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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
10 Sep 2002
 

Like most wine geeks I have happily swallowed the old saw that such increasingly fashionable grape varieties as Greco, Grecanico, Grechetto and Aglianico (a corruption of the word Elleniko) must be Greek in origin. But recent correspondence with Nico Manessis, Greek wine specialist and author of The Illustrated Greek Wine Book (www.greekwineguide.gr), suggests otherwise.

According to Manessis:

It has recently been estabished that in today's Greek vineyard there is no known variety that resembles Aglianico. Aglianico sourced from Italy has recently been planted in Greece. Ampelographers claim that for more conclusive evidence the 'repatriated' Aglianico would need 15 years to acclimatise before they can be certain.

According to Greek researchers, the broader picture of Italians of 'Greek origin' such as Greco di Tufo, Grecanico, Grechetto actually look to be non-Greek as none of them share visual traits commonly carried by Greek varieties.

The DNA of Monemvasia (the light-skinned grape thought to be the original Malvasia and grown today in Greece only on the Cycladic isle of Paros) bears no relation to the Malvasia Aromatica, Malvasia di Candia (Candia being the Venetian name for Crete), Malvasia Istriana, Malvasia del Chianti or Malvasia Negra of Italy. Actually genetically they appear very different amongst themselves.

Of the above-named, Greek research indicates a genetic nod towards the Greek variety Athiri, found on more eastern islands such as Santorini and on Rhodes where it is the principal vine variety.

When Greece became part of the Roman empire, patrician villa owners considered wine from Greece as superior to the then-nascent Roman empire's own offerings. Were there commercial and added-value reasons to name these grape varieties as Greek? No one knows. In short, even under Rome, Greek wine merchants were active not only in Italy. There is evidence they traded wine on the banks of the Rhône. I assume that much of the naming referred to above is historically more recent. Greek Byzantine (3rd century AD to 1453) wine merchants became very powerful, thanks to prosperous trading with Genoa and Venice. The Venetian galleys jockeyed for position from the 11th century and traded Malvasia wine from various sources around the Aegean - chiefly Santorini and Crete - long after Byzantium's collapse. For further historical reference see pages 252- 265 of The Illustrated Greek Wine Book.

About seven years go two estates in Greece, Château Nico Lazaridi and Hatzimihali, quietly planted a clutch of all these previously mentioned Italian grapes of Greek origin, plus Schioppettino and Verdicchio. Despite their apparent financial stability, both producers remain inconsistent. Rarely have they come up with an above-average lot. However, in homeopathic doses, up to 1000 bottles per variety, some have been recently circulated to sommeliers. So far, the reds have been better than the rather blowsy whites. I happened to taste one them, a Aglianico 2000 by Hatzimihali. It was fairly good, deep in colour, spicy, gutsy, though lacking polish. Beyond its rich, warm, Greek fruit it tasted very different to anything else from today's Greek vineyard. A few weeks later in early August I took my family to the Costa Amalfitana and in holiday mood 'researched', chilling them down to cellar temperature, such wines as Campanias Aglianico, Mastrobernandino and others uknown to me - local Italian producers, going on sommeliers' or restaurateurs' advice. Looking back at my notes, the Italians were quite different. Less warm, better tannin management than the Greek example though strangely falling short on aftertaste. I was not impressed.