Yes, Greek wines are a hand-sell, and yes they’re hard to pronounce. But if you’re looking to add some flashes of well-priced, quirky genius to your list, there's probably nowhere better. Julie Sheppard and Chris Losh pack their bags
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts' warned a canny priest, when a Greek army snuck into ancient Troy with the help of a giant wooden horse. It's advice that the on-trade seems to have taken to heart: the country's wines are conspicuous by their absence on most wine lists.
Of course, it doesn't help that the nation has experienced a tumultuous history – including phylloxera and Ottoman occupation – that has seen its viticulture all but destroyed at repeated intervals.
Nor does it help that the country's most famous wine is retsina, which tastes like the bastard love-child of Flash toilet cleaner and a cheap Spanish white wine.
And as for the names… let's just say that Agiorgitiko is a lot easier to drink than it is to pronounce – assuming, of course, that it's even written in the Roman alphabet to start with.
If Santorini was in France or Italy, everyone would know it. But Greeks aren’t good at telling the story
'Many people think Greek wine is very complicated,' admits Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, professor of oenology at the Athens Technical Education Institute. 'They have a fear of grape varieties that are hard to pronounce. In reality it's straightforward: there are 22 appellations for dry wines and each appellation focuses on a particular variety.'
Sounds relatively straightforward – though the fact that there are 200 indigenous Greek varieties complicates things somewhat. No wonder some producers look to blend their native grapes with easier to pronounce international ones.
'Customers are more attracted to the native grapes when they're blended with something they know,' suggests Ktima Alpha’s Kostas Arvanitakis.
And yet, the same things that make Greece tricky also make it fabulous for sommeliers. There are wines and regions here that are proudly, magnificently different. A handful of producers and maybe half a dozen extra wines could add some real stardust to your offering.
With sea breezes, wall-to wall sunshine and quirky growing techniques, the south of Greece is a haven for those in search of character, writes Julie Sheppard.
Nemea, in the northern Peloponnese is Greece's largest wine appellation. Here, Paraskevopoulos, along with agronomist Leon Karatsalos, founded Gaia winery in 1997. 'From the beginning we wanted to work with Greek varieties,' he says. Their focus is the red grape Agiorgitiko, which Paraskevopoulos likens to Sangiovese.
'It took us years to work out how to work with Agiorgitiko in the winery. Now we know, so we’re really focusing in the vineyards,' says Paraskevopoulos. This prolific vine tends to over-produce, but even at high yields will make a drinkable wine. A leap of faith was needed at Gaia to reduce yields, but vines are now planted at high density in marl and limestone soils on slopes around 650m.
'Agiorgitiko is an extremely flexible variety,' says Paraskevopoulos. 'You can enjoy it young because the tannins are soft. But they will evolve very slowly; you can age it for 50 years. The evolution is so slow that for the sommelier Agiorgitiko is a gift,' he adds.
Elsewhere in the Peloponnese, other grape varieties take centre stage. The town of Monemvasia occupies a strategic spot on the southeast coast, defended by a rocky fortress. It was captured by a series of invaders including the Venetians, who traded wines made from the local grape, also called Monemvasia.
In the Middle Ages Greek Monemvasia even made it to England, where it was known as Malmsey. However, winemaking in the region died out completely under subsequent Ottoman rule and commercial production wasn’t revived until the 1990s.
Giorgos Tsimpidis established Monemvasia Winery in 1997. His vineyards are planted with a range of native grapes, including Agiorgitiko, but Monemvasia is his speciality.
'Monemvasia is not an easy variety to grow or to vinify,' he continues. 'When you put a ripe grape in your mouth, that one grape fills your mouth with flavour and sustains it. I want to achieve that effect with my vinification. I believe this variety has a long way to go and will create great, great wines.'
Since 2014 he's produced a single-varietal, unoaked Monemvasia, which reflects this potential. With its mouth-filling texture and savoury notes, it’s a cracking food wine that would sit very comfortably alongside older Chardonnays on a wine list.
Perhaps the most fascinating story can be found 200km southeast of the Greek mainland in the Cyclades islands. Santorini was formed by a volcanic eruption, creating a crescent of land around a deep central lagoon, known as a caldera. The stunning landscape draws hordes of tourists who applaud the picturesque sunsets at Oia. But the the viticulture on Santorini, too, is extraordinary.
Growers have developed a unique system to protect grapes from the scorching sun and fierce Meltemi winds that rip across the island. Vines are trained round in a basket-shape, allowing the grapes to hang down in the centre, protected by a canopy of leaves above. When the basket becomes too high, it’s cut off at its base and a new coil of stems grows from the original root system.
This means that the rootstock on Santorini is some of the oldest in the world, plunging 20m below the top soil.
Mineral-rich volcanic soils are disease-free, there's zero clay so phylloxera can't survive here, and there's no need to spray because the weather is hot and windy. The vineyards are totally ungrafted.
Assyrtiko adds minerality to whatever it goes with. Xinomavro adds spice and backbone.
'There's nowhere else in the world where vines grow like this,' says Paraskevopoulos. 'If this vineyard was in France or Italy, everyone would know it. But Greeks aren’t good at telling the story.'
Santorini has around 1,200ha of vines and about 70% of those are Assyrtiko, according to Konstantinos Lazarakis MW, Greece’s most famous wine writer, who describes the variety as one of the finest in Greece. It produces highly mineral wines with an extremely low pH and vibrant acidity.
'In Santorini, a wine of 13.5% abv, a pH of three or less, and an aromatic expression that is closer to the Loire than to a hot climate is not uncommon,' he explains.
Or as Steve Daniel, buying director of Novum Wines says, 'Drinking Assyrtiko from Santorini is like sticking your finger into the electric socket of the world.' Wineries such as Gaia are focusing on modern dry styles, experimenting with cold soaks, fermentation in both oak and stainless steel and wild yeasts. The resulting wines are world class.
It might be true that you can learn a lot about Greek wine by getting to know its 20-odd DOs, but it doesn’t tell the full story, writes Chris Losh. Take Vangelis Gerovassiliou – aka 'The Godfather of Malagousia'. He's probably one of the most influential, and respected, winemakers in the country, and on the gently rolling slopes of Epanomi (a PGI, not a DO), he’s set about resurrecting an all-but extinct grape variety.
Malagousia is a thin-skinned variety – prone to rot in humid climates and sunburn in hot ones, and growers had mostly given up on it by the 1980s. But not Gerovassiliou.
He's been planting it for 30 years now – the gentle, temperate slopes of Epanomi, surrounded by sea on three sides, clearly suit the variety – and others across the country have followed his lead.
For which we should give much thanks, because Malagousia is a magnificent white grape. It's not unlike Albariño in its peaches and citrus character – and Gerovassiliou plumps out its mid-palate with a small amount of barrel ageing.
And 2016, he says, is special. ‘I’ve been vinifying for 35 years, and 2016 is the best vintage I’ve ever seen,' he says. 'We had not a single drop of rain over the summer… then the week after we harvested we had half a year’s rainfall in one week!'
A versatile red grape that produces a variety of wine styles, from vibrant young Beaujolais-alikes, to serious, ageworthy, concentrated beasts. Also makes crisp, dark pink rosés.
This white grape combines glorious richness and depth of flavour with precise, focused acidity. Think Muscadet on steroids. Produced throughout Greece, but the best examples
come from Santorini.
Expressive and characterful, Greece’s trendy
new white is somewhere between Albariño
and Viognier. Impossible to dislike.
Taut, red-fruited, spicy and highly-structured. Old vine versions have amazing concentration. At its best with bottle age and decanting, though blends well with Syrah.
Gerovassiliou's other project is Biblia Chora, further along the northern coast towards Turkey. It was set up around the millennium as an organic winery, in partnership with winemaker Vassilis Tsaktarlis, with no expense spared.
Eight kilometres from the sea, the winery is 350m up in the lower slopes of the range that leads up to the brooding Mount Pangeon. The combination of altitude and sea means that the reds, in particular, need careful handling; even the tolerant Agiorgitiko can turn into a tannin-monster up here, though in good years, like 2012, when it’s blended into their estate red – mostly Cab and Merlot – the results can be impressive.
The white range, too, is reliably good, and Tsaktarlis is improving it further with careful vineyard purchases – a very slow process. He points to a half-hectare block of scrub near his Assyrtiko vines. It is, apparently, owned by nine people – and all have to agree to sell.
Land ownership is a big issue in Greece – only 50 properties in the country are greater than nine hectares. This puts the Ktima Alpha at a big advantage. The 20-year-old winery has 105ha of vines, one of the biggest vineyard owners in the country.
The estate is in the pale empty hills of Amynteo, and about as far north as you go without crossing the border to Macedonia. It's decidedly different: 'The only region of Greece where there’s no Mediterranean influence at all,' according to export manager Kostas Arvanitakis.
High (650 metres above sea level), cold and surrounded by mountains, it's a super-dry, continental oddity. Alpha started as a red wine estate, but the balance now is about
half and half.
Cabernet has been removed – it was too cold to ripen it properly – but Xinomavro loves it here. The estate has a dozen or so blocks of really old vines and they give wines of concentration and complexity – although they can take a while to open up.
Xinomavro means 'bitter black' in Greek, and for sure it’s a grape that needs careful handling in both winery and vineyard and, often, a fair bit of ageing. It is a viable Barolo alternative for restaurants, but here it also blends well with Syrah.
Indeed, many accessible Greek wines are blends of international and native grapes. Assyrtiko adds instant minerality to whatever it goes with (particularly good with Sauvignon and Malagousia); Xinomavro adds spice and backbone; Agiorgitiko, red fruit and structure.
They're a good way to add interest to your list without scaring your customers. Greeks bearing gifts? Bring 'em on!
Wines to try
Metropolis White 2014, Monemvasia Estate, Laconia, Peloponnese, £10.54
A rich, aromatic blend of Monemvasia, Assyrtiko, Kidonitsa and Asproudi with peach and pear fruit.
Assyrtiko by Gaia 2015, Santorini, £18.31
Intensely mineral, with smoky, toasty note and laser acidity. This offers a real point of difference for your list.
Malagousia 2015, Ktima Gerovassiliou, PGI Epanomi, £13.44
Creamy peach melba with citrus zest – soft and rich, but never heavy. The Vin blanc (blended with Assyrtiko so more mineral – £12.18) is magnificent, too.
Biblia Chora white 2016, PGI Pangeon, £14.23
Harmonious blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Assyrtiko; former supplies blackcurrant leaf nose and palate, latter adds length and minerality on the palate.
Agiorgitiko by Gaia 2015, Nemea, Peloponnese, £11.84
Ripe black fruit and dried herbs wrapped up in an elegant lick of oak. Great with roast meats.
Alpha Estate Blend 2013, PGI Florina, £16.62
Syrah (60%) with Merlot and Xinomavro, this is an accessible combination of hedgerow fruit, black cherry, plums and spice.
All wines from Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wine, 01582 722538