By: Richard Jennings
The Roman Empire took over from Greece as the world’s leading source of wine even before Greece’s conquest by the Romans in 146 B.C. Centuries of conquests and occupations, especially control by the Ottoman Turks from the mid-15th century until 1821, devastated Greek viticulture. The world wars and civil war that followed continued to retard the redevelopment of a Greek wine industry. It was only in the 1960s and 1970s that wineries and plantings seriously got going again. The rapid development of quality wines from Greece since then, however, suggests that Greece may once again become one of the world’s leading wine producers.
I had a chance recently to taste through new releases from many of Greece’s top producers at a trade tasting organized by All About Greek Wine, a U.S.-based promotional group led by Sofia Perperas that has done much in the last nine years to educate the trade about the high quality and diversity of Greek wine.
Greece’s major white indigenous varieties include Assyrtiko, Malagousia and Savatianó. Assyrtiko originated on the island of Santorini, where it’s planted on volcanic soil and produces wines with stunning aromatics, minerality and high acidity. Over the past 25 years, the grape has been planted elsewhere throughout Greece, where it tends to express a milder and fruitier character. The higher acid versions have the potential to age and evolve over 10 to 12 years, something like grand cru Chablis. Sigalas is the greatest producer; Gaia also makes an excellent version.
Savatianó makes up over 15 percent of Greece’s plantings, and was often the base for Retsina wines — wines with tree resin added — for which Greece became known in the ’60s and ’70s. It tends to be low in acidity, but can make wonderful wines when yields are kept low. Papagiannakos makes a very good one.
Muscat, a non-indigenous grape (actually a family of grapes), is also widely used for both dry and fortified sweet wines, including types of Vin Santo — which, in Greece, means sweet wines from the island of Santorini. Non-indigenous Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Trebbiano and Viognier are also widely planted in Greece.
Moschofilero is a pink-skinned grape grown in the central Peloponnese that produces light, high acid and floral white wines, sparkling wines and rosés. Skouras and Tselepos both make excellent white examples (the 2011 Skouras version is a great buy at about $14).
The name of the other major red, Xinomavro, means sour or acid black. It is mainly grown in northwestern Greece, most notably in Naoussa. It is difficult to grow, and therefore tends to show a lot of vintage variation, but can produce wines of great complexity and ageworthiness. Some versions remind me of Nebbiolo. Kir-Yianni’s Ramnista is an excellent example. I have also had wonderful, aged versions from Alpha Estate and Boutari.
Other indigenous red varietals include Kotsifali, which is mainly grown on Crete and usually blended; Limnio, found in Northern Greece and Limnos, and used in Bordeaux-style blends; and Mandilaria, which is planted across Greece, low in acidity and used for blending. The non-indigenous red varieties most commonly planted in Greece are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.