Greece, the land of democracy, modern medicine, mythology and, of course, wine, has an industry that dates back at least 6,500 years. Hippocrates (the father of Western Medicine) was known to have given prescriptions of wine for various illnesses and often used Vermouth (wine steeped in wormwood) to cure liver, digestion and gall bladder problems. The second oldest grape wine remnants in the world and the earliest evidence of crushed grapes were all found in Greece. They even have a god of wine Dionysis who is believed to have gifted wine to humankind. The Dionysian cult spread from 1600 BC – 1 AD and it is believed that the cult’s followers would use wine, music and ecstatic dance to free themselves from self-conscious, fear and care. It could banish sorrow, give comfort and joy, but also turn people into fools or drive them crazy. Sound familiar to anyone? Perhaps we are all still followers of Dionysis?
Greek wines were particularly prized in the ancient world. Remnants of a Greek wine urn with the name of the Greek company, Greek vineyard and Greek varietal stamped on it were found in King Tut’s tomb, proving that Greeks were one of the first wine exporters in the ancient world. Another little bit of trivia: Vinsanto that so many people attribute to Italy was actually brought over to Italy by the Venetians. Santo = Santorini, hence wine from Santorini and not Holy Wine like most people think. The Greeks are also reputed for having brought vitis vinifera to Italy, Sicily, Southern France and Spain. The ancient Greek growing areas are pretty similar to the modern growing regions which are:
1. Aegean Islands: Limnos, Paros, Rhodes, Samos, Kos, Santorini
2. Crete: Archanes, Dafnes, Peza, Sitia, Jason
3. Central Greece: Anchialos, Attica, Rapsani, Thessaly
4. Epirus: Zitsa, Joel
5. Ionian Islands: Kefalonia
6. Macedonia: Amyntaion, Epanomi, Goumenissa, Naoussa
7. Peloponnese: Mantineia, Nemea, Patras
The modern Greek wine industry uses over 300 indigenous grape varieties. Many wine critics believe that this will be the Greek strength when positioning itself in the global wine industry because wineries can produce world-class wines at more affordable prices for the consumer. Ray Isle from Food and Wine Magazine, as well as many other wine connoisseurs, believe that if you are a white wine fan you will fall in love with Greek wines. “While Greek reds are not as uniformly compelling, the best bottlings are terrific”. According to Susan Kostrzewa of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, the Four Pillars of Greek Wine are:
Assyrtiko – most popular white wine similar to Riesling. It also ages well which is unusual for a white wine. Grown in Santorini, Macedonia and Attica, the Macedonian and Attica types are much fruitier than the ones from Santorini. The Assyrtikos from Santorini often have a more prized complex flavour because the vines are almost 3,000 years old and were never affected by Phylloxera. The method of grape-growing in Santorini is also an ancient method. The grapevines grow in wreathes to protect the grapes from the elements. This is not done anywhere else in the world.
Moschofilero – a white wine similar to Muscat grown in the Peloponnese. It can also be used to make an excellent sparkling wine. Often has fruity flavours and aromas like tangerine and blossom scents. This wine pairs well with a lot of classic Greek seafood dishes as well as more spicy Middle Eastern and Asian dishes.
Agiorgitiko (aka George’s Grape) – most popular red wine similar to Sangiovese or Beaujolais Nouveau. It is the most widely planted grape in Greece with six growing areas and a varied terroir affecting the flavour in each place. It can also age well for up to five years. Bolder styles pair well with lamb and game while the more subtle styles pair well with grilled veggies and salads (especially with a Mediterranean flavour made with beets or lentils)
Xinomavro – Another popular red especially among collectors. It is high in tannins, so it ages well. It is often compared to Nebbiolo. It is grown in a variety of areas, but does best in Naoussa (Macedonia). The flavours it exudes are of olives, dried-fruit and exotic spices. This varietal can be used on its own or as a blend with other reds or for rosés.
Please see Susan Kostrzewa’s article for her specific wine recommendations. There is also an excellent list in the Forbes Magazine article by Katie Bell “Top Wines From Greece: What To Buy”.
The popular national wine Retsina is made using Savatiano grapes and an ancient technique that is at least 2,000 years old. It is white or rosé wine sealed in pine vessels to keep the oxygen out. The pine vessels, like oak barrels, react with the wine, changing the flavour and giving the wine a strong resin aroma, very different from wines aged in oak barrels.
For those of us who love pairing wine and food, Greek wines are the perfect wines to pair. Greek-American Executive Chef and Restaurateur Michael Psilakis says that Greek wines were meant to be paired with food and many winemakers actually make their wines with food pairings in mind as opposed to the other way around. For this reason, he feels they are the perfect wines for his restaurants’ wine lists. For more details about pairing Greek wines and Greek food check out “Greece’s New Wine Gods” by Food and Wine’s Jane Sigal.
Some of the big companies to look for are:
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