I thought I’d take a break from my Italy travels and post this article I wrote recently about Greek Wines. I am thinking of Greece a lot in these days because of the ongoing credit difficulties they are having. While their Sovereign Debt may be downgraded, I for one am upgrading my own ratings on Greek wines.
I am closely following the situation, professional deformity from my days as a financial journalist. That said, these are serious times for Greece and I’d like to at least support the wine industry. In Florence this past weekend I also ran into an old Greek friend Costantino who reminded me what a lovely country it is. I haven’t been in the past five years but do look forward to a future trip and great wines. Lastly, Dobianchi also reminded me via email of his ongoing connection to Greek wines. Check out his blog in coming days for news.
When most people think of Greece, images of glorious islands in the sun or classical buildings from ancient Greece come to mind immediately. When thinking about Greek wines, most people think of Retsina, a tradition wine from Attica made with pine resin that can be, shall we say, an acquired taste. However, the world of Greek wines has so much more to offer and luckily for us, many great Greek Wines are now available on the U.S. market.
Greece can be separated into a number of growing regions, each characterized by a particular indigenous or native grape variety. Some international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay are grown in Greece but the country is mostly looking to market its own native grape varieties. True, they are somewhat hard to pronounce but than again, the Italian and Spanish varieties were also hard to pronounce at the beginning.
Of course it is difficult to see the current Greek wine renaissance as a beginning because Greek Wine has been around for thousands of years since the Greeks ruled the world. Much has changed, however, in the last 10 to 15 years.
Experts believe that wine making in Greece began in ancient times, ca. 8000-4000 B.C. We know this because of pottery dating from ca. 6000 B.C. which contain resin. Winemaking began in the Caucasus and then spread to Mesopotamia and on to Egypt and finally to Greece. Traces of winemaking were found on Crete from 1500 B.C. The island of Crete was a major crossroads and a port of call on the trading routes in the ancient world. Many nations occupied Greece throughout the centuries including the Romans, the Venetians and the Ottomans.
The first Greek wine known on the export markets was Retsina from Attica. The second was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Domaine Carras which was founded in 1966. Greece established its appellation laws in the early 1970s. However, the real boost in the wine industry came in the 1990s, however, when producers began to look for export markets as domestic consumption shrunk.
Traditionally there were three very large and well known producers: Tsantalis, Achaia Clauss and Boutari. All three are still very well known and are even larger today.
Of the regions of Greece, the one that received an Appellation designation earliest is Macedonia. Some 460,000 hectoliters of wine are made in the region which has 13,000 hectares of vines. It has a continental climate and is more inland than most of the other regions. Drama, one the main areas in Macedonia, has been producing wine for 5000 years. Naoussa is another area in Macedonia that has been famous for its wines for more than a century thanks to the efforts of the Boutari family. The grape used in Naoussa is the red variety Xinomavro. It produces wines of great complexity and depth which can age for many years.
The three peninsulas of Halidiki: Athos, Cotes de Meliton and Epanomi are also quite famous for their red wines made from international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot. The well established wineries Tsantali and Domaine Carras are located in this area.
Central Greece is another region with more than two million hectoliters of wine being produced. This area, which surrounds Athens, is known for its white wines made from the Savatiano grape. The climate is hot in this region but the sea breezes can be a mitigating factor. Retsina from Attica is made using Savatiano vinified with pine resin. Other white grapes that grow here are Asyrtiko, Athiri, and Roditis.
Another region is Epirus where wines are made from Debina, an indigenous variety which makes elegant, floral wines. The two main towns are Zitsa and Metsovo, both are at high elevation, 600 and 1100 meters above sea level, respectively.
The Peloponnese region also produces significant wines in the town of Patras where the white variety Roditis dominates while Nemea, another town, is famous for its red wines made from Agiorgitiko. Moschofiliero, instead, is the main pink skinned grape in thw town of Mantinia. Mavrodaphne, a red grape which is made into a sweet wine is also from Patras. Achaia Clauss is the most famous winery making Mavorodaphne. The winery was established in the 1800s. More than 1.5 million hectoliters of wine are made in this area per year.
Thessaly is yet another region of Greece where wines are made. Here, in Rapsani, Xinomavro is blended with other indigenous varieties such as Stavroto and Krassato to make big tannic wines.
Winemaking has also taken place on Greece’s fabulous islands for many years. The 3000 islands can be separated into two groups: Ionian Islands and Aegean Islands.and Crete. The Ionian islands such as Cephalonia, Zakinthos and Lefkada have different grape varieties as well. Robola, a white grape grows well on Cephalonia while Lefkada and Zakinthos have local varieties which are made into wines that are only available domestically.
The Aegean islands are a different story and have been making wine since Ancient Greece. The sweet Muscat of Samos was famous in the ancient world as was the Muscat of Limnos. Rhodes makes wines using the Athiri grape and the Muscat grape as well. Wines from the romantic island of Santorini are also quite prized and the vineyards are something to see. The vines grow in a bowl like shape on volcanic soil. Assyrtiko from Santorini makes fabulous wines.
Greek wines were on show during a recent group of tastings held by Athenee Importers & Distributors. Judging from the crowd at the event, it seemed that the wines were a hit. Athenee has been promoting Greek wines in the United States for over 30 years. The Mother-Daughter operation is the first and largest importer of Greek wines in the United States. Most of the wines are available for $12-17. What emerged from tasting the wines was the immense complexity of the offering. As we move towards summer, Greece offers a change of pace at an affordable price, a decidedly winning combination