The Greek economy is finally in a period of growth, albeit modest, after years of recession. Investments are increasing and exports are recovering, while unemployment has fallen by nearly 6% in the last four years. And for two consecutive years the Greek government has succeeded in surpassing fiscal targets for primary budget surpluses.
It’s a period of cautious optimism, just ahead of the country’s planned exit from EU bailouts in August of this year.
The recovery will presumably spur an increase in domestic consumption of higher quality wine, as some disposable income returns to the average Greek’s pockets (economic meltdown did little to stop the Greeks from frequenting bars and cafés, as I personally witnessed several times in the last half dozen years, but the average spend was down), which will no doubt lift the mood of domestic wine producers. But in the meantime, they’ve moved on. They’ve found new and receptive markets elsewhere.
The silver lining in all of this for the Greek wine industry, as well as wine consumers worldwide, has been the forced focus on international markets. As local markets dried up (tourists aside), exports became the only option. And the industry, through individuals and collectives, self-funded and government/EU-funded programs, has spent the last dozen years or more spreading the word about Greek wines around the world, with a particular focus on North America. And our world is richer for it.
In the US (the only country for which I could find statistics), export growth has been impressive. In the last decade while Greece was crumbling, exports by value have just about doubled. Volume is up as well, but by much less. But no matter. Value is in my view the most important measure of long term export success. It means that buyers are paying higher prices for Greek wines, 5.29 euros/liter on average in 2017, compared to 3.14 euros in 2007, to be precise. They’re no longer the poor Balkan cousins of fine wine, source of obscure values and not much else. They’re just fine in their own right.
As I reported last year, it’s now commonplace to overhear sommeliers in New York, San Francisco, Montreal or Toronto exchanging thoughts on subtle changes in an established producer’s style, or sharing an untapped source of a particular region or grape new to market, as though discussing the insider subtleties of Burgundy or the Sonoma Coast. Greek wines have definitely arrived. Hopefully you, too, have already experienced some of the decidedly original and horizon-expanding wines that the country has to offer.
Established Successes: The Big Four You Already Know
Among wines that have led the export charge, a handful of grapes and regions stand out. If you’ve had Greek wine before, chances are you’ve had a glass or two of the extraordinary whites of PDO Santorini. I’ve written and spoken many words about this remarkable volcanic island in the Aegean over the years and the truly unique wines made there, mainly from assyrtiko. And nearly a dozen and a half years after having first discovered Santorini, I’m still no less fascinated by the terroir, the torturous conditions under which grapevines grow, the extraordinary lengths to which growers need go in order to extract even a small amount of stony-salty essence, the impossibly old vines/root systems (the oldest in the world), and of course the strong character (and quality) of the wines. We’ve highlighted a few to try, or retry, in the list of recommended wines below.
The pale pinkish-whites of PDO Mantinia in the heart of the Peloponnese, made from moschophilero, have also gained many fans in North America. These low alcohol (c. 11.5%), crisp, bone dry and perfumed wines admirably occupy the style category populated by wines like Pinot Grigio, Albariño and Grüner Veltliner. Further justification for the comparison with pinot grigio in particular comes from moscophilero’s purple-tinged skins when fully ripe (you can make pale rose from it with a little skin contact, like the ‘ramato’ (copper-coloured) style of skin-fermented pinot grigio once again popular in northeastern Italy), and its shared richness in the aromatic compounds called monoterpenes, which give the wine its characteristic floral-fruity (orange blossom, rose petal) profile.
Among reds, agiorgitiko from PDO Nemea in the Peloponnese, and xinomavro from Macedonia in the north (mostly Naoussa and Amydeon PDOs) have gained the most international traction, but for dissimilar reasons – the two grapes couldn’t be more different. Agiorgitiko is the darker-coloured, softer, rounder grape of the two, with its sumptuous plummy fruit and smooth, velvety tannins that bring to mind tempranillo, merlot or GSM blends. Xynomavro, on the other hand, is pale garnet-coloured, firm and dusty, far more savoury than fruity, like nebbiolo, sangiovese, or “pinot noir in blue jeans”, as one clever Athenian sommelier once described it to me. Both have their time and place to be sure.
New Grapes and Regions to Explore
But these four varieties only begin to hint at the depth of what Greece has to offer. Indigenous varieties number into the hundreds, appearing individually but also frequently in blends, making for a near limitless range of wines. You’ll also find a handful of wines made from international grapes, or more popularly, international-indigenous blends. But local varieties account for no less than 90% of Greece’s 110,000 hectares of vineyards (slightly less than the region of Bordeaux alone; Greece ranks 17th in the world for total acreage planted), so the focus is firmly on the grapes that Greece has been growing for the last four millennia.
Another surprising fact is that white grapes account for 2/3 of total plantings. Considering Greece’s location in Europe’s deep south, with a southernmost latitude that crosses the 35th parallel in Crete, and the general impression, abetted by countless postcards, of eternally blue skies and endless summers, one might expect robust reds to flourish instead. But here’s another key factor that explains the country’s vinous diversity: Greece is also particularly mountainous. The highest peak, Mount Olympus, pokes through clouds at almost 3000 meters, and many vineyards sit on plateaus or mountainsides at over 700m, meaning that there are plenty of genuinely cool regions where the climate is far more continental than Mediterranean. Some regions, like Mantinia mentioned above, struggle even to ripen grapes in some vintages. Factor in the natural selection that occurred over thousands of years of experiments in every corner of the country, and the net result is an amazing collection of well-adapted varieties with distinctive profiles. There is much to discover.
Some white grapes to put on your must-try list include exotically tropical Malagouzia from across north-central Greece, flowery-herbal Debina (especially the sparkling versions from Zitsa PDO), ethereally fragrant Kydonitsa from the famous port town of Monemvasia, fleshy, peachy Vidiano and Vilana from Crete, saline and lemony Robola from Cephalonia, shockingly crisp and mineral Roditis from Achaia high up in the northern Peloponnese, and smoky-oily Savatiano from vineyards around Athens, in pure and pine resin-scented retsina form.
For reds, consider exotic leather, dried rose and fig-flavoured Mavrodaphne (in dry red wine form from fresh grapes, also sweet red when the grapes are sundried) from the Peloponnese, the crunchy-peppery Vlahiko from the northwestern corner of the country, bold and structured Vertzami of the Ionian islands, extract, colour and acid-rich Limniona from Thessaly and elsewhere, savoury Limnio from the island of Lemnos, deep-coloured, and earthy Mandilaria and pale and soft Kotsifali from Crete and the Aegean Islands, often blended together, to give but a few examples. See an extended list of indigenous grapes with descriptions on the Wines of Greece website here.