It’s got a long, storied history, but Greek wines still deserve more attention from today’s curious drinker. Explore indigenous grapes, like Assyrtiko from the island of Santorini, and must-try mainland reds made from Xinomavro.
The wines discussed in this episode are:
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Read the full transcript of “Greek Wines Offer Ancient Wonders and Modern Flair”:
Jameson Fink: Welcome to Wine Enthusiast’s What We’re Tasting Podcast. I’m your host, Jameson Fink. Join me as we discuss three fantastic wines and why each one belongs in your glass. This episode, we’re looking at wines from Greece with Executive Editor Susan Kostrzewa, who covers and reviews wine from the region.
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Greek wines aren’t getting enough due, and I think as modern wine drinkers we should be connected to a country that has such an amazing past, so Sue, thank you for being on the show.
Susan Kostrzewa: Thanks for having me.
JF: Are Greek wines just not getting enough due? Why aren’t they more well known, or are they better known than I think they are?
SK: I don’t think they’re well known enough. I love Greek wines, and they’ve been making wine for 4,000 years. So you’d think with all that time we would have found out about them by now. But I think part of the issue is a pretty simple one. It’s kind of surprising, I guess, in a way that this could hold something back, but the names. The names of the grapes, the names of the producers, they’re in Greek.
JF: Yeah, right.
SK: You know, it’s all Greek to you and me. But it honestly, I think, for so many years the producers of Greek wines were labeling all of the wines in Greek. So only really Greeks in the US, so Greek restaurants, Greek people, Greek immigrants were drinking that wine. They were the ones who could read the labels. It scared everybody off, so that was one very simple thing. I think that kind of deterred regular wine drinkers from getting into it.
Then you also have the whole retsina thing, which for many years in the US, retsina, a not very well-made retsina was what was being exported into the country. So a lot of people have literal and figurative hangovers from the retsina days. There’s great retsina being made now, and I’d love to talk to you about that, but I think there’s still, I run into a lot of people who when I say I’m rating and reviewing Greek wine, I love the Greek wines, and were like, “Oh, I hate retsina.” It’s the first thing they go to, so I think there have been some starts and stops along the way that have deterred people who should know about it from knowing about it.
And thank God, like the psalms are the ones who started the trend in the US again. They were the ones tasting it. They were like, “This is amazing. You should know about it,” and sort of gained momentum from there.
JF: Yeah. I mean, I’ll be guilty as charged. I mean, I remember when I was a buyer at a grocery store, we had like one Greek wine. It was a retsina, and of course I became more knowledgeable after that. I remember actually when I was still working in there, some new wines were coming into the marketplace, and they were exciting and interesting indigenous grapes, but it’s sort of like, I don’t know if it’s maybe like Chianti with the fiasco, the straw kind of bottle that people still associate like a whole region or a country painted with that kind of broad stroke. But I don’t know, nowadays, and I think you mentioned what? Sommeliers, and of course wine buyers all over are doing with Greek wines as sort of championing them and getting them in front of people, which I think is the biggest reason.
So the first wine I want to talk about is one this definitely been a darling of the sommelier scene, and maybe not to its detriment, but maybe we’re not seeing enough of other wines, but it’s Assyrtiko, which comes from the island of Santorini. So the first wine I want to talk about is the Gaia wine’s 2017 Wild Ferment Assyrtiko from Santorini which is 92 points. First of all, can you just tell me what is Assyrtiko and what makes it special on Santorini and in the world?
SK: Assyrtiko is a white wine variety, it’s indigenous to Santorini, which Santorini is basically a huge block of volcanic rock. And this is the variety that loves that volcanic rock. And even though it is being grown in other areas of Greece, I think its original and best home is Santorini. So Assyrtiko is a fresh, very linear, kind of sea salty, delicious white wine. Crisp, like I said, great with food. I think it’s very unique, it’s got a touch of smoke, and sea salt, and all the things you would associate with volcanic soil.
And the other thing that’s interesting about it, is they’ve never had phylloxera on the island, so there’s some very old vines on that island. They’re bush vines, they’re low to the ground. If you’ve ever been to Santorini-
JF: Of course I’ve been to Santorini.
SK: Yes, of course you have. Which, by the way is one of the most beautiful places in the world.
JF: It is, yes.
SK: Whether you love wine or not.
JF: The bluest of blues there.
SK: It’s amazing. And one of the things that’s so cool about it is the first time I went I remember being with a big group of wine journalists who were all very knowledgeable and we were rolling by this sort of field. And it’s super dry, and it’s not a hospitable island as far as greenery goes. It’s very hot and dry. And we were driving by this vineyard, and we’re kinda looking at it, and we stop and we’re all like, “What is this? This looks like a brush windswept field.” And they’re like, “This is the vineyard.” And it’s all these bush vines that grow their trained basically to protect the grapes from the super windy situation on the island. And it looks kinda crazy, and thread bare, and scrappy. But in the midst of this amazing vineyard are these great wines that are being made. So it’s very unique.
JF: Yeah. That was exactly my experience. Like we’re gonna go look at a vineyard, and you still have in your head oh, it’s gonna be manicured rows with posts and what not. But yeah, the vines are woven into like a basket.
JF: It’s like nothing I’d ever seen. I have a million pictures of wine makers picking it up and lifting it up kinda like a man hole cover almost. It’s really remarkable. And yeah, it sort of recalibrates your expectation. The climate there doesn’t permit having training vines like that, they just wouldn’t survive the wind and the heat.
SK: Definitely, yeah. So I think it’s one of the most unique places in the world as far as wine vineyards and unique wines go. So I’m a big fan. And I hope I’m pronouncing this correctly, I believe it’s Gaia.
JF: Oh yeah, I pronounced it wrong.
SK: Again, this is my beat and I still have a hard time pronouncing some of these.
JF: I gotta stop pronouncing these wines, I gotta make everyone do it unless it’s something very simple.
SK: But Gaia, the wine that you were mentioning, Wild Ferment Assyrtiko, Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, who is the wine maker there has really, he’s really championed doing these sort of unique and experimental approaches to Assyrtiko. But he’s also an awesome spokesperson for Greek wine. So you asked earlier about why we don’t know about Greek wine, I think the producers themselves are on the road now. And they’re doing an amazing job, they’re the best people to champion what is happening in their country. And he, the wine maker here and the owner, is fabulous at doing that. So all of his wines are great.
JF: Yeah, I’ve also had … Interesting things about Assyrtiko, I’ve had some older bottles, like it can age really well, which I thought was surprising.
JF: And it’s not necessarily a heavy wine, but it’s got some substance to it, it’s not a super light, I don’t know like Pinot Grigio. It’s got somebody to it and a little bit of richness, but still super refreshing.
SK: Yeah, I mean they’re making sparkling Assyrtiko, their Assyrtiko blends with like Sauvignon Blanc that are really good. And then Retsina, their Retsina’s now being make by which are made out of Assyrtiko. It’s a very versatile grape. And like you say, it does have weight and complexity. It’s pretty … To me, it’s again, one of the more unique wines that’s being made in Greece.
JF: And another, let’s keep going about island wines, one of the things that I think I clumsily said when we started is that you see a lot of Assyrtiko on wine lists, which is great. But also it’s sort of like when’s the next hurdle when we’re gonna see more Greek wines from other islands and the mainland too? But I wanted to talk about Crete for a little bit, what are the wines like there as far as indigenous grapes? Are they doing reds, whites, both?
SK: Crete may be the oldest wine making area in Greece. Again, I think when we talk about 4,000 years we talk about minoans , we talk about this incredible history of wine making on Crete. I was just there recently and spent a lot of time there. And everything is incredible, everything is old. Every olive tree is thousands of years old. They have an amazing history of wine making in general. But yeah, they make whites, they make reds, Vidiano and Thrapsathiri are two of the whites they make that I love that are just delicious, and refreshing, and again very unique to the island. Kotsifali’s one of the reds.
How do they differ? I mean every region of Greece is quite different. There are a lot of micro-climates. Crete is hot, and the wines are a little bigger, and a little more robust than say when you get up into the north where you’re talking about very high altitude, pretty high acid wines. So a little fuller bodied, still great acidity, but a little bit more of a reflection of their location.
And I actually did a piece recently on Crete for the magazine and talked a lot about this new generation of younger wine makers, who are coming up in Crete and really pushing a lot of innovation. Because these are very old varieties, some of them were almost extinct, a couple of the producers I talk about rescued nearly extinct ancient grapes from extinction and brought them back, and are now doing all this cool stuff. So to me that’s an area that’s really exciting, and we haven’t really seen as many of those wines in the US yet. But I think that’s going to change.
JF: Yeah, and what I think is exciting too is when you have these ancient vines, or varieties and you see kind of younger people sort of rehabilitating their reputation, or literally rehabilitating them from the brink of extinction. You see it all over the world, and it’s really exciting. Especially in a place with a history like Greece where you see old world wine history, and then you see people with new ideas and new energy kind of bringing them back to life instead of chasing a more faddish grape.
SK: Well I think what’s really exciting about what’s happening in Greece now, and I’ve been covering the beat, I think it’s probably been about eight years. When I first started wine makers were just starting to get back into really believing in their own grapes. They were planting a lot of, they had been planting a lot of international varieties, which by the way do really well in northern Greece, a producer we’ll talk about, they do a beautiful job with Cabernets and Sauvignon Blancs, and Chardonnays. But what was really exciting was to see the younger wine makers, and some of the older ones getting excited again about indigenous grapes. And that to me was the beginning of the real quality story with Greek wine, is these are the varieties that are in their sort of blood. And they really know, it’s the perfect place for these to be grown, and they really believe in them. And I think the quality is in those bottlings now.
JF: Hey, we’ll be back to the show very shortly. But since you’re here, I know you’re already a fan of wine podcasts, why don’t you check out our other show called The Wine Enthusiast Podcast, download it wherever you get podcasts.
Let’s talk about another white wine, we’ll move on from Assyrtiko, it’s Moschofilero?
JF: Okay, so the second bottle I wanna talk about is the Nasiakos 2016 Mantinia Moschofilero, probably butchered that again.
SK: No, you got it.
JF: Okay. That’s 92 points. So tell me about this white wine grape, because it seems like if you’re gonna start somewhere in Greece, this might be the white wine to start with.
SK: Yeah, that’s a very good point. I think Assyrtiko, it’s interesting because it might be the first point of contact that most people have with Greek wines, but it’s actually, to me it’s a little geekier. Whereas Moschofilero also delicious, but a little bit more versatile as far as style, and just a little easier to enjoy just patio wine. Again, it depends on where it comes from, it’s Mantinia, which is in the Peloponnese, it’s mainland Greece is where it’s traditionally from. And you know, it’s very floral, it’s got again, it’s crisp, it’s really balanced. But it’s got orange blossom, and grapefruit, and sort of floral aromas. Almost could be like a Riesling, or an Albarino style wine. And to me, those are some of the best wines that again, are made in Greece are the Moschofileros, they do them in sparkling, still, all sorts of different dessert wines. It’s really delicious. And this particular one is fabulous. This producer makes incredible Moschofilero.
JF: And I always think about that, I remember going to a wine dinner for a Greek winery a few years ago. And they were just showcasing Syrah, and Cabernet. And it was kind of weird in a way because I feel like this is probably for, I always have this tension in well, we kinda wanna give people grapes they’re familiar with if you want them to enter a world of Greek wine or whatever it may be, or wines from Sicily or something like that. But then there’s such this heritage of indigenous grapes, like here’s a Syrah, here’s a Cabernet. It’s like you have this treasure trove of indigenous grapes. So is there kind of that tension there to pursue indigenous grapes? And it’s not like they’re bad wines, but Syrah or Cabernet, you know?
SK: Well like I said, I think there was a pressure years ago to plant international varieties, again Chardonnay, Syrah Chardonnay, et cetera. Because people felt well no one knows these wines, so let’s push the international stuff. Then I think what the benefit became is they were making a very good quality of international grapes and they started blending them. And that’s a great entree. I mean it is scary, especially if you’re just a beginning exploratory wine drinker, you’re not gonna go maybe first for something that is called Thrapsathiri.
SK: But you might go for a Sauvignon Blanc Thrapsathiri blend.
SK: So I think that actually ended up being a good thing. And there are some really great blends, really delicious blends. And it helps people along. And then they might say, “You know what? Next time I’ll just try the Thrapsathiri, I liked this wine, I’m not afraid of this anymore, I’m gonna try the single variety. So I do think there was a pressure. I think now it’s sort of subsiding in that I think more people are just doubling down on the native varieties. But it’s good that they have some of these other blending options. I think it makes for some really nice wines in some cases.
JF: And do you think, now we’re at the second wine is from the mainland, I was also thinking when I think of Greek wine it’s Crete or Santorini, is the mainland sort of still under appreciated even though it’s huge and there’s so much wine being made there. But kinda are we just in love with the island wines, and the mainland’s like, “Hey, we got a lot going on here too.”
SK: Yeah, I mean it’s easy to connect with the idea, the visual of Greece is always the islands, and the beautiful ocean. But most of Greece is mountainous. It’s one of the highest altitude, highest elevation countries in Europe. And people don’t always realize that most of the grapes in Greece are grown in these high altitude, maybe 1,100 feet vineyards on the mainland. So yeah, I think there is some …
JF: I know, this is a real podcast. There’s thunder, there’s lightning.
Susan Kostrzewa: There’s this dramatic.
JF: The gods, the Greek gods.
SK: The gods are here with us as I talk. I better get this right.
JF: Yeah, we’ll get this right.
SK: This could be the last you ever hear of me. But anyway, I think they’re underappreciated and I think again, you’ve got mainland Moschofilero, you also have some red wines, which we can talk about as well. Those are made in northern Greece in the mountainous areas of northern Greece. And you know, we need to talk about them more, there’s great stuff going on.
JF: Let us talk about one right now.
JF: The Alpha Estate 2015 Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro, 90 points. So kind of along the lines of Moschofilero is this kind of the red wine grape to start exploring if you’re getting into Greek wines?
SK: That’s a good question, because Xinomavro is kind of akin, people compare to Barolo, to Nebbiolo. So I think if you’re a wine lover and you’re a food lover, you’re going to be really excited about these wines. Do I think it’s a quaffer? Not so much. And I hate to call any wine that, but I think as far as approachability, Xinomavro might be your 2.0.
SK: And I think Agiorgitiko, which is another red, and I hardly get that right. But anyway, that might be a little more approachable. So Xinomavro, I love these wines, I think they’re so elegant. They’re incredibly age able. So this is the kind of wine that you can store for 10 years plus and it has all that great acidity, it’s gonna age really well. But yeah, I think it’s sort of maybe for somebody who’s got a little more of an advanced taste in reds.
JF: So one thing we haven’t talked about, which I think when talking about one of the great pleasures of wine is pairing it with food. Let’s just back up and talk about Assyrtiko again. One of the things I remember being on Santorini is having the best tomatoes in the world and seafood. What are some of your favorite Assyrtiko pairings?
SK: Well Assyrtiko again, when I think of a great pairing I think of food as you said on the island, which is like the tomatoes, I think about seafood, grilled seafood like sardines, any of that salty seafood goes perfectly with this. Capers, caper salad, all that. All that style of food. A point that I wanna make just ’cause you’re making me think about this, that I talk a lot with Greek wine makers about this, and this often happens, Greek wines often are associated with Greek food and that’s a great thing. But they also do very well with other types of cuisine. And I think one of the foods that I think is delicious with Greek white wines would be sushi. So sort of more delicate seafood dishes. Indian food, there are a lot of flavors that do very well with these wines. And I think it’s kind of fun to explore that as well. And I think that’s something that as Greek wine has become more popular in the US you can find the wines in restaurants that aren’t just Greek restaurants.
JF: Yeah, that’s a good point. It doesn’t have to be I’m in a Greek restaurant, I’ll drink Greek wine, and then if I go somewhere else that has any other kind of cuisine I’m like nah. Because I mean we drink champagne at pizza places, we do lots of interesting experimentation too. So I think that’s a really good point. And that’s something that will help Greek wine grow too, just not … Of course if you’re there in Greece, or if you’re at a Greek restaurant I mean, yeah, it’s only natural. Don’t drink Barolo in southern Greece or northern Greece. But I really think that’s a great way to get people excited and interested about pairing.
I’d love Assyrtiko right now, it’s super hot and humid out. Even just a summer salad with fresh produce would be great with probably almost any Greek white wine that was of a lighter style, or a medium bodied.
SK: Yeah, definitely. And actually one of the things I’ve found is these wines, Moschofilero, you can pair them with obviously poultry and pork, and all that stuff. But they can handle some of the red meat like lamb, I mean you’d be surprised. Again, lamb is pretty traditional to Greece. But I’ve had Assyrtiko with lamb, and the high acid cuts the fat, it’s really delicious. To me it’s just fun. And again, they’re great wines, they’re very versatile, but they’re really food-driven. So that would be my recommendation to everyone. If you’ve never had a Greek wine, I would recommend that you probably have it with food. Because they can be a little high in acid for people just to sit and drink if they’ve never had. But they do very well with that.
JF: And I guess I have a little sidebar about food and wine pairing, I love white wine with meat, whether it’s lamb, even steak. I had recently steak with a different wine, different country, but a rich, dry, Austrian Riesling. And it has that sort of big rich steak dish, and big rich red wine. But when you have something that’s a little livelier like a white wine, especially in the summer. Especially with like a steak salad, it’s super refreshing to drink a white wine, or a slightly chilled red rather than … That doesn’t mean oh I’m having a pork, or a steak, or a lamb then I have to have a red wine.
SK: Right, yeah. I mean that’s the exciting thing about all these combinations. I think there’s a lot more freedom than there used to be. There was always freedom, but we will tell you also, as I’ve bene lucky enough to taste and pair a lot of wines and foods in my career, I realize now it’s really important to just try new combinations and not necessarily worry too much about what you’ve read, or think is the right combo. And that’s, like I say, the Greek wines I’ve had a blast just tasting lots of different foods with them. And it’s been a really fun way of learning more about the flavors, and seeing how they change, and just having a good time with it.
JF: Yeah, I don’t think you need to bring your little chart to the restaurant and sort of look at it underneath the table, like oh I’m getting a steak, what am I allowed to have?
JF: I think that’s a good thing where we sort of … There are matches that are classic for a reason, but I think it’s great that we’ve kind of moved beyond these rigid rules. Because a lot of it depends on how it’s cooked, what it’s served with, where you are. Are you in a nice air conditioned cave, or are you outside on a 90 degree humid day? It’s like, “Oh I’m outside, I’m eating a steak, I have to have Cabernet.” But you can definitely just chuck those rules.
SK: Actually you just made me think of something when you were talking about drinking wine and the context of it, and the atmosphere in which you’re drinking it. And I was thinking when I was recently in Greece I was on Mount Olympus, which is in northern Greece outside of Thessaloniki. And it was a hot, hot day. My instinct would’ve been to go for again, refreshing white wine, something sort of nervy and easy to drink. And we ended up drinking some incredible Xinomavro on the mountain with lamb. And it seemed like ugh, it’s heavy, and it’s gonna be too hot for this. And I have to tell you, it was so awesome and delicious.
And I think in the case of again, going back to Xinomavro it has a freshness to it, it’s got this kind of really nice backbone and freshness to it. And I actually, it made me reset my brain about red wine in the summer. Red wine and hot climates. It can be really awesome, and really delicious. And it also doesn’t hurt to be on Mount Olympus.
JF: No, it definitely does not. So even if you can’t get to Mount Olympus for some Greek wine, I will encourage all of you to explore the country, it has an amazing history, centuries old, more than centuries old.
JF: Millennia old. And these are just three wines that are great to start, but explore the whole country, try the indigenous grapes, and maybe get a little crazy and try some of the blends that have some of the grapes you might be familiar with too. But get out there and explore Greek wine. So Susan, thank you for being on the show.
SK: Thanks for having me.
JF: And thank you for listening to the What We’re Tasting Podcast, sponsored by Vivino, wine made easy.
SK: The three wines we discussed today were the Gaia Wines 2017 Wild Ferment Assyrtiko , the Nasiakos 2016 Mantinia Moschofilero, and the Alpha Estate 2015 Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro.
JF: Find What We’re Tasting on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find podcasts. And if you liked today’s episode, please give us a five star rating on iTunes, leave a comment, and tell you friends.
What We’re Tasting is a Wine Enthusiast podcast. Check out Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com.