Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Greek Wine: From Across the Ionian Sea

There are wines in the Vine’s archives from all over the world – but one place we haven’t stopped often in our oenological travels is Greece. The Greeks have been making wine longer than anyone else in the Western world. They’ve got nearly 6,000 years of experience cranking the stuff out. Why don’t we Statesiders know more about them?

The Vine's proprietor gets all animatronic
at the Santorini Wine Museum
First off, production – Greece produces in the neighborhood of 300 million liters (about 80 million gallons) of wine each year. Compare that to their neighbors across the Ionian Sea, Italy, which churns out between four and five billion liters annually. Second, winemaking processes in Greece only really began to modernize in the 1980’s. Before then, Greece produced a lot of interchangeable table wines and Retsina – a native wine-based beverage flavored with pine resin. Yes, you read that correctly – and it’s as much of an acquired taste as you might imagine.

Third, not to disparage Greek language, but the nearly 300 autochthonal (Winespeak for “indigenous”) varieties of grapes carry names that translated, to the uninitiated, can look like a Scrabble draw pile. While many American consumers would undoubtedly enjoy a glass of Athiri or Malagousia – they tend to shy away from unfamiliar grapes.

Well, stop overlooking them. Greek wines are excellent food complements, especially seafoods, cheeses, and other Mediterranean-styled dishes. If you’d like to give them a go, there are four primary Greek grapes with which you should start your explorations. Here are examples of each of the Greek Big 4:

Moschofilero grapes -- red grapes for white wine!
Tselepos 2015 Mantinia Moschofilero White Wine – OK, first -- to unpack this wine’s name: “Tselepos” is the winery. “Mantinia” is the region, which is just north of the city of Tripoli in Pelleponese. “Moschofilero” is the grape. This particular grape, pronounced MOS-ko-feel-er-o, although used to make white wines, is reddish in color. I found the wine’s flavor to be quite similar to a Muscadet – fairly high in acid, floral notes on the nose, and lemony flavors over a flinty, minerally backbone. The finish is crisp and cool. Noting that it was Muscadet-ish, shellfish immediately sprang to mind as a pairing, and we tried it with a bay scallop ceviche. Our thoughts were correct, as the acids complemented each other to make a lovely meal on a warm summer evening. $16.

Bairaktaris 2015 “Monolithos” Nemea Agiorgitiko Red Wine – This red wine’s moniker comes from, what else, a giant rock that sat in the midst of the vineyards of Nemea. This rock was demolished and the dust spread across the vineyards, which apparently improved the quality of the soil. For mythology geeks like myself, Nemea is the site of one of the 12 Labors of Hercules, where he slew the Nemean Lion and then probably settled in for a flagon of red wine made from Agiorgitiko (AY-ee-or-YEE-tee-ko), the most widely cultivated red in Greece.

I found the wine that the Big Man might have been drinking to be quite an interesting quaff. It’s a lighter-styled red in body, but there’s still a considerable amount of tannin and flavor punch here. Plenty of cherry and blackberry flavors and scents alongside nice, even tannins and an interesting mineral character. I think it’s along the lines of a Languedoc red or a less “chalky” Chianti. We had it alongside a couple of grilled lamb steaks, and I thought it a very solid summertime red. $18.

Chatzivariti 2016 “Eurynome” Goumenissa Assyritiko White Wine – Eurynome is one of the Titans who ruled Mt. Olympus before the Greek Gods took the place over. When cast from Olympus into the earth-encompassing Ocean, according to myth, she had nowhere to rest, so she
“split sea from sky” and danced on the waves, creating the land. (Hey, don’t ask me for the physics of it…) Assyritiko (Ah-seer-tee-ko) is Greece’s signature white – the most exported and well known grape on the international market.

This wine, made from 100% Assyritiko, is a difficult wine to pin down. Initially acidic, the wine develops an interesting creaminess as it gets some air. Reminiscent of a Sancerre or a light unoaked Chardonnay, there’s plenty of peach and citrus over a steely backbone. The creaminess that emerged made for an interesting balance. We actually tried this with a thin crust pizza with serrano ham, artichokes, olives, roasted garlic, and Parmesan. Darned good combo, if you ask me, although the price of this particular bottle -- $24 – seemed a tad high.

Boutari 2012 Naoussa Red Wine -- This wine is made entirely from our fourth autochthonal Greek varietal, Xinomavro (Ex-SEEN-o-Mahv-ro). Nouassa is a region in northern Greece in Macedonia. (This is not to be confused with the Republic of Macedonia, which was once part of Yugoslavia – a locale which also makes darned good wine.)

After I cracked the bottle and poured, I could have been looking at a glass of light-styled Beaujolais. The nose is a little more alcohol-scented than a Beaujolais, but the basic profile is similar, and reminded me somewhat of cranapple juice, minus the sugary scent. There are some nice understated red fruit flavors -- it's almost delicate…until you swallow. The wine then hits you with a load of tannin on the long, dry finish. The bottle suggests pairing with "roast meats and cheeses of…an intense character." I can certainly see that -- the tannins will slice through just about any kind of rich flavor. Lamb, again, would be great with it, not surprisingly. $14.

Since these wines are lesser-known at the moment, they’re fun to spring on your wine-loving friends as a change of pace. They’re certainly worth getting to know, especially in restaurants, where their relative anonymity will keep the markup to a minimum. Give them a go.

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