The extremely ancient and proud history of winemaking in Greece goes back 6,500 years and the central part it has played, and does play, in Greek culture ought to have assured it of a place in the hearts and minds of modern wine drinkers. The fact that it has not yet done so is due to a complicated set of factors that involve history, language, geography and climate, not to mention economic woes, political upheaval and a lack of investment.
The prosperous years, in winemaking terms, of the Byzantine Empire was followed by the rapacious regulation of trading Venetians and then the dead hand of the Ottoman Turks who, though they did not prevent the making of wine, taxed the end product heavily. Communication difficulties exacerbated the problems and wine production became a very fragmented and localised business. An international reputation, or even a national one, based on produce from well organised, demarcated and business-like regions with a reputation for fine wines never got off...
The prosperous years, in winemaking terms, of the Byzantine Empire was followed by the rapacious regulation of trading Venetians and then the dead hand of the Ottoman Turks who, though they did not prevent the making of wine, taxed the end product heavily. Communication difficulties exacerbated the problems and wine production became a very fragmented and localised business. An international reputation, or even a national one, based on produce from well organised, demarcated and business-like regions with a reputation for fine wines never got off the ground in Greece as they did in, for example, Bordeaux or the Douro. Even though independence was won from the Ottomans in the 1820s, the ripples of the occupation were still felt into the 20th century.
The Greek wine renaissance began in the 1970 by the Greek Shipowner Capt. John Carras, who set up his Estate in Chalkidiki, then the largest Estate in Europe. He employed Professor Emile Peynaud from Bordeaux University to advise and supervise the viticulture. The grapes originally planted were predominantly international grape varieties and his Chateau Carras (a Bordeaux blend) soon became famous and was listed at Harrods. The Hatzimichalis family followed swiftly with a very large Estate in Central Greece; again focusing on International grape varieties.
In their wake many smaller producers started making good quality wines. In the 1990's French trained George Skouras continued the renaissance and made 'Megas Oinos' a red wine that focused on the indigenous agiorgitiko variety; this became an iconic wine in Greece.
As the 'new breed' winemakers travelled and studied abroad they realised that Greece's 'treasure trove' of indigenous varieties are perfectly suited to the climate and terroir. By the beginning of the millenium there was a host of young, talented winemakers making wine from Greek grape varieties e.g. Leonidas Nasiakos with his moschofilero, Haridimos Hatzidakis with his Santorini assyrtiko and Apostolos Thymiopoulos with his 'New Age' xinomavro. More recently the second and third generation of Cretan winemakers such as Nikos Karavitakis and Maria Tamiolaki (Rhous Winery) have followed suit and are pioneering the Cretan indigenous grape varieties such as vidiano, vilana and kotsifali. The winemaking industry in Greece has become dynamic, adventurous and exciting and many smaller and niche winemakers have become very popular both in the domestic market and in the international scene.
The climate of Greece is categorised as Mediterranean, and is one of the hotter European areas for wine production. The mountainous interior provides many opportunities to plant at altitude and therefore to ameliorate the effects of heat, but the effects of drought are harder to overcome in an EU region where irrigation is forbidden without a Brussels derogation. Ripeness is therefore rarely a problem except in certain, exceptional circumstances and sites, and the problem is more likely to be a lack of acidity. Harvests in July are not unknown.
Soils are generally limestone based and impoverished except in areas close to the coast or certain valleys where more lucrative crops are planted on the fertile soils. On the islands, in particular the Cyclades, the soils are often volcanic. Santorini is a prime example, and these volcanic soils play a significant role in the character of the wines there. There is, of course, a mosaic of soils types in the entirety of Greece, from schist to sand, but limestone and volcanic soils tend to proliferate.
As with most EU countries, Greece has developed an appellation system, based on the French model, to the extent of borrowing the terminology of Appellation dâ€™Origine Contrôlée on the label. Quality wines, as defined by the EU, are designated either OPE (Controlled Appellation of Origin) if sweet, or if dry as OPAP (Appellation of Superior Quality. If the words Réserve or Grand Réserve are used on a label they have the legal meaning of being aged for an extended period. The equivalent of a Vine de Pays system also operates under which a wider range of grape varieties may be used to make wine.
Wine is made all over Greece, from the high country of Macedonia on the border with what was once Yugoslavia, to the arid island of Crete in the Mediterranean, a location that is closer to Libya and Egypt than to Macedonia. Native varieties are being planted and replanted despite the encroachment of several international varieties.
Sweet wines like the famous muscats of Samos and Mavrodaphne of Patras have a long heritage and when made well are wonderful. And we must mention the famous, and sadly misunderstood, Retsina. Though it has a somewhat debased reputation there is a modern breed of winemakers like Tetramythos determined to make a more refined and delicate version that may yet convert any doubters.