Wine production in Greece goes as far back as 3rd Century BC. Evidence of winemaking was found in vessels uncovered from ancient times; vessels I saw with my very own eyes. It’s safe to say that the Greeks introduced viticulture to some of the top fine wine producing countries of today.
So, what happened to Greek wine culture? During troubled times for Greece, towards the end of the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire, vines and wine production virtually disappeared. Some areas of the country continued to grow grapes and produce wine, but standards were low and the quality was poor. Much of the production was carried out by Monasteries for religious purposes.
It seems that today, despite its oft discussed economic troubles (seriously, nearly everyone there seems to ‘joke’ openly about it), Greece is making a comeback when it comes to quality wine production. Some Greek producers hold tight to deep seated traditions, indigenous grape varieties, and planting practices, but there are also wineries embracing modern techniques and employing a crop of ambitious young winemakers that are just begging to be taken seriously.
On a recent trip to Athens, Naxos, and Santorini, I mostly fell for the white wines, and particularly for Assyrtiko. That’s no surprise as much of the best Greek wine is centered on white varieties. The weather, filled with sunny days and warm breezes, and the island cuisine of fresh fish and local produce, only adds to the appeal of refreshing white wines, and the occasional rose.
The quality of the whites I drank ranged from a barely drinkable “homemade” house white at a Taverna in Anafiotika, to an easy, charming Assyrtiko recommended by the glass in Athens, and finally to a special, memorable, wild-ferment Assyrtiko at the Gai’a Winery in Santorini. The Assyrtiko grape presents itself in many different styles. It can be mineral-laden and citrusy with bracing acidity or more rounded out from oak ageing with peach and floral flavors. It’s also the main grape used to produce the traditional late harvest wine, Vinsanto, in which the lovely acidity balances out the sweetness to produce enchanting fig, caramel, and orange flavors.
I was pleasantly surprised by the reds as well, and sampled a wide variety of styles, from charming and buoyant to powerfully tannic. The two red grapes I came across most often were Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro and many times these were blended with other indigenous Greek grapes or international varieties including Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Most Agiorgitiko is from the Nemea appellation in southern Greece, where the high altitude vineyards allow for the best balance. Xinomavro is one of the boldest, most structured reds from Greece. In the Naousa appellation, up north, it is produced as a single variety wine and in Rapsani, further to the south near Mt. Olympus, it is blended.
All in all I came away with a very favorable opinion of Greek wine; both for what it is and where it’s headed. It wasn’t just the vibrant green-blue waters of the Aegean, the backdrop of whitewashed houses, or the labyrinth-like streets of quaint centuries-old villages that made the wine taste good. It is good. Not that I would argue that being in this beautiful place certainly added to the allure.
(Hint: Don’t say “Opa!” when you toast someone with a drink in Greece, say “Yamas!”. Opa is used as an alternative to “oops” rather than a way to say “cheers”. We heard opa most when we were about to rear-end the car in front of us in Santorini traffic.)
Some of the wines I tried (errr, drank):
2011 Tsantali Rapsani – A traditional blend of Xinomavro, Krassato, and Starvroto grapes. A red that is light on its feet with sultry flavors including berries and savory notes. The wine almost tastes like the sun; or is that sundried tomato? Soft tannin and fresh acidity. Older vintages look to be available in the U.S. for $15 – $20.
2010 Diamantakos Xinomovra Naoussa - A third-generation family winery makes this bold red, which is aged in American and French oak barrels. A bigger red than expected given I had only tasted very light Greek reds up to this point. The wine has noticeable, chewy tannins and aromas and flavors including black cherries, white pepper, and earthy notes. Not readily available in the U.S. but if it were it would probably run around $35 retail.
2008 Kir-Yianni Diaporos Single Vineyard Red Macedonia - Wow. We ordered this with a Strip Steak (based on a recommendation, to be fair) and it really was the perfect accompaniment. The winery was founded by Yiannis Boutaris in 1997, who had been at his grandfather’s family winery, Boutari, which was established in 1879. The wine is a blend of 87% Xinomavro and 13% Syrah from a single block of the Yianakohori Vineyard in Naoussa. It does a wonderful job of balancing power and elegance. Available (NY) for $30 retail, although I’m not sure this is the single vineyard, which may be a bit more.
2008 Boutari Grande Reserve Naoussa - 100% Xinomavro from the winery, mentioned above, founded by Ioannis Boutaris in 1879. The wine is aged 4 years, 2 years in oak barrels and 2 years in bottle and I loved tasting the still-fresh cherry along with dried fruit and baking spices. We were asked to guess the unique flavor in this wine and, although I didn’t want to be “that wine person” I finally had to throw out “tomato”. This was correct and was supposed to win me a bottle of Grande Reserve. Funny, I didn’t leave the winery with it, though! $25 U.S. retail.
2013 Gai’a Assyrtiko Wild Ferment Santorini - As mentioned, I enjoyed many examples of the Assyrtiko grape, especially the ones with bracing acidity. This one stood out, however, for its depth. The citrus and acidity are still there, but the wine has a richer palate and lots of mineral flavors and some nutty notes. It spends 12 hours on the skins and is then moved to small tanks, French and American oak, and acacia barrels where fermentation is allowed to develop naturally. The tanks and barrels with the most character are chosen for the Assyrtiko Wild Ferment. Available at retail for $25-$30.
2002 Gai’a Vinsanto Santorini - Before arriving in Greece, I’ll admit I still was not clear on the difference between Vinsanto from Santorini and Vin Santo from Italy. Vinsanto, or wine from Santorini, is a tradition dating back to the 7th century B.C. It is a dessert wine made from majority late-harvest Assyrtiko grapes and is distinct from Italy’s Vin Santo (wine of the saints), where the tradition of this “holy wine” is more tied to the church. We tasted many delicious Vinsantos on the trip but the Gai’a wine had such a pretty bolt of acidity that it made the sweetness all the more palatable. Not readily available at retail but would be $50-$60.
A word about Retsina. Retsina is a wine, sometimes rose but mostly white, flavored with pine tree resin. Greeks have had more than 3,000 years to warm to the taste, but for me it wasn’t particularly enjoyable. As with anything, there are fine examples and lesser examples but you really need to appreciate your wine with a sharp bite to enjoy it. The concept came about as a means to preserve wine being shipped; containers were sealed with pine resin to avoid spoilage and people took a liking to the aroma and flavor. According to a few Greek bartenders we spoke to, Greeks don’t drink it much anymore but they have to have it on hand for tourists who ask about it (guilty).