In Greece, wine is deeply woven into the fabric of everyday society and is a central component of cultural history.
The country is one of the world’s most ancient viticultural locations. References to consumption and cultivation appear in literature and historical texts as early as the 17th century B.C. Indigenous wine varieties once favored by Hesiod and Aristotle are still produced today.
“Wine has played a central role in everyday Greek life for more than 4,000 years,” says Dr. Haroula Spinthiropoulou, a historian, viticulturist and wine producer. She says evidence of a bustling wine culture and trade on islands like Crete and Santorini, and in the mainland Peloponnese region, traces to the 2nd millennium B.C.
In addition to serving religious and medicinal purposes in ancient times, wine was central to “intellectual gatherings called ‘symposia,’ where they would eat and talk while drinking wine, with Greek sommelier, or oenochooi, serving them,” says Spinthiropoulou. “The nutritional value of wine was well known by [them], and it became a dominant part of their diet as well as their philosophy of life.”
Social and political upheaval of subsequent Roman, Byzantine and Turkish occupations impeded and sometimes suspended commercial production of Greece’s legendary ancient varieties. Yet, local production and demand for the one-of-a-kind wines endured throughout the ages.
Today, Greece’s oldest varieties have found a growing audience on the international market, thanks to passionate sommeliers and wine historians, and an increasing number of progressive Greek vintners committed to protecting and perfecting these liquid relics.
Among Greece’s more than 300 indigenous grapes, several are millennia old. Assyrtiko, Limnio, Robola and Liatiko are four that draw particular attention for their world-class quality, with traditional and modern styles that align with 21st-century palates. Let’s discover this fascinating taste of the past.
The smoky, salty and cellar–worthy white wine borne of Santorini’s moonscape-like volcanic vineyards dates back more than 3,500 years. Grown in sandy, nutrient-poor soils resistant to the phylloxera pest that decimated vineyards across the world, Santorini was left untouched. This enabled the development of hearty vineyards, some of which are more than 150 years old. In fact, the island boasts some the few self-rooted vines left in Europe.
Producers here still practice traditional techniques like the kouloura, in which plants are pruned into a low basket around the grapes, which protects them from the island’s strong winds, hot sun and blowing sand. The practice also limits the vines’ need for water. The result is startling for first-time visitors unused to the wild and sparse appearance of these coveted plots.
Other evidence of historic viticulture, like the dry stone and petrified lava walls built to slow erosion by the island’s relentless winds, still stand. They connect the island’s booming modern wine culture to its long and storied past.
Despite its rich history on the island, Assyrtiko’s profile is hotter than it has been in centuries, in large part due to its singular, terroir-driven identity.
“Assyrtiko is a unique variety with a very distinctive character, very well adjusted to the harsh climate of the Cyclades,” says Spinthiropoulou. “It has a high acidity and is rich in phenolic compounds, two elements which in Santorini’s environment give birth to a distinctive aromatic character combined with very good structure.”
This flinty, full-bodied expression of Santorini may be the closest in style to its ancient expression, but the grape has also proven successful elsewhere. Increasingly, it’s being planted in Attica, northern Greece, the Peloponnese and on Crete. It’s also now cultivated in countries including Australia, Italy and South Africa.
In these more nutrient-rich soils and under less traumatic conditions, Assyrtiko displays a softer, fruitier character that appeals to a broader range of palates. However, it maintains a hallmark acidity and minerality that sets it apart from other international wines.
“It’s a variety that has shown it can be cultivated in different climates and soils, and while some regions give better characteristics than others, it’s difficult to find a bad Assyrtiko,” says Vagelis Gavalas, the fifth-generation winemaker of Santorini’s Gavalas Winery. “We think it can be the flagship for the white wines of Greece.”
Focusing on single expressions of the grape, the 300-year-old winery produces unoaked, oaked and wild-ferment bottlings, and its next project is a bottling produced from 150-year-old vines.
Elsewhere on the island, producers like Sigalas, Gai’a, Argyros, Vassaltis and Hatzidakis have contributed to the grape’s global success. Micro-terroir bottlings, experiments in underwater aging and library tastings reveal its potential as one of the world’s great ageable white wines.
The variety has long been used for Vinsanto, the sun-dried dessert wine made from Santorini white grapes (including, by law, 51% Assyrtiko) with origins in the 12th century.
While no relation to Tuscan Vin Santo, the wine was named “Vino di Santo” by Venetians who controlled the Mediterranean trade routes during the Byzantine era. It was later famed in 18th-century Russia for its appealing flavors of warming spices and vibrant fruit. Today, elegant styles from producers like Argyros, Gai’a and others have kept it attuned to modern palates.
Gavalas makes a Vinsanto, in which Assyrtiko is blended with smaller amounts of native varieties Aidani and Athiri.
Assyrtiko has also shown its adaptability in sparkling wines by producers like Santorini’s Santo Wines, and in a lively retsina made by Kechris Winery in Thessaloniki.
“The global wine market is now very open to unique, rare wines,” says Gavalas. “We are talking about a white wine with characteristics that are difficult to be found in many wines. It’s in our hands to keep evolving the high standard of this variety.”
Spinthiropoulou agrees. “Indigenous, native varieties can be a challenge to consumers with other Greek wines,” she says. “Assyrtiko seems to be our passport to the international market.”
Bottles to Try
Greek Wine Cellars Flowers 2019 Assyrtiko (Santorini); $27, 92 points. The nose on this Assyrtiko is open and generous, with scents of white flowers, lemon and herbs prevailing. It has a complex and savory character balanced by a touch of ripe white fruit.
Skouras 2019 Wild Ferment Assyrtiko (Peloponnese); $18, 92 points. The nose on this wild-ferment white is elegant, with wet stone, smoke and crushed herb aromas. On the palate, it’s complex yet focused, with a balance of lively fruit, minerality and spice. Editors’ Choice.
Wine Art Estate 2019 Plano Assyrtiko (Drama); $25, 92 points. Citrus, graphite and crushed herbs start off this mouthwatering Assyrtiko from Drama. On the palate, it’s clean and fresh, with another wave of smoke on the finish.
Alexakis 2019 Assyrtiko (Crete); $17, 91 points. The bouquet on this elegant Assyrtiko is packed with passion fruit, lemon peel and flowers, and on the palate, it’s exotic but refined, with tropical-fruit and citrus flavors and a pronounced minerality. The finish is lingering and mouthwatering. Pair with grilled fish or hard cheeses.
Domaine Papagiannakos 2019 Assyrtiko (Attica); $22, 90 points. This Assyrtiko starts with mouthwatering lime, orange and tropical fruit aromas, followed by bright white fruit flavors and zippy acidity. The wine has texture, complexity and great aging potential.
Gavalas 2019 Dry Assyrtiko (Santorini); $34, 90 points. Juicy fruit and citrus aromas start this elegant white. The wine is a combination of full-bodied tropical fruit and sea salt austerity. It finishes elegant and clean, with a spin of white pepper.
This red wine used by Homer’s Odysseus to inebriate the Cyclops Polyphoum remains one of Greece’s oldest on record. Hailing from the Aegean island of Lemnos, it was a major player in the sweet wine craze that dominated ancient Greece. Today, it’s produced both in elegant, dry, single-variety bottlings and blends, mainly in the northern Greek mainland regions of Macedonia and Thrace.
Limnio is typified by moderate, silky tannins, good acidity, a pronounced mineral nose and flavors of crushed herbs and bright red berries. Its full-bodied yet focused character has “more than a little in common with Barolo,” says George Salpindigis, viticultural director at Tsantali Vineyards & Wineries.
Experimentation in small plots with the variety started as early as 1975, but the winery began to more actively replant Limnio vines on Mount Athos in northwestern Greece in 2002. Tsantali now blends it with varieties like Agiorgitiko, Cabernet and Grenache in its Abaton and Kormilitsa bottlings. Limnio adds finesse and brightness to the layered reds.
Though relatively rare, varietal bottlings by producers like Vourvoukeli Estate in Thrace and Garalis (on Lemnos) highlight Limnio’s naturally vibrant palate and high acidity. Both stainless steel- and oak-aged expressions offer an intriguing alternative for fans of deep-flavored reds.
Whatever its expression, Salpindigis suggests that Limnio be added to the cellar of any serious and intrepid collector. “It’s an extremely fine variety with fabulous potential to make great, ageworthy wines,” he says.
Bottles to Try
Tsantali 2014 Agiorgitiko Abaton Gold Selection (Mount Athos); $35, 89 points. Aromas of ripe red berries, cherry and spice are followed by rich flavors of cherry, currant and vanilla in this blend of 50% Xinomavro, 30% Grenache and 20% Limnio. The wine offers good structure and a touch of smoke, with a lingering finish of fruit and spice. It’s an ageworthy wine at a good price.
Gerovassiliou 2013 Avaton (Epanomi); $48, 90 points. Made from 50% Limnio, 25% Mavrotragano and 20% Mavroudi, this red blend offers aromas of plum, blackberry, olives and spice. On the palate, it’s juicy but balanced, with flavors of black cherry, blackberry, spices and plum buoyed by bright acidity. The wine finishes long with a wave a of crushed herbs and olive.
Fresh, citrusy and lightly aromatic, this white grape originates from the Ionian island of Cephalonia and is believed to date to at least the 12th century. Though the variety is now grown on other islands in the Ionian chain, its main production is still on Cephalonia. It’s protected under the Robola of Cephalonia Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) designation.
Robola’s best expression comes from the exact environment found on Cephalonia: high-altitude, barren mountain sites with limestone-rich soils. This terroir yields the high acidity, citrus fruits and smoky minerality that distinguishes Robola and invites comparisons to Chablis.
Producing Robola is not for the faint-hearted, a factor that contributes to its rarity. The grape’s tendency toward oxidation requires deft handling by experienced winemakers, and in locations like Mount Ainos, vineyards are planted on slopes that necessitate hand harvesting. In fact, the appearance of these vines rising out of the chunky limestone scree inspired the occupying 16th-century Venetians to dub the wine “Vino di Sasso,” or wine of stone.
Gentilini Winery is the island’s premier Robola producer. The Gentilini family has centuries-old ties to the island, but its winemaking history began in the 1970s, when Spiro-Nicholas Kosmetatos planted his first vineyard.
Today, Gentilini produces three distinctive varietal expressions: a wild yeast bottling, a superpremium high-altitude bottling and a classic stainless-steel style. Spiro-Nicholas’ daughter, Marianna Kosmetatos, owns the winery with her husband, Petros. She says all three bottlings reflect the original terroir of the island.
“Robola has characteristics completely unique to the appellation on Cephalonia, including balanced acidity, minerality and citrus fruit,” she says. “We experiment [with it] constantly, [because it] has so much potential.”
Kosmetatos says that limited acreage and a reluctance by younger vintners to farm the existing tricky parcels pose obstacles for the category. Yet, she has no doubt the demand will be there, if people just give the wine a try.
“It has the potential to give super premium wines of great complexity and longevity,” she says, “If more wineries/growers follow…suit, the future of Robola is bright.”
Bottles to Try
Gentilini 2019 Wild Paths Robola (Cephalonia); $43, 92 points. Named for the steep, single-vineyard location where it’s grown, this delicate and refined wine starts with lemon-lime and peach aromas, followed by zingy waves of citrus fruit and stone on the palate. A touch of vanilla and honey gives it extra heft, but the wine finishes pert and fresh.
Sclavos 2019 Di Sasso (Cephalonia); $28, 90 points. This intense white starts with aromas of white flowers, tangerine, peach and grapefruit, followed by vibrant flavors of lemon, peach, stone and orange rind. Medium-bodied with bright acidity, the wine finishes with toasted nut and honey.
A visit to Crete is an immersion in the ancient wine world. Vestiges of the island’s 4,000 years of viticulture seem to be found everywhere, whether you tour the ruins of Minoan wine presses or view millennia-old frescoes that depict everyday wine enjoyment. You may also stumble over the stones of antique amphorae half-submerged in vineyard soil.
Liatiko’s connection to Crete dates to the 2nd or 3rd century B.C. The variety is mentioned throughout the island’s history, including in 13th-century texts (referencing the famous sun-dried Malvasia sweet wine of the time, in which Liatiko was included) and in 16th-century vineyard purchase documents.
Centuries-old Liatiko vineyards are found across Crete, but there are only a handful of producers that still make the variety. Among them are Lyrarakis Winery, Diamantakis, Economou and Douloufakis.
Lyrarakis has been experimenting with Liatiko in various local sites, from old vines in Sitia to high-altitude vineyards in Amari, near Rethymno. In addition to its varietal Aggelis Liatiko, Lyrarakis produces a Liatiko rosé that showcases the grape’s brighter character.
The wine offers delicately spicy, rich red–berry flavors with soft tannins and moderate acidity. Though often blended with Crete’s Mandalaria and Kotsifali varieties, the grape’s varietal expression can exhibit beautifully its signature intense floral aromas and warming-spice character.
“The timing is right to showcase the variety’s strengths,” says Bart Lyrarakis, owner of Lyrarakis. He strives for a lighter, more delicate expression of Liatiko. “Consumer taste all over the world has been turning more and more to this kind of wine. It is here to stay.”
Bottles to Try
Lyrarakis 2018 Aggelis Liatiko (Crete); $24, 91 points. Layered aromas of blackberry, cherry, lavender and anise are followed by flavors of dried cherry, crushed herbs and allspice in this crisp, balanced red made from 100-year-old ungrafted vines. The wine offers firm grip and bright acidity, with a delicious anise and herb finish.
Douloufakis 2018 Dafnios; (Dafnes); $17, 88 points. Tropical fruit and apricot aromas and a palate of creamy tropical fruit and minerals give this wine a decidedly Greek character. Fresh and balanced in the finish, it’s an easy-drinking Vidiano that will pair well with spicy cuisine and salty cheeses.