Greek Wines: Recovering at Home, Surging Ahead Internationally

By John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

The Greek economy is finally in a period of growth, albeit modest, after years of recession. Investments are increasing and exports are recovering, while unemployment has fallen by nearly 6% in the last four years. And for two consecutive years the Greek government has succeeded in surpassing fiscal targets for primary budget surpluses.

It’s a period of cautious optimism, just ahead of the country’s planned exit from EU bailouts in August of this year.

The recovery will presumably spur an increase in domestic consumption of higher quality wine, as some disposable income returns to the average Greek’s pockets (economic meltdown did little to stop the Greeks from frequenting bars and cafés, as I personally witnessed several times in the last half dozen years, but the average spend was down), which will no doubt lift the mood of domestic wine producers. But in the meantime, they’ve moved on. They’ve found new and receptive markets elsewhere.

The silver lining in all of this for the Greek wine industry, as well as wine consumers worldwide, has been the forced focus on international markets. As local markets dried up (tourists aside), exports became the only option. And the industry, through individuals and collectives, self-funded and government/EU-funded programs, has spent the last dozen years or more spreading the word about Greek wines around the world, with a particular focus on North America. And our world is richer for it.

In the US (the only country for which I could find statistics), export growth has been impressive. In the last decade while Greece was crumbling, exports by value have just about doubled. Volume is up as well, but by much less. But no matter. Value is in my view the most important measure of long term export success. It means that buyers are paying higher prices for Greek wines, 5.29 euros/liter on average in 2017, compared to 3.14 euros in 2007, to be precise. They’re no longer the poor Balkan cousins of fine wine, source of obscure values and not much else. They’re just fine in their own right.

As I reported last year, it’s now commonplace to overhear sommeliers in New York, San Francisco, Montreal or Toronto exchanging thoughts on subtle changes in an established producer’s style, or sharing an untapped source of a particular region or grape new to market, as though discussing the insider subtleties of Burgundy or the Sonoma Coast. Greek wines have definitely arrived. Hopefully you, too, have already experienced some of the decidedly original and horizon-expanding wines that the country has to offer.

Established Successes: The Big Four You Already Know

Among wines that have led the export charge, a handful of grapes and regions stand out. If you’ve had Greek wine before, chances are you’ve had a glass or two of the extraordinary whites of PDO Santorini. I’ve written and spoken many words about this remarkable volcanic island in the Aegean over the years and the truly unique wines made there, mainly from assyrtiko. And nearly a dozen and a half years after having first discovered Santorini, I’m still no less fascinated by the terroir, the torturous conditions under which grapevines grow, the extraordinary lengths to which growers need go in order to extract even a small amount of stony-salty essence, the impossibly old vines/root systems (the oldest in the world), and of course the strong character (and quality) of the wines. We’ve highlighted a few to try, or retry, in the list of recommended wines below.

The pale pinkish-whites of PDO Mantinia in the heart of the Peloponnese, made from moschophilero, have also gained many fans in North America. These low alcohol (c. 11.5%), crisp, bone dry and perfumed wines admirably occupy the style category populated by wines like Pinot Grigio, Albariño and Grüner Veltliner. Further justification for the comparison with pinot grigio in particular comes from moscophilero’s purple-tinged skins when fully ripe (you can make pale rose from it with a little skin contact, like the ‘ramato’ (copper-coloured) style of skin-fermented pinot grigio once again popular in northeastern Italy), and its shared richness in the aromatic compounds called monoterpenes, which give the wine its characteristic floral-fruity (orange blossom, rose petal) profile.

Among reds, agiorgitiko from PDO Nemea in the Peloponnese, and xinomavro from Macedonia in the north (mostly Naoussa and Amydeon PDOs) have gained the most international traction, but for dissimilar reasons – the two grapes couldn’t be more different. Agiorgitiko is the darker-coloured, softer, rounder grape of the two, with its sumptuous plummy fruit and smooth, velvety tannins that bring to mind tempranillo, merlot or GSM blends. Xynomavro, on the other hand, is pale garnet-coloured, firm and dusty, far more savoury than fruity, like nebbiolo, sangiovese, or “pinot noir in blue jeans”, as one clever Athenian sommelier once described it to me. Both have their time and place to be sure.

New Grapes and Regions to Explore

But these four varieties only begin to hint at the depth of what Greece has to offer. Indigenous varieties number into the hundreds, appearing individually but also frequently in blends, making for a near limitless range of wines. You’ll also find a handful of wines made from international grapes, or more popularly, international-indigenous blends. But local varieties account for no less than 90% of Greece’s 110,000 hectares of vineyards (slightly less than the region of Bordeaux alone; Greece ranks 17th in the world for total acreage planted), so the focus is firmly on the grapes that Greece has been growing for the last four millennia.

Another surprising fact is that white grapes account for 2/3 of total plantings. Considering Greece’s location in Europe’s deep south, with a southernmost latitude that crosses the 35th parallel in Crete, and the general impression, abetted by countless postcards, of eternally blue skies and endless summers, one might expect robust reds to flourish instead. But here’s another key factor that explains the country’s vinous diversity: Greece is also particularly mountainous. The highest peak, Mount Olympus, pokes through clouds at almost 3000 meters, and many vineyards sit on plateaus or mountainsides at over 700m, meaning that there are plenty of genuinely cool regions where the climate is far more continental than Mediterranean. Some regions, like Mantinia mentioned above, struggle even to ripen grapes in some vintages. Factor in the natural selection that occurred over thousands of years of experiments in every corner of the country, and the net result is an amazing collection of well-adapted varieties with distinctive profiles. There is much to discover.

Some white grapes to put on your must-try list include exotically tropical Malagouzia from across north-central Greece, flowery-herbal Debina (especially the sparkling versions from Zitsa PDO), ethereally fragrant Kydonitsa from the famous port town of Monemvasia, fleshy, peachy Vidiano and Vilana from Crete, saline and lemony Robola from Cephalonia, shockingly crisp and mineral Roditis from Achaia high up in the northern Peloponnese, and smoky-oily Savatiano from vineyards around Athens, in pure and pine resin-scented retsina form.

For reds, consider exotic leather, dried rose and fig-flavoured Mavrodaphne (in dry red wine form from fresh grapes, also sweet red when the grapes are sundried) from the Peloponnese, the crunchy-peppery Vlahiko from the northwestern corner of the country, bold and structured Vertzami of the Ionian islands, extract, colour and acid-rich Limniona from Thessaly and elsewhere, savoury Limnio from the island of Lemnos, deep-coloured, and earthy Mandilaria and pale and soft Kotsifali from Crete and the Aegean Islands, often blended together, to give but a few examples. See an extended list of indigenous grapes with descriptions on the Wines of Greece website here.

Recovery of the domestic market or not, the world has already been introduced to Greek wine. And there are no signs that demand is slowing, thanks to established favorites and constant discoveries.

Below is a list of recommended wines to get you, or keep you going. All were tasted in the WineAlign offices in late May, and are available through the listed agent in consignment or at the LCBO. (Product numbers are included for wines currently available on the LCBO General List or at VINTAGES.)

John Szabo’s Buyer’s Guide: Greek Whites

Papagiannakos 2016 Vieilles Vignes Savatiano, Attica ($16.95)

John Szabo – Regularly one of the best savatianos from Greece (the world), this old vine example from Papagiannakos is nicely oily and rich on the palate with a marked streak of acid and smoky, stony minerality that searches across the palate. Flavour intensity and density is unusually high in this price category, and while it’s not an easy-sipping, fruity wine by any stretch, it will satisfy seekers of unusual, savoury, characterful whites with weight and body. Very good length, too. Allure Wine & Spirits (VINTAGES 546002).

Papagiannakos 2017 Retsina, Mesogaia ($16.95)

John Szabo – Also from Papagiannakos, one of the acknowledged top producers of retsina made with pure Savatiano, this is savoury, piney, lavender and rosemary-heavy, made evidently from good quality base material. I like the savoury herb profile added to ripe but fresh yellow fruit. It’s well worth a look if you had written off the category long ago, or worth discovering if you’ve never tried retsina. Fire up the BBQ and grill some octopus, calamari, or even lamb chops with a healthy sprinkling of rosemary and a drizzle of olive oil and lemon. Allure Wine & Spirits.

Papagiannakos Vieilles Vignes Savatiano 2016Papagiannakos Retsina 2017Santo Santorini Assyrtiko 2016

Santo 2016 Assyrtiko Santorini ($17.95)

John Szabo – It’s great to see this wine on the General List and therefor always available, a fine introduction to Santorini at an almost unsustainably low price. While relatively fruity and forward, balanced and concentrated, it also has, like all wines from the island, palpable extract, dense and chewy, with unusually high acids for such a warm climate. There’s loads of character on offer here for the money, but not an easy-sipping style by any means. Serve with grilled sea bass in lemon-caper-herb drizzle. Kolonaki Group (General List 459032).

Santo Wines Nykteri Santorini 2016 ($30.95)

John Szabo – Nykteri could be considered the most traditional style of dry wine produced on the island, harvested a week or so later than  basic Santorini, and obligatorily wood-aged for a short period (3 months in this case). The classic blend of Assyrtiko, Athiri, and Aidani delivers plenty of roasted pineapple, grilled peach/nectarine and apple-pear notes, with full-bodied, indeed quite thick and intensely flavoured, and palpable tannic structure and evident concentration from the notoriously low yielding vines on the island. A very bold and structured white wine all in all, suitable for grilled meats, white or even red, or leave in the cellar for a half dozen years for a really intriguing dry sherry/madeira-like expression. Kolonaki Group.

Santo Wines Nykteri Santorini 2016Argyros Atlantis 2017Estate Argyros Assyrtiko 2016

Argyros 2017 Atlantis, PGI Cyclades ($22.95)

John Szabo – Argyros is a go-to name on Santorini, and even this, their “entry level” blend of Assyrtiko, Athiri, and Aidani delivers a wallop of flavour in the price category, not to mention structure. Acids are searing in the best way, shaping and lifting the dense extract on offer, leading into an impressively long, saline finish. Serve with grilled lamb chops with a squeeze of lemon. Kolonaki Group.

Estate Argyros 2016 Santorini Assyrtiko ($34.95)

John Szabo – A terrific vintage for Argyros’ Estate bottling from old vines (150+ year-old, ungrafted vines!), partially aged in oak (20%) but virtually undetectable. This is still a long way from prime drinking, another 2-4 years I’d say. The palate offers impressive stuffing and extract, yet also avoids slipping into the rustic category, showing a deft hand at vinifying such concentrated fruit. Excellent length. Best after 2020. Kolonaki Group.

John Szabo’s Buyer’s Guide: Greek Reds

Domain Mega Spileo 2011 Red, Achaia ($29.95)

John Szabo – A mature, raisin, dried fig and date-scented red blend of Mavrodafne and Mavro Kalavritino two very local varieties in the northern Peloponnese, with additional old leather, and old spice notes to add intrigue – complexity is high. The palate is mid-weight, juicy, firm, with dusty tannic profile and succulent acids. Good to very good length. Intriguing wine, unusual but of good quality; a discovery. Kolonaki Group (VINTAGES 466110).

Domain Mega Spileo Red 2011Thymiopoulos Young Vines Xinomavro 2016

Thymiopoulos Young Vines 2016 Naoussa ($17.95)

John Szabo – Thymiopoulos’ wines appear regularly in our Buyer’s Guide, one of the leading lights in Naoussa. The 2016 is appealingly authentic with its sundried tomato, tart red fruit, and strawberry jam flavours, and juicy-firm but not hard or over-extracted palate. It’s a food friendly, mid-weight red with nice grip, ready to drink. Victory Wine & Spirits (VINTAGES 466474)

Kir Yianni 2017 Paranga, Macedonia ($15.55)

John Szabo – Paranga is a fine introduction to Greek reds, blending the comfortably familiar plum fruit and soft nature of merlot, and the peppery spice of syrah,  with the herbal freshness and firmness of xynomavro. I like the pure red but mostly black fruit flavours and the absence of obtrusive wood. Solid length, too. Well-made wine, nicely priced. Kolonaki (General List 392175).

Kir Yianni Paranga 2017Kir Yianni Kitma Yianakohori Hills 2015

Kir Yianni 2015 Kitma Yianakohori Hills ($20.95)

John Szabo – For a more serious version of Paranga (made with the same three grapes, led by xinomavro (50%) with Merlot and Syrah), try this single vineyard from Kir Yainni. It’ s developing nicely, shifting into the mature spectrum of aromas/flavours, offering some forest floor, freshly turned earth, leather and dried herbs in a very Italianate expression. The palate is firm but not hard, with juicy-succulent acids and very good length. Tidy wine, nicely priced. Kolonaki Group.