Julie Dupouy dispels the myths about lacklustre Greek wines …
I truly discovered Greek wines in 2012, during my honeymoon in Santorini. I say truly, as I had swirled, sipped, and spat many over the years at large trade tastings. A large bustling tasting hall with hundreds of wines on show, rain pelting the windows and winemakers straining over the crowd to get their philosophy across was, in hindsight, perhaps not the best way to discover Greek wines.
My husband and I had picked up a bottle of local white wine in a small off-licence in Oia village, to enjoy a glass later that evening on the terrace of our hotel room, watching the sun set over the endless blue of the Aegean Sea, with a rainbow of scents wafting up from the nearby village restaurants and the day’s warmth radiating from the beautiful stone buildings of the famous Oia skyline.
The wine was a “Nychteri” wine, a traditional style made from ultra-mature grapes, harvested during the day, and pressed at night. I fell for its charm and my love for Greek wines has been on a one-way trajectory ever since.
Finding a bottle of Greek wine outside its native country was until recently quite rare. Fortunately, it is not as uncommon as it used to be, and little gems are now popping up in most independent wine shops.
The most famous of all Greek wines, Retsina, something you may very well have tasted if you’ve dined in Greece, has probably not done the ambitious wine makers of Greece any favours. Retsina is a white or rosé wine infused with Aleppo Pine sap. Simple and certainly unusual, it’s a perfect option for those who enjoy a holiday discovery. But it is the more gourmand and complex wines of Greece which are now drastically improving the reputation of Greek wine makers for an international audience.
Greece enjoys a beautiful diversity of climates and terroirs, from volcanic to coastal and continental. Many vineyards are planted on mountain slopes, using altitude to achieve fresher, more digestible styles of wine. The Greek stable is incredibly rich thanks to a multitude of indigenous grape varieties with great names such as Assyrtiko, Xinomavro, Moschofilero and Agiorgitiko.
The most interesting whites I have tasted over the years have consistently come from the volcanic island of Santorini in the southern Aegean. On the poor soils of the island, the Assyrtiko grape is king. It is typically blended with two other local grapes, Athiri and Aidani. Many of the vines are over 100 years old and are trained low and close to the soil, to protect the grapes from the strong Meltimi winds. These basket-shaped vines are known as “kouloura” and they create a wonderfully memorable landscape across the island.
Assyrtiko produces full-bodied, dry white wines, full of minerality and salinity which can age for many years. A sweet white wine, called “Vinsanto”, is also produced from the grape. Aged in wooden casks before release, it is a very fine and rare nectar whose quality-to-price ratio is as strong as any bottle on the sweet wines shelf. Raisinous, complex and beautifully balanced, it makes for an excellent glass to be enjoyed by its itself or with various dessert options.
Mainland Greece also produces delicious white and red wines. One of the finest red wines is produced on the slopes of Mount Vermio and sold under the appellation Naoussa. The wines are made from a grape called Xinomavro which translates to “black and sour”. If you enjoy both the freshness and structure of Nebbiolo wines and the generous fruit and Mediterranean character of Southern Rhône wines, then Xinomavro is a style for you. A few years ago, these wines would have been described as “rustic” but today, in the hands of visionary winemakers, they are top-class red wines at reasonable prices.
In the heart of the Peloponnese region lie two wine areas worth noting: Nemea and Mantinia. Mantinia produces some deliciously fresh and fragrant white wines made from the Moschofilero grape variety, the Greek counterpart to Spanish Albariño wines. Nemea was famous in Greek myth as the home of the Nemean Lion, killed by the hero Heracles and wines from this region are often referred to as “Heracles’ blood”. The sole grape used to produce red wine in the area is called Agiorgitiko, which gives wines which range in style from fruit-forward and juicy to full-bodied and complex, depending on the winemaker’s philosophy.
Crete offers a wide diversity of styles made from local varieties. The grapes Liatiko and Mandilaria are two of the most promising red varieties on the island. Liatiko makes some lovely dry and sweet red wines typically with generous ripe red fruit and spice aromas with a lovely smooth texture. Mandilaria offers fleshy, velvety wines, deep fruit flavours with medium tannins and fresh acidity, which often remind me of the Barbera-based wines from Piemont in Italy.
A few months must pass until boarding commences on summer flights. Why not take yourself on a little Greek adventure the next time you have an evening to disconnect and unwind. Whatever is on the menu, Greece has a wine to transport you back to the Eastern Med. Yamas!
Six Greek Wines to Try
Kir-Yianni, Ramnista, Naoussa PDO, €22; www.onthegrapevine.ie.
Assyrtiko, Oak Fermented, Estate Argyros, Santorini Island, €32; www.h2gwines.ie.
Naoussa Alta, Naoussa PDO, Thymiopoulos Vineyards, €23.95; www.baggotstreetwines.com.
Roditis, Giannikos Winery, Peloponnese PGI, €18.95; www.mitchells.ie.
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