Wine has been an integral part of Greek culture for several millennia. Ancient Greeks were documented wine lovers, tippling diluted reds while debating philosophy in their symposia gatherings, and taking wine as a cure for myriad health ailments, including imbalanced “humors.” They worshipped Dionysus, the god of the grape. And Greek ancients traded wine throughout the old world, even creating their own Appellations of Origin long before wine had become an established worldwide business.
Today, Greece continues its winemaking traditions, but centuries of small production and focus on eclectic domestic palates means that as an emerging, globally appealing wine region, the country is scrambling to catch up. Until recently, more than 300 indigenous grape varieties, often labeled in Greek and known to a select few beyond domestic borders, presented a formidable learning curve for budding Greek wine fans.
The Greek wine industry has responded by experimenting with French clones and blending familiar wines such as Merlot and Cabernet with Greek native grapes; educating media and wine merchants on the regions and wines of Greece; labeling bottles more simply; and focusing on a few high quality, well-priced varieties like Assyrtiko and Xinomavro as an entry into the category.
Greek wines are affordable, fresh and food friendly. Here’s a quick primer on the category and culture surrounding it, one letter at a time.
Assyrtiko is a minerally, bone dry white wine originally grown in the volcanic soil on the Greek island of Santorini. Now produced throughout Greece, the wine’s character ranges from the classic dry style to a fruitier, softer style, depending on its origin, and is often blended for added elegance. Try bottlings from Sigalas and Gaia.
Bourou-Bourou is a vegetable and pasta soup served in tavernas on the island of Corfu. In addition to its flavorful local cuisine, Corfu is known for small-production village wines made from the Kakotrigis and Moschato grapes.
The winemaking tradition of Crete dates back almost 4,000 years; the world’s oldest wine press was discovered in the Cretan town of Archanes. Crete’s temperate, protected climate makes it an excellent winemaking location, and many varieties, including Syrah, Chardonnay, Vilana and Kostifali, are produced here. Twenty percent of Greece’s wines are made in Crete. Top producers include Boutari and Douloufakis.
Dionysus was the ancient Greek god of wine, and was the son of a mortal mother and the Greek god Zeus. Legend says that Dionysus introduced the culture of wine to the Greeks in Sterea Ellada, in the southern region of Attica. Today, 65,000 acres of vines are planted to mainly white wines like Savatiano, Roditis and Athiri in Attica, also famous for its retsina (resinated dessert wine).
Epirus is a mountainous winemaking region in the northwest corner of Greece. Located between the slopes of Mt. Pindos, the vineyards of Epirus are difficult to reach, but varieties grown there produce very good wines. Debina, a traditional white variety, produces still, sparkling and semi-sweet wines of note. Reds produced by wineries like Glinavos and Kotagi are also well regarded.
The Fragou winery is a 230-year-old estate winery located in Mesogaia, Attica’s eastern plain. Run by one of Greece’s more notable women in wine and third generation owner Asimina Fragou, the winery’s portfolio includes Greek varieties like Roditis and Fileri as well as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Grenache Rouge and Merlot.
Gaia winery is a producer of premium, indigenous red and white wines on Santorini and in the Peloponnese. The winery is known for its Thalassitis, made from the noble Assyrtiko grape, and a range of Agiorgitiko wines from Nemea. It was founded in 1994 by Leon Karatsalos and Yiannis Paraskevopoulos. Paraskevopoulos is considered a leader of the new generation of Greek-educated enologists.
Horta is a traditional Greek dish in which wild or cultivated greens (such as dandelion greens) are steamed or blanched and made into a salad, then simply dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. It can either be eaten as a light meal with potatoes or paired with a seafood entrée—a dish that pairs perfectly with Greece’s dry, delicate whites.
The Ionian Islands produce various native red and white wines, many of which are made on the island of Cephalonia. Lush and mountainous, the island is home to the white varieties Robola, introduced in the 13th century by Venetians, and Tsaoussi, a melon- and honey-flavored white often used for blending. Small quantities of white Muscat and Mavrodaphne are also made here. Gentilini is a top Ionian producer.
Jason was a late-Greek mythological figure, famous as the leader of the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece. He was the son of Aeson, the rightful king of Iolcus, an ancient city in Thessaly near the modern city of Volos in central eastern Greece. Today, Thessaly produces a designation of origin white wine made of Savatiano and Roditis in Anchialos, near Volos.
Ktima Pavlidis is a producer of sophisticated but accessible native and international wines and is located near the northeastern town of Drama, at the foothills of Mount Falakro. Founded by Greek wine visionary Cristophoros Pavlidis, the estate’s native/foreign blends, such as Santorini Assyrtiko and Sauvignon Blanc, are especially good.
The Lagorthi grape is a rare but notable white grape originating in Kalavrita in the Peloponnese. Experiencing a revival due to its appealing citric and mineral flavors and aromatics, the wine is grown primarily by the Oenoforos Winery of Egio. The wine is medium-bodied with a pronounced acidity.
Moschofilero is an aromatic white wine produced in Mantinia in the Peloponnese. The wine is prized for its crisp, fresh character and aroma of flowers. It can be enjoyed as an apéritif or with food—most notably the refreshing seafood dishes for which Greece is known. Recommended producers of Moschofilero include Antonopoulos, Boutari and Tselepos.
Naoussa, located on the slopes of Mount Vermion, was one of the first AOC regions to be registered in Greece and produces delicious, full-bodied red wines made from the native grape, Xinomavro.
Ouzo is a clear, 80-proof alcoholic beverage that is flavored with anise and drunk widely throughout Greece. Similar to Italian Sambuca, the spirit has been produced in some form since Byzantine times. Its intense flavor is considered an acquired taste; it is often diluted with water, ice or cola to cut the alcohol.
The Peloponnese region has been famed for its wines since the time of Homer, who called it Ampeloessa, meaning “full of vines,” but some historians date the wine production here back 7,000 years. Diverse microclimates and terrain support myriad varieties, most notably the Agiorgitko of Nemea. Peloponnesian wines make up 25% of the overall Greek wine production. Top producers include Papaioánnou, Skouras and Palyvos.
Ancient Greeks associated the quince with fertility, and it played an important role in wedding celebrations where it was offered as a gift, used to sweeten the bride’s breath before entering the bridal chamber. It is also said that the golden apple given to Aphrodite by Paris was actually a quince.
Roditis is a rosé colored grape grown in Attica, Macedonia, Thessaly and Peloponnese. It produces delicate white wines with citric flavors.
Savatiano is the predominant grape in the region of Attica and produces elegant, balanced white wines with an aroma of citrus fruits and flowers.
Taramosalata is a Greek-style caviar made out of fish roe, lemons, onions, olive oil and potatoes. It is traditionally made from the salted and cured roe of cod or carp and served cold as an appetizer. Though not an ideal wine-pairing food because of its strong flavor, taramosalata is good with a crisp white like Assyrtiko from Santorini.
Ulysses is the hero of the ancient Greek poet Homer’s famed epic, The Odyssey. When confronted with the one-eyed Cyclops, Ulysses enticed the monster to drink so much wine that it became drunk. Ulysses gouged out the Cyclops’ eye and escaped.
Vasilopita, Saint Basil’s cake or King’s cake, is a traditional New Year’s Day Greek recipe. Vasilopites are baked with a coin inside, and whoever gets the coin in their slice is blessed with good luck for the whole year. Pair it with a sparkling wine from Spiropoulos in the Peloponnese or a sparkling Debina from Epirus.
Wine is the most common drink in Greece and dates back over 4,000 years in the region; some historians believe the people of Greece have been making wine even longer.
Xinomavro is a dark red/black native grape hailing from Macedonia, and is known for its rich tannic style. Complex and ageable, the wine offers flavors of red fruit, olives and spices and is similar to Italian Nebbiolo. Top producers include Ktima Kir Yianni and Alpha Estate.
Yarlak are large Greek/Turkish meatballs in sauce. The meat mixture includes rice or bulgur. They are cooked in moist heat and the juices are thickened with avgolemono (Greek lemon/chicken soup). Pair with an Agiorgitiko from Nemea.
Zeus in Greek mythology is the king of the gods, the ruler of Mount Olympus and the god of the sky and thunder. Ancient Greeks often poured wine as a libation to honor Zeus. The wine was a religious offering, but in mythology, Zeus forbad the gods from drinking wine.