By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 6 June 2020
I have long been an admirer of Greece’s minerally whites and spicy reds, but I have found that wine consumers often approach this wine country with trepidation. It is certainly one of the most challenging to understand with its diverse mountainous wine regions, islands and host of indigenous grapes.
Now Greek-based Master of Wine Konstantinos Lazarakis’ wonderfully eloquent book on ‘The Wines of Greece’ (£30 Classic Wine Library), offers a chance to delve deep again into Greece’s 6500 year long wine history, its geology, microclimates and some of the oldest grapes on the planet.
We might not be able to visit Greece at the moment, but this armchair guide offers us a chance to rediscover this lost gem of winemaking now on the brink of a new era with 700 wineries and 61,500 hectares of vineyards - almost twice as many vineyards as New Zealand.
The chapter I found fascinating was ‘the new era’. “Greece has the longest wine tradition in Europe, but still faces a steep learning curve”, says Lazarakis. Many changes have taken place from visionaries like 1950’s Evangelos Averof, 1960’s Ioannis Carras to present day Evangelos Gerovassiliou and passionate winemakers emerging from Greece’s new oenological school (before 1985, Greek winemakers trained in Bordeaux).
Lazarakis’ comments on Greece’s recent economic crisis are revealing. “The crisis was a blessing in disguise for the wine industry”, he says. “Overnight wineries could no longer be insular, exports became imperative…the new situation forced Greece’s winemakers to work together to promote Greece abroad, instead of competing against each other”.
The new fine dining restaurant culture that had emerged in the 1990s was put paid to by the economic crisis as consumers were forced to change their drinking habits.
“Financially strained Athenians could no longer dine out in restaurants with white linen tablecloths”, says Lazarakis, “The salvation appeared in the form of wine bars which appeared in 2012 which helped to democratize good quality bottled wine”.
What often surprises wine lovers is that although Greece is Europe’s hottest wine country with the highest recorded vineyard summer temperatures, it is very mountainous – an extension of the Central European Alps.
Another surprising fact is that 60% of its wines are white. The key to understanding Greece is getting to grips with all its indigenous white grapes. Many make refined elegant whites as its native white grapes retain natural acidity in the heat, like Assyrtiko, Moschofilero and Malagousia, which are proving of interest to Australian winemakers looking for grapes able to cope in dry conditions.
Greek reds vary from “erratic diva Xinomavro…to its exact opposite, the approachable easy to grow Agriogitiko” and the potentially interesting deep-coloured Mandilaria which blends well with Syrah (see star buy below from Crete). Stylistically many Greek reds combine Old World & New World styles, with a unique peppery spicy character and glycerol warmth.
One fact Lazarakis highlights is the sheer number of Greek islands, some 3000 of which 63 are inhabited – and their wine diversity. Best known today is Santorini, now world famous for low-yielding popular mineral-scented Assyrtiko which thrives in this arid dry climate, trained in nests on ‘aspa’ volcanic soils. Producers to watch here are Ktima Argyros – their Cuvee Monsignori and Vin Santo are extremely good – and Artemis Karamolegos.
Greece’s largest island, Crete, is one of its most fascinating with its own native grapes and over 8,000 hectares – many planted with white grapes. One of my favourite producers here is Domaine Lyrarakis south of Heraklion in Peza appellation, who makes fascinating laurel-scented Dafni and herby Plyto grapes planted high on the slopes of Alagni.
Another small Cretan winemaker to watch is Zacharias Diamantakis, focusing on aromatic Vidiano white grape – he makes an interesting Syrah/Mandilaria blend from high altitude vineyards near Kato Assites in the cooler north of the island.
“Greek wines will never be mainstream as not enough is produced, but one thing is for sure is - the most complex and interesting Greek wines are yet to come”, says Lazarakis. He describes numerous producers with potential including Biblia Chora in Kvala, Costa Lazaridis in Drama and Apostolos Thymiopolous in Naoussa.
So to whet your appetite, whilst enjoying this guide to Greece’s grapes, try a bit of modern Greek drama in your glass:
Epanomi, Macedonia: MALAGOUSIA 2019 Domaine Gerovassiliou (13.5%)
£16 Strictly Wine; WineTrust100
Apricot, jasmine and herbs, a floral delight with honeyed depth, a hint of tropical fruit and smoky undertones from fermentation in new French oak. Rich full exotic palate with a peppery finish
Santorini: ANCESTRAL VINES ‘34’ 2018 Artemis Karamolegos (14%) ***STAR BUY***
£30 Woodwinters www.woodwinters.com
One of the best Assyrtikos I have tasted made from very old vines sourced from three vineyards Pyrgos, Megalochori and Exo Gonia. Creamy, rich mouthfilling flavours, voluptuous ripe pear and citrus fruits, saline undertones and zippy acidity freshening a rich long leesy palate.
Drama, N Macedonia: OVILOS WHITE 2018 Biblia Chora
£22 Strictly Wine; Corking Wines; Hic Winemerchants
Grapes: 50% Assyrtiko & 50% Semillon
Nutty vanilla scents, grapefruit and peach flavours, pepper undertones, very creamy palate – an excellent oaked white blend.
Crete: ASSYRTIKO VOILA 2018 Lyrarakis (13.5%) ***GOOD VALUE***
£9.99 Majestic Wine
Lighter in style, but still floral, pears, minerally, appley with a slight baked note to the finish – very good price.
Crete: VIDIANO 2018 Diamantakis (13%)
Richly textured dense aromatic white; this tank fermented Vidiano has crunchy citric mango fruits, nutty undertones, glycerol texture and sweet-sour finish with vibrant acid to keep it fresh.
Crete: DIAMANTOPETRA 2016 Diamantakis (13%) ***STAR BUY***
Grapes: 70% Syrah & 30% Mandilaria
A great new discovery – with its wild herby nose, succulent rich cherry fruits, pepper and liquorice undertones and vanilla notes from French & American oak ageing.
Halkadiki: ORGANIC CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2017 Evangelos Tsantali (13%) ***GOOD VALUE***
£9.99 Waitrose Cellar
Grape: Cabernet Sauvignon
Typical cassis notes, spicy undertones with typical rustic character – a charming take on the classic Cabernet Sauvignon, planted in Greece since 1960s.
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