When we touched down in Thessaloniki on June 2nd, I thought: The only thing better than traveling through Greece with a wine importer would be traveling through Greece with a wine importer during the FIFA World Cup. In 1998, during a summer semester in Paris...
When we touched down in Thessaloniki on June 2nd, I thought: The only thing better than traveling through Greece with a wine importer would be traveling through Greece with a wine importer during the FIFA World Cup. In 1998, during a summer semester in Paris, I learned firsthand what it means in the European community to compete on the international football stage. France hosted the games that year, and claimed their first ever World Cup title. I'll always remember the energy and excitement, plus the distinct cultural differences between soccer in the US and overseas. This time we returned to the states two days too early to watch the opening game on European turf, but I left with a thirst for big league soccer and (most importantly) modern Greek wine.
I approached our seven day trip with very little knowledge of geography or wine region classification (think French AOC or Italian DOC/DOCG). Looking at the map over the years never helped me retain a sense of place as it applies to Greek wine. Being there - riding the bus, watching the mountains and coast go by time and again, standing in the vineyards, enjoying lunches and dinners with the owners and winemakers - gave me the context I need to share the wines of Greece in an honest, meaningful way.
Broadly speaking, we traveled to three defined regions - 1) Macedonia, the vast northern area of the mainland between Thrace and Epirus 2) Peloponnese, the Southern Peninsula, and 3) The Islands: Santorini and Evia specifically. In all of these places I expected to be less interested in the international wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet and Syrah, and more curious about ancient grape varieties and the traditional wines of Greece. There are more than 300 indigenous varieties, but for the sake of navigating wine lists and retail shelves, a handful are important to know: Agiorgitiko, Assyrtiko, Malagousia, Moscofilero, Roditis and Xinomavro. While my prediction held true in some ways, I was impressed overall by the quality, authenticity and diversity of the wine produced here.
Ancient Varieties and Recommended Producers
From my experience, it's easier to remember unusual grape names if you associate them with a specific growing region:
Assyrtiko (a-seer'-tee-ko) comes from the island of Santorini - where it survived phylloxera due to the sand, sun and windy climate - but there are more recent plantings on the mainland. A nervy variety, high in minerality, especially when grown in the volcanic soil of the islands. Examples from the mainland are richer, rounder, if slightly less distinct. From Santorini, try this: 2012 Hatzidakis Assyrtiko Mylos, a stylish old vine, late harvest dry white with intense brine and mineral flavors. $29.99
Moscofilero (mos-ko-fee' le-ro) is most commonly found in the Peloponnese with the most distinguished examples from Mantinia. This is a perfumed variety often with roses and violets, and like Pinot Gris has a pinkish gray skin lending itself to white wines produced with more color than most. From Mantinia, try this: NV Tselepos "Amalia" Brut, a method traditional sparkler from Burgundy educated Yannis Tselepos, a pioneer in the region. $22.99
Agiorgitiko (ah-yor-yee' ti-ko) - A noble variety from Northwest Peloponnese producing vibrant reds and punchy Roses. Also know as 'St. George', this soft tannin grape is genetically linked to Sangiovese. From Nemea, try this: 2012 Aivalis Nemea. By law, 100% Agiorgitiko, and aged 12 months in French oak. Five generations of grape growing yields an exacting, pure style rich with plum, spice, dried herbs, mint and mouthwatering acidity. $17.99
Xinomavro (ksee-no' mah-vro) - The most important red grape of Macedonia, Xinomavro is a high acid, thick skinned variety commonly compared to Nebbiolo from Italy's Piedmont. From Naoussa, try this: 2005 Foundi Naoussa approx. $20, arriving Fall of 2014. A legendary grower in the Ramnista sub-region, Nikolaos 'Niko' Foundi is known as the "old man". Neighbors follow his lead, paying close attention to when he begins harvest and how he nurtures his vines.
Other traditional wines to know: Nykteri and Retsina.
Nykteri is a wine from Santorini made from at least 75% Assyrtiko grapes and historically harvested at night. These wines have a required minimum alcohol of 14% and are barrel aged. Before the introduction of stainless steel tanks for fermentation and storage in the 1980's, this was the traditional style of Santorini.
Not your grandpa's Retsina. Trust me, and try this: Non-Vintage Tetramythos Retsina. A delicate wine traditionally crafted from white grapes in amphora and sealed with pine resin. Refreshingly similar to aromatized wines like vermouth, with minimal pine flavoring. Only 0.1 kilo added. $9.99