“Yia mas!”

Today, wine lovers the world over can enjoy the excellence of the new Greek wines, produced from varieties and vineyards which for millennia on end have yielded wines which were renowned in their time and have been entered in the annals of worl wine history. What is more, the new wines of Greece carry within the history of Greek wine and are the ideal vehicle to a journey through time. The history of Greek wine is difficult to understand if torn away from Greek history itself and even more difficult to describe. However, it all becomes simple and clear when enjoying a glass of new Greek wine responsibly and in moderation. “Evi evan!” was the toast at the celebrations of the cult of Dionysus. “Let us be merry but never drunk” Socrates used to say at the symposia he would attend. “Wine gladdens the heart of man” acknowledged Christianity. To all that, the Greeks of today come to add their own toast and literally mean every word of it: “Yia mas!” (“Here is to health!”)

The new Greek wine revival

The new Greek wine revival, as it is called by many, occurred during the last decades of the 20thcentury, marked by various events in both the vine growing and winemaking domains. In those days, the large winemaking concerns aside, small-to-medium size producers began to emerge. They were vertically integrated, winegrowing concerns producing wines on a limited scale from Greek as well as international grape varieties. Enthusiastic vintners, numbering many oenologists in their ranks, cultivated their vineyards with dedication and vinified with a view to a broad market either by continuing the cultivation of and reviving the historic vineyards of Greece or by planting new ones. In the meantime, the return of hundreds of Greek oenologists who were graduates of European–mainly French- or other foreign universities; the graduates emerging from the newly established Department of Oenology and Beverage Technology at the Athens TEI; and the graduates of Greek universities specializing in Viticulture and Oenology, would join forces to bolster the country scientifically. Together, this committed group would steer production towards taking advantage of the potential Greece’s unique grape varieties have by means of contemporary technology and vinification methods. During the same time period, other professions related to the wine sector also emerged such as wine journalists and sommeliers. Important new, Greek wine exhibitions were established (Oenorama and Dionyssia), together with a Greek wine competition, the Thessaloniki International Wine Competition.

The efforts exerted were not in vain. The Greek market began to feel the difference as Greeks and visitors from the world over continued to discover the new Greek wines. Towards the end of the 20thcentury, the new Greek wine revival would continue with the establishment of a new wave of small wineries which reached a peak during the first decade of the 21st century. Many of these wineries belonged to traditional vintners who counted on the excellence of their wine. At the same time, old and new wineries alike began showing an interest in wine tourism.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the new Greek wine revival is evidently paying dividends: the distinctions the Greek wines amass have never been more steadily bestowed or more numerous. State-of-the art wineries, dedicated, enthusiastic vintners, and highly specialized oenologists have put their heads together to take full advantage of the grapes the vineyards of Greece yield from rare, native varieties and international ones alike and to produce excellent, distinguished wines, highly acclaimed worldwide. It is thus evident that the upgraded quality of the new wines of Greece is neither coincidental nor transient. Meanwhile, more and more eyes are turning towards the vine itself, with a view to optimizing cultivation by means of modern and approved methods and to showcasing the native Greek varieties. The process is certain to further consolidate quality and ensure that the ‘dark ages’ of Greek wine are definitely a thing of the past.

Modern times

Greece was ushered into modern times (1945-1975) with most of its infrastructure and productive potential ruined after World War II and the ensuring bitter civil war. It was reduced to a mere viewer of global wine developments. The main bottled wines that were exported were retsina, a unique albeit controversial wine, Mavrodaphne, and the PGI Samos wines. At the same time, enormous quantities of mostly high-alcohol and dark-colored wines traveled in bulk to be blended with or fortify European ones. The only optimistic note was struck by the Greek islands, most of which had remained unscathed by phylloxera, preserving thus hundreds of native grape varieties while the continental areas of Greece gradually introduced pest-resistant rootstocks grafted with cuttings resilient to phylloxera.

The presence of large cooperative wineries (in Crete, Rhodes, Samos, Nemea, Patras, Naoussa, Santorini, Tyrnavos, etc) and of large, private winemaking concerns (Boutari and Tsantali in Macedonia; Kourtakis in Attica), all of which invested in modernized equipment, led to the absorption of considerable volumes of grapes and to the production of commercial wines of fair quality. During that same period ofmodern times (early second half of the 20th century), exports of bottled wines began from renowned vineyards of continental Greece such as the vineyard at Nemea, Naoussa, and Mantinia whose lack of easy access to commercial ports had kept their export activity low in comparison with the vineyards on the islands and the coastline.

Modern times also saw the first classification of Greek wines 25 centuries after the ancient Greeks had been sealing amphorae to safeguard the authenticity of their contents (1971) . The first designations of origin of Greek wines are legislated following the French model of wine legislation. In contributing to this effort, the Wine Institute, headed by its charismatic director, Stavroula Kourakou, produced an impressive body of research into Greek wine. Mrs. Kourakou and her colleagues’ multi-faceted task led to showcasing the timeless wealth of the Greek vineyard and the new Greek wines, paving the way for many of the historic vineyards of Greece to acquire legislative recognition and protection as well as the right to display their name on their wine labels. In later years, around the time that Greece became a full member state of the (present) European Union, Local Wines also gained legal recognition. Ever since then, legislation, winegrowing production and the wine market have been directly aligned with the rest of the European Union. It  was also during this period that the establishment of Greek wine agencies took place.

Independent Greece

The 1821 Greek War of Independence, which with intervals went on for about six years and left much of the resources of the country in tatters, was inevitably disastrous for the Greek vineyard. The former Ottoman rulers would destroy anything that belonged to their Greek foe, vineyards included, and the Greek rebels would abandon their pruning shears, harvests, and winemaking to take arms. During the early days of independent Greece, the first attempts at resuming winegrowing and winemaking made their appearance, together with the first Greek oenologists. Those attempts were nevertheless doomed to failure as for the next century the Greeks continued their struggle to liberate all of Greece. Yet, even then, wine commerce and the Santorini wine exports went on.
A few decades after the establishment of independent Greece, after the middle of the 19th century, the first large wineries were established. Those were owned by or were established in participation with Europeans (the Bavarian Gustav Clauss in Achaia, the British Ernest Toole in Cephalonia) and, in essence, marked the advent of contemporary Greek winemaking. Those first, large wineries had direct access to European ports. In their footsteps, there followed other large wineries in Attiki (Attica), like Cambas, and smaller ones in Nemea, on Samos, at Naoussa, and on Santorini which still led Greek exports, with Russia as its main market. At the same time, the first Greek oenologists returned to Greece after having completed their oenology studies in France. Greece continued to widen its borders by the annexation of the Ionian islands and Thessalia (Thessaly) to its territory, thus acquiring a size half of what it is today.

With independent Greece well-established towards the late 19th century, the blight of phylloxera practically wiped out the entire French vineyard, resulting in a surge in demand for the Greek winegrowing production, most of which was exported to France. Demand soon exceeded production and the quantities produced did not suffice. There was a massive growth in exports of vinification currants going towards the production of currant wine. What is more, many of the vineyards planted with wine grape varieties would be replanted with currant-producing vines. A few years later, however, demand came to a grinding halt, leading to the currant crisis which impacted catastrophically on Greek production and, by extension, on the Greek economy. In the last years of the 19th century, the specter of phylloxera would make its appearance in Greece as well, exacerbating the crisis. The first half of the 20th century proved even more sinister for Greek wine. Still reeling under the reverberations of phylloxera, the country witnessed the disappearance of certain historic vineyards; the loss in export markets; the massive waves of Greek immigrants seeking a better fortune elsewhere; and the impotence of the state to organize production. The crisis deepened when millions of Greeks were violently uprooted from their birthplaces in Asia Minor and the Black Sea and were forced to flee to Greece. What is more, the ravages of successive, catastrophic wars (the Balkan Wars; WWI and WWII, the Greek Civil War) wiped out much of what phylloxera had left intact of the Greek vineyard.

Ottoman rule

Under Ottoman rule (1453-1821), the wealth of the Greek vineyard was left untapped as, in contrast to preceding rulers, the Ottoman Turks, whose Moslem religion forbade wine, saw no need to take advantage of it. At best, after the fall of Constantinople, they would allow the inhabitants in winegrowing areas of Greece to continue producing their wine (as their ancestors had done for thousands of years), going so far as to grant them privileges for self-governance (wine commerce on the islands) or even autonomy (Treaty of Tamasi). At worst, extreme measures implemented by the Ottomans included bans on wine drinking and destroying vineyards. However, although the Moslem faith forbade Moslems to drink wine or even cultivate vineyards, it gave them the right to tax the winegrowing and winemaking activities of the Ottomans’ Greek Orthodox subjects. Thus, in many areas of the Ottoman Empire where the Greek inhabitants had continued to cultivate their vineyards, the local Ottoman authorities would withhold part of the wine quantity produced as tax. Should the inhabitants refuse to pay that fealty tax, the Ottomans retaliated by ordering the vineyards to be abandoned or destroyed. In other regions, cultivation of historic vineyards went on.

In continental Greece, the monasteries, which possessed considerable land devoted to vineyards and had established the first organized wineries, contributed decisively to preserving the grape variety and wine potential of Greece. Monasteries instrumental in that preservation were the monastic communities on Mount Athos, which produced renowned wines, and the monastic communities on Meteora. During the centuries of Ottoman rule, many foreign travelers journeyed through Greece, faithfully recording in their travel journals their impressions from the country which, even past its heyday, beckoned them to explore it. Their travels also took the foreign visitors through the vineyards of Greece where they became acquainted with their uniqueness, the ecosystems in which they thrived and the grape varieties. The areas considered to be important winegrowing hubs at that time were Siatista, Naoussa, Tyrnavos, Rapsani, Nemea and, needless to say, the Aegean and Ionian islands, and Crete.

Venetian rule

Even during the Crusades and after Constantinople had been taken by the Ottomans in 1453, the Europeans (the Franks, Venetians and Genoese) had been conspicuously present in Greece, especially in the south and on the islands where they still pitted themselves against the fleet of the Ottoman Empire. Venetian rule (12th-17th century) extended over the islands of the Aegean and the Ionian Seas, over Crete, and for a short period in the Peloponnese (Venetians and Peloponnesian wine). The Europeans had always showed a great appreciation of Greek wine which they valued not only for its quality but also for its staying power which allowed it to withstand long sea voyages. Thus, Frankish and Venetian ships lost no time in loading their ships with wines from Crete, the Cyclades, and Monemvassia. Especially, Monemvassia was a favorite with the Europeans. Not only had it had given its other name, Malvasia, to its sheltered port but also to the time’s most coveted wine, Malvasias oenos. Later on, the same name was given to numerous grape varieties but also to inevitable imitations of the wine. Today, that famous wine enjoys a revival in Greece through the establishment of a new PDO wine, known as PDO Monemvassia-Malvasia. Under Venetian rule exports of Malvasias reached unprecedented proportions in the history of wine worldwide. After an illustrious course paved with glorious moments such as the fame Santorini wines in Paris had enjoyed, the golden age of Greek wines during Venetian rule would come to an end: The Ottomans had prevailed not only over continental Greece but over the Greek islands as well. Still, around the middle of the 17th century, conflicts between the Venetians and the Turks in the Aegean resumed ushering warfare in the realm of wine.

Byzantine times

In the early 4th century, the capital of the Roman Empire moved to Byzantium (324-1453) and was named Constantinople after Emperor Constantine, its founder. Christianity had become Byzantium’s official religion and had spread throughout the Empire (two centuries before the fall of Constantinople, a Christian saint, Agios Tryfon, would become the patron saint of vintners). For the next millennium, a mighty civilization would develop in the Greek domain, retaining from the ancient Greek civilization, the language and the timeless Greek winegrowing and winemaking tradition which went towards the production of Byzantine wine. Some winegrowing techniques would be preserved intact during Byzantine times. Others would be perfected. In any case, Greek wine would continue to play a significant commercial as well as social role. Christianity would act as a catalyst in the preservation of wine’s historic continuity in Greece, with the vine literally “flowering” in Byzantine art. The monasteries would engage in winegrowing (Mount Athos) and the sacrament of Holy Communion would necessitate sweet wine found among the renowned ones whose production on the Greek islands had continued.

However, despite the support it had been given durring Byzantine times, winegrowing in the Greek territory would still go through trials and tribulations. Hostile invasions in continental Greece and pirate raids on the Greek islands would come to disrupt the permanence and tranquility vines need to prosper, although there were certain time periods which did witness the comeback of Greek wines. On the other hand, many were the areas in Greece, headed by the Aegean islands and Crete with its Passos (Passum) wine, which briskly engaged in exporting their wines via the sea routes of wine and in supplying with choice wines the lavish banquets of the Byzantine emperors.

The Roman period

As of the middle of the 2nd century BC, during the Roman period (146 BC-324 AD) Greece was under Roman rule. On encountering Greek culture, the Romans would adopt many a Greek cultural elements out of which the “Graeco-Roman” civilization would emerge. Among those cultural elements were winegrowing and winemaking techniques which constituted the origins of Roman wines. Those techniques were not unknown to the Romans who had first encountered them in the Greek colonies of Sicily and southern Italy. Up to the time that they came to Greece, the Romans had cultivated their vineyards in what is known as the “tendone” system, a technique of the Etruscans who would train the vines to climb on trees and then branch out into cordons. After acquainting themselves with Greek winegrowing techniques, the Romans adopted the Greek vine training system which called for short, bush-trained upright spurs and yielded fewer but better grapes, especially in hot and dry climates. Being ardent admirers of the good life, the affluent Romans easily became attached to the Greek tradition of symposia and the art of enjoying wine. Under Roman contol of the wine trade, the fine wines of Greece were again in demand and much sought after.
Eminent Roman poets and distinguished writers of the time would sing the praises of Greek wines in their work. Among them, Horace lauded Homer and his epics by referring to him as Homerus vinosus. Virgil praised the hundreds of Greek grape varieties, observing that it is harder count them than “he grains of sand” on the seashore. Pliny went further by giving detailed descriptions of Greek wines. It was during that time, that Athenaeus’ “Deipnosophistae” was written, which constitutes an unsurpassed guidebook on gastronomy and Greek wine tasting. Two important Greek doctors, Dioskourides and, later, Galenos, following in the footsteps of Hippocrates, pointed towards the value wine had as a therapeutic means and favorably commented on the plethora of Greek wines as well as on the wine’s exceptional quality.

During the Roman period, Crete made a dynamic comeback among important wine production hubs. From the 1st to the 3rd century AD, during the golden age of the Cretan vineyard, Crete would export its wines not only throughout the Aegean but also to Egypt, continental Greece, and all of Europe: that is corroborated by the Cretan amphorae found in Pompeii and Ostia in Italy, in Lyons, France, and even in Switzerland. During that same time period, vine stock grafts were part of the brisk wine commerce activities, traveling from Greece to mainly western destinations. In the second half of the 1st century BC Cretan wine captivated Rome.

Hellenistic times

The end of the Classical period, which was Greek wine’s most illustrious time period, came after the death of Alexander the Great who was one of the greatest military leaders in world history. Not only did he spread Greek civilization to such places as Egypt and India but he also promoted winegrowing colonization. The winegrowing practices of Greece stretched to the far reaches of the East while, the needs of the campaigns of Alexander the Great would encourage the prosperity of winegrowing in the south. His armies had to be supplied with wine which was used not only as tonic and refreshment during a campaign’s hardships but also as a means of “sterilizing” water of dubious purity that the armies would encounter on their marches. Thus, Macedonian ships would carry to the ports the armies would arrive at wine procured on the islands of the southern Aegean, such as Rhodes and Kos, on Cyprus and the coast of Asia Minor. It was on one such island, Lesvos, that Theophrastus was born, a philosopher who wrote what is considered to be the first book on wine. Inevitably, during Hellenistic times (323-146 BC) those areas and islands became major Mediterranean hubs of wine production and commerce. After a series of conflicts, the successors of Alexander the Great divided among them his vast kingdom, each taking a part. That of Alexandria, Egypt, was the most significant one and it engaged in noteworthy wine production. In the meantime, in Greece and, more specifically, in Macedonia, production of notable wines continued as it did in other areas but with none of the prestige of the past. What did flourish, however, was the art of “wine mosaics”.

The Classical period

The Golden Age of Athens (5th century BC) is part of the Classical period (480-323 BC). It was an age which has become interwoven with perfection and timelessness; with the birth of democracy and philosophy; with the building of the Parthenon, and with Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” and so much more; it was the age of great classical writers, tragedists, and philosophers whose works and deeds sang the praises of Greek wine; it was the age of the greatest wines of antiquity; it was a time when, by the standards of that time, international wine commerce experienced its most remarkable growth ever. Transactions were often carried out with “wine” coinage as payment and advanced viticultural and winegrowing means and techniques were being firmly established.

Above all, during the Classical period, the growth of a significant winegrowing culture laid the foundations for today’s winegrowing culture and legislation as those have been expressed through: the establishment of protected designations of origin and protected geographical indications; the safeguarding of winemaking activities of unique and singular terroirs; the promotion and distribution of Greek wines abroad; the formulation of special terminology applying to the description of wines; and, most importantly, by establishing wine at Attica’s symposia as a part of everyday life and social interaction. It was during those symposia that wine played a leading role and contributed to Greek philosophy as expressed by Socrates, Plato, and other seminal minds of the time. It also contributed to an unrivalled wine culture in terms of wine knowledge, wine reviewing, wine pouring, and the art of wine in moderation, in other words (Greek ones at that!), enjoying wine in a wise, measured manner.
In the Classical period, wines that had made a name for themselves were Ariousios from the area of Ariousia in Chios; Lesvios; Peparithios; Samios, Thassios -the world’s first PDO wine; and Mendeos from Halkidiki, perhaps the world’s first famous and brand-name, white wine.

In the 4th century BC, which is also part of the Classical period, with Athens still clashing with Sparta and other Greek city-states, the leadership of the Greek realm would pass to another Greek region, Macedonia, and its king Philip. As both he and Alexander the Great, his son and successor, were great admirers of Greek wines, Greece’s important winemaking and wine commerce hubs would be joined by those in northern Greece: Pella (capital of the kingdom of Macedonia); Vergina; Amphipolis; and Philippi. Wines produced in those areas were also destined to become as famous as their Aegean counterparts, which continued to enjoy high acclaim. The highly developed art in Macedonia would produce pottery masterpieces such as vessels and wine vessels while, Aristotle, the major philosopher and teacher of Alexander the Great, would become not only an inexhaustible source of wisdom but of information as well on the vineyards and the wines of his time.