A Beginner's Guide to Buying and Drinking Greek Wine
Get to know the fresh whites and complex reds that come from Greece, the world's oldest wine culture.
A meal without wine would be a sad affair in Greece, one almost as tragic as overlooking other Greek staples at the table like olive oil, crusty bread, and ripe tomatoes. Still, many non-Hellenics find the country's diverse wines a mystery, except, perhaps, its traditional vacation tipple. "Greek wine is not retsina!" exclaims Andrea Englisis, DWS (Diploma Wine & Spirits) and vice president of Athenee Importers & Distributors, in Hempstead, New York, the oldest family-owned company specializing in Greek and Cypriot wine, spirits and beer in the U.S. since 1974, and a wholly women-owned and operated company since 1999. "Greek wine has undergone a major shift from very traditional wines made from international grape varieties to wines that are made from indigenous grapes using the more modern winemaking method of concrete and even the use of amphoras," she says.
Wine Regions to Watch
Santorini's white wines are also among the few well-known, but their popularity, Englisis explains, has made them expensive. "For me, the most exciting regions with the most innovation are Cephalonia, Drama, Naoussa, Thessaly, and Crete," she says. And enologist Sofia Perpera, director of the Greek Wine Bureau-North America, Wines of Greece, cites Crete, Cephalonia, and Aigialeia, in the northwestern Peloponnese, as interesting emerging wine-producing areas.
Many are among the 29 wine regions in Greece labelled PDO or "Protected Designation of Origin." Wines within these regions must be one of 300 Greek varietals and indigenous to Greece, with production taking place within a region's boundaries. And PGI or "Protected Geographical Indication" wines, comprise local wines with set boundaries and varietal compositions. "Although probably the oldest 'culture of wine' in the world, Greece is one of the smaller European producers," says Perpera. "Most Greek wineries are considered boutique-style producers in quantities and their handcrafted wines with their sense of place are a sommelier's dream."
A Mediterranean Climate
Indeed, its geography and weather conditions make Greece's terroir unique. "Greece is the third most mountainous country of Europe, which gives many of the vineyards the altitude that noble grape vines thrive in," says Perpera. Together with the surrounding sea, cool northern winds during summer months, and the diurnal temperature difference between day and night, the wines retain great acidity, lending whites their characteristic fresh taste and salinity and reds, longer aging potential. "Since irrigation is not allowed unless under times of extreme drought, the grapes are dry farmed, which leads to healthy grapes," Englisis adds.
Santorini is located in the Cyclades Islands, in the Aegean Sea, with vineyards in the island's southern and southwestern areas. "The first 'breakout wines' have been the wines of Santorini, based on the assyrtiko grape," says Perpera. "Assyrtiko, one of the noble white grapes of Greece with a bold mineral character, high acidity, and long aging potential, will, we believe, rival Riesling and Chardonnay in years to come." Despite little rainfall, volcanic soils, and constant winds that buffet the vines, the assyrtiko grape has evolved and thrived over 4,000 years, she adds. The vines are formed into basket shapes called kouloura, which shield the assyrtiko from the strong sun and elements.
For a taste of Santorini, sample Acroterra Santorini 2017 ($47.95, wine-searcher.com), Sigalas Assyrtiko Santorini VQPRD ($29.97, totalwine.com), Gaia Thalassitis Assyrtiko 2015 ($34.99, totalwine.com) or Karamolegos Santorini Ancestral Vines '34' 2017 ($40, winesofgreece.com) paired with shellfish, Pork Souvlaki, or Cherry Tomato and Feta Salad.
Cephalonia is the largest of the Ionian Islands, yet its vineyards, on the western slopes of Mount Enos, span 750 acres. "Some of the up-and-coming varieties are the wines made with robola from the island of Cephalonia, producing some amazing dry, mineral whites," says Perpera. Robola agrees with the chalky limestone soil on Cephalonia's high-altitude mountainous and semi-mountainous terroirs. Try Gentilini Robola ($19.99, wine.com) or Sclavos Robola 2019, ($23.99, wine.com) with grilled fish with lemon emulsion and Greek Lemon-Roasted Potatoes.
Muscat white and mavrodaphne grapes are also cultivated here. "The mavrodaphne grape, a red that was traditionally used to make some Greek benchmark sweet wines, is now being vinified into some very interesting dry reds," notes Perpera.
Taste a hint of mavrodaphne in the Gentili Notes Rosé ($13.25, wineshop.gr) or in the dry vinification of Domaine Foivos Daphne-Daphne (Mavrodaphne) 2014 ($24, winesofgreece.com). The scent of muscat comes through in Foivos Antidote Rosé 2017 ($16, winesofgreece.com). These wines pair with flavor-forward foods, like Greek Turkey Burgers or Spicy Cauliflower.
"I encourage people to explore wines from lesser-known regions such as Crete and Cephalonia," says Englisis. The largest island in Greece, Crete boasts a diversity of terrain and terroirs, and with the expansion of its viticultural industry, has played a major role in Greece's modern wine age.
The vineyards are primarily located on the eastern side of the island, on the lowland plains and on plateaus, rising to altitudes of 3,300 feet. Then, there are mountain ranges: Lefka Ori, Idi, and Dikty, with summits that shape the plateaus and gorges. Local grapes, including the white vilana and red varieties, kotsifali, and liatiko, grow in the sandy clay and limestone soils in a hot, dry climate, with only a modicum of rainfall in the summer, tempered by sea winds and high altitudes. Match Douloufakis 2017 Dafnios Liatiko ($16.99, wine.com) with red currant aromas, or Alexakis Kotsifali Syrah 2015 ($17.99, wine.com) a velvety red blend, with Grilled Lamb and Lemon Potatoes.
And the ancient, dry, white vidiano, says Perpera, is also becoming more recognized. Drink Enstiko White 2016 ($25, winesofgreece.com), a vidiano-chardonnay blend, with Spaghetti with Lobster Fra Diavolo or Cold-Poached Salmon or try Douloufakis Dafnios White 2018 ($17.99, wine.com) with a feta, chickpea, and mint salad.
Though lacking a PDO area, Drama, in Macedonia, is nevertheless recognized as one of the country's most significant wine regions. Here, you'll find many trailblazing producers, with a flair for making unique Greek wines, plus state-of-the-art, irrigated vineyards. East of town, the vineyards sprawl throughout the valley and low hills. Both red and white grapes grow in the clay soil, including assyrtiko, harmonious with the warm, dry climate, pink-skinned roditis, one of Greece’s most planted white grape varieties, plus sauvignon blanc, sémillon, and ugni blanc. Pair the pale blonde Domaine Costa Lazaridi Assyrtiko Chateau Julia 2017 ($22.97, winechateau.com), or Domaine Michailidi Pyli White, 2016 ($23.99, winesofgreece.com) with Greek-Style Pasta with Shrimp or a Greek Salad with Broiled Shrimp.
Cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, and limnio, an ancient purple-red grape also take root in Drama. Smaller producers, says Englisis, are working to revitalize grapes that were almost extinct, such as limnio and mavroudi. Domaine Michailidi Pyli, 2013, ($25.99, winesofgreece.com) a rare red blend or the full-bodied red, Ktima Pavlidis Thema 2016 ($24.99, wine.com) go with grilled meats or garlicky game hens. Or try the minerally Ktima Pavlidis Thema Rosé 2017 ($19.99, wine.com) with a Simple Pizza Margherita or Mushroom Sauté.