"At the impressive Vatopedi monastery a few monks are taking wine production a little more seriously. They have introduced a small bottling plant and produced a colourful label depicting the return of the prodigal son."
Try a glass of this . . .
Thank you . . . It has a lovely ruby colour.
And what flavours can you detect?
I'm getting bursts of raspberry with undertones of ripe grapefruit.
Any beeswax and incense? Or perhaps a little musty clerical cloth?
Now you mention it, it does taste a little "churchy". A cross between communion wine and taverna plonk, perhaps?
Spot on. It's holy wine from Greece.
But why is it holy?
Holy terroir, my dear fellow. The wine is produced from vineyards surrounding the majestic limestone peak of Mount Athos, known throughout Christendom as Agion Oros - the Holy Mountain. The whole of this area of north-eastern Greece is a naturally preserved Eden set on a peninsula jutting into the Aegean Sea.
And who is responsible for the wine?
Monks, of course. Athos is a monastic republic, bastion of the Orthodox faith with 20 working monasteries dedicated to prayer and service to God. Most of them have vineyards, and have traditionally produced wine for their own consumption.
Blessed home brew?
That's right, although some of the monasteries are more blessed than others. Ayiou Dionisiou monastery has a large vineyard by the border with the mainland, and sells its surplus to a secular wine producer. Whereas the Simonopetra monastery's craggy situation doesn't yield much of a crop, and the monks have to trade timber to make up their wine quota.
Do the monks drink a lot, then?
In the old days they did, when they would use the stronger wines as a liquid central heating to help them through the harsh Athos winter. Nowadays a lot of the young earnest monks opt for newfangled radiators and abstain most of the year, only drinking light wines at Christmas and holy days.
So how can I get my hands on a few bottles of this special brew?
Steady on - Athos isn't a glorified Oddbins. Besides, most of the monastic wine is straightforward, earthy stuff that never goes near a bottle and is served straight from the barrel to the table.
Not a lot of wine tasting and comparing vintages, then?
Heavens above no - and especially not during the vegetarian communal meals, conducted in strict silence except for the mandatory reading from the life of a saint.
So how did you acquire your bottles?
At the impressive Vatopedi monastery on the northern coast, where a few monks are taking wine production a little more seriously. They have introduced a small bottling plant and produced a colourful label depicting the return of the prodigal son. The bottles are sold in the tiny monastery shop or given as gifts to special visitors. Prince Charles, who is a regular, seems to enjoy their white wine, while his entourage like to tuck into a few cases of their Chianti-like red.
And does it travel well?
The monastery wine loses something of its magic when it is transported from the timelessness of the Mount. The preserved peace, the carefully tended vineyards, the icons, the Byzantine calendar and chronometry help to create a unique world. To understand the wine it is best drunk surrounded by frescos in the refectory of one of the great monasteries.
How do get I an invitation?
You have to apply to the Mount Athos Pilgrim line for a visa, which will normally allow you four nights' stay on the peninsula. As long as you phone ahead you can stay as a guest at any of the monasteries, which will offer you lodging, food and refreshments.
Anything else I need?
Yes, there is one other requirement. . . you have to be male.
I'm afraid no females have been allowed in the republic since the 11th century. Luckily for bona fide men they have relaxed the rule about compulsory beards, and apparently a few female cats have been allowed to stay.
Really - so Jancis Robinson isn't a regular?
Not unless she went in disguise. Curious females can take a boat tour around the peninsula for 15 euros from the local port of Ouranoupolis. Although you won't be able to land, you will sail close to one of the most beautiful and exciting vineyards on the peninsula.
Milopotamos, which lies between Iveron and Karakalou monasteries on the north-eastern shore. Two monks from St Efstathios have developed a successful 10-year-old boutique vineyard at Milopotamos producing some interesting wines - a white and three reds. Avoid the upstart merlot and go for their classic Ahmnio, a rich ruby gem with sweet earth aromas made from the ancient Greek grape variety Liminio. Their wine is of a different calibre from the monastic mainstays and they sell it in a few simple shops in Karyes, the capital of the republic, and the port of Daphne. The good news for wine lovers of both sexes is that they also export to mainland Greece. Track down a bottle and you'll be able to taste some of the magic of Athos even if the closest you got to the vineyard was the deck of a boat.
• You must first telephone the Mount Athos Pilgrims office on 00302 310 861 611 to book a date for your visit. You will then be asked for a photocopy of your passport details.
• Remember that visiting Athos is not a winery tour, so respect the monks' way of life - as well as the other visitors who are usually on a pilgrimage or retreat.
• Avoid arriving late at the monasteries - the doors close at sunset.
• Many of the monasteries also produce Tsipouro, which is a raki made from distilled grape skins. The monks serve it with Turkish delight and a refreshing glass of water when you arrive. Both Vatopedi and Milopotamos produce bottles to take home, and one glass of the 40 per cent proof stuff is enough to work a modern miracle for any weary pilgrim.
• Johnny Morris flew to Thessaloniki with Olympic Airways (0870 6060 460, www.olympicairways.co.uk); returns from Gatwick from £187 including taxes.
• Thanks to Michael and Tassos Anastassiades, who organised the trip.