The world is showing new interest in Greek wines. Understandable, given the new generation of talented winemakers that’s shaking up age-old traditions in Greece. An overview of typical grape varieties and pairing ideas.
My love affair with Greek wine started in 2008,” says sommelier and wine columnist Bill Zacharkiw. “It was a white wine made by Evangelos Gerovassiliou from the region of Epanomi, with two grapes I had never heard of before – Assyrtiko and Malagousia. I had to look on a map to find out where exactly Epanomi is located.”
While the names of the grapes may have been foreign to him at the time, it reminded him of a Sauvignon Blanc blended with a touch of Muscat. “Familiar, yet still unique. I vowed that day to further investigate Greek wines, and seven years later, I am still discovering new grape varieties and new grapegrowing areas.”
For the curious wine lover, Greece is a treasure chest of discovery. There are hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, many of which have been grown for thousands of years. Finding the right grape for the right place takes time, so we can safely presume that after millennia, the Greeks have done their due diligence. Many of these grapes have become so symbiotic with a terroir that they are grown only in a single region, or sometimes, on a single island.
But the real beauty of this taste travelogue is that it doesn’t cost much. The vast majority of Greek wines can be had for less than $30, and many less than $20. Over the past three years, Greek wines have exploded onto the wine scene. Sales of white wine have doubled. And as consumers gain confidence in the whites, a similar increase in red wine consumption has begun.
So where does a curious wine lover start? There is so much to discover. Here are some of the main grapes, where they are grown, and some food-pairing ideas.
If there is one grape variety that every wine lover must get to know, it’s Assyrtiko. While grown in a number of Greek regions, it is on the volcanic island of Santorini that it reaches exceptional heights.
Winemaking on the island dates back to 1000 BC and, if terroir is defined by an enduring relationship between a grape variety, a land, a climate and a people, then few places can rival Assyrtiko from Santorini. The island is a treasure of old vines, and “old” in the truest sense of the word. In many grapegrowing regions, an old vine might be 50 years old. On Santorini, it’s not hard to find vines that are well over 200 years old.
And how does it taste? In many ways it is like Sauvignon Blanc, built along acidity and freshness, though less aromatic and decidedly more mineral. It also tends to show a touch more richness.
Food pairing: Assyrtiko wines make excellent aperitifs. But because of the mineral aspect, any seafood with an iodine note will work well. So try it with raw oysters, cold lobster, octopus and clams.
Located on Mount Aroania and cooled by the winds coming from the Gulf of Corinth, this estate is gaining international recognition for the quality of its wines. A winery to watch.
Roditis is grown throughout Greece, but this pinkskinned grape is indigenous to the north coast of the Peloponnese. Its failing is also its strength as it is a vine that adjusts quite easily to many different soils and climates and can be prone to high yields which creates diluted wines. However, when done right, it can produce beautifully delicate and finessed wines. The vines do best when put in a position that will temper their ripening, which means meagre soils and high altitudes.
So what to expect? Great Roditis show floral notes like jasmine and delicate fruit flavours that can waver between citrus notes and white fruits like pear. Texture-wise, it is built along acidity, so expect freshness.
Food pairing: As Roditis is a delicate white built along freshness, it is ideally suited as an aperitif, or served with light fish, squid and shrimp. Look to Greece for entrée ideas like taramosalata (fish roe) and tzatziki with grilled vegetables.
Moschofilero is a pinkish grey-skinned grape, which is mostly grown in the higher altitudes of the appellation of Mantinia in the northern part of the Peloponnese. It drinks much like another grape of the same colour – Pinot Gris.
If there is a difference, it is that it can be crisper and with a touch more explosive aromatics.
Food pairing: First thing is to avoid the temptation to serve Moschofilero too cold. Under 8°C, you loose the aromatics. These dry, aromatic wines are ideal as an aperitif but don’t be afraid to serve them alongside fried squid, seafood pasta and most lighter fish.
Savatiano is the traditional base wine for Retsina. And while many people are mystified by this pine-resin-flavoured wine, the stuff is great when it is made right. These days, however, more and more winemakers are producing Savatiano as a stand-alone white.
The grape is grown in many parts of central Greece, but it is in the clay soils of the Mesogeia region of Attica that it dominates. These vineyards have furnished Athenians with wine for thousands of years. Talk about history. This is the wine that Socrates and Plato drank!
What does it taste like? Viognier might be a good comparable as the aromatics tend toward pear, peach and other stone fruits. The texture can be a bit oily. The acidity is moderate, just enough to keep the wine fresh. So for those of you who don’t want a high-acid white, it’s ideal.
Food pairing: Because of its richer texture, Savatiano can handle a number of richer, though delicately flavoured, plates like fettuccine alfredo, fried squid and shrimp, as well as lighter fish in sauce.
If Assyrtiko is the star of the white grapes, then a case can be made for Xinomavro as the star of the reds. Indigenous to Macedonia in the northern part of the country, it is perhaps at its most prestigious in the cool-climate region of Naoussa.
On the palate, it feels and tastes like a cross between Nebbiolo and Dolcetto. Much like Nebbiolo, the grape of Barolo, Xinomavro has both high acidity and very substantial tannins. While this can make the wines a touch difficult in youth, they age magnificently.
Be prepared for a true taste adventure. The wines will tend to show red fruit like cherries, but also look for more herbal characteristics like black olive, oregano and sun-dried tomato.
Food pairing: As the tannins can be imposing in younger wines, Xinomavro wines need red meat to offset their drying nature. Try a leg of lamb, oregano and other herbs, as well as sun-dried tomatoes and olives, as that will play nicely with the aromatics of the wine.
Agiorgitiko means St. George’s grape, a possible reference to Saint George’s chapel in the region of Nemea. Agiorgitiko is Greece’s second most-planted red grape variety and is the defining grape of Nemea in the Peloponnese. Like many Greek varieties, it has a long history and was said to have been the wine that Hercules drank after slaying the Nemean Lion.
Agiorgitiko has a moderate acidity and relatively low tannins, so it is often aged in new oak that adds some tannic bite. In terms of style, it compares with oaked Barbera– lots of red fruit, mostly plum, though with less acidity. Many wines will also show either spicy or herbal notes on the finish.
Food pairing: Agiorgitiko’s lower acidity makes it a good match for braised meats, and its fruitiness pairs well with roasted white meat like chicken or pork. Don’t be afraid to use recipes with aromatic spices like cinnamon and cloves.