Roman copy of a statue of a Greek winemaker
Greece once dominated the world of wine. Whether viticulture and winemaking originally started there or in ancient Phoenicia has yet to be determined, but the land we now know as Greece was the biggest single producer and exporter of wine from the 6th to the 4th century B.C. Wine was also central to Greek culture at the time, and aspects of wine enjoyment we take for granted today -- e.g., focused tastings, sommeliers, glasses designed for particular types of wine -- all developed originally in ancient Greece.
The Roman Empire took over from Greece as the world's leading source of wine even before Greece's conquest by the Romans in 146 B.C. Centuries of conquests and occupations, especially control by the Ottoman Turks from the mid-15th century until 1821, devastated Greek viticulture. The world wars and civil war that followed continued to retard the redevelopment of a Greek wine industry. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that wineries and plantings seriously got going again. The rapid development of quality wines from Greece since then, however, suggests that Greece may once again become one of the world's leading wine producers.
I had a chance recently to taste through new releases from many of Greece's top producers at a trade tasting organized for New Wines of Greece by the Hellenic Foreign Trade Board and All About Greek Wine, a U.S.-based promotional group led by Sofia Perperas that has done much in the last nine years to educate the trade about the high quality and diversity of Greek wine.
Greece is estimated to have over 200 indigenous grape varieties. Roughly 70 percent of Greek production is white wine, and I'm a big fan of the terrific, minerally and often highly aromatic whites made from indigenous grape varieties. They're ideal for summer drinking. I also enjoy many of the reds, especially those with a few years of bottle age. Increasingly available in the United States, most of these wines are not only wonderfully food friendly, they're also excellent values. The sweet wines can be quite stunning too, but the best are made in small quantities and are in high demand in Greece, so are relatively hard to find in this country.
Greece's major white indigenous varieties include Assyrtiko, Malagousia and Savatianó. Assyrtiko originated on the island of Santorini, where it's planted on volcanic soil and produces wines with stunning aromatics, minerality and high acidity. Over the past 25 years, the grape has been planted elsewhere throughout Greece, where it tends to express a milder and fruitier character. The higher acid versions have the potential to age and evolve over 10 to 12 years, something like grand cru Chablis. Sigalas is the greatest producer; Gaia also makes an excellent version.
Malagousia is also high in acid and very aromatic, often showing pear and peach flavors. This grape had almost gone extinct but was brought back by Domaine Carras and is now very much growing in popularity and plantings. Boutari makes a very good example.
Savatianó makes up over 15 percent of Greece's plantings, and was often the base for Retsina wines -- wines with tree resin added -- for which Greece became known in the '60s and '70s. It tends to be low in acidity, but can make wonderful wines when yields are kept low. Papagiannakos makes a very good one.
Muscat, a non-indigenous grape (actually a family of grapes), is also widely used for both dry and fortified sweet wines, including types of Vin Santo -- which, in Greece, means sweet wines from the island of Santorini. Non-indigenous Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Trebbiano and Viognier are also widely planted in Greece.
Moschofilero is a pink-skinned grape grown in the central Peloponnese that produces light, high acid and floral white wines, sparkling wines and rosés. Skouras and Tselepos both make excellent white examples (the 2011 Skouras version is a great buy at about $14).
The two major red indigenous varietals are Agiorgítiko and Xinomavro. Agiorgítiko means "St. George" in Greek. It is primarily grown in Nemea, in the central Peloponnese. Wines from this grape tend to have strong acidity, plummy and often very spicy fruit and minerality. This grape is sometimes compared to Italy's Dolcetto and French Merlot. Most are made in a ready-to-drink style, but some Agiorgítikos are capable of aging due to their firm tannins and strong underlying acidity. These wines go particularly well with roasted vegetables, due to their acidity and minerality. Gaia Estate and Nemeion made very good examples ready for drinking. Skouras's Grande Cuvee is a good ageworthy version.
The name of the other major red, Xinomavro, means sour or acid black. It is mainly grown in northwestern Greece, most notably in Naoussa. It is difficult to grow, and therefore tends to show a lot of vintage variation, but can produce wines of great complexity and ageworthiness. Some versions remind me of Nebbiolo. Kir-Yianni's Ramnista is an excellent example. I have also had wonderful, aged versions from Alpha Estate and Boutari.
Other indigenous red varietals include Kotsifali, which is mainly grown on Crete and usually blended; Limnio, found in Northern Greece and Limnos, and used in Bordeaux-style blends; and Mandilaria, which is planted across Greece, low in acidity and used for blending. The non-indigenous red varieties most commonly planted in Greece are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.
For my tasting notes on 54 wines tasted at the recent trade tasting, see the full report on my blog here.