Fifteen years ago this year, I had just gotten married to my wife of, well, 15 years, and off to Greece we went on our honeymoon. We were young, we were in love, and we were excited to go to another country and spend some time on the beach. Athens was the first place we ventured. We stayed there four days. They were getting ready to host the Olympic games, and the city was a buzz. The subway had just been build, and the Euro had not been introduced as the Greek Currency. We loved the history of the city, and while dirty, the dirt was thousands of years old, making it interesting dirt. We loved it.
Next off to Mykonos where we saw the historic windmills, we sat on beaches, ate fresh seafood, and walked a lot. We even tried to rent a scooter, which was a bad idea, and fortunately the guy who was going to rent it to us agreed.
Next it was off to Santorini. Why am I telling you this? Well, what we learned was that Santorini was among the most important wine producing regions of Greece, and that we had to go wine tasting there... Hmmm, the Greeks make wine...I mean besides Uncle Nick in his basement of course. But the Greeks in fact do make wine. They may very well have been the first to make wine (3000 BC), and likely spread the mighty Vinous Vinifera (Grape vine) throughout the world. In fact, the first French to make wine were the Greek Immigrants in Marssalia (Modern day Marseilles). In Italy it is likely, although disputed that Aglianico and Greco grapes are most likely Greek in origin. The Greeks surely took their grapes and went north to the Black sea and the banks of the Danube.
The Greeks also recognized the holiness of wine and drank it liberally. They allowed people of all classes access, and as they did, the need to plant more vineyards rose. It was classic supply and demand, but since it was wine, it was more fun than your typical Economics class. They also developed the first wine labels and a basic classification system. So you see, if not for the Greeks, I probably would have one less obsession, and I am not talking about baseball.
So I know the next question because I had it too. Why if they were like the wine gurus in ancient times, have they sunk to such vinous obscurity? One word, Retsina. What is Retsina? I knew you would want to know that. Retsina is an aromatized wine that Greek wine makers call a traditional wine. In the good old days, Greek wines were made in Amphorae, and the way in which the Amphorae were sealed was with pine resin. Now a days most wines are stored in far less fragile barrels, however, the Greeks got used to putting the Aleppo pine resin in their wines, and thus, they add pine resin on purpose. Lets just say one person's comforting flavor might just be an acquired taste for others.Generally made from the Savvatino grape, Retsina is still made, but may not be labeled with a vintage.
As for the less "traditional" wines, Greece has been dominated by a few producers such as Boutari and Tsantali however, it is the smaller makers that are likely to put Greece back on the wine making map. Like Italy, there are a lot of indigenous species of grapes to play with, and the future for quality wines coming out of Greece looks quite bright.
The climate in Greece (I almost feel stupid saying this) is Mediterranean or sub-tropical, and there is a rain-shaddow in effect in much of the growing areas. Long hot and dry summers allow for plenty of sunlight to allow the grapes to adequately ripen. There are also a lot of mountains in Greece making for various elevations at which to grow.
Greek wine laws are confusing. There is the PDO or Protected Designation of Origen, under which are 2 designations. First the Controlled Appelation of origin for traditional and sweet wines. and the second is called the Appellation of Superior Quality (OPAP) for dry wines. PDO wines may also be Reserve wich indicates 9 months of age for white wines, and reds have a minimum of 2 years aged with at least 1 in barrel. Grand Reserve wines require 2 years of aging for whites and a minimum of 4 years for reds with at least 18 in a bottle.
Below the PDO wines is a category called PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). There are two types of wines here. Varietal wines and Table wines. PGI contains the traditional appellations. PGI wines also may have additional designations including CAVA. This is not the same as Spanish Cava. These are still wines. Cava means that the wines have a minimum of one year aging for whites, and 3 for reds. They may also be Cava, Palaiomenos se vareli which means that the wines were on oak for a longer time than Cava alone requires.
Another quick cheat is that under the foil at the top of the bottle may be a pink or blue ribbon. Pink indicates dry wines and blue sweet.
Greece has 19 major wine regions. On the mainland Macedonia, Epirus, Peloponnese, Thessalia, Thrase and Sterea Ellada are the major communities. The Islands also produce many wines. The Aegean and Ionian Islands are the major classifications there.
Perhaps the most exciting wine region in Greece is Macedonia. Macedonia has 4 PDOs Naoussa and Amynteo (PDOs) produce transcendent dry reds from a grape called Xinomavro (Acid Black). This is a firmly tannin heavy structured red that shares a lot of black fruit and spice, and the one we had in class was very Syrah like with a meatiness that tasted a bit like bacon. Amynteo is Greeces coolest region and the only one that allows rose wines. These range from still to sparkling, dry to sweet.
Slopes of Meliton (Plagies Melitona) is a single appellation PDO and it produces wines from Cab, Cab Franc, and Limnio, Assyrtiko, Athiri and Rhoditis.
Thessalia is just south of Macedonia. Rapsani PDO includes four villages on the lower slopes of mount olympus. This is the furthest south you will see the Xinomavro grape and the heat of the region softens the tannins and acid. Messenikola PDO produces reds and whites, whereas Anchialos PDO only produces white wines blended from Rodits and Savvatiano grapes that are grown in high altitude vineyards.Epirus is on the ionian coast to the west of Thessalia and contains but one PDO called Zitsa. They produce dry, semisweet and sparkling wines from the Debina grape.
Sterea Ellada is where Retsina is still made. Roditis is also planted there which is a quaffable pink wine that is not going to offend or excite anyone. There are no PDOs designated here.
Peloponnese peninsula is directly south of central Greece. There are 3 PDO zones here called Nemea, Mantinia and Patras. Agiorgitiko (St. George) grapes are king here and make sweet and dry wines. This is a soft tannic wine with intense black fruit flavors. St, George from Koutsi is one of the better versions of the grape which can taste quite different depending on the elevation in which it is grown.
Peloponnese also has PDO zones that produce whites only. This includes Moschofilero (Similar to Muscat) is the primary grape in Mantinia PDO wines. These are among Greece's best white wines.
Patras is an appellation of dry white wines produced from Roditis, but there are also dessert wine PDO zones as well. Muscat of Patras, Muscat Rio Patras and Mavrodaphne of Patras.
The Ionian Islands have 4 wine producing islands which include Cephalonia, Kerkyra (Corfu), Lefkada and Zakynthos. Cephalonia is the only ionian island to get a PDO for dry white wines. produced from Robola grapse. PDOs for sweet wines are also produced on the island.Zakynthos produces and obscure sherry-like wine.
The Agean Islands have many PDOs. Crete has 2 red PDOs Archanes and Dafnes. Sita and Peza allow both red and white wines. Three new PDO zones were added in 2012. These include Candia, Malvasia Candia and Malvasia Sitia. White wines on Crete are made from Vidiano and Liatiko (One of the most ancient grapes and one that produces "Orange" wine). Red wines are made from Mandilaria blended with Kotsifali. Many of the young winemakers are mixing Kotsifali with Syrah changing the landscape of Crete's winemaking.
The Cylades, so named because they form a circle around the island of Delos include wine making islands Santorini and Paros. Santorini PDO is an exciting appelation producing wines from Assyrtiko grapes sometimes blended with Athiri and Aidani. The vines are trained into bowls close to the ground both to save water, and to protect them against the high winds on the island.
The island has poor volcanic soils producing mineral wines from Assyrtico that often has a slight saltiness and fantastic clean, bright acidity. A dry grape wine is produced called vinsanto, likely named by the Italians. Paros produces red and white wines from Mandilaria(Red) and Monevvassia (White) grapes.
Samos makes Muscat of Samos PDO. These can be Vin doux naturel, Vin de liquor and naturally sweet versions called Samos Nectar.
Lemnos and Rhodes have 2 PDOs each. Lemnos wines are wite dominated by Muscat and may be dry or sweet. Lemnio is the red grape and it is very ancient. Rhodes produces PDO red and white from Mandilaria and Athiri. Muscat of Rhodes are very rare.
So hopefully the wines of Greece will be less "Greek to you" in the future.