Greece’s characterful wines deserve to be seen as much more than niche, says Hamish Anderson
Travelling to the world’s wine regions is one of the pleasures of working in the trade. There are good trips, great trips and ones that change the way you view a country or region. Greece, which I have just visited, fell firmly in the latter category.
Our group was a mixture of Greek experts and novices. Besides me, the beginners camp included the owners of Vinoteca and the buyer for Caprice Holdings, important players who probably turn down more trips than they go on, and they, like me, were seriously impressed by the wines that we tasted.
Greece’s ride in the UK market has been a difficult one. The country’s high street zenith came when Oddbins was at its peak in the 1990s. But its performance since then in the on-trade is best illustrated by a glance through the catalogues of major distributors. A number list one estate; a few notable offenders list none at all. Accessing Greek wine, in other words, is not easy unless you are prepared to work with small specialists.
Greece suffers from a number of problems. First is a raft of unpronounceable varieties and regions. A memorable moment from the trip was standing in a vineyard in Nemea with winemaker George Skouras as he encouraged one Frenchman and a group of reticent Englishmen to act out and phonetically pronounce local red grape Agiorgitiko. The result: a bad version of YMCA among the vines. The fact he did it showed the difficulties of communicating one of the country’s premier red grapes.
Between £7 and £15 they were some of the most interesting wines I’ve tried in a long time
A bigger problem is Greece’s image. Restaurants here tend to be cheap and a pastiche of real Greek food. And while tourists come back bronzed and full of the country’s beauty, they rarely experience more than jugs of local wine or, worse, Retsina. This makes them think the wines should be cheap, which they are not. Nor should they be when you are drinking Assyrtiko from vines aged 100 years or over, grown in the volcanic soils of Santorini, or Malagousia from the Peloponnese.
Between £7 and £15 I tried some of the most interesting, character-packed wines I have had in a long time, their quality and value evident. And it’s no surprise to me that this year saw such positive feedback from tasters at the Sommelier Wine Awards.
Greece needs a couple of high-profile restaurants or, even better, casual wine bars serving high-quality Greek food to reset consumer expectations. But restaurants in general should be showing more enthusiasm for Greek wines, not least because they are ideal for differentiating yourself from competitors.
You only have to look at the great wine lists of New York’s restaurants to see that there is no need for Greece to be niche. I, for one, shall be listing and drinking plenty of Greek wine in future.