Confident wines from Original Vines: Reasons to Drink Greek
Text and Photos by John Szabo MS
(with poetic quotes from Michael Godel)
Wines that fulfill the original purpose of fermented grapes are rare birds. If you discount it as a water substitute (wine was a much safer alternative to dodgy water sources before modern municipal services were introduced), wine’s preeminent raison d’être has always been to show up at mealtime, as a counterpart to food, contrasting, complementing or simply rinsing between bites, occasionally fueling conversations or sparking poetic soliloquies around the table.
Yet many producers today feel compelled to make their wines a meal in themselves, isolated monuments, seeking not only to earn a living but also make a personal statement. Such wines can surely be impressive, stuffed full of everything, ageworthy, expensive. Others, at the opposite end of the spectrum, focus on blatantly commercial offerings, pandering to our primal love of easy, soft and sweet, making wines that seem designed to fulfill the role of a guilty, mid-afternoon muffin or unneeded dessert (and make lots of money).
Fewer, it seems, are those making wines to satisfy a simple but vital role at the table. Neither soft and easy nor intended to induce genuflection, these are wines of fervent character that don’t look to steal the show. They’re comfortably moderate in every way, confident enough to leave the house without makeup, and seek to be monuments to nothing other than a tradition or a grape or a place. They’re anything but one-note songs and not necessarily inexpensive (cheap), but by my definition need to make financial sense on a Tuesday night. These are the wines I want to drink while I’m eating. And I do that a lot.
If you share a love for such wines, then we probably already “align” on WineAlign. And if so, you’ll want to consider some of the recommended Greek wines coming out over the next couple of months in LCBO and VINTAGES Greek-themed releases.
Greece is after all a country steeped in the traditions of wining and dining. In fact, a glass of wine (or ouzo) on an empty table is a heretical modern phenomenon, sure to inspire a conspiracy theory, which the Greeks are expert at dreaming up. Greek wine producers have the domestic market to contend with, and in order to win over local consumers, wines need to deliver their pre-destined, food friendly character. Besides, anything else would be counter-nature, considering that Greece’s impressive collection of native grapes has been winnowed over millennia through natural selection aimed at delivering desired characteristics: vibrant acids, moderate alcohol and the sort of savoury, herbal, umami-rich, faded fruit flavours that resonate with food. How often do you see fresh fruit on your main course plate?
Despite domestic difficulties, or perhaps because of, Greek wineries are reporting strong export gains over the last couple of years. This coincides, not coincidentally, with the gathering worldwide momentum behind wines with high drinkability factor and some unique regional or varietal proposition. Greece is a rich source of original vines with singular flavours. Add in the Tuesday night pricing and the offer is strong.
Buyer’s Guide: Greece
(Note: the following wines are, or will shortly be available at the LCBO or consignment. Check WineAlign for current inventory or contact the agents for details.)
To find more Greek wines available at a store near you, please click here.
The angular vine-and-olive-grove-covered hills of the northern Peloponnese are home to Greece’s largest red wine appellation, Nemea, and one of its most significant and charming varieties: agiorgitiko. The Boutari Agiorgitiko 2013 is a fine introduction, delivering plenty of exuberant strawberry and raspberry fruit, and big smiles, for the money. Also on the lighter side and best served with a light chill, the Mountain Fish Agiorgitiko 2012 is the sort of honest and lively, fruity and savoury type of wine I’d hope to encounter at this price, free from obtrusive wood flavor and focused on food-friendly acids and an herbal-resinous twang. The product is considerably better than the kitschy label would imply.
A window on the potential grandeur of the grape is offered by the Gaia Agiorgitiko Nemea 2013 – a more genteel, polished red from a regional leader. The texture is all silk and the wine fills the mouth nicely with dark fruit and floral flavours on a back beat of salinity.
Other producers in Canada to watch for: Domaine Tselepos, Lantides Estate, Cavino, Parparoussis
The most celebrated white wine region in the Peloponnese is called Mantinia, the appellation named after the 650 meter-high plateau where the grape moscophilero delivers its most fragrant expression. This is Greece’s slightly more exotic equivalent to pinot gris/grigio, light, crisp and fragrant, as demonstrated by the ever-reliable Boutari Moschofilero 2014. This is perfect for al fresco dining.
When fully ripe, the skins of moscophilero turn pinkish-red (like pinot gris), and top examples often have a slight pinkish hue, as with the Tselepos Classique Mantinia Moschofilero 2013. Like Yiannis Tselepos himself, this is a forceful, boisterous wine, particularly aromatic with an almost muscat-like perfume, and uncommonly rich, mouth filing palate (this has 13% alcohol declared, a good 1% higher than the regional average). It’s perfect with lightly spiced, aromatic fare, southeast Asian-style. “An example for racing Moschofilero against Pinot Grigio and passing it on the stretch from the outside lane”, suggests Michael Godel. “World turning acidity and length as long as the Nestani’s walk to Demeter’s Temple.”
Other producers in Canada to watch for: Spiropoulos
As an introduction to northern Greece and its more earthy, angular reds, try the Kir Yianni Paranga 2012, a blend of local xynomavro complemented by syrah and merlot. It’s a consequential, firm and plummy wine with uncommon depth and concentration for under $15, ideal for roasts and BBQs. From the same producer but a step up in complexity and structure, the Ktima Kir Yianni 2011 is an assertive, powerful estate blend of 60% xinomavro and 40% merlot. It’s redolent of freshly turned earth, savoury herbs, and dusty red fruit, in other words, very much like a modern Tuscan sangiovese blend. But the texture is firm and puckering – there’s definitely no pandering to commercial soft and cuddly tastes here. An authentic and tight, chewy and rustic red wine in the old world style.
For a taste of xynomavro is its pure and traditional form, Boutari does it as well as anyone else. The Boutari Grande Reserve 2008 is crafted under the watchful eye of chief winemaker Yiannis Voyatzis, who has xynomavro planted in his own small project and knows it intimately. Anyone used to paying $30+ for Barolo or Barbaresco should take note: this is a terrific bargain for fans of distinctive, leather-bound, old world reds with its dusty, herbal flavours and firm tannins and acids. Considering the bottles I’ve had from Boutari back to the mid-1980s, this will age very well.
West across the mountains from Naoussa is Amyndeon PDO, the only appellation in Greece for rosé. Xynomavro is called to action again, a grape supremely well-equipped to produce versions in the dry, tart and herbal spectrum, as in the spunky Kir Yianni Akakies Rosé 2013.
Other producers in Canada to watch for: Thymiopoulos, Domaine Karydas
The vineyards of Epanomi south of the city of Thessaloniki would remain largely unknown in the broader world were it not for the pioneering, and ongoing work of Vangelis Gerovassiliou. Widely acknowledge as one of Greece’s top winegrowers, he rescued the now much-admired malagousia grape from near extinction (or, “resurrected it like a Greek Jesus”, in Godel’s vision) and continues to produces its most distinctive version, the superb Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia Vieilles Vignes 2013. This terrific old vines cuvée is an intensely aromatic, pungent, floral, viognier-like white wine with full body and stacks of tropical fruit. It’s for fans of rich and thick whites, though marked salinity and a streak of underlying acids keep it lithe and lively. “It would be hard not to fall for this Adonis of Greek whites, a strikingly beautiful Phoenician whose drops of liqueur turn to liquid alloy in a glass”, continues Godel.
Malagousia gets palate-stretching drive and an acid kick from assyrtiko in the Domaine Gerovassiliou White 2014 – a very fine, weighty, fleshy and fruity 50-50 blend. Some barrel notes are still marked for the time being, but there’s ample fruit intensity to ensure full integration in time, another 6 months-one year should be sufficient.
Zitsa (Ioannina, Northwestern Greece)
Zitsa PDO near the northwestern border of Greece is obscure even by Greek standards. Domaine Glinavos is the standard-bearer for the region, and the Domaine Glinavos Primus Zitsa 2013 nicely captures the lightly floral and herbal, resinous (terpenic) notes of the local debina grape in a crisp and dry style. For the money, this is a more than adequate food friendly white.
The Aegean Islands
Of all the Greek wines that have made it to international markets, none have equalled the impact of Santorini. These are whites of majestic power and frighteningly electric, salty-minerality, the kind that catches the uninitiated completely unawares. They’ve caused more than a few sprained palates along the way. If you’ve yet to experience the forces of nature that are distilled through a few drops of assyrtiko grown on the pure volcanic rock and pumice soils of the island, ease your way in through the Argyros Atlantis White 2014. The vines for this assyrtiko-based wine with a splash of athiri (another indigenous Santorini grape) are from the “younger” parcels on the island, less than 50 years old (many vines on the island are speculated to be over two centuries old), yielding a wine focused on freshness with a streak of salty character that highlights white-fleshed grapefruit flavours.
A middle ground is provided by the Santo Wines Assyrtiko 2014 an excellent example from the much-improved cooperative, the largest producer on the island. This is crafted in a lighter, fruitier style than the mean for Santorini, relatively speaking of course, but still highly distinctive. Michael Godel describes it more evocatively as “Assyrtiko seemingly dredged in volcanic tuff erosion and tightly wound by straight-shooting citrus smack.”
Then when you’re ready to step it up, introduce your tongue to the searing, razor-sharp, bone-dry beauty of the Argyros Assyrtiko 2014 Santorini. Don’t be fooled by the seemingly open, fragrant and pretty aromatics buoyant fruit – the wine is not yet ready for you and will change. A couple more years are required for the volcanic smoke to clear and for the crackling acids and marine flavours to mellow, morphing into a dopplegänger of your favorite white wine (think Chablis, Mosel or Alsatian Riesling, Wachau grüner veltliner… you can fill in the blank).
Other producers in Canada to watch for: Domaine Sigalas, Gaia Estate
To find more Greek wines available at a store near you, please click here.
For more exciting news for Greek wines, the LCBO has announced a pilot project to create regional specialty stores. The first one is planned for the flagship location on the Danforth in the heart of the Greek community. Read more here: LCBO Announces First Regional Specialty Store
That’s all for this week. See you over the next bottle.
John Szabo MS
Editors Note: You can find complete critic reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names, bottle images or links. Paid subscribers to WineAlign see all critics reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see new reviews. Premium membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!