It’s All Greek to Me
By: Dan Traucki
Say “Greek wine” to the average wine drinker and their thoughts will automatically go to Retsina, the “uniquely” flavored pine resin infused wine that the Greeks are so famous (or is it infamous?) for. Retsina was created around 1,900 years ago when the wine amphora were lined with pine sap to help seal the porous clay that they were made from and thus stop the wine from seeping out of the amphora. However, Greece has an even longer tradition of making “normal” table wine going back at least 3,000 years and that it is also the home to at least a dozen indigenous grape varieties.
Until fairly recent times Greek table wines were, like the wines of many other parts of Europe rather rustic in their production methods and challenging to consume. Over the last decade or so there has been a significant shift away from farm based winemaking towards modern winemaking facilities, more akin to those seen in the USA and Australia, which has resulted in much cleaner and faultless wines that are significantly more drinkable than the “interesting” wines that my father-in-law used to get me to try some 20-25 years ago. Despite my father-in-law’s enthusiasm, they tasted like what I imagine alcoholic paint stripper would taste like.
In reality, their tongue twisting wine names are no more challenging to get ones head around than other European grape varieties such as Blaufränkisch, Gruner Veltliner, Montepulciano or Petit Manseng. It is simply a case of familiarity. How many people could pronounce Viognier properly back at the turn of the century?
Like elsewhere in the wine world much of the wine produced in Greece is made from the mainstream grape varieties such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Much of the rest of the wine is made using indigenous varieties still being treated in the old fashioned oxidative way of winemaking.
However, there are some new style Greek wines being made from their native grape varieties which have been handled properly and using modern technology so as to express the true characteristics of these varieties. As a result, we are now able to see that quite a few of the native Greek varieties are capable of producing interesting and sometimes excellent wines.
Some of the varieties which warrant interest and investigation, in my opinion are:
- Assyrtiko – probably Greece’s best white variety now that modern winemaking methods have tamed its propensity to oxidize. Can be overpowered by new oak but works well with slightly older oak. It will be interesting to see how the variety performs when grown here in Australia.
- Athiri – a rich flavored, high alcohol variety with low acidity which results in it often being used in blends with more acidic varieties.
- Mochosfilero – an aromatic variety with pink/purple skin, which is mainly used for making bold spicy aromatic white wine, but is also widely used for making Rosé.
- Rhoditis – a multi-clone variety that produces the most diverse Greek wine in terms of quality. High yield low coastal examples can be very ordinary, whereas well made examples from higher altitudes with better clonal selection, can be exciting crisp food wines. Such as the Gaia ‘Notios’ Branco 2010 which includes a small percentage of Mochosfilero in it
- Agiorgitiko – The main future potential of the indigenous red varieties, it is similar in style to Merlot but can have more depth and character of flavor with good tannin structures. Its biggest drawback is the difficulty in the pronunciation of its name. A really delicious example of this variety is the Gaia “Notios” 2010 Agiorgitiko.
- Xinomavro (black acid in Greek) – is a somewhat like Pinot Noir in depth and color but with a different flavor profile – more depth, closer to a Cabernet Sauvignon or perhaps a really good Cabernet Franc. Like Pinot Noir, it has small berries in tight clusters, high acidity and is difficult to grow, being very temperamental in the vineyard. Until DNA testing evolved, many Greek viticulturists used to say that Xinomavro was actually Pinot Noir. An excellent example of this variety is the “Kir Yianni Ramnista Naoussa 2006.”
- Liatiko – a very early ripening variety which produces flavorsome wines with a distinct orange hue, which many American and Australian wine consumers could find disconcerting.
- Mavrodaphne or Mavrodafni – is a very popular variety that is used mainly for fortifieds, which are fortified to around 15 percent Alc/vol rather than the more traditional 17-18 percent Alc/vol. It is usually aged for five to six years before being sold. The largest winery in Greece is Achaia Clauss. Their wines along with some of those from another large winery Tsantali are the most widely available Greek wines around the world.
With the advent of the Greek Financial Crisis, the domestic sales of wine have dropped significantly as tourist numbers plummeted and the local people have had to tighten their belts dramatically. As a result some of the wiser and better Greek wine producers have turned their attention to improving and exporting their wines. This means that it is significantly more likely that we will see the “modern” or “new style” Greek wines making an appearance in local bottle shops – just like Spanish wines have done over the last few years.
So next time you are in a good quality bottle shop and you see a plain looking bottle of wine that costs more than ten-fifteen bucks with an old fashioned looking label and an unpronounceable name sitting on the shelf, check it out. It could be one of the “new wave” Greek wines that are really exciting and worth trying. Try and enjoy.