There’s been a revolution taking place in Greece over the last couple of decades, and it doesn’t have much to do with the political and economic turbulence troubling the country – it’s all about wine.
Wine in Greece, of course, has ancient origins: The first traces of it were discovered on the island of Crete and date back to 2500 BCE, during the Minoan civilization, and the oldest winepress in the world was found in the ruins of Vathypetro, near Heraklio.
Later on, during the Mycenaean era, Greek wine was a basic commodity and was traded all over the ancient world in sealed amphorae. Occasionally, shipwrecks full of them are found by maritime archeologists, with just a few sips of thousands-of-years-old wine remaining. And, of course, the ancient Greeks even had their god of wine, Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele, who was probably one of the most worshipped gods of all.
The ancient Greeks never drank their wine straight, and that was one of the ways they distinguished themselves from other nations, whom they deemed “Barbarians.” They always diluted it with water in a vase called kratiras, derived from the word krasis, which means “mixture.” Today, the Greek word krasi means “wine.” They also discovered that certain varieties produced better wines in specific areas, becoming the first to realize the importance of terroir in winemaking. (The ancient Greek world even had its own proto appellation of origin system, with the mention of an Arioussios Oinos from the island of Chios or a Mendeous Oinos from Chalkidiki back then earning the kinds of knowing nods that referring to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the Rhône might earn today.)
One might think that with more than 300 indigenous grape varieties and several thousand years of wine history, Greece would be on the top of the world wine pyramid. However, the Islamic prohibition of alcohol during four centuries of Ottoman occupation and heavy taxation almost killed viniculture in Greece by the end of the 19th century. By the 20th century, retsina – wine flavored with pine resin – of dreadful quality had become the main product and export, and the state of Greek wine was in bad shape. Many of the indigenous varietals were almost extinct, along with any hope for quality. And so, nobody could have predicted what was about to happen.
Early hints of the Greek wine revolution came in the mid-1980s, when pioneering oenologists and winemakers succeeded in rescuing some of the forgotten Greek varieties. Among them, Vangelis Gerovassiliou – a French-trained winemaker – was the first who revived and rescued from oblivion malagousia, a grape that yields an aromatic and fresh white wine with citrus and floral aromas and which nowadays is among the most popular and most cultivated Greek varieties.
Over the last 15 years, Greek wine has seen an enological renaissance that recalls the parallel ones of southern Italy and Spain. There has been tremendous improvement in winemaking, with young, talented oenologists returning home after studying at the world’s most renowned universities and working for highly regarded wineries. Along with their skills and international experience, they bring back modern winemaking techniques and new ideas. A major turn toward indigenous grape varieties, organized vineyard management and modern viticulture techniques complemented their efforts, bringing Greek wine to a whole new level with astonishing and consistent results.
Today, we are on the verge of a second revolution, as young winemakers experiment with single-vineyard wines and dig into terroir, special blends and even sparkling wines. The result has brought the revived industry great distinction at the most important international wine competitions.
Viticulture can be found in virtually every corner of Greece. Wineries are mostly family-run operations, but there are some larger wineries as well. The mild Mediterranean climate, with its cool winters and sunny summers, is highly differentiated under the influence of the cool sea breeze and the mountains, creating many unique micro-climates. On the mainland, far away from the water, you can find some continental climate features like big temperature differences between day and night.
To introduce our series on Greek wine, we’ll start first with a few of the country’s most notable wine regions.
If you like Sangiovese, then Nemea is the place for you. Home of the agiorgitiko variety, Nemea lies in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese. Nemea wines are typically lush, velvety reds, with red berry and black cherry flavors and firm acidity. They are known to age well for five to 10 years.
Right next to Nemea lays Mantinia, white wine country, focused solely on the floral grape moschofilero. Although its skin color can range from light pink to dark purple, moschofilero is a blanc de gris variety, meaning that it is used for producing white wines. Both the high altitude of the region (650 to 1,100 meters above sea level) and the slow ripening of the grapes make moschofilero among the last to be harvested in all of Europe. It produces still, sparkling and occasionally sweet wines with refreshing acidity, intense floral aromas and citrus flavors.
In the north, just an hour’s drive from Salonika, Naoussa is well-known for its red wines made from xinomavro, a native variety popular among fans of nebbiolo and pinot noir. Xinomavro is considered the diva of the Greek vineyard due to its demanding viticulture and vinification. It is capable of producing red wines of amazing character and extraordinary complexity, rich and flavorful, with high acidity and distinct aromatic character.
The spectacular volcanic island with the great sunsets produces an excellent white wine made from assyrtiko grapes. To guard their vines from the strong winds and too much sun exposure, local growers shape their branches like baskets in which the grapes grow. The assyrtiko grape is one of a kind: Bone-dry, citrus-flavored, with crisp acidity and excellent minerality, its wines are rich and complex. Assyrtiko has moved to other regions of Greece as well but none reaches the minerality and complexity levels like that of the lava soil vineyards.
Other important wine regions include the island of Crete, home of the white variety of vidiano, which is considered to be the next big thing in Greek wine, and Attica, with savatiano making a comeback, proving it can produce unique white wines with serious aging potential.
Greek wine is on the rise! Stay tuned – there’s much more to come.
Angelos Damoulianos is the founder of botilia.gr, a Greek startup that sources hard-to-find wines from alternative and smaller producers. He also leads “Greek Wine’s Rebirth, Uncorked,” Culinary Backstreets’ wine-centric culinary walk in Athens.