A Greek revolution is afoot – a wine revolution, that is. Greek wines are having a moment. Long overshadowed by their continental brethren, Greek wines are increasingly popular while providing complex, affordable, and exceedingly food-friendly varieties. They are also enticingly unique in a saturated market of ubiquitous varietals, and worth getting to know. There is no better time to drink Greek wine than now.
A Brief History
Old World wines conjure wines of France, Italy, and Spain, but the Greeks have been making wine for more than 6,000 years. They even have a God (Dionysus) designated to wine, and viniculture weaves throughout Hellenic literature, religion, and daily life from past to present. In ancient times, Greek wine was transported throughout the Mediterranean. The Romans adopted Greek wine culture during their heyday, and Greek wine played a fortifying role in Christianity and monastic life in the Middle Ages.Yet, as with most traditions that transcend epochs, the prominence of Greek wine has ebbed and flowed throughout the ages, influenced by worldly matters and natural challenges, including the grapevine pest phylloxera, which decimated Greece’s vines in the first half of the 20thcentury.
But that was then. In the last fifty years, Greek wine has resurged, steadily growing in quality and demand. The sixties and seventies saw game-changing investments in viticulture, improvements in technology, and the reestablishment of vineyards, supported by a new generation of wine makers. In 1971 an appellation system was created, and Greek wines are now categorized based on their designation of origins or PDOs, whichare historic vine-growing and wine producing regions. These regions, or terroirs, are the key to Greek wine’s appeal.
The Secret is in the Terroir
Thanks to Greece’s natural diversity and geography, there are more than 300 indigenous grape varietals and 33 PDOs throughout the country, which is approximately the size of Florida. With a cool, wet mountainous climate to the north, a dry, arid Mediterranean climate to the southwest, and a smattering of volcanoes and windswept, sun-drenched islands in the Aegean, Greece is home to a multitude of micro-climates yielding a lexicon of unique varietals, many with multi-syllabic names to boot.
5 Greek Wines to Know
These five varietals are popular, food-friendly, commercially available, and have outstanding value. They also represent Greece from the north to south, including a volcanic island for good measure. While it may be difficult to pronounce their names, they are very easy to drink. Take a moment, have a sip, and get to know Greek wine. A glass or two may even help your linguistic skills.
Assyrtiko (Ah-seer-tee-ko)– is one of the most popular white varietals in Greece, appreciated for its crisp acidity, minerality, and austerity. Assyrtiko grapes are best known as the grape of Santorini, a volcanic island in the Cyclades designated a PDO. The grape is grown in the volcanic soil of the island and influenced by the sun, sea, salt, and wind, which contribute to its compelling characteristics. To protect the fruit from the elements, the ancient vines are woven in a basket shape. (Santorini grapes were not affected by the phylloxera decimation in the 20th century.) Assyrtiko grapes are also grown on the mainland near Attica and Macedonia. These grapes are softer and fruitier than their hardier island counterparts. Flavor and tasting notes include citrus, green and stone fruits, with mineral intensity and acidity. Pair with seafood, poultry, pasta, and grilled vegetables.
Try: Estate Argyros Santorini 2016
Agiorgitiko (Ahgior-gee-tee-ko)– is one of Greece’s oldest varieties and one of its most widely grown red wine grapes. Agiorgitiko grapes are native to the Peloponnese peninsula and the sole varietal permitted in the Nemea PDO, where the hot Mediterranean climate and mountainous landscape yield the best grapes. Agiorgitiko grapes produce full flavored and age-worthy red wines with a balance of fruit, acidity, and structure – think Bordeaux-style Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. They often have notes of dark fruit, leather, and black pepper, with subtle spice and medium-high tannins. Pair with poultry, game, spicy food, and cheese.
Try: Gaia Wines Estate Nemea 2015
Malagousia (Mah-la-goo-see-ah)– is a white grape that was nearly extinct when it was rediscovered in the seventies. It’s representative of the renaissance of Greek wines, and is now grown all over Greece, including the Rhodes PDO. Noted for its floral, fruit, and herbal aromas, including rose, apple, pear, geranium, and citrus, Malagousia grapes are used in blends, as a single varietal, and to make dessert wines. Wines produced are medium to full bodied with moderate acidity. Pair drier wines with salads, artichokes, fish and poultry, and pair sweet wines with cheese and fruit desserts.
Try: Domaine Gerovassiliou Single Vineyard Epanomi 2018
Moschofilero (Mos-ko-fee-ler-oh)– is a white grape varietal with pink-purple skin. While the grapes are grown throughout Greece, the best grapes are produced in the Mantinia PDO in the central Peloponnese peninsula where the cooler climate and higher altitudes yield the best grapes. Wines are off white in color and are also used to produce rosés and sparkling wines. Wines range from floral and light easy drinking to higher quality, more intense and mineral. Moschofilero wines are relatively lower in alcohol with medium acidity and recognized for their floral (rose) and lemon aroma. They are a popular aperitif, and pair well with salads, fresh bites, fish, and light pasta dishes. Hints of spice, medium acidity, and lightness also nudge this wine into the dessert wine spectrum.
Try: Bosinakis Winery Mantinia 2017
Xinomavro (Zhee-naw-mav-raw) – is a dark skinned grape produced in a few PDOs, including the Naoussa PDO in northern Greece. Translated from the words “sour” and “black,” Xinomavro grapes are tricky to grow, yet produce powerful, full-bodied, and complex wines, with high acidity and tannins. They age exceedingly well and are often compared to Italian Barolo and Nebbiolo wines. Xinomavro is considered to be the biggest red wine in Greece, and it pairs well with equally intensely flavored food, such as red meat and game, and mature cheese. Tasting notes include dark fruit, allspice, chocolate, tobacco, and olives.
Try: Kir-Yianni Ramnista Naoussa 2015
Lynda Balslev is an award winning writer, recipe developer, and cookbook author currently based in the San Francisco Bay area. She studied cooking in Paris and remained in Europe for 16 years, while living in Switzerland, England, and Denmark, where she learned that the best way to immerse oneself in a new culture was at the kitchen table. When she is not writing about food and wine through the lens of the travel, she writes about travel and culture through the lens of food and wine. Either way, it’s a win-win, and she looks forward to her next trip.