Beyond Assyrtiko, Greek Whites Reach for Distinction

By Eric Asimov

The country is full of obscure and unusual grapes. Some already make wonderful wines, but too many fall prey to formulaic production.

Among all the little-known grape varieties found in the ancient land of Greece, assyrtiko is the one that seems to have broken through. Yet its surfacing has been tentative.

A vanguard of curious and adventurous drinkers recognizes that assyrtiko from the island of Santorini displays many of the characteristics that are associated with great dry white wine. It has been by far the most popular among Greek whites, a category that has grown recently in the United States.

“There has been a significant increase in the sales of Greek wine in the U.S., and especially whites,” said Sofia Perpera, director of Greek Wine Bureau-North America, a trade group. “The hottest category, by far, is assyrtiko.”

Yet most people, including many who consider themselves wine lovers, still regard assyrtiko as something exotic, perhaps even alien.

So what might they make of other Greek whites with names that are vastly more obscure, like moschofilero, roditis and savatiano, to say nothing of athiri, robola and malagousia. Or is that malagouzia?

Spelling itself is a problem. The names of these Greek grapes must be transliterated into English from the Greek alphabet, which sometimes results in multiple renderings.

So moschofilero is sometimes spelled without the “h,” and malagousia with a “z” instead of an “s.” And forget about the red grape agiorgitiko, sometimes written aghiorghitiko or even as its English translation, St. George.

Having witnessed the rise in the quality of assyrtiko in the last decade or so, I was curious about these other Greek whites. Have they made a similar leap in quality? In an effort to answer this question, the wine panel tasted 20 Greek whites from recent vintages. We specifically excluded assyrtikos because we wanted to focus on these other emerging varieties.

For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by two guests: Matthew Conway, general manager and beverage director of Marc Forgione in TriBeCa, and Joe Robitaille, head sommelier at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center.

In a way, I thought, they were a little reminiscent aromatically of a mild version of retsina, the historic Greek white that is flavored with pine sap. I say this with some trepidation as retsina is generally as reviled as it is misunderstood, but I mean it as a compliment. Don’t worry; none of these actually tasted like retsina.

Our favorite was the 2017 Hoof & Lur from Troupis made from moschofilero grapes grown in Mantinia. Moschofilero, like roditis, is a pink-hued white grape, and it can sometimes make wines like this one that might appear to be rosés. Regardless of the tinge, this was a lively, balanced, deliciously herbal wine with citrus flavors.

An unusual wine, our second pick, is made from the ancient muscat of Alexandria grape, which is found all over the Mediterranean. Often, it’s used to make sweet wines, although I’ve had excellent dry examples from Sicily, where it’s called zibibbo. This bottle, the 2017 Terra Ambera from Manolis Garalis on Lemnos, a volcanic island in the Aegean, was dry, perfumed and floral.

Our third wine was the 2016 Theon Dora from Giannis Stilianou in Crete, crisp, fresh and minty. It was a particular study in obscurity, as it was made from three grapes that were unknown to me: vidiano, thrapsathiri and vilana, all indigenous to Crete.

The 2017 Notios from Gai’a in Nemea, an area better known for producing red wines, was our fourth choice. This bottle, made of moschofilero and roditis, leaned toward a more familiar Mediterranean style, but it was very well-done.

The next two wines were both made of malagousia, a grape that was on the verge of disappearing in Greece 30 years ago but has been resurrected and is now found all over the country. The first, rendered malagouzia, is the 2017 from Antonopoulos in the Achaia region in the northern Peloponnese: tangy, fresh and slightly more austere than the zesty, harmonious 2016 malagousia from Zafeirakis in Tyrnavos in the Thessaly region.

Also worth seeking out are two robolas from the island of Cephalonia in the Ionian Sea: the bright, succulent 2017 from Orealios Gaea, which we liked a little more, and the rich, textured 2015 Vino di Sasso from Sclavos. We also recommend the savory, herbal 2016 roditis (spelled “rhoditis”) from Kouros in Patras, and the earthy, floral 2015 moschofilero from Nasiakos in Mantinia.

It was plain from our tasting that these grapes have the potential to make wonderfully distinctive wines. They are already excellent values. None of the wines in our top 10 cost more than $24, and six of them were $20 and under.

It was also obvious that almost half the wines in our tasting — the ones we rejected — suffered from formulaic winemaking. None were undrinkable, but in wine shops already crammed with generic whites, it’s doubtful that the unfamiliar names have much shot of breaking through.

The niche success of assyrtiko offers a formula of a different kind: Figure out what is not already saturating the market and go for it.