Before Covid the average number of tourists to Greece from the UK totalled 3.5 million, so exposure to the culture of this great country was quite widespread. If you stepped back a few years and asked someone about the wines of Greece, then they would have probably talked about Retsina – which is a highly individual flavoured with pine resin infusion – very marmite indeed!
The country has more than 30 appellations, 120 regions, and 300 native grape varieties. Over the last 25 years, and since joining the EU, the wines of Greece have taken on new and exciting dimensions, with quality soaring and new grape varieties and styles emerging. Above all, Greece, like Italy and Portugal in Europe, is home to some of the finest and most individual indigenous varieties and this blog will highlight just a few of these. And it is a testament to pioneers like Steve Daniel of Vinum Wines who was one of the first to see this potential and champion their causes – and probably did more than anyone to bring them to our attention.
Greece is one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world – there is evidence of wines being made over 5,000 years ago. Trade in wine became widespread, and exports to Italy under the Roman Empire became significant for example. By the middle ages exports had developed as far afield as northern Europe. Through this period, they also started to export vine cuttings which were to become the foundation of many other European wine cultures in due course – not least Italy and France.
By 1937 Greece had established its first Wine Authority within the Ministry of Agriculture. Retsina sales boomed and new plantings multiplied. By the 1970s formal legislation started to define wine regions, grape varieties, and production practices – the foundation of the modern Greek wine industry had evolved.
A hierarchy of appellations (very much with a French skew!) was evolved based around geographical origins. These are:
- Protected Geographical Origins (P.D.O) – a superior quality area
- Protected Geographical Identification (P.G.I.), – a quality production area
These would be equivalent to and AOC and Vin de Pays in France for example.
Main Regions and star grapes and wines
Greece has four main wine regions – Northern Greece, Central Greece, The Aegean Islands, and Southern Greece. Climate varies significantly from very cold winters in Northern Greece roasting hot summers in the South Aegean. With great variability in soils and a host of indigenous varieties it is no surprise that this country offers tremendous variety and quality. Here are some highlights:
There are 3 main regions here – Epirus, Macedonia, and Thrace. These areas are characterised by cold winters and mild summers. The most famous (black) grape is Xinomavro. The star area for this variety is Naoussa. Xinomavro has qualities not unlike Nebbiolo in Piedmont and Naoussa is sometimes referred to as “the Barolo of Greece”, with a full body, firm tannins, high acidity and flavours of cherry, spice, and a touch of black olive.
In the Central Macedonia vineyards near Thessaloniki you find the ancient white variety Malagousia. At Domaine Gerovassiliou, this superb grape was rescued from extinction in 1981 by Evangelos Gerovassiliou who noted its potential, which he has realised in successive releases of his Epanomi cuvée. It has a wonderful creamy texture and quite exotic and spicy notes – with stone fruit qualities, white pepper and even a touch tropical. If you like the Viognier grape you will love Malagousia.
The Aegean Islands
These staggeringly beautiful islands are maybe the sun worshippers dream and image of Greece. Probably the most important and iconic from a wine perspective is the volcanic island of Santorini. And the key grape variety here is Assyrtiko. The high ash content in the soil, combined with the naturally high acidity in the grape give these dry white wines a racy, mineral character with vibrant citric fruit. And they will tell you on the island that they are the home for the famous sweet Vinsantó style – not Italy. This spectacular wine is made from late harvested, semi dried grapes, which are aged for extended periods in oak casks. They have wonderful notes of caramel and raisins, but also tremendous freshness due the naturally high acid levels in the Assyrtiko grape. Top producers also blend in proportions of the local Aidani, and Athiri grapes to add further complexity and range of flavours. This is simply one of the world’s greatest dessert wines.
Due to the strong, prevailing winds, grapevines are trained to grow into a kouloura— close to the ground resembling a wicker basket (please see picture). This helps protect grapes and leaves from scorching winds and hot sun. This is one of the most amazing and individual training methods used anywhere in the wine world.
The key grape here is Agiorgitiko (also known as Saint George’s grape) most famously associated with the Nemea region, in the heart of the Peloponnese. It produces wines of a slightly “sweet and sour” note with bold briary fruit flavours – sometimes a touch of raspberry liquor. It is believed to be one of Greece’s oldest varieties, grown for over 4000 years in Nemea.
These are just a taster to the rich and diverse offerings in this country. Wine Trust have long championed Greek wines and to try and make an event of it I thought of an idea of a Greek dinner with a cross section off the list to pair with the food. From searches I came across this interesting looking menu option which I thought would be useful to supply as a suggestion? Just type in on your search button – the “Real Greek Recipes” is a good site
Red Pepper, Feta and Olive Frittata served with a Tzatziki dip
Kleftiko Lamb Oven Baked (in paper) with Vegetables (for vegetarians just use a more extensive mix of vegetables) – the classic mix I believe is potatoes, bell pepper, onion, garlic, courgette, carrots, Greek Kefalotyri or Graviera cheese, and flavoured with mustard and thyme
Honey Lemon Cake served with Greek Yogurt
And of course, the Wine Trust wines to match. The Gaia Santorini is very crisp, critic and mineral; the Gervassiliou Malagousia textural stone fruits and soft spice. The Gaia Nemea is briary and not too tannic, whilst the Diamantakos Naoussa is savoury and fuller bodied with cherry fruit. The Argyros Vinsantó is just hedonistic with burnt sugar and confit fruits – which you could extend as a partner to a cheese board should you wish!
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NA 2020 09