Posted on October 14, 2016
Greece... The name calls to mind images of white buildings with sky-blue rooftops, blazing against the vivid waters of the Aegean. The timeless myths of the Olympians, tales of the great warriors of Sparta and Athens, and the lasting works of formative philosophers and scientists inspire the imagination...
What it doesn’t necessarily conjure is a reputation for world class wine, which is odd as Greece was the birthplace of viticulture and vinification, producing wine for almost 6,500 years. Greeks were the first to transport winemaking practices to Italy, naming the land Oenotria (“Wine-Land”) for its suitability for viticulture, as well as to France, Sicily, and Spain. Yet after laying the groundwork for these modern wine regions, things began to change.
In terms of winemaking in the modern age, Greece has long been held back by certain pressures that make their limited production of wines from small producers difficult to distribute in the global market. Lack of economic stability in the 20th century also prevented Greek wineries from modernizing with the rest of the world. And although the climate is well-suited to grape growing, it isn't nearly as easy as it is for most other regions. High-altitude vineyards sit atop extremely tall, craggy mountains. Warmer regions can be brutally hot and windswept, to the point that vines are severely damaged or killed.
Still, the Greeks persevered. Since joining the E.U. more and more resources have been funneled into the Greek wine industry. This allows for winemakers to harness the full potential of their viticultural wealth. And so they are (once again) producing excellent wines at what is often a great value.
Some Key Greek White Grapes:
Moschofilero - a blanc de gris variety, meaning there is some color to the skins, Moschofilero grows mostly in the rugged, mountainous region of Peloponnese, where the elevation and inclines can make harvests very challenging. It is particularly suited to producing highly aromatic, floral white wines, and can also produce sparkling wines.
Assyrtiko - a white variety, extremely hardy and resilient, sometimes compared to Riesling for its ability to retain vibrant acidity in harsh climates. Grown primarily on the island of Santorini, which experiences harsh heat and powerful winds. The grape growers here have developed a unique system of weaving vines into a basket shape, so the grapes grow inside the vine and are protected from external pressures.
Lagorthi - a rare white varietal grown primarily in the Peloponnese, though it has been largely forgotten in mainstream winemaking. This white grape produces a medium-bodied wine with striking acidity and robust, fruit forward flavors.
Savatiano - though Savatiano can make delightful conventional wines, it is perhaps best known as the base for the traditional beverage retsina, a wine flavored with pine resin, that has both built and deeply hindered the reputation of Greek wines. Originally, the resin was thought to be a preservative to protect wine on long voyages. That was largely unsubstantiated, but a taste developed for the strong pine flavor, and production has continued for centuries. An appellation was created specifically for the production of retsina, both to preserve the tradition and to differentiate it from modern Greek winemaking.
Some Key Greek Wine Regions:
The Peloponnese - Technically an island, separated from the mainland by the Corinth Canal, constructed in 1893, the Peloponnese is the southern peninsula of Greece. Intensely mountainous on the interior, this region produces exceptional red and white wines, especially in Mantinia (from Moschofilero, white) and Nemea (Agiorgitiko, red).
The Aegean Islands - This range of volcanic islands in the Aegean Sea is famous for both its wines and its extraordinary beauty, with vast seascapes and pristine white beaches. The best known island is Santorini, which produces bitingly mineral driven white wines from the Assyrtiko grape. In fact, due to the popularity of tourism in the Aegean, many ancient vineyards are being pulled up to make room for more lucrative hotels and restaurants.
Macedonia - In the northern portion of the country, these high-elevation vineyards enjoy a markedly cooler climate than the rest of the country. Naoussa is the most famed region, where the primary grape is Xynomavro, a thin-skinned black grape that is sometimes compared to Nebbiolo for its powerful tannins and bold acidity. Literally called “acid black,” this is thought to be Greece’s most age-worthy grape, though of course only time will tell!
Care to experience the wines of Greece for yourself? Stop by on Friday, October 14th from 6-8 PM to taste three excellent white wines with Sotiris Bafitis, Greek wine importer. Sotiris is one of the experts most responsible for the influx of quality Greek wine into New York over the past few years, and we’re thrilled to have him.