The Ligas family, in Pella, Greece, have been farming their vines naturally, according to permaculture, since long before it became a well-known term. Now headed up by Meli Ligas, daughter of Thomas Ligas, the winery is entering its second generation.
The future is brighter than ever. The vineyards continue to thrive, and in the cellar Meli is fine-tuning her winemaking methods, listening to each vintage and discovering how to manage her grapes to best express the terroirs from which they come.
The Ligas quest is one of biodiversity, purity and transparency above all else. These are honest, unadulterated Greek wines that speak to us from the place where they were grown and made with love.
LITTLEWINE spoke with Meli Ligas for this article in May 2022
The Ligas Story
While working in his native Greece as a farmer, Thomas Ligas decided to travel to France to study, in order to discover another realm of agriculture. Meli explains,
“My father’s father was also a farmer. As a baby of the 70s, my father wanted to approach another type of biology. That time period was all about freedom, but Greece was still under a dictatorship, so by travelling to France it was a way for my father to escape the politics of the time. He studied enology and loved the topic. It was also in France that he fell in love with my mother.”
However, Greek men between the ages of 19 and 45 are required by Greek law to perform military service, so Thomas had to return to Greece to do a stint in the army. By the time he had finished, it was the 80s, and the Greek wine landscape had changed drastically. It had become fashionable for growers to plant Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This period represented the industrialisation of wine, and many large wineries had also turned to modern technological methods. Everything was different.
For a while, Thomas worked as an enologist for large wineries, but this approach didn’t resonate with him. He didn’t feel comfortable in this world. Meli says,
“Enology is a science. You apply what you know and what you’ve learnt, and my father found he wasn’t really expressing himself by doing that. It wasn’t logical with his approach to nature. He wanted to create his own philosophy and his own way of thinking about wine. So, he started by renting some land and making experimental wines. This led to small-scale production and local distribution.”
His primary goal was working with the indigenous varieties of Greece:
“He wanted to improve the local varieties. They were unfashionable at the time; these were varieties that Greek people didn’t want to work with. It wasn’t considered ‘knowledgeable’ to go in that direction; everyone else was working with Merlot, Cab, Chardonnay or Pinot, because they were seeking Bordeaux and Burgundy inspired styles. All the enologists were applying what they had learnt in France. The Greek government also didn’t help. It was a case of ‘forget the old, and go with the new.’ But my father believed in Xinomavro and Roditis. He was one of the only people working to reveal those varieties on their own. He also made the Kydonitsa variety popular again, learning how to grow it, despite the fact it had almost been forgotten. Now, people come to ask for cuttings, so they can propagate it.”
It was a brave endeavour. At first, he was very much alone on this journey, swimming against the current of what had become the new norm. But he stuck to his instincts, was pleased by the results he saw, and slowly but surely people began to take note. The wines began to find a steady market, and now they are exported all around the world, celebrated in fine dining restaurants and wine bars alike.
Growing up, Meli Ligas and her brother Jason were greatly inspired by their family endeavour, and fell in love with the wine world also. These days, Meli has joined him at the helm, and Jason is working on multiple other projects in Greece; both on the mainland and on the island of Samos.
“My father started from nothing to get to where we are today. He followed his passion, and I was born into that, so it felt very natural for me to continue in this field of winemaking.”
Inspired by her family, Meli, whose mother tongues are both French and Greek, also went to France to study. She chose to the same university as her father.
“I chose the same path, in order to be inspired and to see why he chose this way. I can now say that I completely understand why. I studied from 2007 to 2012. You choose what you want to learn. By understanding the principles of chemistry, you can learn what’s going on, but also how not to apply certain methods. You understand why some people add yeasts, enzymes, or clarify their wines, but we were also able to understand how to find your own way — naturally. If you give your wines time, you can achieve the same result without additions. Often you are taught how to grow vines and make wine with chemistry, but not without. It’s like medicine – they teach you how to get better – but they don’t teach you how to not get sick in the first place.”
Since day one, the vineyards have been farmed organically. However, it wasn’t simply a case of working without chemicals — this was also about a holistic connection to the land. Thomas was greatly inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka’s writing on agriculture; and has always worked according to observation, and by listening to his instincts. Meli says,
“He is very connected to the earth. He has always picked herbs to make teas for the wine, he follows the cycles of the natural world, pays attention to the moon cycles… At the time, he really thought he was on his own in doing so. Every other Greek winemaker said he was doing bad work, and that he thought he was a magician. He didn’t know what was happening elsewhere in the world of wine, so when my brother and I told him that working in a natural way was an increasing method for winemakers: ‘dad, you’re doing the same thing! You’re also working in this natural, biodynamic, permaculture approach.’ He was truly an autodidact when it came to this. He would learn about the particularities of a certain plant, and then say, ‘why can’t I use it for my vines?’ This was all done through feeling.”
They work according to a self-sustaining model. They make their own teas and their own preparations, to avoid the need to purchase from external companies. They go for walks into the mountains to harvest the plants, such as horsetail, and dry them in a designated room where their uncle had once cultivated mushrooms. They collect rainwater to make these teas, and they work with the cycle of nature to choose the optimal picking times. For horsetail, for example, they harvest in September, when the horsetail is brown as it contains more silica at this moment in time (silica is the element used to combat mildew).
They also work with beeswax when pruning to protect the wounds made when cutting the wood, as well as propolis, which has healing properties. Chamomile is used during hot periods in August to help the vines to cool down, avoiding sunburn on the grapes. They also work with a mineral called zeolite, also found nearby, which absorbs water and releases it slowly over time. They spread this on the leaves of the vines, and also put it in the ground when they plant baby vines, to help balance any periods of drought. Wild garlic is also used to bring more nitrogen to the soil, particularly in periods of heat and stress.
“We leave everything to grow together. The herbs that grow here are interconnected and interact with one another. This is the permaculture approach. We don’t want the sun to burn the skin of the earth. When you let the earth grow, you have grass. And that’s beautiful. People want to remove the grass, but why? It’s a silly approach. The grass keeps our vines cooler — in fact three degrees cooler! Even just one degree is really important to protect nature.”
Additionally, the presence of the grasses and flowers that grow here naturally also attract insects and animals. Meli says,
“These plants bring bees, worms, animals… An entomologist came here, and found 15 different species of bees! He told us that was very impressive in Greece, as at the time most of the other winemakers were working very chemically. He told us that one type of bees can even eat the fungus of mildew! Everything works together. We’re actually feeding the animals and the insects, and so they are working for us! We’re really a bit lazy — we don’t work the vines, they work for us. When my dad read Fukuoka’s book, it really spoke to him — he said, I understand this, this is what I am also doing! It helped him to realise that he was right to follow his gut instinct.”
Above all, their approach is one of humility. The Ligas family recognises that wine is not the sole product of a vineyard; there are other plants and species that rely on that land, too.
“We are just passing by here on Earth. Nature is always more important to listen to. There’s no need to go against nature, but rather we can feel the flow of nature, and follow that flow. Sometimes, you might not achieve the production level you want, but we’re not going to increase prices. I want people to be able to consume what nature gives me. It’s not about having money or producing more, as then you might lose the philosophy. My generation is more like this, which makes me a bit sad, because you forget where you came from — instead people are looking at where they want to go. That’s how we have come to use the earth in the way that we do. We have been speaking and debating about the climate for years — decades — yet nobody takes action. I think on a small scale, by using our approach at the winery, we can give support to the earth.”
They think about every aspect of their winery:
“We are independent when it comes to water and energy; we’ve had solar panels since 2003. At the time, nobody else wanted to have them — it was a big investment, difficult, the roof didn’t ‘look nice,’ but my father was the first to embrace it. We have the sun! We don’t need to take petrol from the earth to make electricity.”
Every Ligas wine comes from its own designated parcel. Some vines are younger, around seven years old, whereas some parcels are over 40 years old. Soil types vary from schist to clay-limestone, and it is this diversity which they enjoy exploring in their wines.
In his early days of winemaking, Thomas had no extra money to spend on additions. Instead of buying enzymes and yeasts, he would simply do longer periods of maceration to naturally extract these elements from the skins of the grapes. He didn’t spray the vines, in order to increase the biodiversity of his vineyards, and he then realised he had less problems in the vines, as well as in the wines. He had no need to filter or add sulfites.
One of the most important decisions is the picking date. Since Meli has been making the wines, she has been experimenting with earlier picking dates, and is also fine-tuning the periods of maceration. She explains,
“My philosophy is to pick at the right time. I’m not looking to increase alcohol. My father says, ‘it’s only 11%!” But then I’ll say, ‘have you tasted the seeds? They are ripe!”
Apart from her Pata Trava Blanc de Noirs, which she creates via direct press, the other wines always undergo a certain period of skin maceration; from at least two days for the whites (depending on the vintage, often they see four or five days), to 45 days for her Bucephale Xinomavro. All the skin contact, however, is done as infusion style, to ensure that extraction is kept to a minimum, and elegance is retained. She says,
“I sometimes pick a little bit earlier, as I want to give the grapes time to settle down in the winery. I think the vine is like a mother who grows her grapes, so if you just cut the grapes and immediately extract the juice, well… I personally think you need to give time to the berries to acclimatise in the same way that you have given time to the vines. It’s a philosophy of time and energy; I like to give the grapes room and time to feel cooler, to not be stressed… I think the berries — their seeds and their skins — are also living, so everything must be respected until the end.”
Meanwhile, Assyrtiko is also mineral-driven, but expresses more citrus than Roditis. To further emphasise its mineral side, they have been experimenting by growing Assyrtiko on two-metre pergolas for the Lambda cuvée. By shading the grapes with the pergola training, and by also working with 10 days’ skin contact, Meli hopes to show yet another dimension of Assyrtiko.
Red Greek indigenous varieties are also championed here. Moschomavro, Meli explains, can be a bit tricky as it tends to have higher pH levels, but picked earlier as a Blanc de Noirs, and also for a light red style, creates something floral and easy-drinking. They also have one vineyard of Limniona, which is low in tannins and gives expressive floral aromas, of lilac in particular.
It is Ximomavro, however, that is very dear to Meli. Her eyes light up as she tells us about it:
“Xinomavro is one of my favourites. You can work in so many different ways — Blanc de Noirs, light reds, heavier reds, solera, dark rosé, light rosé… there are so many possibilities. It has lots of acidity, lots of tannins, lots of colour, so depending on how you organise picking, you can have very different approaches to the wines. For example, father was making white wines from red grapes, to have something fun and interesting for summer, and he once forgot a barrel in the corner of the winery. He filled it with a new vintage, and found it to be very interesting, and after the third year he found it even more interesting. It’s a Blanc de Noirs solera sous voile — and when my brother went to do an internship with Selosse in Champagne, he called to say, ‘dad, you’re making a solera!’ — he didn’t even know. Now, we also have some Selosse barrels!”
It is this explorative, open-minded, positive and nature-loving mindset that characterises the Ktima Ligas wines. They are dedicated to not only their vines, but also wholeheartedly to Mother Nature. Their work in the cellar is about championing the fruit that each vintage gives them. This is not about recipes, but rather intuition. When you taste a Ligas wine, you truly experience a little sliver of Greek Mother Nature.
Most of the grapes are destemmed, but she is also experimenting with whole bunches for some cuvées. Once the maceration period is finished, she ‘bleeds out’ the juice from the tank by gravity, and puts it into another tank (or barrels, depending on the cuvée). Here, it cools down, becomes aware of its new environment, and starts fermenting naturally.
Meli also works with some small amphorae, made by a local ceramicist friend, for the Kydonitsa variety. She finds that porous clay amphorae helps to extract more of the natural minerality of the variety, and also heightens the profile of the aromatics. She says,
“It depends on how you make the skin contact. If it’s one month in barrels, or amphorae, or steel, it reveals very different identities. Kydonitsa is very, very aromatic, and people are always so surprised. It’s very hard to grow, however, so it’s more a grape for discovery, instead of one to make high production. After 12 years of tasting with different types of amphorae, we have the ones we need! They are made without resin, just clay, and we use them for one month of skin contact.”
Depending on the vineyard, Meli decides which vessel best suits which wine. For example, for her Roditis Pella and Lambda Assyrtiko, she prefers stainless steel, as she finds this to heighten the expression of those vineyards. For the Roditis and Assyrtiko Barrique, she prefers to work with old wood to create a more concentrated expression of those sites.
Although Assyrtiko is world-renowned as the Greek gem for white wine, the Ligas family is particularly well-known for their work in bringing Roditis to the main stage. Meli says,