The Caveman Speaks in May
Welcome to The Caveman Speaks. Bill Zacharkiw’s monthly rants and raves from the world of wine.
Drink Different: Go Greek!
By Bill Zacharkiw
Funny thing happened last week. I went to a wine tasting and left re-invigorated, hopeful, enthusiastic. I was, yes, happy. No, I wasn’t tasting a vertical of Romanée Conti or some other absurdly priced member of the pantheon of mythical wines. I wasn’t awash in top end Napa Cabernet or 95-point Bordeaux. That would have made me even more cynical, though admittedly that brings me a certain degree of happiness as well.
I was at a tasting of Greek wines.
There were around 120 wines, a couple dozen winemakers and a plethora of great value wines that, and this is the kicker, weren’t loaded with sugar or tasted as if they were the made in a laboratory. They spoke of a place. They were different. They were tasty. And very few were over $25. Most, in fact, were under $20.
Yes, I can hear you out there. “Ewww, Retsina sucks!” Well, in Retsina’s defense, when done well, it doesn’t. Cheap, weedy cabernet also sucks but I don’t see people refusing to explore the Niagara or BC wine regions because of it. And anyways, Greece is much more than the pine-resin infused Retisna. Unfortunately, cheap Retsina has become Greece’s version of lousy Liebfraumilch: known by many, loved by few.
So let’s wipe the slate clean here. Greece is a paradise for the inquisitive wine lover. While there are some good examples of international varietals – you can find quality cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, syrah and the rest – it’s the indigenous grapes which are the strength of the industry.
There are hundreds of indigenous varieties, many of which have been grown for thousands, yes thousands, of years. Finding the right grape for the right place takes time, so we can safely presume that after millenia, the Greeks have done their due diligence. Many of these grapes are grown only in a single region, or sometimes, on a single island.
But as most people have never heard of these varieties, it requires a certain leap of faith. I made that leap a few years ago. One of the greatest red wines I have ever tasted was made with vertzami, which only grows on a small island called Lefkada. Slap that sucker in a blind tasting of Cru Bordeaux and watch it shock and awe. Malagousia, roditis, robola, assyrtiko? All are unique in terms of their aromas and flavours. And the vast majority are very accessible, both in taste and even more importantly, price.
And that is what makes Greece so easy to explore. Taking a chance on a $16 bottle is a lot easier than one that costs $25. The wine making is decidedly European, built along classic lines of acidity and tannin.
So where to start? How about dealing with this Retsina question. When I was last in Greece, I visited Vassilis Papagiannakos, who makes wine just outside of Athens in the region of Attica. These have been the vineyards of Athens before the time of Socrates. It is also the birthplace of Retsina and the savatiano grape which acts as its base. Papagiannakos makes an excellent Retsina, and he explained that by adding the pine sap during the initial fermentation, it integrates into the wine. The result is that the pine flavouring remains subtle, bringing an almost minty freshness to the wine. I challenge anyone to find a wine that matches better than a well-made Retsina while sitting in the sun, and eating traditional Greek entrées like tatziki, olives, and taramasalata.
I couldn’t get enough, and maybe one day it will be available here in Quebec. But what is available is Papagiannakos’ straight savatiano, and his 2013 is one of the best I have tasted. Fresh, subtle and with texture. Think of a blend of Petit Chablis with viognier if you want an idea of the style, and at just over $16, it’s hard to beat.
Further south in the Peloponnese, the peninsula which makes up the southern part of the country, another more aromatic white grape is grown, Moschofilero. The appellation is Mantinia, and the wines are strikingly similar to pinot grigio. Perhaps a touch less aromatic, the wines show a striking freshness, as well as a rich mouthfeel depending on where it was grown.
No discussion about Greek whites is complete without mentioning assyrtiko. While it can be found throughout Greece, it’s greatest expression is on the volcanic island of Santorini. Winemaking here dates back to 1000BC. With 3000 years of growing experience, I have never come across such an enduring history between a place and a grape.
Want “old vines” ? Here in Canada, an “old vine” might have been planted 20 or 30 years ago. In Burgundy, 40 to 50 years is generally considered the beginning of old age. But on Santorini, it’s not hard to find vines over 200 years old. Some are even closing in on 500.
The result is a synergy between a grape and a place which should be considered in the same breadth as chardonnay in Chablis, sauvignon blanc in Sancerre, or pinot noir in Burgundy. Its comparative is in fact sauvignon blanc, though less aromatic and more mineral. Try Gaia’s Thalassitis as a great example of how good it can be.
Red wine lovers can also explore on the cheap. The undisputed king of red grapes is xinomavro. Grown in the northern part of the country, it tastes like a cross between nebbiolo and dolcetto. Red fruit, structured and aromatic. Look for notes of oregano and sun-dried tomato as well.
No lack of selection available. A good entry point is Tsantali’s Rapsani. Grown at the foot of Mount Athos, this blend of xinomavro, krassato and stavroto is fruity and incredibly interesting. And at $12, hardly a risky purchase.
The home of xinomavro is in the northwestern region of Naousa. There are still a few bottles left of Boutari’s exceptional, 2008 Grand Reserve if you want to taste for yourself how well xinomavro can age. That’s $19 folks and it will easily age another decade. Very traditionally styled with red fruit, herbs and a touch of tobacco.
For a less serious but exceptionally tasty version of the grape, Thymiopolous’ Jeunes Vignes has become a staple at my house. The 2012 shows brilliant fruit and garden herbs, and exceptional finesse. And again, it will cost you under $19.
There are many more but I’ll stop with one last recommendation. Gaia’s Agiorgitiko is Barbera styled, red fruit driven, and perhaps the best version I have tasted of this grape. For more Greek wines and reviews, set you “Find Wine” country filter to Greece and explore the possibilities at a store near you.
Until next time.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
Editors Note: You can find Bill’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the wine names, bottle images or links highlighted. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critic’s reviews immediately. Non-paid users wait 30 days to see new reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!
Greece photos courtesy of Bill Zacharkiw