Andreas Diamantis of Paxos Wines surveyed the well-stocked shelves in his little shop in the tiny port of Lakka, with his father seated implacably at the till. 'We Greeks now make pretty good wine', he said proudly, adding, 'but it could be even better'.
I had met him beforehand only by email and felt I owed him a lot. I had suddenly realised a few days before planning to spend a week in a villa on the island with our three grandchildren and their parents that, while I'd ordered the food, I hadn't laid in any wine. How could I have overlooked this vital element? But www.paxoswines.com came to my aid and I had great fun choosing some of my favourite Greek wines from Andreas' website, most of them less than €10 a bottle. It proved too much to ask to be able to order online but on the phone Andreas had assured me he would deliver the bottles to our villa and we could pop in to his shop some time to settle up. (I should stress that he didn't know that I had any professional connection with wine.)
I got an email from him the day before we were due to arrive, assuring me that the order awaited us at our villa. I fell asleep that night planning the sequence of my enjoyment of it, only to be woken by the ping of a text from British Airways at 4 am telling me that the flight to Corfu we hoped to take four hours later had been cancelled (this was the day after Heathrow's Terminal 5 had been turned into a field hospital of holiday dreams). Cue frantic and frustrating online activity that finally resulted in just two seats on a flight out three days later – no chance of finding flights for the rest of the family. We decided that bouncing around a silent villa for seven when we expected to be chasing after noisy toddlers was not for us, so we tracked down what seemed to be the last hotel room on Paxos and abandoned the idea of the villa altogether, hoping our holiday insurers would understand. During the day I remembered those bottles of wine waiting for us and sent an apologetic email to my new friend Andreas.
'Don't wary miss Robinson its fine, we love to see you when you come in the island, talk about wine and taste same also, we hope everything go well and finally you visit our lovely island' was the delightful response – a sharp contrast to British Airways' attitude to customer relations. (They declined to refund our daughter's family's return flights because she had not specifically cancelled them, for example.)
I mention all this to illustrate the naturally generous nature of Greeks and would argue that it translates into their particularly attractive wines. Andreas may have ambitions for them but for me they are pretty good already and the time is ripe for the world to appreciate the very special qualities of Greek wine. Like Portugal, Greece is distinguished by its vast array of fashionably indigenous grape varieties. When we compiled our 2012 record of all Wine Grapes in commercial production, we found that only Italy, France and Spain – the behemoths of world wine production – could boast more indigenous grapes than the 77 we found in each of Greece and Portugal. Yet while Portugal is Europe's fifth most important wine producer, Greece is only the fourteenth, which means that it has a particularly rich heritage of local grapes.
You only have to look at a wine list in Greece to see what treasures (and unfamiliar names) it has to offer the curious wine drinker. Like virtually every wine-producing country, it went through a period at the end of the twentieth century of believing that it had to plant the well-known international varieties – notably Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc in the case of Greece – to prove its worth. But today Greece's wine producers take enormous pride in their own grapes with their highly distinctive characters. The island of Santorini's majestic Assyrtiko was arguably the first Greek white wine grape to make a real impression – so much so that it was long ago transplanted to other Greek wine regions and has recently even produced wine in South Australia.
But at a generic Greek wine tasting in Vintners' Hall in London at the end of April, vintners were proudly showing off other Santorini white wine specialities Aïdini and Athiri as well as the increasingly planted Kidonitsa (the 'quince'-like grape of Monemvasia, the port that is thought to have inspired the grape name Malvasia), Robola of Captain Corelli's Cephalonia, tart Debina that can make surprisingly fine sparkling wines in north-west Greece, refreshingly floral Vilana and the recently rescued Vidiano of Crete. All of these in addition to the often-leafy Malagousia and grapey Moschofilero that seemed exotic and rare a few years ago but already seem to have entered the Greek mainstream, together with the Roditis and Savatiano that were for long the most-planted white wine grapes of Greece. A recent dinner at The Greek Larder in London featuring wines made from Cretan grapes rescued by producers Lyrarakis (imported by Berry Bros & Rudd) was seriously revelatory. Firm Plyto was memorable and not just for its name, but I have never come across a grape with a more individual character than Dafni, named after laurel but smelling strongly of fennel to me.
I fell in love with Greek whites long before being won over by the reds, but now that Greek winemakers have mastered oak, and seem to be revelling in Greece's naturally modest alcohol levels rather than worrying they were too low, I am enjoying more and more Greek reds too. The best-known good-quality red wine grapes are the rich Agiorgitiko of Neméa and ageworthy Xinomavro of Náoussa but more recent revivals that have been enthusiastically embraced by today's skilled Greek wine producers include spicy Mavrotragano (emphasis on the third syllable), elegant Limniona, firm Mandilaria, herby Limnio and Cretans, the aromatic Liatiko and soft Kotsifali. (The photo above shows Lyrarakis's Psarades vineyard on Crete - apparently they get snow roughly two years out of three.)
This an exciting palette of possibilities, either as varietal wines or blends – often with international varieties. Most Greek wine is drunk in Greece, with food – a thoroughly healthy practice. And because the Greek economy is not exactly booming, the price of Greek wine tends to be sensible for both consumer and producer. I'll drink to that, Andreas.
SOME CURRENT FAVOURITE GREEK WINES
I gave all these wines a score of at least 17 out of 20 at the generic tasting in London, of which I tasted 67, less than half the wines shown. I gave a further 17 wines 16.5 and a further 20 earned 16.
Hatzidakis Aïdani 2016 Santorini
Hatzidakis, Cuvée 15 Organic Assyrtiko 2015 Santorini
Hatzidakis, Louros Assyrtiko 2013 Santorini
Hatzidakis, Nykteri 2014 Santorini
Karavitakis, Klima Vidiano 2016 Crete
Bizios 2011 Neméa
Hatzidakis Mavrotragano 2015 Santorini
Moraitis, Sillogi 2015 Paros
T-Oinos, Clos Stegasta Mavrotragano 2014 Cyclades
Hatzidakis, Vinsanto 2003 Santorini
Samos Co-op, Nectar 2010 Samos