Ironic that the cradle of all things civilized, including wine, should only now be experiencing a renaissance in winemaking. But since its B.C. days of fueling bacchanalias and famous philosophers, Greek wine became something of a tragedy.
Amphorae (n.): A vase-shaped ceramic container with two handles and a narrow neck used to transport and store wines and other goods in ancient times. Some winemakers today are using beeswax-lined amphorae buried below ground to ferment and store their wines.
Wine in Greece dates back as far as 8000 B.C., with its very own deity and a famous doc named Hippocrates who used it as medicine. But during the Ottoman empire in the 1400s, high taxes levied by the Turks drove winemaking into the monasteries, where it was overlooked in light of more serious monastic duties. Even after Greece’s independence in 1821, wine was scarce because of disease and the displacement of grapes by more profitable crops. What wine remained was largely unregulated, so the locals bought barrels directly from the cellars.
When Greek wine finally came to the U.S. in the 1960s, it made a really bad first impression with retsina, the white table wine that’s laced with pine resin and tastes like nail polish remover. Its “unique” flavor was born from the ancient practice of sealing amphorae (see Winespeak 101) with pine resin for preservation during shipping. By the 3rd century A.D., the Romans were using barrels, eliminating any need for resin, but the style remains inexplicably popular today.
In recent decades, second-generation Greek winemakers have gone off to France to study modern viticulture and wine production before returning to the homeland to apply what they learned. But improved or not, Greek wine still wasn’t coming to local wine shops in the U.S. Yani Tsapos filled this niche in 1991 by founding Dionysos Imports, Virginia’s first importer of Greek wine. In the past 20 years, his portfolio has grown from just a dozen wines to more than 100, but D.C., Maryland and Northern Virginia still comprise the bulk of his market.
Perceptions are slow to change—and illegible labels and unpronounceable names don’t help—but at Orzo Kitchen & Wine Bar, where they offer the largest selection of Greek wines in town, you can just point and taste before you buy (any bottle is available to take home for $15 off the menu price). With the help of Dionysos Imports sales rep, Kevin Schultz, and Orzo co-owner Charles Roumeliotes, I tasted my way through the Greeks—from Agiorgitiko to Xinomavro—and became a convert to these wines with seriously deep roots.
A white wine from Santorini, the southernmost of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean, elicits a powerful yearning for those postcard-perfect views of its cobalt seas, volcanic cliffs and chalky white domes. Made from a combination of assyrtiko and aidani grapes with flavors of ripe lemon and sea-like salinity, the creamy whites from Santorini would pair beautifully with buttery seafood dishes.
A white from Mantinia in the foothills of the Peloponnese two hours from Athens, contained 100 percent moschofilero grapes and was my favorite of the line-up. Its nose was fresh and fragrant and the palate ripe with stonefruit and melon. Schultz called it the muscat of Greece. Roumeliotes called it the viognier of Greece. I called it the best wine I’ve had from the region.
Moving on to reds, I had to fight back flashbacks of Greek wines that tasted like dirt, sweat and feet, in no particular order. My palate was pleasantly surprised with a wine from the region of Naoussa in northern Macedonia, made from xinomavro grapes. Widely considered Greece’s version of pinot noir, the wine did have bright red fruit (surprisingly so for a 2006), snappy acidity and low-ish alcohol (12.5 percent), but a great deal more obvious oak than a Burgundian winemaker would use. Still, I’d happily drink it with some grilled lamb, as Roumeliotes suggested.
Two reds from Nemea (also in the Peloponnese) made from agiorgitiko (a purported ancestor of zinfandel) were big, fat Greek wines. Each, one a 2008 and the other a 2006, could have used some breathing room in the glass, or some braised short ribs—maybe both. They are not for the faint of heart, but what do you expect from a wine with that big a name?
Greece also makes chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon and a few more usual suspects from the pronounceable set, but if you’re going to go foreign, it really ought to be all Greek to you.