Greece’s Classic Whites
From Assyrtiko to Robola, the native varieties of this storied land are poised, balanced and a perfect cohort to gourmet cuisine.
Greece’s love affair with white wine dates back several millennia, when domestic and foreign ancients imbibed draughts from the Aegean islands of Thira (Santorini) and Samos, among other regions, to temper illness, rouse the spirits and celebrate the gods.
Today, though growing practices, varieties and palates have evolved (the ancients preferred their whites diluted and sweet), Greece is still, as it was thousands of years ago, recognized as a world-class producer of elegant, food-friendly white wines. New plantings of foreign grapes such as Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay have proven successful both as single varieties and in foreign-indigenous blends, but the indigenous white wines of Greece, some of them dating back thousands of years, are still the truest and most unique expression of its diverse terroir.
“Greek white wines are wonderful, exciting and more approachable than ever,” says Kamal Kouiri, wine director and general manager of Molyvos restaurant in New York City. “They’re fresh, young and usually low alcohol with good acidity. Their varied terroirs and varieties give them different personalities and profiles. They are easy to drink and they match well with Mediterranean food.”
They’re also becoming increasingly prevalent on the American market, as sommeliers, restaurant owners and wine merchants discover their value-oriented, crowd-pleasing character. A variety of styles (reaching far beyond the rustic retsina once synonymous with Greek white wine) means a broad range of food pairing options, whether it’s a refreshing seafood salad, herb-encrusted poultry or a luscious lemon torte.
Ancient records indicate that Greek white and red wine production goes back about 6,500 years. Wine’s presence in everyday life was widely documented in the annals of ancient Greece, when poets like Homer and Euripides sang its praises, and the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, was celebrated in yearly Anthesteria festivals. Ancient vinophiles preferred sweet and honeyed whites as well as the pine resin-infused retsina. Then as now, the white wines were harmonious with food: fruits, nuts, poultry and honey-pie were likely pairings of the time. Greek wine trading and export continued to flourish until the end of the Byzantine era, when the Turkish conquest of Greece, followed by a rising presence of competition from the wines of France, slowed its success. Greek whites continued, regardless, to be popular in the Mediterranean and Europe for centuries. Today, the awareness is spreading worldwide through better distribution, higher-quality wines, newer winemaking practices and the increased skills of Greek winemakers, who are traveling more widely.
Despite the consistent quality of the wines, however, experts believe the best is yet to come. “Greece is still experiencing a learning curve in its [modern] winemaking,” says Konstantinos Lazarakis, MW and founder of Wine & Spirits Professional Consultants, an educational organization that runs wine and spirits courses throughout Greece. “We understand so much more than we did in the past. I think over the next decade you’ll find these wines will improve in ways we could not imagine before.”
Here are the regions to look for, and the wines they do best, on your next visit to the beverage store or while perusing the restaurant wine list.
The Aegean Islands
In the Aegean, the southern island of Santorini still produces some of the country’s most elegant and globally respected white wines. Wind-swept, volcanic vineyards covered with gnarly, shrub-like vines (called basket vines) yield crisp, minerally Assyrtiko, redolent of citrus and sea salt and delicious with island-inspired cuisine like grilled fish, salads and fresh goat cheese. Naturally resistant to Phylloxera, Santorini’s Assyrtiko grapes remain pure and unchanged in flavor from ancient times. Top producers on the island such as Gaia Estate and Domaine Sigalas make exquisite single-variety Assyrtikos, oak-fermented Assyrtikos, dessert Vin Santo and white blends. Athiri, the bone-dry, citrusy white grape now used mainly in Assyrtiko blends, is also grown on Santorini as it was thousands of years ago, as well as the more northern islands of Limnos and Samos. Limnos is best known for its Muscat of Alexandria via Petros Honas’ dry approaches to the aromatic variety, and Samos also specializes in a sweet white, ageable Muscat. Try the Samos Cooperative or Kourtaki bottlings. Crete, Greece’s largest island, is responsible for 20% of all Greek wine, and is known for its Vilana, a low-acid, floral variety that shows well in white blends.
Attica is best known as the region that produces Savatiano, the predominant white grape of the famed retsina, but the surprise here is how beautiful Savatiano can be on its own. Exciting new bottlings of single variety Savatiano—balanced, delicate whites with citric, apricot and floral flavors and a clean acidity—are putting the region on the worldwide map, as are Savatiano blends. Producers such as Papagiannakos and The Private Label Savatiano of Hellas Imports are of special note. Other varieties that thrive here: Athiri, Roditis. The face of retsina, once considered a wine only the locals could love, is also changing, as producers experiment with different styles: try the approachable Creta Olympias or Kourtaki retsinas for their bright fruit character, or the elegant sea-salt and pine flavors of the Gaia Ritinitis Nobilis.
The largest island in the Ionian chain in Greece’s west is the home of Robola, an ancient variety referenced in Homer’s Iliad. Grown at high altitude in Kephalonia’s mountainous vineyards, the white is dry and food-oriented, paired best with meaty fish such as tuna, salmon or swordfish. Though several wineries produce Robola on the island, Gentilini makes consistently excellent Robola wines.
Epirus is a rugged, mountainous area largely comprised of the Pindus range. Excellent dry, off-dry and sparkling wines are made from the region’s Debina grape, with its white melon flavors and lively acidity. Like Champagne, the wine has a versatile food pairing character and can accompany light cuisine like salads and seafood as well as richer meat and cream dishes. Producers such as Glinavos, Monastiri Zitsa and Katogi, who also makes a rich, aromatic Traminer, are the regional stars.
The expansive northern region of Macedonia is one of Greece’s oldest and most prestigious winemaking areas. Though the red Xinomavro carries much of Macedonia’s fame, Malagousia, the grape that yields a rare, full-bodied white with exotic notes of jasmine, tropical fruit and citrus, shows the region is well-suited to producing top-quality whites. Other iconic Greek whites—Assyrtiko, Roditis and Limnio among them—are crafted with sophistication throughout the region. Look to the winegrowing areas of Drama, Mt. Athos and Cotes de Mt. Meliton for the most impressive bottlings. Biblia Chora, Domaine Gerovassiliou and Ktima Pavlidis produce refined whites and white blends.
Moschofilero, the expressive, aromatic white that is making a serious play in American markets mainly via the producer Boutari, traditionally hails from Mantinia in the wildly beautiful Peloponnese. Elegant and floral with a lively acidity, the versatile white’s distinctive character is suited to everything from light salads and poultry to stronger flavors such as sardines. The variety also shines in sparkling wines and rosés. Top producers are Boutari, Sriopoulos and Tselepos, whose styles all capture the diverse character of the grape. In the north, Patras offers excellent Roditis, a pink-skinned white often blended with Savatiano to make retsina. The wine as a single variety offers delicate citrus flavors and a lingering finish. Domaine Mercouri, Katogi-Strofilia (Averoff white blend) and Antinopolous are stand-out producers in the region.
The ancient Greeks were famed for their beautiful architecture and statuary—clean, symmetrical and elegantly proportionate. Balanced, subtle and delicate, modern Greek white wines mirror this aesthetic, and are as at home on today’s table as they were in ancient times.
A Gallery of Greek Whites
These selections represent some of the best, and most innovative, Greek whites offered today.
Boutari Kallisti (100% Assyrtiko; Santorini)
Boutari Moschofilero (Mantinia; Peloponnese)
Domaine Gerovassiliou Malagousia (Macedonia)
Domaine Glinavos Primus (100% Debina; Zitsa)
Domaine Tselepos Moschofilero (Mantinia;
Gaia Estate Thalassitis (100% Assyrtiko; Santorini)
Gaia Estate Ritinitis Nobilis Retsina
Gentilini Robola (Kephalonia)
Katogi Averoff Dry White Table Wine
(80% Roditis, 20% Chardonnay; Peloponnese)
Kourtaki Muscat (Samos)
Ktima Pavlidis Thema (40% Assyrtiko,
60% Sauvignon Blanc; Macedonia)
Mercouri Estate Foló: (100% Roditis; Peloponnese)
My Big Fat Greek Wine (Savatiano, Attica)
Papagiannakos Savatiano (Attica)