The Fascinating Wines of Greece: An Old Soul Resonates with Modern Sensibilities – by Sara d’Amato
Greece imparts a picture of complete serenity, spectacular visuals and unabating blissfulness. A picture of great wine, on the other hand, is more of a stretch for the average North American wine drinker. The indelible notability of Retsina, the abstruse, iconic wine infused by pine resin, is so entrenched in our consciousness that we are apt to turn a blind eye to the wines that stealthfully creep into our market on low shelves with unpronounceable monikers and brazen labels. With great relief, this is changing, as wine professionals and more and more amateur aficionados begin to dispel the stigmas and introduce consumers to the reality of Greece’s modern viticulture.
“Eternally Modern” is the new official slogan of the New Wines of Greece, the major association of Greek wine producers, and although it captures the dual qualities of a progressive winemaking culture that is also steeped in ancient tradition and history, I would offer another theme: “Old is New Again” is perhaps a more apt description of what is happening in this diverse country. With its multitude of unique and indigenous varietals, a deeply entrenched culture and impressive historical significance to every stone one may trip upon, Greece’s ancient varietals, terroirs and vineyards are giving the industry serious clout in the modern world.
The country’s strengths include an incredibly long, uninterrupted winemaking history, of a length that no other country can claim. In addition, Greece boasts over 300 indigenous, unique varietals of unparalleled quality. Slowly, these varietals are becoming known in our export market, regardless of whether consumers can pronounce them. Considering that most new world regions rely on one unique grape of distinction, such as carmènere in Chile and pinotage in South Africa, Greece would seem to be rolling in riches. With a pool of uniqueness as great as the Greeks have to draw on, they will forever have an edge. On the other hand, the sea of choice can be somewhat daunting. Among the most prominent varietals you are likely to encounter in North American markets are:
Assyrtiko: The star of Grecian whites. Bright, vibrant and expressive. Somewhat reminiscent of Riesling but less aromatic. A diva of a grape, somewhat oxidative in nature and requires careful attention both in the vineyard and the winery. Difficult to produce but perhaps one of the most noble of Greek whites. It shines most brightly in Santorini due to the unique volcanic soils giving the grape just the right pH and mineral content to reach the peak of its expression. Softer and arguably more aromatic when planted elsewhere in Greece. Producers to watch for: Sigalas, Hatzidakis, Ktima Pavlidis.
Malgousia: The undeniable up-and-coming star of Greece. Hugely aromatic, exotic, succulent and seductive with inherent viscosity. This varietal has certain Viognier-like character but with greater acidity, more expressive of soil type and added flavour layer of floral/herbal notes. Gerovassiliou, one of Greece’s most notable winemaking figures, largely responsible for the Greek wine renaissance, rescued this varietal from imminent extinction and now it is planted throughout the country. Producers to watch for: Gerovassiliou, Porto Carras.
Athiri: An ancient varietal often blended with assyrtiko in Santorini and lends aromatics and softness to the blend. When produced on its own (which is rare), the result is an almost ethereal, pillowy wine. Producers to watch for: Sigalas, Alexakis.
Vidiano: Spicy, floral, higher in alcohol, with flavours of peach and wild herbs, this obscure varietal is making waves in Crete. Low production still but the quality is undeniable. Producer to watch for: Alexakis.
Moschofilero: Exotic, with generous, gewurztraminer-like aromatics, this refreshing, red-skinned grape is used to produce exclusively white wines in either sweet, dry or sparkling styles. Most notable examples in the Peloponnese. Producers to watch for: Boutari, Domaine Tselepos.
Agiorgitiko: Most notably produced in the southern region of the Peloponnese, more specifically Nemea, this is one of the most dynamic red varietals made in a plethora of styles. Its acidic structure, soft tannins and richness of flavour, make it not unlike Sangiovese. Producers to watch for: Papantonis Winery, Domaine Skouras.
Xinomavro: One of the most exciting red varietals, this extremely ageworthy red with firm tannins and good acidic structure most strikingly resembles Nebbiolo. The Naoussa planted versions exhibit greater intensity and ageability while when produced in the neighboring Florina, the wine tends to be softer, more approachable but simpler. Producers to watch for: Ramnista, Alpha Estates, Kir-Yianni, Thymiopoulos, Boutari.
Kotsifali: Primarily grown on the island of Crete with characteristics of high alcohol, low colour and with soft tannins and acidity. It is often blended with either Mandilaria or Syrah. Fruity but with grace and plenty of charm. Producers to watch for: Alexakis, Lyrarakis.
Limnio: One of the most ancient red varietals, mentioned by Homer. This varietal is most notably grown in the northern, mountainous region of Macedonia and is akin to juicy, fruity Beaujolais with surprising depth. Producer to watch for: Porto Carras.
As aforementioned, these are a mere sampling of the unique varietals planted in Greece. Among the biggest challenges that Greece faces today in terms of consumer acceptability are the pronounce-ability of their grape names (for a pronunciation guide visit www.allaboutgreekwine.com). One can perhaps understand the temptation many producers have succumbed to in planting so called “international varietals” such as Cabernet, Syrah and Chardonnay. Some are playfully blending these varietals such as Kotsifali and Syrah in order to produce a more balanced approach. The founder of Domaine Hatzimichalis, Dimitris Hazimichalis, in Central Greece, was the first to plant international varietals back in the 70s and to use the names of varietals on the labels.
The use of these international varietals is contentious throughout Greece. From my perspective it is somewhat disappointing to see these varietals used so frequently especially given the availability of diverse, indigenous varietals, perfectly suited to local terroir. In fact, on my recent visit to Greece we North Americans were relentless in our advice to producers that our market is much more interested in indigenous varietals than these more common, international varietals. Given the choice, an American is much more likely to purchase a Californian Chardonnay or Cabernet than they would take a chance on a Greek version of either of those varietals.
Wineries such as the infamous Gerovassiliou and the remote Biblia Chora are most notably acting to preserve indigenous varietals and experiment on the best locales for growing. Although Greece has a great wine producing history, it has only been producing serious, noteworthy wines from both indigenous and international varieties for several decades. It is also experiencing a groundswell in local talent, as increasingly large numbers of Greeks travel to France and abroad to train in winemaking, returning home to put their skills into practice (rumour goes that it is not unusual to find Greeks outnumbering French in many French winemaking programs). Therefore, experimentation is at the forefront of the Greek wine renaissance.
Some fascinating discoveries regarding these indigenous varietals is that their high acidity seemed to be at odds with the very hot and sunny climate in which they thrive – so what gives? The answer is complex and multi-faceted. In certain regions, like Santorini, the low pH in the soils and mineral content is such that it affects the acid levels in the grapes. A factor in other regions and most notably in the northern regions of Macedonia is the high altitude viticultural sites. Katogi-Averoff whose winery is located in Metsovo, boasts the highest altitude vineyard sites of anywhere in Europe at over 1,000 meters above sea level. You’ll have to visit Argentina to see vines planted at greater altitudes. And of course, another factor is the grapes themselves, which are prone to naturally high acidity. This is an extremely fortuitous and noteworthy facet of these indigenous varietals, uniquely suited to the climate (and to our modern day palate). Lastly, both the maritime climatic influence (particularly notable in the islands) and the wind that winds through the valleys, which helps to keep the vines dry and clean, also aids in keeping the temperature in check.
Surprising though it may be for wines from such a notoriously hot Mediterranean climate, Greek wines exhibit a fresh vibrancy, an extraordinary versatility with food and complexities that will rival some of the most renowned European varietals. The fact that Greece’s financial troubles have dominated the global economic news for many months now may well afford a unique opportunity for cross-pollination – all eyes are on Greece at the moment, and as the old adage goes, no publicity is bad publicity. Those who take the time to develop a familiarity with the vocabulary of Greek wine, and who are willing to put any past prejudices behind, them will greatly benefit from what was is old becoming new again. And, fortunately, what was old now has the advantage of modern techniques and a young, highly educated, devoted new generation of winemakers to best develop their full potential. The time of Greek enlightenment and renaissance is upon us again.
My top Greek wine picks at the LCBO are listed below, or you can find them all here.
Top LCBO Picks:
Tselepos Driopi Agiorgitiko 2008, Pdo Nemea, Greece, 269043, $18.95