A Beginner's Guide to Greek Wine
At the shop, we get asked every day, “What’s new?,” “What’s cool?,” or, “What’s tickling your palate right now?” What they all mean is, “What’s the next big thing?”
If you ask me, the answer is Greece. If you care about wines of character and history, of authenticity, Greece is where you should be looking.
What you need to know about Greek wine
For starters, Greece is small. Smaller than Nepal (really!). Yet, within its narrow borders, it hosts a teeming collection of grapes and terroirs. Add to that a recent revolution in quality winemaking and you have a perfect storm for exciting wine.
Each of these factors is important. So, let’s go through them one at a time.
To be fair, a handful of producers started down this path of authentic Greek Wine in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but their revolution didn’t mature and take hold until this century. Now it’s spreading at quite a clip, and just when Americans are falling in love with these kinds of authentic wines like never before. Who knows what delicious things will develop here in the next decade or two?
Greek Wine 101: A beginner's guide
What follows is a brief and far from complete overview of Greece’s vinous landscape today. A sort of Greek Wine 101. But know that I’ve ignored whole regions, grapes, and styles. And even the categories I address are vastly simplified.
This is the southern half of mainland Greece and is what I think most Americans picture when they think of Greece: it’s mountainous, dry, scrubby, generally sort of tan in color most of the year. The main grapes are Agiorgitiko, Moschofilero, Monemvasia, Muscat, Mavrodaphne, and Roditis.
This is probably the region farthest behind in the quality revolution, as there is still an inexplicable obsession with new and small oak (is Nemea the last hidey hole for the marauding barrique?). I happen to believe that Agiorgitiko is a grape with enormous potential, but I have seen little of that potential manifested, so we mostly focus on whites and rosés from the Peloponnese at Flatiron.
Producers to look for: Parparoussis, Troupis, Barafakas, Papaioannou, Tselepos.
Without wading into the fray over the name, we’ll just say that this is Macedonia, the region in Greece, not the country (Greeks refer to the latter simply as Skopje, the capital of FYROM, or Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Situated in the far northeast of mainland Greece, this is where Philip II and his son, Alexander the Great, burst forth to rule the known world; the Macedonian Plain (one of only three flat places of any real size in Greece) is where Alexander assembled his army to march east.
The main grape here is Xinomavro, presented on its own in most of the subregions (most notably Naoussa and Amynteo) but blended with Negoska in the subregion of Goumenissa. Xinomavro often gets compared to Nebbiolo, and there’s something to the similar balance of tannin to fruit to acid, as well as the light color and long aging potential. The vineyards of Macedonia are generally at slightly lower altitudes than much of the rest of Greece, more rolling hills than straight-up mountains. Soils vary enormously here, including clay, sand, loam, schist, and even marble. In Domaine Nerantzi’s vineyards, 3500-year-old potsherds even contribute to the mix.
Producers to look for: Tatsis, Dalamara, Kokkinos, Nerantzi, Karanika, Chatzivariti, Kamara, Argatia.
Also in the north, but on the western side of the country, Epirus is extremely mountainous and green, full of rushing mountain streams, strikingly tall old forests, and elaborately-clapboarded, slate-roofed architecture that would make you believe you were in Switzerland or Austria or Bavaria rather than Greece. The vineyards are inland and at high elevation, and the soils are mostly clay and limestone. Grapes here are Debina for white, and Vlahiko & Bekari for red.
Producers to look for: Glinavos, Katogi Averoff
Here we’re just going to focus on one producer. Most of Thessaly is flat and hot, and you’d think the wines wouldn’t be very interesting. For the most part, you’d be right, and much of the output here is sold in bulk. But there is one producer who is changing that storyline: Christos Zafeirakis. Based in the town of Tyrnavos in northeast Thessaly, near the foot of Mt. Olympos, Zafeirakis works with some international varieties, but mostly focuses on native Malagousia and Limniona. The latter hadn’t been planted by anyone for a very long time, until Zafeirakis took an interest and started putting out his game-changing red wine. Now that he’s proven its potential, a bunch of other folks have gone and planted it, too—a success story for grape diversity!
While I haven’t found much else of interest in Thessaly so far, Zafeirakis’ wines came out of nowhere (though the family have been grape growers for a long time, the winery was only founded in 2005), so I’m actually pretty excited about what else might crop up here going forward.
Producers to look for: Domaine Zafeirakis
Situated off the western coast of Greece and facing Italy across the Ionian Sea, the islands of Corfu, Zakynthos, Lefkada, and Kefalonia are yet another completely different side of Greece (there are a few more islands in the chain, but these are the major ones for wine). On average, these islands are larger and more mountainous than those in the Aegean. The Ionian islands were a Venetian possession for several centuries, and that colonial influence is readily apparent in the architecture and cuisine. This is the homeland Odysseus spent ten years struggling to reach after the Trojan War.
Chief among the islands for wine is Kefalonia (Cephalonia), featuring the towering Mt. Ainos, a 1600+-meter hunk of limestone rising from the sea. It is cold at the top even in summer, and you will see bands of heavily shaggy mountain goats picking their way through the chilly fog in July. So, the climate here is relatively cool, even on the scrabbly lower slopes where the vineyards are located. Alberello (bush) training is common and many vines are ungrafted. Native grapes include Robola, Tsaousi, Vostilidi, and Mavrodaphne.
Producers to look for: Sclavos (Sclavus and Sklavos also appear on the label)
This is the other place that I think Americans envision when thinking of Greece, as the Cyclades are the land of white-washed buildings with stone terraces overlooking the blue, blue waters of the Aegean. They’re called the Cyclades because some folks think the islands are laid out in a circle shape (I don’t see it, but whatever). While some of the islands have been almost completely overrun with tourism (Santorini, Mykonos), there is a lot of cool wine happening here, even amidst the madding crowds.
The Cyclades extend southeast from Athens into the Aegean (they are really the final and lowest mountains in the chain that runs down the entire mainland) and are generally hilly rather than mountainous. Summers are very hot and dry, limiting the potential areas for quality vineyards to the highest reaches (e.g., the granite slopes of the Kalathas valley on Tinos) or places with uniquely water-retentive soil (e.g., the volcanic ash on Santorini, which sucks up the morning mist and feeds it back to the vine roots during the day). There are some genuinely cool, genuinely weird and unique vine-training systems here as well—the most famous being the koloura baskets of Santorini, but don’t forget the supine ksaplota of Tinos either (and see the Flatiron Wines instagram account for a rare video of plowing with this training system). On Santorini, phylloxera doesn’t stand a chance, and vines are ungrafted, with some root systems many centuries old—a truly unique situation in the world of wine.
Grapes include Assyrtiko, Athiri, Aidani, Mavrotragano, Mandilaria, Aspro Potamisi, Mavropotamisi, Koumariano, Rozaki, Monemvasia.
Producers to look for: Hatzidakis, Koutsoyannopoulos, Karamolegos, Roussos, Sigalas (Santorini), Domaine de Kalathas (Tinos).
Crete is Greece’s largest island, and perhaps its most beautiful. Wine is grown in every district in Crete, though it must be said that most of the island is carpeted with olive trees. It’s an open secret that much of what is labeled and sold as Italian olive oil actually comes from Crete. This is perhaps the most different part of Greece, and Greeks agree, viewing it in much the same way that Italians view Sicily; I’ve even heard comparisons to Texas.
It’s pretty dry all over here, but especially in the eastern region of Sitia, where the remote and rocky Ziros plateau rises 650 meters above the Mediterranean. The island’s (and perhaps the country’s) most interesting wines come from this region, from the hand of Yiannis Economou. Soils range from sandy red clay to blue marl to wildly mixed conglomerate river rock. Everywhere you look are low rounded humps of wild herb plants drying in the sun all day and lending their Cretan garrigue to the grapes. Grapes include Liatiko, Mandilaria, Voudomato, Kotsifali (red), and Assyrtiko, Vilana, Thrapsathiri (white).
Producers to look for: Economou (Oikonomoy is how it appears on labels), Stilianou
Thanks for reading, now go explore!