The Greek renaissance
Greek wine is going through something of a renaissance. Despite having a history of viticulture dating back to roughly 3,000BC, up until the last 30 years or so, its wine was nothing to shout about. The majority was the product of large co-operatives and drunk by locals or holidaymakers rather than exported across the globe and the pride of Michelin-starred wine lists.
One after another, producers stopped shipping off their high-yielding, dilute grapes to the local co-op and started bottling their own wines. Using individual indigenous grape varieties from some of the finest and most diverse terroirs on the planet, the results are a revelation.
And now the next generation are coming through. Sons and daughters that have grown up amongst the vines and in the winery, have travelled and studied abroad, and have returned to take on the family business – and with incredible results.
Greeks and Romans
Greece can be daunting when dipping your toe in for the first time with its unpronounceable grape varieties, places and regions you've never heard of (even if you have heard of them, few can point to them on a map) and a history steeped in retsina it struggled to shake for so many years.
In a way, Greece should be approached in the same way as Italy: a large country packed with indigenous varieties and terroirs not found anywhere else on earth. The Greeks and Italians have influenced each other when it comes to wine more than many might think, trading varieties (such as aglianico) and techniques for centuries. But most importantly, Greece is a treasure trove of genuine, authentic wine. It's a part of the country's history and is imbedded in the soul of every Greek man, woman and child. Just like Italy.
Greece is Europe's third most mountainous country and has over 150 inhabited islands, many of which produce wine. With such little land for agriculture it means vines, which can grow practically anywhere, are exiled to the mountains where they're forced to dig deep to find nutrients. It's in these hills, in the poorest of soils, that the finest grapes are grown and are the canvas for Greece's current fine wine renaissance.
The Greek mainland
The Peloponnese, the peninsula at the southern tip of Greece's mainland, is home to some of Greece's most affordable and approachable wines. Nemea, approximately 30km south-west of Corinth, is home to the red agiorgitiko variety. One that manifests itself in multiple guises from charming pinks to intensely sweet dessert wines. But it's best known for approachable, juicy dry red wines at the more entry-level price bracket (for example the Red on Black from Mitravelas) and full, brooding, spicy and oaky reds at the more premium end (such as the Nemea Grand Cuvée from Skouras or the Mitravelas Ktima 2019). The dark cassis fruit and savoury spice of these more premium agiorgitikos will appeal to lovers of Bordeaux, with the lighter, juicier styles more akin to gamay or mencía.
Located in Macedonia in the north of Greece, Naoussa is home to the xinomavro grape, one that draws more than a few comparisons to pinot noir or nebbiolo. With its bright acidity, pale colour and plentiful tannins it's easy to see why. For the lighter, softer and easy-drinking styles more akin to pinot noir be sure to check out Apostolos Thymiopoulos' Jeunes Vignes. For those more on the nebbiolo spectrum the Naoussea from Ktima Foundi offers Barolo-like structure and aromatics at a snip.
Rapsani is found in the foothills of Mount Olympus and the wines are worthy of their Godly location. As in Naoussa, xinomavro is the predominant variety, but is here blended with the darker coloured and fuller-bodied varieties of krasato and stavroto. Expect plush red fruit, tomato-leaf and bramble characters alongside bright acidity, ripe yet structured tannins and warming alcohol. Lovers of Burgundy should check out Apostolos Thymiopoulos' Rapsani.
Greece's largest (and most southerly) island is arguably Greece's most exciting wine region. Host to numerous indigenous varieties and a new generation keen to promote them, Crete is sure to deliver something that takes your fancy. The island itself is split north to south by an intimidating mountain range with over 30 peaks stretching more than 1,500m into the sky (Ben Nevis is only 1,343m), with the cooler northern side where the vast majority of viticulture is found. Vidiano is currently the premier white variety, with the rare thrapsathiri (Armi Thrapsathiri, Lyrarakis) and dafni (Psarades Dafni, Lyrarakis) starting to turn heads, as well as the finest example of assyrtiko outside of Santorini we've found to date (Nomas Assyrtiko, Karavitakis). For the reds, mandilari leads the charge (Plakoura Mandilari, Lyrarakis) with liatiko (Kompsos Liatiko, Karavitakis) providing juicy red wines full of Mediterranean charm.
Santorini is not only one of the world's most stunning locations - it's also home to some of the world's finest wines. The remnant of a volcanic caldera and the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history (the Minoan eruption), its barren landscape and brutal growing conditions (intense wind and minimal rainfall) result in incredibly low yields of intense, high-alcohol, mineral white wines and full-bodied intense reds. Assyrtiko from Santorini is truly one of the wine wonders of the world, with the best showing a full, viscous texture, high alcohol, high acidity and distinctively saline character. Hatzidakis are one of the finest producers on the island and we'd encourage members to start there (Skitali Assyrtiko, Cuvée No. 15 Assyrtiko, Aidani and Mavrotragano are all delicious).
Located in the eastern Aegean Sea, Samos is home to some of Greece's finest sweet wines, made using the aromatic muscat grape. Samos Anthemis is the perfect introduction to the Vin Doux Naturel style that is so popular here.
Kephalonia is, viticulturally, the most important of the Ionian islands thanks to a climate lacking in extremes, predominantly limestone soils, and signature white grape variety, robola. The island itself is steeped in history, although it's a history which is belied by its sapphire waters and beautiful architecture. The island is the setting for the book Captain Correlli's Mandolin which documents the massacre of Italian troops by the Germans during the Second World War, and was also the site of a devastating earthquake in 1953 which led to a mass exodus of residents and was so powerful it raised the entire island by 60cm. Thankfully for most it is now a major tourist hub and its wine scene is very much on the rise. Gentilini produce one of Kefalonia's finest examples of robola.
It's all Greek to me
Perhaps the best way to explore Greece is to take a look at the varieties:
Like the name suggests, assyrtiko is an assertive grape. It's typically high in acid, high in alcohol (13.5-14.5%), full-bodied, textured and, although not aromatic, is packed full of flavour. Flavours include citrus, stone fruits and a salty/mineral tang when young, developing into apricot, beeswax, toast and lanolin when aged.
The finest assyrtikos are found on the island of Santorini, where the wines have a richness and weight that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Santorini assyrtiko is typically fermented in stainless steel and aged on the yeast lees for 6-18 months to add weight and texture. Some producers use oak to add complexity, whereas some pick as late as possible and then age in oak – these super opulent and rich styles are called nykteri.
Solid examples can be found outside Santorini, but few convey the same intensity and complexity.
Try, if you like: White Rhône (especially roussanne/marsanne-dominant blends), chenin blanc, semillon, grüner veltliner.
An aromatic pink-skinned grape typically vinified as a dry, unoaked white wine. Moschofilero is a major grape in the Peloponnese and is the single permitted variety in the PDO of Mantinia. A wonderfully aromatic variety producing wines typically low/moderate in alcohol (11-12.5%) with high acidity and aromas of rose water, grapefruit, lime, honeysuckle and peach. Delicious as a varietal wine but also adds charm and freshness to cross-regional blends such as The Society's Greek White where it pairs well with the soft fruit character of roditis.
Try, if you like: muscat, gewürztraminer, viognier, sauvignon blanc, torrontés.
Extremely rare white grape grown on the island of Santorini, where it is often used as a blending partner for the more intense assyrtiko. Aidani produces wines typically medium in body with fresh acidity, with flavours of stone fruits and citrus with a pure minerality quality alongside floral jasmine notes. Typically produced in an unoaked, fresh style but can also produce outstanding sweet vin santo wines.
Few single-variety wines are produced due to the low plantings but Hatzidakis produce a wonderful example that lovers of taut, mineral styles of white Burgundy (such as Puligny-Montrachet) would enjoy.
Well suited to arid conditions, athiri is planted extensively throughout the Aegean and has been for centuries. Athiri tends to be moderate in body and flavour (green fruits such as apples and pears and stone fruits such as peach) with soft acidity and moderate alcohol, making it a great wine to pair with a range of dishes. The finest examples are from PDO Santorini where it's blended with aidani and assyrtiko, or PDO Rhodes.
One of the rarest but arguably the most distinctive of all of Greece's grapes. Daphni means 'laurel' (also known as bay leaf in the UK) and once you take a sniff it's easy to see why! Intensely perfumed with notes of laurel, ginger and dried herbs with a typically soft, rounded palate and moderate alcohol. Brought back from the brink of extinction on the island of Crete, daphni is one of Greece's true emerging varieties and is supposed to age with grace.
'Kidonitsa' means quince, so it's hardly surprising that wines made from this grape have a distinctive quince aroma. Typically aromatic with a soft, round palate, kidonitsa is grown almost exclusively in Laconia in the southern Peloponnese, and is a major part of the sweet wines of PDO Monemvassia-Malvasia.
Malagousia is a grape that personifies Greece's viticultural journey over the last 30 years: from complete unknown (even near extinction) to recognition as not only one of Greece's finest white grapes, but also the world's. With its intense and expressive nose of peach, flowers, herbs and hints of bell pepper and full yet always fresh palate, malagousia is a must-try for those looking to explore Greek wines. Grown throughout much of Greece the current fashion is dry malagousia, often aged in oak which it handles well, but malagousia also produces outstanding sweet wines.
Although lending its name to the Monemvassia-Malvasia PDO, monemvassia the grape is predominantly grown on the Cycladic island of Paros. It's an integral part of the Paros PDO white wines but can also be blended with the red mandilaria for the PDO red wines. In Monemvassia-Malvasia in Laconia, monemvassia is blended to produce malvaisasoenos, a legendary sweet straw wine that graced royal banquets across Europe between the 13th and 19th centuries, a style that's seeing a resurgence since the PDOs creation in 2010.
Muscat of Alexandria
Grown throughout much of Europe including Italy and Spain, muscat of Alexandria was planted in Greece in the early 20th century due to its resistance to heat. As part of the muscat family it produces wonderfully exotic, floral and grapy white wines and is best on the volcanic soils of Lemnos where it is produced in both sweet (PDO Muscat of Lemnos) and dry (PDO Lemnos) styles.
Susceptible to disease and high yielding, robola (similar although not the same as Italy's ribolla gialla) is best suited to barren, mountainous regions of central Greece and the Ionian Islands, especially Kefalonia, where it produces PDO Robola. Prone to oxidation, careful handling is essential, with the majority fermented and aged in stainless steel to preserve freshness. When handled correctly, robola can provide wonderfully fresh and mineral wines not dissimilar to Chablis.
Similarly to moschofilero, roditis is a pink-skinned variety typically vinified as a dry white wine. It's Greece's most planted variety and lends itself to the PDO wines of Patras, Slopes of Meliton and Anchilaos whites, as well as numerous PGI wines. At high yields and in the wrong hands it can be flabby and watery, but in the right hands at low yields roditis can be structured, mineral and full of citrus fruits. It's a key grape in the production of Retsina, and we think it provides the perfect foil to moschofilero in our Society's Greek White, plus it can produce wonderful orange wines.
A rare variety that's really starting to turn heads, this grape's highly resistant to drought and so can thrive in even the warmest parts of Crete where it's native. When yields are restricted it produces wonderfully full, rich, moderate-acid white wines that respond well to oak ageing. Lovers of traditional white Rioja, white Rhône blends or warmer-climate chardonnay should try Lyrarakis' Armi Thrapsathri.
Qualitatively and quantitatively important white grape on Crete where it produces wines with a full body, moderate acidity and alcohol, and ripe stone-fruit and apple flavours. Introductory examples are soft and charming with clean fruit, with the best picked at low yields and aged in oak and/or amphorae giving rich, generous white wines which can age well.
Predominantly found in the Peloponnese, where it's the sole variety in the Nemea PDO, agiorgitiko can produce a myriad styles ranging from fresh Beaujolais Nouveau look-a-likes, to dense, tannic, full-bodied and age-worthy red wines and even recioto-style sweet wines. Agiorgitiko has a strong affinity with oak so the best examples are typically fermented and aged in high quality French oak, often new, and are best drunk after 5-10 years of age.
Try if you like: Southern Italian reds (aglianico, negroamaro, primitivo etc), Bordeaux, syrah/shiraz, grenache, merlot, barbera.
Greece's finest red grape, and one found across much of mainland Greece. Its home, however, is in Naoussa in Macedonia (just west of Thessaloniki), where it is the only permitted variety in the Naoussa PDO – Greece's first and most famous PDO. Xinomavro produces wines typically pale in colour (thanks to its thin skins), but high in acidity, tannin and alcohol (13.5-14.5%), with wonderful aromatics and capacity to age. It's often described as a blend between pinot noir and nebbiolo, but xinomavro is very much its own beast.
Flavours tend to range from sour cherry and redcurrants to sundried tomato, herbs and tapenade. Traditional styles tend to be paler, higher in acid and tannin, with more savoury umami and dried fruit and spice notes. More modern styles tend to be deeper in colour and more fruit forward with suppler, fleshier tannins and sweeter acidity.
If you're keen to get an idea of the difference in styles then Apostolos Thymiopoulos' Jeunes Vignes is on the modern side of the spectrum, whereas Ktima Foundis' Naoussea is in the traditional. Try if you like: Nebbiolo, pinot noir, sangiovese.
Predominantly found on the Island of Crete, kotsifali is a classic 'Mediterranean' red – typically high in alcohol, full-bodied and packed with spice and herb character. Despite this it's often very pale in colour and can brown easily and, although varietal wines are made, kotsifali is typically blended with darker grapes such as syrah or mandelaria.
The finest red grape of Crete, liatiko's thin skins result in pale-coloured wines that are reminiscent of pinot noir on steroids. Aromatic with cherry, strawberry and redcurrant notes moving to savoury mushroom and forest floor with a bit of age. The majority of Cretan liatiko is sweet, but more and more dry versions are being produced with great success. Karavitakis' 'Kompsos' is a beautiful example.
Limnio is an ancient grape variety that's mentioned by some of Greece's most famous writers, including Homer and Hesiod. Believed to have originated in Lemnos the majority of Limnio is grown in the Slopes of Meliton PDO in Thrace, northern Greece.
A rising star of the Cretan wine scene and one seen by many as the future of red wine on the island. In style it's similar to gamay or mencía, offering deeply coloured, supple yet spicy red wines that are filled with juicy red-berry fruit and a peppery finish. Expect great things from limniona in the years to come. Domaine Zafeirakis' 'New Age' limniona is a wonderful starting point.
Found across Greece but rarely as a single variety, mandelaria is a free spirit of a grape, with a wild, untameable nature that takes a skilled hand to reign in. It produces typically dark, dense, ripe, spicy and savoury red wines not dissimilar to those of southern Italy. The finest varietal expressions typically come from Crete, and most need at least six months in barrel and a few years in bottle before becoming approachable. Lyrarakis' Plakoura Mandelari is earning plenty of praise.
The most important red grape on the island of Kefalonia, mavrodaphne is producing some of Greece's most exciting dry red wines. However, the two PDOs which bear its name - Mavrodaphne of Patras and Mavrodaphne of Kefalonia - only permit sweet wines, so any dry wines from this grape cannot show its name on the label. One to keep an eye on in the future.
Santorini's signature red grape, mavrotragano produces pale but incredibly powerful and intense red wines filled with spices, coffee and bramble fruits. Yields are naturally restricted and a strong affinity to oak means the wines can age wonderfully. A truly unique grape that has huge potential.
Believed to have originated in Naoussa, negoska is most widely planted in Goumenissa in Macedonia where it's often blended with xinomavro to 'fill-in' some of the gaps, mainly it is deep in colour, high in sugar, moderate in acidity and low in tannins.
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