Greek Wine: A Luscious Legacy

That the world of Greek wine has seen its share of woe and wonder, slumps and slights, triumphs and transformations should come as no surprise:  the Greek wine industry is more than six thousand years old.

As the cradle of civilization and many of the amenities that keep us civil,Greece can claim a vine culture that extends to prehistory.  Such pedigree has allowed the multi-faced wine regions (there are nine—seven on the mainland and two among the islands) to experiment, and ultimately perfect unique and individual styles.

Traditionally, wine was the chief trade-driver throughout Greece, and doubtless played a central role in the sophisticated economy of Minoan culture, which pre-dates the earliest records of European history.  Like all things tied to the fickleness of trade, Greek wine as a commodity enjoyed highs and lows throughout the ages, but the first truly dark age probably dates to the 1400’s, when the Ottoman invaders levied burdensome taxes on the business and drove winemaking traditions behind the cloistered walls of Orthodox monasteries.  For centuries after that, Greek winemaking was relegated to towns and villages and remained largely unregulated.  Add to that the ravages of disease (phylloxera especially) and the displacement of grapes in favor of more profitable produce like red currants, and the entire winemaking industry in Greece nearly ground to a halt.

Winemakers, by their nature, rarely sit still, and over the past twenty years, the pressures of elevating standards brought on by an international rediscovery of the virtues of wine have caused many to rethink the traditions of six thousand years.  In Epirus, for example, in the mountainous northwest, many of the native varietals like bekari and vlachiko were replanted in the Sixties with more fashionable grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, previously unknown in the region.  In Thraki, in the northeast, familiar (to Americans) varietals like chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are often seen growing alongside rhoditis and zoumiatis in a tantalizing blend of old and new.

A similar dichotomy can now be found in the other recognized wine regions, along with techniques upgraded by modern Greek winemakers, many of whom study in Bordeaux and Burgundy.  In thePeloponnesus, home to the renowned malvasia trade of the Middle Ages, modern methods are revolutionizing everything, especially among the top producers. Nemea, one of the Peloponnesus’ appellations, is considered by some to be Greece’s most important zone, and home to some of its most well-known winemakers—George Skouras, aDijongraduate, among them.  Dr. Dimitris Katsarós has made similar inroads among the flat plains of Thessalía (in south-centralGreece), making Bordeaux-style reds of cabernet sauvignon and merlot which satisfy not only commercial objectives, but his own high standards.

In rugged Macedonia (within the Naousa appellation especially) the more traditional grape variety xynómavro rules, and here, produces red wine upon which the international reputation of Greek wine depends.  Credit, to some extent, the influence of the Boutaris firm for the continued success of this hard-to-pronounce, but sensational, velvety wine, reminiscent of Burgundy’s best.

Central Greece holds a reputation (for good or for ill) as the stronghold of retsina, the pine-scented white wine vinified from the savatianó variety which is the poster child for ‘acquired tastes.’  The addition of pine sap to wine is a centuries-old tradition; it originated as a preservative to help exports survive long sea voyages.  Rhoditis, asyrtiko and athiri are grapes which also call Central Greece home.  Although red wine production is limited here, cabernet sauvignon is growing in popularity as the cultivar of choice.  The island groups, the Ionian and the Aegean, are worlds unto themselves, with traditions unique in the world, including the crawling vines of Parosand the wreathing vines of Santorini.  Many of these vineyards contend with volcanic soil, unyielding winds, and the ravages of salt water—obstacles they’ve been overcoming since prehistory.

A rich enological history and the pressures of high standards brought on by the current revolution in the wine industry have promised to keep Greece in a continual state of evolution, and like the ancient gods on Olympus, for Greek winemakers, the sky’s the limit.

Tasting notes:

Kourtaki Retsina, about $7:  Greek wine notes aren’t complete without a sip of bizarro-world retsina, whose characteristic taste does not hint of pine sap—it is pine sap.  Dry and piquant, it’s the poster child for ‘acquired taste’, born of an age when they sealed wine barrels with pine resin.  We’re only grateful they never heard of Superglue.

Achaia Clauss Mavrodaphne, around $12:  As unique as it is Greek; a syrupy red dessert wine filled with a surprising array of chocolate, cherry, earthy mushroom, baked apple and caramel notes.

Boutari Moschofilero, Mantinia, about $13:  Thank the folks at Boutari for introducing moschofilero to the States; get past the pronunciation (mosko-fee-la-ro) and wrap your tongue around rose-petal, peach and melon flavors in this silvery, exotic and bargain-priced iconoclast.

Costa Lazardis Amethystos Drama, Santorini, about $15Greek Geek note: Some Santorini vines are 300 years old and are not grafted onto American rootstock because phylloxera never made it this far. Meanwhile, this aromatic blend of asyrtiko, sauvignon blanc and semillon is a wash of minerality (the result of volcanic soil) and smoky pear, lemon and grapefruit flavors.  Try it with hummus.

Boutari Xinomavro, Naousa, about $18: A Macedonian mouthful that’s now beginning the lose the iodine-red blush of a young xynómavro.   Decanter called this ‘Homer’s wine’ with no reference to Simpson.  Beautifully acidic, rich with pronounced tomato tones and sweet spices.

Domaine Skouras Megas Oenos, around $28: An elegant blend , primarily aghiorgitiko enriched by cabernet; very smoky and barbecue friendly with overtones of black cherry, plum and truffles.  Aged in tightly-grained Alliers oak barrels from central France, giving the wine a nice chewy finish.

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