Until membership of the EU came to fruition, the Greeks made mostly wine from local grapes, such as Agiorghitiko, Mandilaria, Moschophilero, Liatiko, and Mavrodaphne, but today you see wines in international style quite frequently on grapes such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Progress has been made extremely rapidly. In the early 1990s it was the large cooperatives and companies that led the way in the development towards better quality, but today they have been overtaken inside by a young generation of educated oenologists who have created really large and exciting wines, especially inspired by Bordeaux. The pressure of young oenologists has forced the large companies to increase the quality further, and today Greek wines are fully on par with wines from other wine nations.
On the white wine side, the best Greek white wine is created on the local grape Assyrtiko, which, even in very hot conditions, provides refreshing wines with a crunchy acidity. In addition to Assyrtiko and Chardonnay, Greece also offers excellent white wines for varieties such as Robola (Ribolla), Rhoditis and the flower-scented Malagousia.
Looking at the red wines, the quality has grown considerably for wines that can go up to international level. Especially Agiorghitiko can provide great wines with soft fruit and good filling.
Wine-wise, the most important areas of today's Greece are Peloponnese, Pátras, Nemea, Crete and Samos.
GREEK GRAPES VARIETYS
Xinomavro (or Xynomavro) is a dark-skinned grape variety widely planted in northern Greece. It is also cultivated to a lesser extent, the Macedonian Republic.
The variety is highly regarded in its native Greece as the finest red wine the country has to offer. With its characteristically high tannin and acidity, Xinomavro is structurally one of the biggest red wines in the Mediterranean, and indeed Europe.
The word Xinomavro itself is a conjunction of the Greek words for acid and black, though this is often translated as black and sour. This gives some indication as to the flavor and structure of the wines made from the variety.
In youth they remain true to their name, although Xinomavro wines can age gracefully for many years. Classic flavor characteristics include prune, strawberry and sundried tomato.
The grapes themselves are blue-black and grow in tight clusters. The size of berries varies within the different clones of Xinomavro, but all vines are late ripening and of a fickle nature. Vintage variation is a significant factor to consider with regard to purchasing decisions. Year on year, the weather can play a large role in Xinomavro's quality.
Naoussa is the most important appellation associated with the variety, as its wines are required to be 100-percent Xynomavro. These are held in high regard, and along with Nemea on the Peloponnese peninsula, are considered to be Greece's greatest red wines.
Many comparisons have been made to the famous Barolo wines from Piedmont, Italy. There has even been past suggestion of a possible relationship between Xinomavro and Nebbiolo. This has been disproven by DNA testing.
However, Xinomavro is widely planted across continental Greece. It is used in various other appellations, including Rapsani on the foothills of Mount Olympus. Here, it is blended with Stavroto and Krassato to make a dense, full-bodied red wine.
Elsewhere, the variety is blended with more international varieties like Merlot and Syrah in an attempt to soften its austere nature and appeal to a wider audience. These are only allowed under the regional PGI designations as many proponents of the variety believe it should not be "diluted".
Oak maturation can help to tame Xinomavro, but care is needed as too much can overwhelm the wine. In some circles the use of oak is eschewed, with locally-grown walnut used instead as it imparts no discernible flavor.
Synonyms include: Black Naousa, Xynomavro of Naousa, Xynomavro Naousis, Mavro Naoussis, Mavro Naoustino, Niaoussa, Popolka, Pipolka, Xyno Mavro.
Food matches for Xynomavro include:
- Veal stew with onions (stifatho)
- Lamb, walnut and pinenut kofta
Mavrotragano is a dark-skinned variety grown exclusively on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini. Traditionally cultivated for the production of sweet red wines, it now has a somewhat cult status as a high-quality dry red.
Mavrotragano was almost uprooted to the point of extinction during Santorini’s tourist boom, when vineyard land was acquired by developers wanting to build hotels and apartments. At one stage, Mavrotragano accounted for just 2 percent of Santorini’s dwindling vineyard area – the prestigious Assyrtico was the much preferred variety on the island.
The release of the 1997 Hatzidakis Mavrotragano showed the potential of this grape and signalled a change of attitude towards it. With its thick skins and small berries, the resulting wine is dense, deep in colour with immense, but soft, tannins. The palate is full bodied, with an array of spicy, stewed fruits, laced with minerals, earth and leather. Mavrotragano’s complex range of flavours has been compared to the great Piedmontese variety, Nebbiolo.
Like many vines on Santorini, most Mavrotragano remains planted as ungrafted vines – the loose volcanic soil of the island is inhospitable for the phylloxera mite. Excessive alcohol levels, however, can be a problem if growers are not careful. Winemakers continue to experiment with viticultural techniques to fully exploit the potential of the variety.
Food matches for Mavrotragano include:
- Eggplant stuffed with mince (papoutsakia)
- Spicy lamb meatballs in a tomato and cilantro sauce
- Braised wild mushrooms with woody herbs
Limniona is an important Greek grape variety that has been used in red wine production for more than 2000 years. It has been mentioned by many Greek poets, including Aristotle and Homer.
The grape is believed to have originated on the Aegean Island of Limnos, though, surprisingly, it is barely grown there any more. In the 21st Century, Limnio is more at home on the Halkidiki Peninsula in Greek Macedonia and Rapsani in Thessalia. Limnio is a hardy grape that ripens late and has strong drought resistance.
As a varietal wine Limnio is full bodied, high in alcohol and very herbaceous, with a distinctive taste of bay leaves. However, it is most common to find Limnio as part of a proprietary red blend. Increasingly popular are blends involving the international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.
A wine of such history and distinction is bound to have numerous synonyms, as indeed Limnio does. However the Limniona grape, found in Thessalia, has been shown to be a distinct variety by DNA analysis.
Synonyms include: Lemnia, Limnia, Mavro Limino, Kalabaki, Kalambaki.
Food matches for Limnio include:
- Baked lamb with tomatoes
- Curried eggplant
The grape has dark pink shells and gives strong, spicy white wines, the flavor of which also bears some resemblance to wines at Muscat. Moschophilero is grown mainly on the high plain of the Peloponnese in Greece, where there is cool enough to prevent the grapes from being cooked. Sometimes Moschophilero is also used for a fruity rosé with a fine acidity. This rosé is quite useful for blends with wines from other areas of Greece, where local wines have problems with acidity, due to the heat.
A Greek Assyrtiko has won one of the top medals in the Decanter World Wine Awards 2018, but how much do you know about the wines made from this grape.
The Assyrtiko grape can be very similar to Sauvignon Blanc, with its citrus flavours, especially lemon, and high acidity.
‘Assyrtiko is to Greece what Albariño is to Spain or Grüner Veltliner is to Austria,’ said Joanna Simon in her Greek Assyrtiko Expert’s Choice last summer.
According to Decanter‘s ‘tasting notes decoded’ series, Assyrtiko can also have some floral notes, like orange blossom and jasmine, plus some spicy, like ginger. Several tasters have also noted a salty streak in some of the wines.
Santorini is seen as the spiritual home for Assyrtiko and it is believed to be indigenous to the island.
‘There really isn’t anything like Santorini Assyrtiko,’
It also has the advantage of maintaining high acidity, despite growing in warm climates.
More recently, Assyrtiko has been planted in Australia.
Jim Barry wines in Clare Valley made Australia’s first commercial bottling of Assyrtiko in 2016.
According to Decanter experts, it has floral and citrus notes, and minerality.
Assyrtiko (also written Assyrtico or Asyrtiko) is arguably Greece's most iconic wine grape variety. It is grown most famously on the volcanic island of Santorini in the Aegean sea.
It has developed a reputation as being a versatile grape variety. Wines are made in a multitude of styles, from fresh, minerally white wines to rich, nutty dessert wines known as Vinsanto. It is planted as far north as Drama in Greek Macedonia, and is also occasionally seen in Retsina.
The vines on Santorini can reach 70 years old and are some of the oldest vines in Greece. Advanced vine age tends to have an effect on wine quality as yields are reduced, and Assyrtico has the potential to make some very complex wines.
The harsh volcanic soils of the island's vineyards have prevented the spread of phylloxera. Unlike most of Europe, the vines do not need to be grafted onto phylloxera-resistant rootstocks.
On the other hand, the Santorini terroir offers up some challenges that have affected winegrowing significantly. The island is dry enough to be classified as a desert on the Köppen climate scale, and also very windy.
Growers have adapted to these conditions by training their vines into "baskets", winding the canes into wall around the fruit, providing shelter from strong winds. The lack of water in the soil means growers will space vines further apart than is usually seen.
One of the traits of Assyrtiko is that it is very susceptible to oxidation. This has been exploited by Santorini winemakers in the making of sweet Vinsanto wines. By controlling the level of oxidation, producers can create darker wines with fig, coffee, kirsch and chocolate characteristics.
Such is the grape's versatility, however, that it can also be made into a dry wine that is yellow-gold in color with mineral, pear, apple and citrus blossom aromas and flavors. Some versions are fermented in barrel. Naturally high acidity means that Assyrtico wines can age for many years.
Assyrtiko is often blended with the Athiri and Aidani grape varieties on its native Santorini, in both sweet and dry styles. These two varieties are lower in acidity than their more famous stablemate, and help to tame some of Assyrtico's natural exuberance, although they are usually minor components of the blend.
Assyrtiko can also be used in a Retsina blend, but this appears to be falling from favor as more varietal Assyrtiko wines are being crafted.
Synonyms include: Asyrtico, Assyrtico, Asyrtiko.
Food matches for Assyrtiko include:
- Fried haloumi cheese
- Korean pancakes with shellfish
- Rock oysters with white-wine vinaigrette
This dark blue grape is mainly used in Greece, where it is good in mixing with other grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon. Agiorgitiko can also provide excellent rosé wines. In general, the fruity wine, which may, however, lack acidity. However, the grapes that grow in the higher vineyards of Nemea may produce some long-living red wines.
Malagousiais an aromatic white variety grown primarily in Central Greece and Greek Macedonia. The variety was rescued from near extinction in 1983 by the winemaker Evangelos Gerovassiliou, after he planted out his vineyard at Epanomi, on the Halkidiki peninsula, with the variety.
- Malagousia is best known for its citrus and peach characteristics, often showing various melon flavors on the palate. It is often used as a blending agent, most notably with Assyrtico, to which it adds middle body weight.
Synonyms include:Malagoussia, Malagouzia, Malaouzia, Melaouzia, Malagusiah.
Food matches include:
Europe: Fried zucchini (kolokithakia tiganita); sardines escabeche
Asia: Saigon pancakes (bánh xèo)
Australasia/Oceania: Tuna tartare
This grape is a pink variety that was widely used in Greece before the wine lice came. Rhoditis is particularly sensitive to mildew, ripens late and possesses good acidity, despite the warm climate it is often grown in. Usually Rhoditis is used for mixed pigs and the most well-known is Retsina.
Savatiano is Greece's most planted grape variety, covering large tracts of land in Central Greece and in particular Attika. The variety is best known for its role in the country's infamous Retsina wines, although technological advances in modern winemaking have led to an upsurge in well-made, dry Savatiano wines.
Savatiano's resistance to drought and disease, both issues in the Mediterranean, has made it an obvious choice for the region, and it has been cultivated here for hundreds of years. It is also planted in smaller quantities as a workhorse variety in Peloponnese, Greek Macedonia, and in the Aegean Islands. The variety's name probably refers to the Greek word for "Sabbath".
Savatiano grapes are typically medium to large in size and pale yellow to white in color. When vinified, the wine may take on varying shades of yellow, usually at the deeper end of the spectrum. When kept to low yields and harvested earlier, Savatiano is capable of producing intense, dry wines that show herbaceous characteristics of citrus and white flowers.
Historically, Savatiano has been used as a key ingredient in the production of Retsina, Greece's famous resinous wine. Due to Savatiano's low acidity it is also commonly blended with Roditis and Assyrtiko, but modern viticultural methods have resulted in more complete expressions of Savatiano, and more varietal Savatiano wines are becoming available each vintage.
Despite changing attitudes toward Savatiano, most wines are produced for early consumption and are unlikely to rival Assyrtico from Santorini as the country's most famous wine style.
Synonyms include: Stamatiano, Perachoritis, Kountoura Aspri, Domdrania.
Food matches for Savatiano include:
- Fried zucchini
- Crab cakes
- Smoked fish terrine