s not really a problem, because my clients demand quantities before harvest has even begun. The vintage doesn't even exist yet and there is already a demand for it. Because we have a lot of demand, I’m trying to spread a little bit to everyone. We plan to increase production but it takes a lot of time, and we go slowly. For 5 years, we’ve been planting, but we haven't yet harvested the first grapes since we’ve had a lot of loss so far and the roots are not deep enough yet.
E: Sometimes you even have to replant over a period of years, don’t you?
M: Yes, we restore the plants, so it takes time, but there will be a day when I have enough wine for everyone, I guess!
E: You say that now, but soon it'll just be even more people buying your wines!
Patatrava, Blanc du Noir 2019
M: Shall we go for Patatrava now?
The main identity we have at the estate, which comes from my father, is that we work a lot with Blanc du Noir. It’s something I’m very proud of and continue to work with.
E: For people who have tried Blanc du Noir, yours are not quite like a standard Blanc du Noir wines, are they?
E: Appearance wise, the flavour, the intensity… I’ve tried still Blanc du Noir and I find that they can be a little bit boring.
M: Yes. Flat and with no aromas.
E: Yes, like they’ve just done this to make white wine because it’s a hot region or something. But I find it really fascinating the style that you do, because they’re so complex.
M: It helps a lot that we use the variety Xinomavro, the main grape variety to us in Northern Greece. It’s really something that I’m interested in, since it’s a variety that has a lot of acidity, a lot of tannins and a lot of colour. My father always wanted to make white wine from it.
Patatrava has been pressed and pulled and, as I said earlier, we do a lot of maceration on our wines. We use a lot of skin contact, but we don’t use any press. For this wine we put the grapes into our press machine ( it’s an old one!) and we just let it roll. It’s a really delicate way of taking out the juice. Of course, it’s a little bit coloured too, depending on the vintage; for example, the 2019 that we’re tasting is more coloured than the 2020. This juice is in contact with the skin for only a few hours during the rolling time and that’s it. Then the wine is fermented in stainless steel and bottled in springtime, just before summer.
E: I love this wine. I try not to talk too much about the colour of wine, because obviously all the white pretentious males who work in wine seem to be obsessed with colour (we won’t name them!), but this wine is a really beautiful colour!
It’s got this sort of antique peach, almost copper appearance, and it’s amazing on the nose as well. The beautiful thing about this grape variety is that you get the fruit but also that lovely bit of savouriness, that just shows itself differently in this versus the rosé (Le Rosé), versus the Red (Xi-Ro).
M: That's the amazing thing about working with Xinomavro. You have the main variety, but you have so many possible ways to work with it. It just depends on the length of skin contact, and the height of the vineyard. For example, Patatrava is grown only a bit lower than the others and the vines are a bit more young; they’re only around ten years old. You can work it in a light red or a complex red, and we work it in a solera way as well.
E: It’s fascinating because this is not a white wine, it’s not an orange wine, it’s not a rosé or a red. It’s a bit of all of them.
M: It has its own category. It’s not on skins, so you can not even tell that it’s an orange wine. Lately we call it a rosé, but it’s not a strict rosé type at all.
E: I would actually sell this as an orange…
M: Speaking of orange wine, we’ll go next for Assyrtiko, the cuveé Lamda.
This is actually one of the first cuveés made by my father. Back then, we had just the Roditis and the Lamda. The L in the name stands for lefkó, a word which in Greek means white wine.
This wine has really evolved with time. Back then, it would have had only a few days of skin contact and now it’s increased, making it more of an orange wine. This one has 10 days of skin contact, which means the grapes are in the tank (stainless steel) and fermenting with the skins for ten days. Every day, I taste to check the extraction of tannins. I take out the juice, and leave the fermentation to finish in stainless steel, once again, and then we bottle at the end of summer. Previously, the Lamda would have also spent time in oak barrels but since 2019 we use only stainless steel. This wine comes from a vineyard that we grow closest to the winery. It surrounds us, and we grow it using a pergola that is 1.8m high. My father came up with this approach to extract more minerality from the ground, but another advantage of this way of growing is that the grapes are high hanging and they are always in contact with wind which means they avoid diseases and sun damage because the leaves are protecting the grapes. Also, it makes them easy picking for harvest.
E: Is the Assyrtiko Barrique from the same vineyard? Because some of the older bottles of Assyrtiko Barrique say Lamda, as well on the back of them.
M: Well no, actually, that was more of a legal problem…
Assyrtiko was a name that was used just for wines made in Santorini, even though it’s a grape that’s found all over Greece. To protect the region, there was a time where they said that it was forbidden to make or label a wine as Assyrtiko anywhere outside of Santorini. Now, that’s no longer the case, but at the time we had to put something on the bottle so we labeled the wines as Lamda Barrique. But the wines Lamda & Assytrkito Barrique (previously Lamda Barrique) are grown in two different vineyards.
E: I love this wine. It’s a great price point and it’s definitely an orange for people who want to drink by the glass. I love that there’s some tannin there but there’s still a lovely saltiness as well. I want to say it’s a little bit less funky than before; the previous vintage was much more wild, it was pretty out there.
M: I prefer to make something at the beginning of the price range that’s easy drinking for everyone and, as you said, is something that can be sold and drunk by the glass. It’s an approachable orange. It’s something I wanted to make more concentrated but within limits. Back then, the vineyard was still a bit too young and it was a little bit too long on the wood (around 9-10 months), so it was too oaky and too tannin. It was unbalanced.
E: Definitely a bit more perfumed this one too, don’t you think? Feels a bit more focused, aromatic, lifted…
M: Exactly. Actually, I prefer to have a more pronounced nose and more balance in the month. That’s why I don’t extract more or age the wine in oak barrels anymore, because I want them to be balanced and more aromatic. It’s a game of balances, but I prefer this type rather than something more oaky or tannin. That’s my preference, which is why it’s changed since I’ve been leading the vinification process. It’s more discreet; perhaps, a more womanly approach.
Assyrtiko Barrique 2019
M: To compare to the other Assyrtiko that we were just tasting, next we have our Assyrtiko Barrique, which is from an older vineyard that we’ve harvested earlier. It’s the first vines I pick every time. On the label, we have Maria Callas.
E: One of the most iconic opera singers in the world.
M: Exactly, it’s also a favourite female figure of my father; he loved Greek women. Each woman (as seen on the labels of the three Barrique varieties) represents a wine. He found some similarities between the unique character of the ladies and that of the wines.
Assyrtiko Barrique is a wine that’s a little more complex but still has a lot of freshness and performance. What we do with this range is around 4-5 days of skin contact, while the juice begins it’s fermentation. Then, I remove the wine and transfer it into oak barrels, where it stays for 6-9 months. This wine specifically stayed for 9 months in oak and on the lees, so it’s more complex. The barrels are Austrian oak, and really lightly grilled wood, since we don’t want to give any prominent oak aromas to the wine or to mask any flavour. After the barrels, I leave it in stainless steel for 5 months to settle down before bottling, because it needs a little more time. That’s why this wine releases a little further than the others.
E: This is definitely the opposite of an Assyrtiko from Santorini. It’s textured and umami, with layers of complexity. There’s nuttiness, honey, fruit, perfume…
M: It’s also really spicy! That’s something you can’t find in other Assyrtiko. Almost like gingerbread. People actually love to drink this wine around Christmas, for parties or with richer foods.
E: For me, this with Tagine would be spot on.
M: Yes, I have it with cheese as well. With a smoky cheese it’s really nice. It’s definitely more complex and another approach than the basic range of Assyrtiko.
E: And for the last wine today…
M: We have the Moschomavro; so again, we’re going outside the box. This wine is not really a red and not really a rosé, but it’s something in between. Moschomavro, meaning aromatic black is the name of the variety and it’s another one that was almost forgotten in Greece that my father always believed in.
What I do with this Cuveé is an infusion style. I start by leaving the grapes in the tank for 21 days. I don’t know if there is some connection with our female cycles, but I just found that after 21 days I got exactly what I wanted.
E: Are these whole bunches?
M: No, they’re destemmed.
E: And then you just wet the top of the cap or something?
M: Exactly, and just put the temperature control not to increase over 22 degrees because I want it to stay fresh. Temperature control is really important for this red. After 21 days in the tank, I bottle it really fast in springtime, so it's like a rosé approach in a red wine. Because of the low acidity and intensity of aromas and tannins of this variety, I didn't want to make a traditional red out of it, so I made something more fresh for summer. In Greece, we don’t drink a lot of red in summer, so I wanted a style that’s somewhere in between and easy drinking.
E: It’s definitely more aromatic, and it does have that perfumy musky kind of floral.
M: Also, in the mouth it’s not really that pronounced. It’s more light, easy drinking and not tannic.
E: Thank you so much for taking us through these wines today. We’ll have to have you again to take us through all the rest!
You have 17 in total, that’s a lot of balls to juggle, isn't it?
M: I’m also working on a pop-up project in France to make another Blanc du Noir, and a new Cuveé for Korea. But yes, until now there are 17 in total!
E: I look forward to trying those someday.
Thank you, until next time!