Wines of Greece – No longer so “Greek to me”

Summertime is here. Grill masters abound. Greek wines are perfect for backyard grilling extravaganzas. Feel free to invite friends over as these wines won’t break the budget.

Recently, I shared with three different friends that there were some lovely Greek wines that I thought they should try. Unanimously, I received the same response… a puzzled look, followed by a smirk and a “sure, right” comment.

I have had the opportunity to peer into the MW (Master of Wine) bag of tricks and I became intrigued to learn that Greek wines were part of their shtick. So, when I was extended the opportunity to attend an extensive presentation on Greek wines with a comparative tasting of these wines to international varieties, I hopped right on it.

Here’s the deal. Even in our current economic climate, people are not going to give up wine; however, consumers are by far more sensitive to prices than they were a few years ago. Wine is consumed in two ways – by itself or with food. People love food. People love food and wine together. Some wines stand on their own. Some wines perform best with food. Do as the Greeks have done for over 4,000 years. Consume their wines with good food and conversation. Oh, and did I share that most have a $20 or lower handle?

With over 350 indigenous varieties that are not genetically linked to any other varietals in the world, the wines of Greece are truly unique. While Greek wines are distinct and not directly comparable, this forum gave people a side-by-side comparison with other more popular international varietals, so if someone liked some of the characteristics of “X popular varietal,” then they might also enjoy a glass of “Y Greek varietal.” The tasting was lead by Doug Frost, one of three people in the world who is both MS and MW. He is true lover of Greek wines. I tried quite a few of these Greek wines, but the ones I thoroughly enjoyed (and plan on buying for myself) were made from the following two varietals – Assyrtiko and Xinomavro. Doug described these two varietals as “the divas,” which I concur as being a good descriptor.  Here’s the secret decoder ring. If you enjoy the austerity, acidity and minerality of a Chablis or Riesling, you might fancy an Assyritko. If you like the dustiness and earthiness of Barbaresco (Nebbiolo) or Brunello (Sangiovese), you might want to try Xinomavro.

Greek Wine Classification

Before we get into the goods, it’s important to know what we’re looking at. (For those who are starting to hear Charlie Brown’s teacher, feel free to skip to the next paragraph.) Greek wines comply with EU legislation. There are two main categories:

(1) Quality Wines Produced in  Specific Regions (V.Q.P.R.D.)

  • O.P.A.P. – wines that are equivalent to V.D.Q.S. (Vins Délimités de Qualité Supérieure)
  • O.P.E. – wines that are equivalent to A.O.C. (Appellation d’Orgine Contrôlée), which is only used for dessert wines

(2) Table Wines

Since their O.P.A.P. are the highest tier and reasonably priced, these are the wines I am going to discuss.

Assyrtiko – Greek Diva #1

I first tried Assyrtiko 11+ years ago when I visited Santorini for the first time with my partner-in-crime Premila. Fresh off our arduous day of  experiencing the landscape of white washed churches against that gorgeous Greek blue water, we were tasked with the difficult decision of which wine we would have to watch the sunset over the caldera. This wine goes exceptionally well with food. It can be very acidic (pH of 3, so even higher in acidity than what you’d find in Mosel) while also having fairly high alcohol levels (13-13.5%). It’s usually one or the other in the wine world, but not both. Assyrtiko is grown throughout Greece, but Santorini is its original home. These wines scream Greek Islands on the palate… briny, sea air combined with crisp, fresh citrus and minerality from the volcanic rock. It will go really well with marinated and grilled seafood, chicken and lamb dishes (with yummy tomatoes… mmm).

They don’t trellis their vines. Rather, they twirl the vines in a basket-like fashion to protect them against the winds and extreme heat. I hope this is not blasphemous, but think crown of thorns for a visual. With the extreme conditions, wine growers are lucky if they yield 12 Hl/Ha. For comparison, this is similar to yields from Château d’Yquem. Phylloxera requires at least 5% clay on the soil to be viable. Since there is no clay here, these vines are phylloxera free. The low level of potassium in the soil means the grapes naturally have a low pH. The volcanic soil absorbs any and all the humidity it can get, which is primarily from the sea, creating that minerality of Santorini wines.

I also learned Assyrtiko ages fantastically, so I plan on trying a little experiment of my own.

  • Estate Argyros Assyrtiko, Santorini 2009
    Founded in 1903, Estate Argyros is now run by the 4th generation Matthew Argyros along with his father Yiannis Argyros. Yiannis is “considered one of the best makers of dry white wines in Greece and his estate won the Wine & Spirits Magazine 100 Best Wineries in 2005 and 2006.” Their vines range in age from 50-300 years old. Yiannis crafts his wines alongside with oenologist Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, of GAI’A fame.
    Tasting notes: $27, 13% alcohol, These vines are 50-60 years of age. Green apples with briny ocean air, citrus overtones, relatively high acidity, crisp and fresh
  • Gai’a Thalassitis 2008
    A joint venture of Leon Karatsolos and Bordeaux trained Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, Gai’a was founded in 1994. Yiannis has become one of Greece’s most honored and vocal oenologist.
    Tasting notes: $27, 13% alcohol, These vines are 70-80 years of age. Bone dry, delicate honeysuckle, yeasty, crisp mineral finish
  • Domaine Sigalas, Santorini 2008- click here to purchase
    Tasting notes: RP 90, $23, 13.5% alcohol, Peachy, ripeness and richness, minerality from the volcanic rock

Xinomavro – Greek Diva #2

Xinomavro is the dominant grape of Northern Greece. With etymology that seems more like a rock band than grape, the name Xinomavro is the combination of the Greek words for acid and black. As with Assrytiko, its fair red sister Xinomavro is also acidic. As a result, winemakers often hold bottles back, releasing them with a little age in order to mellow out the acidity. Stellios Boutaris from Kir Yianni and Domaine Sigalas shared “There is no question that Assyrtiko and Xinomavro are the two divas of the Greek vineyard… as for Xinomavro, I feel greater affinity to its juice rather than water(!!!). I can tell you that we have discovered  only  30-40% of their potential.”

Temperamental and unforgiving, Xinomavro is affected significantly by the weather, so the vintage for Xinomavro matters more than most other Greek varietals. Think scents of black olives and tomato leaves with a Xinomavro. Anyone who loves a good tomato knows exactly what I am talking about when I say the smell of the tomato leaf and vine. For our tasting, they put the Xinomavro next to a Barbaresco (Nebbiolo) and a Brunello (Sangiovese). Some also compare its taste to a Pinot Noir. But then again, Xinomavro is its own thing.

  • Boutari Grande Reserve 2003
    Requirements for Grand Reserve Red are: 4 year aging (minimum: 2 years in barrel, 2 years in bottle).
    Tasting notes: Tobacco, cherries, tomato leaf
  • Kir Yianni Ramnista 2006
    The grapes are lower pH range (higher in acidity), the soil is lighter (which maximizes the aromatic intensity) and the blocks are close to a nearby forest (where the more humid mesoclimate leads to a more tempered ripening pace).
    Tasting notes: $25, 14.5% alcohol, Hints of sun-dried tomato, black olive, sandalwood and some violets
  • Alpha Estate 2006 – click here to purchase
    Tasting notes: $18, Richness on fore palate, tea leaves and black olives
  • Happy early Father’s Day to all of those weekend warrior grilling machines out there.

    Sources: All About Greek Wines and the National Interprofessional Organization of Vine and Wine of Greece.