by Emma, first published in WineNZ, 2014
Mention Greek wine and most people think Retsina. While in some respects this distinctive pine-infused white represents much of Greek wine (history, individuality, rusticity) it is also a very narrow lens through which to view a fascinating and dynamic wine industry.
To travel through Greece with an eye for wine is an extraordinary journey. Wine is embedded in the culture and the landscape: the faultlessly hospitable Greeks are always ready to offer visitors a glass of the local ‘krasí’ to accompany bread, olives and fresh feta; as one passes through tiny villages, ramshackle houses sport gnarled vines in the garden and a basket press on the porch; and the myriad ancient ruins continually yield amphorae, the legacy of cultivation and production dating back almost seven millennia. Greece’s diverse climate, terroir and wine styles are impressive to say the least and the number of native varieties still commercially cultivated is simply astonishing. Expect to encounter dozens of varieties the names of which you’ve never even heard, let alone tasted.
The Greeks are certainly conscious of their history and tradition but equally are no slaves to it. While their economy is presently suffering, earlier entry into the EU brought serious investment and modernization to the industry and the next generation of winemakers, many trained in Europe’s most prestigious wine schools, are returning to family estates with new ideas, looking to retain the unique varieties and styles of their regions while breathing fresh air and vitality into the old traditions. Vineyards are being re-trellised and culled of diseased and weak vines while detailed research of native varieties has ensured great strides in clonal selection. Wineries are being cleaned up and the best of old and new technology employed in a manner that is aligning ancient varieties and styles with modern tastes.
To generalize about Greek wine is to miss both the point and the pleasure. Greece’s remarkable diversity across regions, wines and styles is one of its most absorbing features. From the very cool, elevated sites in Macedonia, home to beautiful orchards and snow-capped mountains, to the fertile, varied and ancient ruin strewn Peloponnese peninsula, to the spectacular extreme, arid viticulture of the Aegean Islands, this is a country of contrasts. That said, expect to find wines that are in tune with local cuisine, whites invariably very dry, reds with firm tannins and almost everything with high acidity (often bracingly so – the technical specs of some Santorini wines have to be seen to be believed!). Commonly encountered reds are the softer, fruity Agiorgitiko of Nemea, the densely tannic Xinomavro of Naoussa (think Greek Nebbiolo) and Mavrodaphne, a very dark, sweet-fruited red. The fresh, briskly acidic white Assyrtiko is grown the length and breadth of the country and made into many styles but the finest expression unsurprisingly is found in its native Santorini where it makes dry whites of breath-taking minerality and sensationally vivid Vin Santo; Malagousia is the elegant white of Macedonia, while Moschofilero makes delicate dry whites and sparklings in the Peloponnese. Of course, these are but the very tiniest tip of the iceberg of native varieties on offer and there are also numerous wines made from classic French varieties, either wholly or as blends with local grapes. Styles are generally dry, but there is also an impressive array of unique dessert and fortified wines. And don’t forget about Retsina – the modern take is lighter, fresher and surprisingly complex. The Tears of the Pine label is an excellent introduction.
Wine travellers are well served throughout Greece with many excellent, sophisticated cellar doors. Of particular note not far from the pretty city of Thessaloniki is Gerovassiliou Estate in Epanomi, which boasts an extraordinary museum of wine paraphernalia, from ancient amphorae to vineyard tools not to mention thousands and thousands of corkscrews. Travellers in Macedonia should look for Amynteon’s Alpha Estate and Naoussa’s Kyr Yianni, and those visiting the Peloponnese should take time to enjoy the spectacular views from Domaine Ilios, and to visit nearby Gaia Estate (whose owner also has a Santorini brewery using Nelson hops). Don’t miss the beautiful seaside town of Nafplion which also boasts Greece’s oldest wine shop, Karonis – you won’t be disappointed by either. Santorini producers Hatzidakis and Sigalas are particular standouts, though don’t overlook the local co-operative wines by any means. Space does not permit an extensive list of recommended producers but check out the excellent New Wines of Greece website for a wealth of information.
Greek food may not enjoy a global reputation the likes of France or Italy’s but this just provides an even more delicious surprise for the tastebuds. Highlights are the beautiful and delicious food at Selene in Santorini (accompanied by some pretty nice views), the elegant Clochard in Thessaloniki (try to stay nearby at the stunning art deco Hotel Excelsior) while in Athens, you must head to the harbour suburb of Pireus to dine at the superb Vasilena’s. Dining at Dionysus restaurant at the foot of the Acropolis is also pretty hard to beat for the full Greek immersion experience.
We don’t see anything like a proper representation of Greek wine in New Zealand and wine lovers are much the poorer for this. The remarkable history, diversity, and yes, sheer quality, that Greece offers is impressive. The difficulty in experiencing this in New Zealand means just one thing – go!