By Ed McCarthy
for Wine Review Online, 27 September 2005
Why are the wines of Greece suddenly getting attention in the U.S.? Perhaps it's because more and more American tourists are discovering them while vacationing in Greece. Also, the sprouting of quite a few fine Greek restaurants in our country has helped to promote them. But I would like to believe that the main reason is that Greek wines have vastly improved during the last decade.
Greek wines have far more hurdles to overcome than most other imported wines. The Greek language is unfathomable to all who don't speak it, making the labels which are written in Greek--still too many on the wines coming into the U.S.--incomprehensible to most of us. The indigenous grape varieties of Greece are unknown and unpronounceable to most consumers; for instance, try pronouncing Agiorghitiko, Xinomavro, or Moschofilero without a pronunciation guide! Greek wine regions are equally unknown.
Retsina has also not helped the image of Greek wines in the U.S. As a means of preservation, Greeks traditionally added pine resin to many of their wines. Known internationally as Retsina, these wines became an accustomed taste to Greeks and Greek immigrants throughout the world, but were usually unappealing to non-Greeks. Retsina is still sold today, often added to Savatiano, Greece's most widely-planted white variety. (Nowadays, however, Retsina makes up only a tiny part of the wines that Greece exports to the world.)
So, Greek wines involve plenty of hurdles, but I like a challenge. I've been to Greece twice this year, visiting all the major wine regions. And I have become a fan. Greek wines, for the most part, are my kind of wines. I love the fact that a majority of them are made from native grape varieties; right away, they are interesting and different. But I mainly like the fact that they are cool-climate wines, subtle, not overly ripe or fruity, not overly high in alcohol. Too many New World wines and unfortunately, a higher and higher proportion of European wines, are being made in the same "international" style: ripe, fruity, oaky, tannic, and high in alcohol. They're the wine equivalent of somebody smacking you in the head with a two by four. Give me moderation, even understatement, in my wines, so that I can finish a bottle without getting a headache.
Greece ranks 13th in the world today in wine production, just behind Chile; this is rather extraordinary for a country that is smaller than the state of Georgia, considering its troubled history during the last century. Greece has all of the natural endowments for a great wine-producing country: a variable, temperate climate with lots of mountains and hillsides, and all sorts of varied soils, including volcanic soils on the islands. Like Italy, much of Greece is in fact mountainous. Its varied climate allows the country to produce a wide range of wines, from cool-climate white wines made from its delicate, aromatic, indigenous variety, Moschofilero, to full-bodied reds from its indigenous Xinomavro variety, to delicious dessert wines made from the Muscat variety on Samos, Rhodes, and other islands. Greece has about 2,000 islands, 200 of which are inhabited.
A principal reason for the improvement of Greek wines during the last decade has been the Greeks' traditional respect for education. A very high percentage of winemakers (called oenologists in Greece) have been trained in the best wine schools around the world--including Bordeaux and Dijon in France, U.C. Davis in California, and in Australia.
Although Greece does produce wines from the popular international varieties such as Chardonnay, Merlot, and Syrah, any discussion of Greek wines must focus on its wonderful assortment of over 300 indigenous varieties, a number that only Italy can rival.
Sixty percent of Greece's wines are white, but red wine production is catching up, and will soon make up half of Greek wines. A small but excellent number of dry rosés are also made.
Greece has 20 Appellations of Origin for its table wines, plus another eight for its dessert wines. Wine is made all over Greece, but the country has three main regions:
--Macedonia, in northernmost Greece, with mountainous terrain and cool climates; its principal district is Naoussa;
--The Peloponnese, the large peninsula that makes up the southwestern Greek mainland; its three most important wine districts are Nemea, Mantinia, and Patras;
--The Islands; many Greek islands produce wine, but the two most important are Crete, its largest island, and the volcanic island of Santorini.
Of its 300 native grape varieties, about 15 are significant for fine wine today; two white varieties and two reds stand out. They can be found in the U.S., often either as a varietally-named wine or named after the district of their origin.
Assyrtiko (as SIR te koe)--Greece's most important and, in the opinion of many, its finest indigenous white variety; Assyrtiko grows predominantly on the island of Santorini and neighboring islands, but can be found throughout Greece. However, the finest Assyrtiko wines come from Santorini grapes. Assyrtiko is a variety with good acidity that makes bone dry wines with citrusy aromas and earthy, minerally flavors.
Moschofilero (mos cho FEEL e roe)--A very aromatic, light-bodied, cool-climate white variety that thrives in the central, mountainous Peloponnese region, around Mantinia. The wines made from Moschofilero, a pink-skinned variety from the Fileri family of grapes, is usually light in alcohol, around 11 percent, very elegant and delicate, with aromas of apricots and peaches--similar to Viognier but not as viscous. A delicious, dry rosé wine is also made from Moschofilero. Wines made from Moschofilero are a good introduction to Greek wines for the uninitiated.
Agiorghitiko (ah your RE te koe)--Probably the most commonly found indigenous red variety, Agiorghitiko-which means St. George and is sometimes identified as such on the label-is grown throughout mainland Greece, but is at its best on its home turf, the district of Nemea in the Peloponnese. Wines made from Agiorghitiko exhibit a medium to deep red color, complex aromas of plums and black currants, and velvety tannins. They resemble Cabernet Francs or spicy Merlots. This variety blends extremely well, and can often be found as a component in wines with other indigenous and/or international varieties.
Xinomavro (zee no MAV roe)--The predominant red variety in Macedonia, Xinomavro produces highly tannic, highly acidic wines with great aging potential, not unlike the Nebbiolo-based wines of Piedmont, Italy, such as Barolo. Wines made from Xinomavro have complex, fruity, spicy aromas, often reminiscent of dried tomatoes, olives, and berries; their color is quite dark when young, but lightens with age, very much like Nebbiolo.
The following are some of my favorite Greek wine producers, along with their wines which I recommend (listed in alphabetical order):
Alpha Estate, Macedonia (Greece) Xinomavro 2003 ($26, Diamond Importers): No Greek winery has impressed me more than the forward-thinking Alpha Estate, with its brilliant team of co-owner/oenologist Angelos Iatridis and viticulturist Dr. Stephanos Koundouras. Extremely low yields are the key to their intensely concentrated red wines. This 2003, 100 percent Xinomavro, is a killer wine, deep purple in color, rich, very concentrated, and a great example of Xinomavro at its best. It can age for 10 to 15 years. 94
Antonopoulos Vineyards, Peloponnese (Greece) "Adoli Ghis" 2004 ($14, Fantis): Rare, indigenous grape varieties are featured in Antonopoulos' wines; its basic white, the 2004 Adoli Ghis, is a blend of the three native varieties: Lagorthi, Asproudes, Roditis, plus a little Chardonnay. Crisp, minerally and fragrant, with lots of flavor and great acidity. Lagorthi was saved from extinction by the late, brilliant Constantine Antonopoulos, who found it growing outside of Patras. Serve it with shellfish. 88
Antonopoulos Vineyards, Peloponnese (Greece) Mantinia 2004 ($16, Fantis): A delightfully aromatic 2004 Mantinia, made entirely from Moschofilero, this shows 11.5° alcohol, and is floral, grapefruity, and irresistible on a warm summer afternoon. 90
Antonopoulos Vineyards, Peloponnese (Greece) "Gris de Noir" 2004 ($16, Fantis): The delicious, pale pink '04 Gris de Noir, all peaches, apricots, and roses, is 100 percent Moschofilero. Serve it with grilled octopus or squid. 91
Antonopoulos Vineyards, Peloponnese (Greece) "Antonopoulos Collection" 2002 ($20, Fantis): A fascinating, fragrant red wine, made with 60 percent of the indigenous Mavrodaphne and 40 percent Merlot, it is quite full-bodied, but elegant and with soft tannins. Serve it with pasta with sausages in red sauce. 90
Antonopoulos Vineyards, Peloponnese (Greece) "Gherontoklima Rematias" 2000 ($28, Fantis): A completely unique experience. This is a blend of the very rare Vertzami (60 percent) with 40 percent Cabernet Franc. Very dark in color, with deep, intense flavors of chocolate and cinnamon; incredibly delicious. Enjoy it with rabbit stewed in onions or grilled lamb. 95
Boutari Estates, Macedonia (Greece) "Filiria" 2002 ($28, Paterno Imports): Boutari, one of Greece's largest wineries, and probably the best-known Greek wine brand in the U.S., has six wine estates throughout Greece. The 2002 Fileria is a blend of two indigenous red varieties, 50 percent Xinomavro and 50 percent Negoska, both grown organically in the Goumenissa district of Macedonia. It's a rich, tannic, ample wine, well-suited for a steak dinner. 89
Gaia Estate, Santorini (Greece) "Thalassitis" 2004 ($19, Athenée Imports; Winebow, Inc.): Gaia (YEA-ah) is one of the rising stars on the Greek wine scene. Yannis Paraskevopoulos, winemaker-co-owner, is a professor of Oenology at the University of Bordeaux. Gaia makes Assyrtiko in its Santorini winery. Its 2004 Thalassitis is a stunning wine, 90 percent Assyrtiko, a minerally, intensely-flavored, full-bodied white. It could use a bit of aging. 91
Gaia Estate, Peloponnese (Greece) "Gaia Estate" 2003 ($37, Athenée Imports; Winebow, Inc.): Its flagship red, the 2003 Gaia Estate from Nemea raises the Agiorghitiko variety to a new level. It is velvety, massive, and very concentrated, and could use another five years of aging. 94
Gentilini, Cephalonia (Ionian Islands, Greece) Robola 2004 ($13, Athenée Imports; Winebow, Inc.): One of the great island wineries, Gentilini is producing an excellent white, 2004 Gentilini Robola, a crisp, aromatic, lively minerally wine, 100 percent Robola, another of Greece's wonderful indigenous varieties. 90
Domaine Gerovassiliou, Macedonia (Greece) "Gerovassilou Estate" 2004 ($20, Sotiris Bafitis Selections): Evangelos Gerovassilou, owner-winemaker, Bordeaux-educated, is one of Greece's most important winemakers. Before starting his own winery, he established Domaine Porto Carras' reputation when he was its winemaker. Among his many accomplishments, Gerovassilou isolated and propagated Malagousia, a forgotten indigenous variety now making some of Greece's best white wines. 2004 Gerovassilou Estate, an innovative blend of the assertive Assyrtiko and softer Malagousia, is crisp, lively, and minerally, with hints of lime and grapefruit. 91
Katogi & Strofilia, Attica (Greece) "Averoff Fresco White" 2004 ($12, Wines We Are Importers): One of the most progressive wineries in Greece, Katogi & Strofilia (also known as Averoff) is producing wines in three major regions. Some of its wines maintain the name of its renowned founder, Evangelos Averoff, on its label. The 2004 Fresco White, 60 percent Roditis, 40 percent Savatiano, is fresh, crisp, lively wine, ideal with seafood. 89
Katogi & Strofilia, Peloponnese (Greece) "Rosé of the Moon" 2004 ($12, Wines We Are Importers): Also called Colé, this 100 percent Agiorghitiko rosé is fruity, fragrant, and delicious. 91
Katogi & Strofilia, Peloponnese (Greece) Agiorghitiko 2004 ($17, Wines We Are Importers): A stunning, intense, aromatic red from Nemea. This '04 Agiorghitiko has great acidity, is redolent of cherries, elegant, balanced, and impressive. 93
Katogi & Strofilia, Macedonia (Greece) Xinomavro 2003 ($22, Wines We Are Importers): A 100 percent Xinomavro from Naoussa, the 2003 is full-bodied and powerful, with soft tannins. An outstanding red wine. Enjoy it with game or roasts. 94
Kir Yianni Estate, Macedonia (Greece) "Kir Yianni Estate" 2003 ($20, Sotiris Bafitis Selections): Yiannis Boutaris left the huge Boutari Estates winery in his brother Konstantinos' capable hands and founded his own small-estate winery in Naoussa, which he runs with his two sons. The emphasis is on red wines here, with the indigenous Xinomavro, Merlot, and Syrah playing key roles. The 2003 Kir Yianni Estate is an excellent dry, medium-bodied, harmonious red wine, 80 percent Xinomavro and 20 percent Merlot, with soft tannins, plus aromas and flavors of red plums. It has great length on the palate. 92
Kir Yianni Estate, Macedonia (Greece) "Ramnista" 2000 ($20, Sotiris Bafitis Selections): The 2000 Ramnista, 100 percent Xinomavro, a full-bodied, intense, austere red, has aromas and flavors of leather, olives and spices. It could use a few more years of aging. (A '95 Ramnista that I tasted was perfectly mature. 93
Mercouri Estate, Peloponnese (Greece) "Domaine Mercouri" 2003 ($15, Athenée Imports; Winebow, Inc.): Mercouri Estate, on the Ionian Sea in northwest Peloponnese, is the most picturesque wine estate in Greece. What other winery have you visited has dozens of peacocks roaming the grounds? Indigenous varieties, such as the white Roditis and the red Mavrodaphne, along with Italian (Friuli) varieties, such as the white Ribolla Gialla and the red Refosco, are emphasized. The 2003 Domaine Mercouri, 80 percent Refosco, 20 percent Mavrodaphne, is a deep cherry red wine with firm tannins, but with a velvety richness. Give it another two years to mature. 88
Mercouri Estate, Peloponnese (Greece) "Domaine Mercouri Cava" 2000 ($37, Athenée Imports; Winebow, Inc.): The 2000 Domaine Mercouri Cava is a blend of 40 percent Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (reputedly the best-aging Refosco variety), 40 percent Refosco, and 20 percent Mavrodaphne. The Cava (a Greek term for aged wine), aged 32 months before it was released, is slightly rustic in style, the opposite of an internationally-styled wine. It will age well for several years. Serve it with roasts and stews. 90
Domaine Sigalas, Santorini (Greece) "Oia" 2004 ($15, Wines We Are Importers): The volcanic island of Santorini is the best place to grow Greece's great white variety, Assyrtiko, and Domaine Sigalas is its most important producer. Paris Sigalas makes two lines of Assyrtiko, one unoaked, the other barrel-fermented and barrel-aged. The 2004 Santorini Oia (90 percent unoaked Assyrtiko; 10 percent Aidani) is intense, minerally, and concentrated; I loved it with grilled shrimp. 90
Domaine Sigalas, Santorini (Greece) "Barrel" 2004 ($18, Wines We Are Importers): The 2004 Santorini Barrel is quite full-bodied and less edgy than the unoaked '04. Both Assyrtikos age extremely well; I tasted the Oia back to 1996 and the Barrel back to 1994, and all were in good shape. 89
Domaine Spiropoulos, Mantinia (Peloponnese, Greece) 2004 ($11, Athenée Imports; Winebow, Inc.): Mantinia, 2000 to 3000 feet up in the mountains of the Peloponnese, is the home of Greece's most aromatic white variety, Moschofilero, and Domaine Spiropoulos produces one of the best versions. The 2004 Mantinia, 100 percent Moschofilero, is a delight; estate and organically grown, it has citrus, peach, and apricot aromas and flavors. A fine aperitif wine. 89
Domaine Spiropoulos, Peloponnese (Greece) "Meliasto" 2004 ($11, Athenée Imports; Winebow, Inc.): The 2004 Meliasto, 100 percent Moschofilero, is a delicate, dry rosé made from ripe, pink-tinged Moschofilero grapes, with tart strawberry aromas and flavors. Try it with seafood. 89
Domaine Spiropoulos, Peloponnese (Greece) "Red Stag" 2003 ($12, Athenée Imports; Winebow, Inc.): Spiropoulos' most interesting red is its Red Stag, a 100 percent Agiorghitiko from Nemea. The 2003 Red Stag, made with very low yields, exhibits richly flavored, plump cherry and red berry fruit flavors. Red Stag is also a fine value. Enjoyable now, but it will age for a few years. 91