Story and phots by Manos Angelakis
Modern Greek Wines
Greek restaurants opening during the last few years in the US have been stylish spots that have elevated Greek cookery to the level of cuisine. They are serving dishes far removed from the Souvlaki, Spanakopita and Moussaka that most associate with Greek cooking. But, while good Greek food is becoming more ubiquitous, one can not say the same about Greek wines. One of the many reasons is that very few people, including most non-Greek wine experts, know or can even pronounce the names of the grapes producing the most popular wines of Greece. Greece has almost 2,000 indigenous grape varietals; a few are very distant relatives of some of the most celebrated grapes growing in the rest of Europe. The world of Greek wine becomes mostly uncharted territory to those that imbibe Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Please... let me introduce you to some of the better Greek varietals. They make wines that are great with any kind of cuisine, from a grilled bronzini to a braised veal osso buco.
Starting with dry whites, four grape varieties produce most of the better Greek white wines: Roditis, Moschofilero, Athiri, and Assyrtiko.
Roditis, is grown chiefly in the northern Peloponnese but is widely, present as far north as Macedonia. It is actually a family of clones varying in skin color from pink to light red and creates light, dry, easy-to-drink white wines mostly from vineyards in Attica and the Northern Peloponnese. Very similar in nose and palate to a pinot blanc, Roditis has notes of citrus, green fruit, and melon and is a great accompaniment to light fish dishes, meze, or even a picnic. Much of the much-maligned Retsina is made from this grape or from Savatiano, another grassy, fruity, sometimes citrusy varietal from vineyards near Athens.
Moschofilero (also moscofilero) makes aromatic, round, complex wines that are creamy on the palate with lots of spice and perfume. Moschofilero grapes have a gray colored skin and produce a wine that is considered a blanc de gris. The closest one can come to the taste of a Moschofilero made wine, is a Gewürztraminer from Alto Adige. This wine is best when paired with stronger tasting fish, octopus, or shellfish.
Athiri, grows mostly on the islands and the cooler vineyards of Northern Greece. It is often blended with Assyrtiko, Vilana or Ladikino (other unique Greek varietals) to create some of the more interesting white wines of Crete, Halkidiki, and Rhodes. It is used as 100% varietal in making the best Retsina. On Rhodes, it is also vinified for Greece's methode champenoise sparkling wine.
Assyrtiko (or Asyrtiko) grows in many areas of the country; it has the distinction of being a southern Mediterranean white grape that ripens to high acidity. Soil, climate, and elevation have significant effects on the outcome of vinification. The Assyrtiko that grows on the volcanic island of Santorini is responsible for some of the best Greek white wines. It can grow in considerably hot and dry climatic conditions, while at the same time keeping the high alcohol in perfect balance with its crisp acidity.
On the dry red side two grapes, Agiorgitiko (or St. George’s grape) and Xinomavro are responsible for most of the best Greek reds. There are other varietals that are used to make very good regional wines, like Kotsifali and Mandilaria in Crete and the Aegean Islands or Mavrotragano found only in Santorini and nowhere else in the world.
Agiorgitiko, is planted throughout the country but is most prominent in Northern and Central Peloponnese, especially the Nemea region where some impressive, old-vine vineyards create wines of international quality. Domain Skouras’ “Megas Oenos” for example, is a powerful blend of Agiorgitiko and Cabernet Sauvignon, very similar to the best Burgundy wines. Another Nemean winery, Gaia Estate creates a collectable wine from 100% Agiorgitiko grapes. These are just a couple of the better bottles made from that varietal.
Xinomavro, is the noblest red varietal of northern Greece. It is primarily cultivated in Naoussa, Goumenissa, Amyntaio and Rapsani, and, on a lesser scale, on Mount Athos, Ioannina, Kastoria and Trikala. In cooler areas, where yields are smaller, Xynomavro creates rich red wines, with a full body, high alcohol, and enough tannins for lengthy aging.
Mavrodaphne and White Moschato are responsible for most of the naturally sweet wines produced in Greece.
Mavrodaphne grapes are deep purple and develop a very distinct bouquet due to the wine’s long maturation (sometimes as long as eight years) in oak barriques. Mavrodaphne is made mostly as a dessert or sacramental wine. The nose has hints of cherry, vanilla, dried currant, and chocolate. Grapes for these wines are cultivated in the northwestern Peloponnese - primarily in the region around Patras, and on some Ionian Islands.
White Moschato (Moschostafilo) grows mainly on Samos and the northwestern Peloponnese, but is also found on some Cycladic Islands and the Dodecanese. The color of most of these wines is medium yellow/gold. Sweet and demi sec wines are created from this varietal that are very aromatic, with very characteristic floral aromas, notes of honey, spices and candied fruit. The White Moschato is a close cousin of Moscato d’ Alessandria, another varietal very widely cultivated around the Mediterranean.
At a recent tasting I had a number of good wines, mostly from small boutique wineries. That being said, a few wines from very large producers with vineyards in different parts of the country that produce a variety of different bottlings were particularly impressive. For example, from Boutari, the 20015 Grand Reserve; it is a wine made from Xinomavro grapes that grow in Macedonia. A very dry, full bodied wine, plum-colored, shifting towards a brick-red color as it is aging. Also from Boutari, from their winery on the island of Santorini, a highly aromatic Assyrtiko with high acidity was as good as the Sigalas Santorini 2017, another Assyrtiko-made white that was very aromatic, and very well balanced. A Moschofilero-based 2017 from the Tselepos Domaine, was even more aromatic than the Boutari. Made in Mantinia, an A.O.C. area of the Peloponnese, it has a crisp floral aroma of roses and violets with hints of spices and can be drunk both as an aperitif or with food.
Skouras Megas Oenos 2015 was outstanding and so was the 2015 Gaia Estate’s Agiorgitiko. Both wines benefited from 4 to 5 years cellaring. Another excellent Agiorgitiko based wine was a 2017 spicy and slightly acidic sample from the Palivou Winery, a young bottle that tasted to me as if it was an en primeur sample, bottled prior to the complete finish of malolactic fermentation.
To your health!
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