Samui Wining & Dining
My Big Fat Greek Wine

Not everything in Greece is a tragedy!

 

18The very recent history of Greece has not been kind to its people. With all the financial woes causing serious civil unrest, genuine hardships to the population, and the rise of neo-fascist groups, the one thing many weary Greek folk probably need more than anything else, is a drink! Luckily, they just happen to have some of the most unusual and intriguing wine on the planet, produced in their own backyard. And to anyone who is tired of safe international wines, Greece offers vivid and original flavours that make it an exciting area of exploration.

      If any nation can claim to be the inventor of wine, then Greece can certainly point to its 6,000 year old viticulture history. Those famous ancient, sandy bottles found at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea were believed to be Greek wine. And let’s not forget, this is the country where Bacchus, the God of wine, was enthusiastically worshiped on Mount Olympus, over 3,000 years ago. (Sometimes one has to wonder if ancient cultures had wisdom greater than ours!)

     However, to be fair, it is the case that the Greek wine industry has changed out of all recognition over the past 25 years. The catalyst for change came when Greece joined the European Union, bringing in EU funds to make the necessary investments for modernity. And the Greek wine renaissance was timely, as wine consumption was falling in Greece, as in many other European wine producing countries during the latter quarter of the last century. And as elsewhere, the decline in consumption had been matched by a demand for better quality wines.

      Greece currently has over 130,000 hectares of vineyards, putting it in 14th place in the world, just behind Brazil but ahead of Hungary. Hosting the Olympics, in 2004, gave the revived Greek wine industry a unique opportunity to expose its eclectic wines to the wider world. But nearly ten years later, the Greek wine industry still needs a better promotional presence in the major markets. Unfortunately for them, and unlike many other higher-profile wine producing nations, it would seem there is no Greek generic effort, or wine bureau, to back up the efforts of the exporters. Good, de-mystifying promotional information is particularly important in the case of Greek wine. The wine drinking public need to know about some of the great options, other than the stereotypical sweet fortified Mavrodaphne, and resin-infused Retsina. Indeed, one big advantage that Greece has, in a world beginning to show varietal fatigue, is its treasure-trove of some 200 indigenous varieties. The disadvantage is that even the Anglicised versions of their names are annoyingly hard to remember and difficult to pronounce.

      For a country with such a hot summer climate, Greece produces some remarkably fresh and delicate whites. In fact, some of the country’s best and most individual wines are white, and made from indigenous varieties such as Assyritiko, Athiri and Roditis. With its high acidity, and capacity to be used to make a number of different styles, Assyritiko is particularly interesting, as it can be dry, medium dry or sweet. Among the indigenous red varieties the soft and full Aghiorghitiko, also called St George, seems to be the most promising. International grape varieties are also planted, but it is difficult to believe that the world is desperate for a Greek Chardonnay or Merlot! There are now some decidedly palatial Greek wineries that would not be out of place among the top wineries of the Médoc or Napa Valley. One such is at Drama, Macedonia. The imposing winery is packed with modern equipment, an underground barrel hall and generous quantities of marble throughout. Fortunately the wines live up to the imposing surroundings. The impressive top of the range red wine Amethystos Cava, made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon which spends at least a year in oak, and a year in bottle before being released, can certainly be aged for ten years or more. Part of the renaissance has involved the emergence of a small band of star winemakers, two of them being Tsaktsarlis Vassilis and Evangelos Gerovassiliou. Although their first wines weren’t made until the new millennium, they are already receiving glowing reviews for high quality. And, as they are both widely exported, are surely names to watch.

       Earlier, when I referred to Retsina as stereotypical, perhaps I was being a little dismissive. If so, that was unintentional, because Retsina is a wine Greeks should be rightly proud of, worthy of its place in wine cultural history. Traces of pine resin have been found in wine from earliest times. It’s usually assumed that it was used to preserve the wine. But resinated wine does not age well. There is reason enough in the fresh, sappy turpentine-like flavour that resin gives, if added during fermentation. The result, admittedly an acquired taste, is one of the most individual and appetizing of all drinks, provided it is served at the correct (very cold) temperature. And can also be ideally palate cleansing with oil-rich rustic Mediterranean style food. For the perfect al fresco lunch, try chilled Retsina accompanied by grilled sardines with Greek salad and French bread.

      Other Greek wines that I would highly recommend to try, given the opportunity, are the examples from two idyllic islands in the Aegean Sea, Santorini and Samos. Santorini is a small volcanic island and its wines are totally original and compelling. The potent and intense (very) dry white wines grow in little nests crouching on the wind swept heights of its not-very-extinct volcano. And the winemakers of Samos famously make the gorgeously sweet wines of Malvasia and Muscat. As you would expect, quantities are low. Consequently, in well-informed wine circles, bottles from Santorini and Samos are highly cherished, and known for utterly clean and tempting characteristics.

      

Peter James


 


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