The (Not So New) Wines of Greece
Text and photos by John Szabo, MS
Earlier this month the WineAlign crü sat down to taste a couple dozen currently available wines sent by Wines of Greece. This buyers’ guide lists our favorites. Whether you’re already familiar with Greek wines and would like to explore further, or you’ve yet to experience Greece in your glass, this is a great list to get you going. There’s really never been a better time to drink Greek wine. And for the very keen, read on for some thoughts on how the recent tough times in Greece have had unexpected benefits for North American wine drinkers.
The Benefits of Crisis
The mood in Athens was buoyant and lively. The streets were packed with people strolling with leisurely purpose in the warm sun. Restaurants spilled outdoors onto sprawling terraces occupying the sidewalks, chairs filled, tables laden with family-style platters of typical Greek foods and glasses filled with wine. Traditional bouzouki players plucked their instruments, wandering like minstrels through the crowds. There was no particular holiday or festival happening, just weekend business as usual in the nation’s capital.
What’s perhaps surprising is that this is not the retelling of a scene played out years ago, before the current financial wobbles that have plagued the Greek economy since about 2009, or the well-publicized austerity measures that were first introduced in 2010. This is the scene I observed, unexpectedly, just last month on my latest visit to the country. Had I just crawled out of a cave where I’d spent the last half dozen years and landed directly in Athens, I might have believed that Greece was booming, as though they’d just discovered a whole chain of marble mountains ready to be carved into expensive kitchen countertops and sold around the world. It’s of course not the case. But when it comes to eating and drinking, spending time with friends and just celebrating another day, the plucky Greeks seem impervious to doom-and-gloom headlines.
I suppose this philosophical outlook is born of the understanding that things will eventually improve, as they have after every other crisis that has befallen Greece over the last few thousand years. However the party-like atmosphere does obscure the reality that high-end restaurants and premium wines are struggling. Unemployment, increased taxation, and capital controls, such as restricted daily bank withdrawals, mean less money in Greek pockets. And while nothing will stop them from taking to the streets for a good time, the average spend is down. That wine filling all those glasses? You can be sure it’s not the country’s finest; although a reported 98% of all wine consumed in Greece is of Greek origin, it’s not the top stuff. Strong tourism may keep the economy of hospitality rolling for some time, but can only take it so far.
But the Greek debt crisis has had an unexpected silver lining for wine consumers around the world. The faltering domestic market has forced Greece’s top producers to look outside the country, and focus more effort on export markets, much like Argentinian producers had to do when the peso was de-pegged from the dollar after the turn of the century. “Greek winemakers have started being more extrovert, and most importantly, have started working together. All these new developments are paving the way to [export] success”, writes Stellios Boutari of Kir-Yianni Winery in Naoussa.
And timing, strangely enough, couldn’t have been better. Had the crisis occurred a decade earlier, most attempts to break into foreign markets would have been ahead of their time, the wines totally foreign, the grapes unknown, the flavours too far from the mainstream. But as most overnight successes are years in the making, so too had the groundwork for export success, especially into North America, been laid.
The organization formerly known as The New Wines of Greece has, for over a decade now, been educating North American trade and media through countless tastings, workshops, winery roadshows and in-country visits. Utterly foreign, formerly unpronounceable grapes like moschophilero [moss-koh-FEE-le-roh], assyrtiko [ah-SEER-tee-koh], agiorgitiko [ay-your-YEE-tee-koh] and xinomavro [k-see-NO-ma-vroh] have become, well, a little less unpronounceable and certainly more familiar in flavor. They turn up regularly on restaurant wine lists and in recommendations in the press. What must have surely looked like a herculean task in the early 2000s has paid dividends. In recognition of this, the trade organization recently dropped the “New”. Now they are simply “Wines of Greece”, back to being ancient and respected.
Exports to North America have risen sharply. According to data released by EDOAO, the national inter-professional organization of vine and wine, Greek wine exports to the United States and Canada in the last five years have increased by 39% and 55%, respectively. [Source: Greek USA Reporter, Ioanna Zikakou]
These figures are expected to rise even higher in 2016. “We export 60% of our products abroad. “The demand is so great”, said enologist Erifyli Parparoussis in the northern Peloponnese. The growth of the wine industry has been one of the most positive stories to emerge from Greece since the national soccer team won the European Cup in 2004, which seemed only slightly more unlikely. “There are now few North American sommeliers who do not know about Greek wines and who do not include at least one label on their list. Their popularity has surpassed all expectations”, says Sofia Perpera, director of the Greek Wine Bureau in North America, who, along with partner George Athanas, has worked tirelessly over the last dozen years and has been instrumental in raising the international awareness of Greek wines.
Canada, and especially Ontario and Québec, have been particularly receptive markets, with sales showing impressive gains over the last half decade. “Greek wines have shown strong growth”, confirms LCBO Media Relations Coordinator Genevieve Tomney. Sales at LCBO and VINTAGES combined are up over 20% since 2012-2013, increasing from 3.4m to 4.1m in 2015-2016.
Part of the increase in Ontario can be attributed to the launch of the LCBO “Destination Greece – Products of the World” specialty store in Toronto’s Greektown on Danforth Ave. The program is designed to offer the broadest selection available from a given country, drawing not only on regular LCBO and VINTAGES listings, but also wines from the consignment program, previously only available directly from the importing agent and sold by the case. Greece was the first Products of the World specialty store, officially opened a year ago in August 2015. “We’ve seen sales of Greek products at that store increase by 140 per cent over last year”, continues Tomney.
Steve Kriaris of the Kolonaki Group, the largest importer of Greek wines and spirits in the province, has also seen significant benefits: “The Greek specialty store has been a blessing for us. It has helped our consignment volume go through the roof. We are finally able to expose far more consumers to premium Greek wines and spirits. We’re now selling great quantities of bottles in the $30 to $50+ range, wines that previously were only available by the full case. And this is only the beginning. I expect total sales volume to double in the next 10 years”, he says enthusiastically.
The Products of the World program was the initiative of former VP, now President of the LCBO, Dr. George Soleas. Soleas was recently honoured with the 2016 Greek Wine Industry Award in Athens in March, an award given to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the Greek wine industry. “As a Canadian of Greek-Cypriot origin, I have always believed in the potential of Greek wines to measure among the best on the world stage. And now they do,” said Soleas in a subsequent press release. “The Greek wine industry has evolved significantly over the past 25-years and I could not be prouder of all it has accomplished.”
So what’s all the fuss about? It’s clearly not just marketing savvy and “fam trips” for sommeliers. To gain long-term traction in the market, wine quality must also match expectations. And to a large degree, it does. One of the main strengths is the wealth of indigenous grapes – some three hundred or so – which over centuries have survived a Darwinian selection process. These are the varieties that proved adaptable to radically diverse growing conditions across the country, yielding naturally balanced wines that require little adjustment in the winery. And unique flavours and minimally processed wines happen to match the current zeitgeist – this is precisely what many wine drinkers are seeking.
Earlier this month the WineAlign crü sat down to taste a couple dozen currently available wines sent by Wines of Greece. Here are our favorites; whether you’re already familiar with Greek wines and would like to explore further, or you’ve yet to experience Greece in your glass, this is a great list to get you going. There’s really never been a better time to drink Greek wine.
Greek Wine Buyers’ Guide: White
Greek Wine Cellars 2015 ‘Apelia’ Moschofilero 2015 (1000ml – $10.60)
David Lawrason – Can’t think of a better summertime value. It’s a bit light and short, but clean as a whistle, refreshing and almost biting, with pretty lemon blossom, vaguely minty green notes and a touch of resin. Move over pinot grigio.
Skouras 2014 Moschofilero, PGI Peloponnese ($15.25)
John Szabo – Moschophilero is a lovely, fresh, intensely aromatic white variety, and this is a great example. It’s just beginning to shift into wildflower honey aromatics, alongside a bowl-full of fresh tropical fruit, nectarine, mango, honeydew melon and more. Acids are bright and crisp, alcohol a refreshingly moderate 12% declared, and the length is certainly impressive in the price category. Infinitely sippable.
Troupis 2015 Fteri Moschofilero, Arcadia IGP, Peloponnese ($15.60)
David Lawrason – Good value here in a very clean white with subtle floral notes plus fennel, lemongrass and some yellow fruit. It’s light bodied, slightly spritzed and very refreshing. Need a break from sauvignon blanc?
Troupis 2015 Mantinia Moschofilero, PDO Mantinia ($16.95)
Michael Godel – Mantinia is a special place for moschofilero and this ripping example from Troupis should not be missed. At this price ($17), the value quotient is simply crazy good bordering on ridiculous. Whole grilled Branzino or Porgies with lemon and olive oil would make for a perfect foil.
Sara d’Amato – A zesty, dynamic and very pretty moschofilero from the cool growing region of Mantinia located in the high Arcadian plateau in the Peloponnese. Characteristically aromatic with exotic fruit spice, dry and with racy acidity, the wine is undeniably refreshing. Given the price, I would stock up on this go-to summer white before word gets out.
Santo 2015 Santorini Assyrtiko, Santorini ($14.95)
John Szabo – Move quickly to buy this if you’re a fan of structured, powerful whites – this price can’t be sustained. The cost of grapes on the island of Santorini have more or less tripled in the last year, demand is up sharply, and supplies are scarce. The Santo cooperative is the largest producer on the island, producing about half of the appellation’s output from some 300 member-growers, but even still this wine must be at or even below cost, thanks to stern LCBO pricing negotiations to get this on to the general list. But it’s not just that – the wine is excellent, too, a typically subtle assyrtiko, more stony than fruity, with crackling acids – it needs another year in bottle at least to show its best. You’re getting a lot of wine here for $15 to be sure. Decant if serving now; will also age into the early ‘20s.
David Lawrason – This is a medium weight, fleshy, bright assyrtiko with intriguing complexity. Immediately refreshing but more than that, with aromas of guava, lemon peel, white pepper and candle wax.
Michael Godel – Assyrtiko in 2015 from Santo just seems to evoke and spew a slow lava flow of a narrative, to tell a story that is pure Santorini. At $15 this is a steal. Neither price nor any sort of quantity in hand will last very long.
Argyros 2015 Santorini Assyrtiko, PDO Santorini ($22.95)
John Szabo – Argyros Estate draws on a marvellous collection of old vines to produce this bottling, although in this case, the vines are ‘only’ about fifty years old. It’s an archetype for the island, saline, firm, powerful, still tightly wound. It’ll be spectacular in a year or two.
Michael Godel – This essential Argyros always offers the pleasure to bathe in its saline, sunlit waters and drink of its energy. Never failing Assyrtiko. Can you not imagine the stone crag, the whitewashed mineral cliff, the late afternoon sunshine gazing into the shimmering Aegean from an Oia perch?
Greek Wine Buyers’ Guide: Red
Idaia Winery 2010 Kotsifali/Mandilaria, Crete ($14.75)
John Szabo – Kotsifali and mandilaria are Crete’s two star red varieties, often sensibly blended. The former adds colour, flesh and fruit, the latter acids, tannins and savoury flavour. Idaia makes a pleasantly rustic, dusty-earthy, version, a little firm and tight, but balanced and food friendly. Best served at the table with some grilled meat or other salty, umami-rich foods; a tidy value overall.
David Lawrason – Great value here! Better structure and complexity than expected. It’s fairly elegant yet dense with a nose of very ripe blackcurrant/blackberry jam, vanillin, brambly notes and some earthiness. And there is a lead pencil character mindful of Bordeaux.
Alpha Estate Turtles Vineyard Syrah, PGI Florina, Macedonia ($21.95)
Michael Godel – The area of Petron Lake at Alpha Estate was an ancient nesting place for the local species of Chelonii on the Amyndeon plateau in northwestern Greek Macedonia. Some syrah in parts of Australia smell just like this; smoky, meaty, peppery and just plain strong. That it comes from Greece shakes the foundations of thought and adds Amyndeon into the syrah front page discussion.
Alpha Estate 2012 Axia Red Blend, PGI Florina, Macedonia ($17.95)
John Szabo – This is a stylish, succulent, fine-grained syrah-xinomavro blend, elegant and inviting. I love the mix of violets (syrah) and sundried tomatoes and olives (xinomavro – northern Greece’s finest red variety, reminiscent of nebbiolo), and the kirsch fruit and fresh black berry. Tannins are light but firm, bolstered by lively acids. Lovely stuff.
David Lawrason – I like that both the syrah 50% syrah and 50% xinomavro, step up to offer their strengths. Ripe cherry and smoked meat character of syrah dominate the nose; xinomavro kicks in just enough acidity to maintain ballast and some freshness. A quite rich and warming red, with fine tannin.
Domaine Glinavos 2007 Dryades, PGI Epirus ($22.95)
John Szabo – Well, here’s an intriguingly spicy and complex red blend from a regional leader, including the rare indigenous Vlahiko and Bekari grapes of northwestern Greece, along with cabernet and merlot. It’s fully mature and savoury, offering an aromatic experience that’s like walking through a North African spice market, with old leather, dry earth, dark spice, and so much more. This is surely not for everyone (even the WineAlign cru was divided) but I find it fascinating. There’s no questioning the amazing range of flavours, even if it’s outside most drinkers’ comfort zone, nor the fine depth and length on the palate. Give this a chance, perhaps with a Moroccan spice lamb tagine or similar.
David Lawrason – This is an impressive, complex, savoury and mature red with old school but well managed leather, sandalwood and spicy aromas and flavours. The fruit is very ripe, almost pruny and there are dried herbs in there as well. It’s medium-full bodied, quite dense but even keeled. Try it with lamb.
Katogi Averoff 2012, Metsovo ($16.95)
Sara d’Amato – A very traditional and distinctive blend of agioritiko and cabernet sauvignon from the mountainous Metsovo in northern Greece. Crunchy acids and saline with impactful flavour and very little oak influence make for a compelling and expressive red. Be sure to decant well or hold for another 2-3 years.
Boutari 2015 Nemea Agiorgitiko, Peloponnese ($13.10)
John Szabo – This is a fine, friendly, smooth and spicy Greek red, highly versatile at the table with distinctive old world styling. Agiorgitiko provides a nice range of tart and baked red fruit flavours, suave tannins, resinous herbs and Mediterranean scrub, putting this somewhere between the southern Rhône, Chianti and Rioja in style. Enjoy with a light chill.
Sara d’Amato – A super value, everyday table red that is fleshy, appealing and has gusto. Peppery and musky with rich fruit in an easy to appreciate package. There is nothing particularly complex or challenging, which is sometimes just what you want to unwind.
John Szabo MS
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