A new Generation of winemakers is re-energizing one of Greece’s ancient industries.
The great philosophers, satirists and statesmen of classical Greece—Plato, Aristophanes and Pericles, among others—drank local wines, and, by all accounts, enjoyed them. But in the two millennia that have passed since Socrates sipped his hemlock, Greek wines became Greek tragedy—known for coarseness rather than any aesthetic ideal. For those readers whose only experience of Greek wine involves harsh retsina or oxidized swill served in a cheap taverna, it’s hard to imagine tragedy taking a comic turn.
Fortunately for wine lovers, Greece is in the midst of an enological renaissance that resembles what’s been happening in Southern Italy and Spain during the past few years, but is far more profound. Italy, at least, had Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti. Spain had Rioja and Jerez. In Greece, the whole country needed to be turned upside down, from Macedonia, where Alexander started his empire, to the Cyclades islands that Odysseus was once condemned to traverse.
For the past two decades a phalanx of intelligent, educated and ambitious winemakers have strained to improve their country’s wines. Foreign education—French, Italian, Australian and American—taught them how to make good wine. Respect for the traditions within the land of their birth, and for more than 300 indigenous grape varieties, has shown them the way to make good Greek wine.
Tradition might not have been on John Carras’s mind when he ordered the building of Domaine Carras on a peninsula in northern Greece in 1968. Applying a fortune made as a shipping magnate, Carras enlisted the help of famed French enologist Emile Peynaud to make Greece’s best wine. Undeterred by news that some vineyards’ slopes were the wrong shape and direction, Carras set bulldozers to the task. When they finished, Carras was given 350 hectares (800 acres) of perfectly positioned vineyards planted with international and Greek grape varieties.
Mistakes by the estate’s first winemaker led to Carras’s first vintage, 1972, largely being dumped down the drain. To set things in order, Peynaud recruited a former student of his, Evangelos Gerovassiliou, to take charge. It was a decision that had profound effects.
Gerovassiliou’s attention to detail, his studied understanding of soil and vine management and his willingness to apply modern, rather than tried-and-not-so-true techniques, proved the difference. Finally, Carras had the acclaimed wines he sought. The symbolism of the project, though, was far greater than one man’s ambition. Here was a boutique winery that broke with the mold of indifferent winemaking in the country, headed by a young, French-trained though Greek-to-the-core winemaker.
Within Greece, Domaine Carras was a godsend to the growing middle and professional classes eager to break from Grecian provincialism yet still enjoy the fruits of her land. More importantly, it inspired others. While large Greek wineries supplied the masses with bulk wine, retsina, ouzo and beer (which ancient Greeks regarded as barbaric), winemaking for some became the domain of gentlemen farmers. Despite high levels of education and growing incomes, many of these professionals maintained close ties to their families’ villages; viticulture never seemed too far away.
But this time it was viticulture with a difference, guided by people whose education and foreign experiences demanded something better than the status quo. Wine would soon be made by people who learned their craft in schools of enology in France and Italy rather than from the wisdom of their fathers and grandfathers. As Yannis Paraskevopoulos, winemaker at Gaia and perhaps the country’s most recognized viticultural consultant, puts it, “In Greece we are seeing a new wave of winemakers who have actually studied winemaking rather than inheriting it from their fathers and grandfathers. Now errors aren’t being carried from generation to generation.”
A Tour of Greek Wine Regions
Naoussa: Located two hours’ drive from Thessaloniki, Naoussa is Greece’s answer to Piedmont. Its only permitted grape, Xinomavro, shows a resemblance to Nebbiolo, especially with age. Despite its proximity to the sea, mountainous Naoussa is more Balkan in climate than Aegean, which lengthens ripening time and preserves acidity. Producers to look for: Boutari, Tsantalis, Kir Yianni, Karydas, Melitzanis.
Nemea: If Naoussa is reminiscent of Barbaresco, Nemea falls somewhere in style between Médoc and Chianti. Made exclusively from the Agiorgitiko (St. George) grape, on the east-leaning edge of the Peleponnese, Nemea wines have soft, perfumed red-berry flavors and firm acidity. Producers to look for: Gaia, Palivou, Papatonis, Papa Ionnaou, Tsemeli.
Mantinia: In the center of the Peleponnese, Mantinia is white wine country, focused exclusively on the charmingly floral grape Moschofilero. Grown at the relatively high altitude of 2,100 feet above sea level, Mantinia wines offer fine aromatics and fresh acidity. Producers to look for:
Tselepos, Spiropolous, Boutari.
Santorini: Known for black, volcanic soil beaches, and whitewashed houses, the Aegean island of Santorini is also ideal for very dry wines made primarily from Assyrtiko grapes. With age they take on the petrol-like qualities of Riesling. In one version of the story, vin santo is supposed to have its origins on the island. Some reds from local varieties are also made. Producers to look for: Sigalas,
Boutari, Gaia, Hatzidakis.
Samos: The island of Samos has one grape, Muscat, and one winery, the Cooperative of Samos. Though dry wines are made, attention is clearly paid to the sweet wines, which range from fortified, unaged wines to unfortified, dried-grape wines aged in oak. Several wineries purchase and sell the co-op’s wines under their own labels.
A new Generation of winemakers is re-energizing one of Greece’s ancient industries.
Greece’s entry into the European Union in 1981 was another boon. Not only did it provide Greeks with open markets and opportunities for work, but European community funds became available for viticultural research. And, to drain Europe’s sea of excess wine, funds were directed to improving quality at the deliberate expense of quantity. Conditions were certainly right for a boom.
Domaine Carras might have been the spark, but there was plenty of tinder already in place. Naoussa, also in Macedonia, was known for over a century for its elegant Xinomavro-based wines that echoed smoky Barolo. It earned an official appellation in 1971, well before the current renaissance. The claret-like wines of Nemea in the Peleponnese, the Greek mainland’s lower third, weren’t as well known, but a small number of quality wineries have existed there since the 19th century. From the islands, the wines of Santorini were well regarded as far back as the Middle Ages.
In these and other regions, Greece’s largest wineries—Boutari, Tsantali, Achaia Clauss and Kourtaki—either built wineries or acted as négociants. Vital as they were to preserving regional identity, these companies also cultivated the winemakers who are largely responsible for the current wine boom. Evangelos Gerovassiliou left Carras for his own eponymous winery. Vassilis Tsaktsarlis, his partner in another venture, Biblia Chora, spent time at Boutari and Tsantali. The quiet Angelos Rouvalis of Oenoforos winery worked at Achaia Clauss. Yiannis Boutaris, the man who brought fine estate winemaking to his family firm, Boutari, later set off on his own.
|Angelos Rouvalis||Yiannis Bousaris||Evangelos Gerovassilou|
Boutaris is the grandson of the Boutari company founder Iaonnis Boutaris. After running Boutari’s winemaking operations since the late 1960s (his brother Kostantinos ran the business side), Yiannis left the company in the mid-1990s to pursue his goal of small, estate- centered winemaking in Naoussa. In the process, he took over some of the Boutari vineyards he established for single-vineyard production. He also took his sons Stelios, who worked in marketing at Boutari, and Michalis, fresh out of UC Davis, with him.
The trio’s focus is Kir Yianni, also the name of their estate. With 110 acres under vine, Michalis and Yiannis have divided the estate into small parcels, managing each according to their particular properties. The region’s Xinomavro is the mainstay, but they also grow Syrah and Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as other white varieties.
A nearly universal theme among the current wave of Greek winemakers is the reluctant need to exploit international grape varieties along with indigenous grapes. Appellation rules sometimes prevent blending, but a looser system of Vin de Pays allows experimentation. For many, this is a chance to prove themselves on the world stage. The shy, contemplative Rouvalis might have been speaking for others when he admitted the dilemma: “We’d prefer to concentrate on our local grapes. But, we also want to be recognized by others outside of Greece. Making Chardonnay provides a benchmark for others to judge us.”
Yiannis Tselepos, whose smile is as broad as Rouvalis’s is subtle, says much the same thing, but adds, “There’s an economic component, too. Foreign consumers don’t know Greek varieties yet, so we offer them something they can understand.” Luckily, his indigenous wines seem to be well understood, making up 80 percent of his estate’s exports. Both his Moschofilero and his Agiorgitiko have scored well with Wine Enthusiast’s tasting panel in the past.
Beyond understanding, there is also the recognition that some international grapes blend exceptionally well with the local cultivars. Boutari’s Xinomavro-Merlot is especially successful. The former brings earthiness and finesse; the latter, richness and a round mouthfeel. “The benefits are two,” says Boutari’s chief enologist Yiannis Voyatzis. “One, it makes customers feel comfortable. If they see the word ‘Xinomavro’ alone, they might not try the wine. But, they like Merlot, so they’ll take a chance. Second, we hope that they’ll become curious about Xinomavro, and be more adventurous the next time.”
Much of what is coming from Greece these days is good wine. But in a relatively new industry with ancient baggage, there are growing pains. Vines need to be replanted or retrained. Soils need to be analyzed over the long term and matched to particular clones. Ancient varieties need to be revived and given space in the market. And decisions have to be made about the proper use of oak aging.
As in many emerging wine industries, fancy oak barrels are in vogue. For foreign wine consumers trying to find sanctuary from butterscotch and vanilla flavors, indulgent use of oak will be a problem. But what is so exciting about Greece is that vintners are open to criticism, open to new ideas and delighted to return to old ways—with modern twists, of course—if they make sense.
There is no better case for this than Gaia’s Retsinis Nobilis, Paraskevopoulos’s modern take on retsina. Most retsina is made from a tart, insipid base wine doctored with copious amounts of pine resin. Gaia’s starts with wine good enough to be enjoyed on its own, aromatized by just enough pine resin to provide earthy, foresty flavors, but not so much as to overwhelm. For the salty, olive-oil doused mezes found on any Greek table worth its name, there’s no better accompaniment. But, asked about its reception in Greece, Paraskevopoulos laughs, “We sell it almost all abroad. It just isn’t coarse enough for most people here.”
|Wine Enthusiast’s Favorite New Releases from Greece|
88 Boutari 2003 Fantaxometocho (Paros); $20. This intriguing blend of 70% barrel-fermented Chardonnay and 30% stainless steel-fermented Vilana comes from the island of Crete. The Chardonnay component provides toasty, nutty and peachy nuances, while the Vilana gives fine acidity and bright green apple flavors. Give it a few months in the bottle to come together.
88 Gerovassiliou 2003 Malagousia (Epanomi); $22. Not profoundly complex, but juicy and satisfying, this single-varietal Malagousia’s aromas and flavors bring to mind nectarines and clementines harmoniously bound together with great balance and length.
88 Papagiannakos 2003 Savatiano (Attica); $13.
Savatiano is one of the most-cultivated white grape varieties of Greece, often serving as the base for retsina. But this effort shows how good it can be, melding slightly nutty scents with peachy, melony fruit. It’s plump and medium weight, finishing fresh and clean with a squirt of grapefruit. Best Buy.
88 Spiros Hatziyiannis 2002 Santorini; $10. Anise, pear and mineral aromas and flavors imbue this wine with a fine degree of complexity. It’s also richer than most of the whites from Santorini, yet it still retains a refreshing bite on its tart, minerally finish. Best Buy.
87 Haggipavlu 2002 Moschofilero (Mantinia); $12. Not as plump or floral as most Moschofileros, but more minerally and intense. Mineral, lime and ginger-ale aromas are followed by lime, green apple and mineral flavors. It’s light in body, yet long on the finish. A top-notch seafood white. Best Buy.
90 Porto Carras 2001 Château Porto Carras (Côtes de Meliton); $30. Black and brooding, with toast and vanilla showing on the nose, followed by earth and tobacco on the palate. It’s medium-weight, slightly creamy and dense, yet with a touch of acidity on the finish to give it cut. Drink this blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Limnio anytime between now and 2010.