I’m not sure what the economic situation will be like in Greece by the time this article is printed. Right now, the European Union (EU) and the Greek government both have their heels deeply dug in and a compromise seems unlikely. Recent economic news aside, Greece is more than its current government and its problems with the EU. It is a country rich in history, architecture, the arts, and yes, wine.
I have to admit that I haven’t paid as much attention to Greek wines as they deserve during the last few years. Recently, I’ve had opportunities to revisit them, and I’m glad I did. The efforts of a new generation of winemakers are paying off, as Greek wines continue to receive awards in international competitions.
Greece is home to more than 300 indigenous grape varieties, with a wine history spanning thousands of years. I only have space to scratch the surface of this important, complex and diverse wine region, so I will discuss a little history and then a few of the wines that are readily available here.
A Little History
Archaeological evidence shows that wine has been produced in Greece for more than 4,000 years. The eastern Mediterranean region was the cradle of ancient culture, commerce and winemaking, and the Greeks were among the first to recognize the economic value of wine as a commodity. They produced and traded wine throughout the Mediterranean and then within the rest of the known ancient world; and it was the ancient Greeks who introduced vines to Italy, Spain and Southern France.
They developed storage techniques that allowed them to transport wine over long distances without spoiling. They sealed their wine barrels with pine resin to make them air-tight. This also added a distinct pine aroma to the wine. Pine resin is still used today to make Restina, a modern white wine with a link to the past.
Wine was an important item of trade and was also important to Greek civilization. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Plato often wrote about the positive attributes of wine. Greeks drank wine to honor their gods and to expand their minds.
Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, most of the Greek wine industry was focused on the production of cheap, bulk wine. Recently, the industry has undergone a huge improvement with the investment in modern production techniques. Also, growers are adding many international grape varieties to their vineyards with great success.
The combination of Greece’s unique grape varieties, moderate and sunny climate, low average rainfall and soil types are excellent for the production of high quality, world class wines. So why aren’t they more popular?
A case can be made about the difficulty of pronouncing the names of Greek wines. Who wants to leave their Cabernet and Chardonnay comfort zone and go into a wine store asking for Agiorgitiko or Xinomavro?
All kidding aside, it probably has more to do with the lack of consumer knowledge and familiarity with Greek wines. People need education about the improvements.
Varieties to Know
I’ve observed that the Greek sections of many wine stores in the area are a little thin and the selections limited. So, instead of listing specific vintages and wines for you to try, I’ve listed a few of the more popular grape varieties and the styles of wines produced from them. There is a good chance that you will be able to find wines made from these grapes by Alpha Estates, Boutari and Skouras. Ask for advice from your wine store specialist for some specific recommendations.
Agiorgitiko: One of the most widely grown grapes in Greece. Depending on the producer, the wines from this red variety can be soft, velvety and easy-drinking to lush and fleshy, with robust tannins making them very age-worthy.
Assyrtiko: First cultivated on the island of Santorini, it has the ability to maintain acidity as it ripens. The wines from this white grape are loaded with citrus, and crisp with a mineral edge. Although it is grown all over Greece, for my money the Assyrtiko wines of Santorini are the best.
Athiri: One of Greece’s most ancient of grape varieties. It is often blended together with Assyrtiko and Aidani for the production of Santorini white wines. Athiri grapes are thin skinned and produce sweet and fruity juice; the wines are slightly aromatic with medium alcohol and low acidity.
Malagousia: This grape originated in western Greece and was nearly extinct when a few winemakers, realizing its potential for producing high quality wines, began planting it again. It’s found in Macedonia and in some vineyards in Attica and the Peloponnese. The wines from this white variety are aromatic, elegant and full bodied, with medium acidity and loaded with aromas of exotic fruits, citrus, jasmine and mint.
Moscofilrero: The grapes skins are pink and purple, but the wine is a floral and fruity white. Moschofilero wines are intensely aromatic with tangerine, rose and violet undertones, and a fresh and balanced acidity.
Xinomavro: This is the predominant grape variety in Macedonia. The red wines made from Xinomavro are known for their aging potential because of their rich tannic character. With some age, you will be treated to complex aromas of such red fruits as gooseberry with hints of olives, spices and dried tomatoes.
I hope you’ll be inspired you to try some of these wines. We may not be able to help the Greek economy much by buying a few bottles of wine, but you will discover some great wines from what is probably one of the most underrated wine regions in the world. Opa.
Sam Audia is a former advertising and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience in the wine and spirits industry. He is a wine specialist at Bay Ridge Wine & Spirits, in Annapolis, holds a Certification Diploma from the Sommelier Society of America and Intermediate and Advanced Certificates from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust. He can be reached at [email protected].