While they are increasingly becoming in vogue on wine lists from New York to old York, there are still misconceptions and apprehension on the part of consumers when looking at Greek wines. So here is a (short) history, description and guide to the difficult to understand (and pronounce) world of Greek wines.
A (short) history of Greek wine
Wine, like politics, philosophy, history, art and sport, would not exist as we know it were it not for the ancient Greeks. Traded from the middle east and grown in Greece from at least 6,500 years ago, Greek wines were traded all around the Mediterranean, gifted to mortals by Dionysus, were immortalised in the Iliad, consumed by King Agamemnon, & Homer has Herakles drink it after slaying the Nemean lion. Greek wines fuelled the musings of Socrates, Plato & the symposiums of a hundred other philosophers, were held in high esteem through the early and late Roman Empire and were drunk by knights all over Europe in the early medieval period. So why are they only just beginning to be esteemed again now? Here are a few reasons:
Firstly, the domination of Greece by the Ottoman Empire meant that Islam ruled a previously medieval world, and whilst Greek wine production never halted, it lost its prestige and was only drunk by common folk for sustenance – rarely if ever for prestige or status.
Secondly, their variety and unique qualities meant that the were hard wines to standardise or understand, the pronunciation of their names certainly didn't help – whilst the rest of Europe & America were struggling to pronounce grapes such as Viognier, Cabernet Sauvignon & Albarino, even more struggled to pronounce Greek grapes such as Xynomavro (Zee-no-mav-ro), Assyrtiko (Ah-seer-tee-ko) & Moschofilero (Mohs-koh-fee-leh-roh)– especially when we don't even share the same Alphabet.
Thirdly, tradition and little reason to break it. Greece is a place of dominant culinary traditions that have been passed on for generations. After independence and two world wars, Greece had little ability to modernise and grow unlike countries such as France & The US. For a long while in post-war Greece, the poverty and a small middle class meant fewer people with incentive to make wine, and more importantly, fewer people to buy it, making for a poor domestic market that was generally happy with the table wines that they made. When Greece joined the EU, regulatory standards were tightened which led to cuts in volume of output but improvements in quality – it also allowed for Greeks with more scientific approaches to study in the great vineyards and universities of Bordeaux, Italy and Burgundy, bringing back knowledge, equipment and modern techniques to apply to their own country. Since then Greek wine has undergone a revolution and is becoming some of the most unique, fascinating wine in the world, with a host of different species of Greek that make a new vocabulary necessary for many sommeliers.
Finally, after the financial turmoil of Greece in the 21st century, a more volatile internal market led more confident brands to pursue external markets including the UK, the US and even China who are all looking to find more nuanced and unique wines.
The grapes & places
While the connotations that people have of Greece are beautiful, rocky islands and arid grasslands; there are a great variety of different areas that grow between 300-350 different grape varietals in very different climates and soils.
On the Amyndeon Plateau, Macedonia in the North, at altitudes between 500-700 metres the red fruited Xynomavro is planted in a cool micro-climate, conjuring red fruit and earthy flavours, similar to pinot noir in complexity and acidity, but with firmer tannins that make for powerful aged wines (try a Noussa).
To the South in the Peloponnese, in its three appellations Nemea, Patras and Mantinia, you'll find a variety of styles. In Mantinia you'll find Moschofilero which is aromatic, floral and reminiscent of a soft Gewurtztraminer with a lighter body and without that oily character that often puts people off, indeed the locals often refer to it as "a rose bouquet". In Nemea, you can find more sun-drenched reds such as the increasingly renowned Agiorgitiko, a rich, perfumed red grape that retains acidity in the sun, can age well and produce firm, full wines or lighter styles.
The variety of grapes grown around the islands are more numerous than the islands themselves; but the big player is Assyrtiko, a grape almost as versatile as Chardonnay, it covers 65% of the vineyards of Santorini and reflects the characteristics of where it's grown nicely, giving a high acidity, mineral flavours and thriving in the poor volcanic soils of Santorini especially, but excelling elsewhere as well. Increasingly grown inland as well, it pairs nicely with Malagousia, Sauvignon Blanc & Semillon to make interesting aromatic wines that trade minerality for floral notes.
Pairing with food
Local foods with local wine is almost always a fail-safe option; and the rich island Assyrtiko wines with salty white fish dishes will never serve you badly; they also work with strong Greek cheeses like Arseniko; with it's crisp, mineral acidity cutting through the fat nicely. The delicate, complex Xynomavro pairs nicely with Greece's light Mediterranean meats like Louza as well; there's nothing quite like pork Gyros and a light style red. However, don't just stick to safety, the aromatic Moschofilero will work nicely with spiced & sweet Chinese and south-east Asian dishes. If you're wanting heavy, then bolder aged incarnations of Agiorgitiko will be strong enough to hold their own against a beef rib-eye or venison dish as easily as a big Cabernet Sauvignon – with the dark red fruits and spice adding their own personality to the meal.