Greece has been producing wine for thousands of years and was home to one of the richest wine cultures the world has ever seen. Today, as a smaller nation that went through many hardships and periods of occupation that hindered quality, Greece is re-emerging as a global wine player with globally unique traits.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF GREEK WINE
Greece has the longest continuous winemaking history in the world and the oldest one in Europe. The oldest wine press has been found in Crete (Vathipetro), and is 3,500 years old. The first wine appellation system was first developed in Greece. The island of Thassos established the oldest wine laws in human history, as detailed on a marble slate from 5th century BC which was discovered there. Many of the winemaking techniques developed by the Greeks are still in use today, with the most important one being the study of soils and matching with optimal grapevines. The existence of Dionysus, god of wine and one of the primary twelve Olympian Gods, is a unique case in global history and shows how integrated wine was to the ancient Greek culture and daily life. With the spread of the ancient Greek culture through commerce and various colonies across the Mediterranean, came the spread of the vine. The Roman and Byzantine empires further developed and spread the winemaking art all over Europe. The Ottoman occupation from 1453 until 1830 hindered wine production. Greek independence marked the return to organized wine production, but a sequence of events of war, conflicts, and poverty until the late 20th century put an emphasis on quantity rather than quality. The 70's saw a gradual return to prosperity and stability, with which came a return to quality and the revival of the glorious Greek winemaking tradition. Today’s Greek wines are characterized by their acidity (which makes them excellent food wines), versatility (thanks to the number of grapes and diverse terroir), vibrancy, and complexity.
GEOGRAPHY / CLIMATE
Greece, although a relatively small country, features an extremely diverse topography and terroir. It is mountainous, while most of the country is surrounded by water, which can provide a combination of salinity, altitude, and night breeze. It also has the longest coastline of any other European country, due to its thousands of islands.
The climate is predominantly Mediterranean, with the northern part of the country tending more towards European / continental. All kinds of soils are present in Greece, including clay, limestone, sand, rock, volcanic, and more.
Its steep and infertile slopes make it hard to cultivate crops, yet Greece is mainly an agricultural country. This has always favored small-scale, family-run agriculture, instead of large-scale, industrial one. What used to be a disadvantage, is becoming an advantage for Greece, with its small, boutique endeavors and a huge variety of vineyards. As it is anecdotally said, Greece is organic by default and has followed organic practices long before “organic” was even a term. Even though today there are larger scale projects, viticulture is still largely manual, with the use of natural means.
The current appellation system supports two main geographical distinctions: PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). PDO is used for premier wines from specific geographical areas, and its structure stems from historical traditions. PGI being more regional and flexible encapsulates larger areas and allows for a wider number of grapes and styles of wine. There are also “Wines of Traditional Appellations” (saved mainly for the Retsina Wine), “Regional Wines” (, and table wines.
There are 33 PDO regions. Seven of them relate to many historical and famous sweet wines from Greece, mainly from Muscat grapes. The best-known appellations for dry wines are PDO Santorini (Assyrtiko), PDO Mantinia (Moschofilero), PDO Naoussa (Xinomavro), and PDO Nemea (Agiorgitiko). There are many more notable PDO and PGI regions, as well as exceptional regional and table wines.
Greece has now identified between 200 and 300 indigenous grapes, which makes it the country with the second or third largest number of indigenous grapes. More and more adventurous, talented, and skilled winemakers experiment with new and rare grapes with promising results, although the majority of wines is made with no more than 30 indigenous grapes.
The predominant Greek varieties that one should be familiar with, are the following.
Agiorgitiko: Agiorgitiko means “Saint George”. The most widely cultivated red Greek grape is almost exclusive to Peloponnese in southern Greece and responsible for the PDO Nemea appellation (Nemea also being the largest winemaking region of Greece). It is known for its fresh and lively fruity aromas, with moderate tannins and acidity, but Agiorgitiko is a poly dynamic grape that can be made in many different styles (fresh, oaked, dessert, rosé etc).
Xinomavro: Xinomavro means “acid black”. The "diva" of red Greek grapes is a high-maintenance grape that requires knowledge and skill to turn into high-quality wine. Its powerful tannins and high acidity are both a blessing and a curse, as they can easily produce wines too aggressive and tannic, but in the right hands it gives the most age worthy and notable red Greek wines, with rich, spicy, and structured palates, with unique aromatic notes of dark fruits, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives. It is mainly planted in Macedonia and Thessaly. As opposed to Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro participates in four different PDO appellations (Naoussa, Amyndeo, Goumenissa, and Rapsani).
Mavrodafni: Mavrodafni means “Black Laurel”. It was made famous in a dessert style of wine from Patra, but recent dry vinifications reveal huge potential that has so far been neglected. The resulting wines are deep in color, with rich aromas of dried plums and raisins, good tannins, and a characteristic slightly bitter aftertaste. Mavrodafni is grown in southwestern Greece, around the city of Patra and the island of Cephalonia where it originates from.
Mandilaria: Mainly planted in the Aegean islands and Crete, this is a largely unexploited grape, usually blended with others to provide color (as it has the deepest red color of all Greek grapes), tannins, and structure. It is hard to produce wines of high quality from Mandilaria, but as is the case with Xinomavro, many examples of beautiful Mandilarias are emerging, with high tannins, moderate acidity, and a rustic vegetative and leathery aromatic profile.
Limniona: Limniona is the up and coming star of red Greek grapes. Indigenous to the rural town of Karditsa in Thessaly (central Greece). This is a unique and ethereal grape that features a vivid purple-red color, a very deep, concentrated, and mineral nose with dark fruits and spices, with rich but velvety tannins, and bright acidity.
Assyrtiko: The most famous Greek grape and now internationally planted (Australia, California, Turkey etc) is indigenous to the volcanic island of Santorini. Its high acidity and impressive minerality, create a distinctive wine that is considered the epitome of food-friendly wines. Today planted all around Greece, it has found its second home in northern Greece and especially the area of Drama and Kavala, where it gives wines with less acidity, but fruitier and more elegant aromas.
Savatiano: Savatiano is the most widely cultivated grape of Greece and is indigenous to the Greek capital of Athens and the surrounding Attica region. It remains humble due to its link to the often misunderstood traditional wine of “retsina”, but non-resinated vinifications of Savatiano show great potential in different styles. If cultivated and vinified properly, Savatiano can be very expressive with herbaceous yellow fruit and white flower on the nose, and a full and round palate with a long aftertaste.
Roditis: Roditis means “rosy”, due to the color of its skin, and is an ancient Greek grape. It follows Savatiano in popularity and is widely cultivated all around mainland Greece. It also is widely used for resinated wines, but its citrusy aromas, light body, and refreshing, fruity palate, give very interesting white dry wines.
Moschofilero: One of the most exported white Greek wines, Moschofilero is indigenous to Mantinia in Peloponnese (which is the only PDO region it is part of). It is famous for its explosively floral nose and features a light and refreshing body.
Malagousia: The up and coming star of white Greek grapes, Malagousia, is ancient and was saved from extinction about 35 years ago, thanks to the efforts of a prominent winemaker. It features a unique style and combines structure, rich aromas of ripe peaches and flowers, and a thick, oily texture. It is now planted all throughout Greece and expresses differently among different terroirs and winemakers.
Robola: Robola is indigenous to the island of Cephalonia. It is considered the most elegant white Greek grape and expresses a crispy acidity, citrusy aromas, and a medium body, all in perfect balance.
Vidiano: Vidiano is the emerging grape of the island of Crete, which is the southernmost border of Greece and the biggest Greek island. Crete is home to many other indigenous varieties, but Vidiano is receiving a lot of attention lately and is compared to Assyrtiko, because of its impressive acidity and subtle aromatic character with notes of citrus.
From: Aris Soultanos, Brand Manager, Eklektikon (www.eklektikon.com)