Simon Reilly writes about his rediscovery of Greek wine. See also more than 100 tasting notes from Julia and me in Modern Greek – worth learning.
I have a bit of history with the wines of Greece. Our last holiday before the end of real holidays (ie before we had children) was to Oia on Santorini, back in 2009. This was a paradise of a place with great food and many great wine discoveries, the most memorable being Vinsanto and Assyrtiko. I had tried neither before that holiday and they have both become perennial favourites.
A particularly life-changing experience came with Assyrtiko. We somehow managed to find ourselves attending a classical music concert in some ancient church on a cliff just outside Fira. At the interval we were served nibbles in an idyllic, balmy courtyard, alongside the most amazingly complex, almost Burgundian white wine that knocked us out. It was Assyrtiko of course and we were smitten. I’m not sure we drank any other white wine for the rest of that holiday.
We discovered a range of amazing Assyrtikos over the rest of the week. We also visited a number of wineries and were amazed by the unique weaving of the ancient vines, known as koulara. This forms the vines into rings on the ground that protect them from the high winds. Since then I have always looked out for Assyrtiko on wine lists or in retailers’ special offers. (Waitrose carry the Hatzidakis, which is good value at £12.99, and even more so during their regular 25%-off-all-wine promotion.)
Before Christmas I tasted at The Sampler, where the 2014 Gaia Wild Ferment Assyrtiko was the standout wine of the tasting, so Assyrtiko has been front of mind again of late. I was then reminded of the plight of the Greek people in the wake of the financial crisis of the last seven to eight years, and the failings of the Greek government for many decades before that, brought to life brilliantly, but depressingly, by Simon Reeves in his recent BBC documentary on Greece. So when I saw an email from London wine merchant Uncorked flagging a recent tasting of its ‘small but perfectly formed’ Greek wine portfolio, which included the newly released 2015 Gaia Wild Ferment, I couldn’t resist popping along for a taste.
The Greek financial crisis has had a massive impact on its wine industry. For many years about 80% of Greek wine has been consumed in Greece and there is a real wine culture, particularly in rural areas, where small-batch artisan wines are typically consumed. As a result of the financial crisis, Greek wine drinkers have been forced to downgrade their consumption in terms of quality, reverting to wine sold at the side of the road in boxes or large cartons for one or two euros. This has made bottled wines a much harder sell outside tourist and urban areas, forcing wine producers to focus more on export markets.
Fortunately this has been officially recognised. In 2014 €44m of funding was allocated to be spent between 2014 and 2018 on restructuring more than 8,000 acres (3,240 ha) of vineyards, including conversion to different grape varieties and the improvement of vineyard-management techniques. A further €16m is being spent during 2015-18 on promoting Greek wine in key export markets outside the EU [presumably as part of the scheme described in EU funds flow east – JR].
The Uncorked tasting was hosted by Evangelia Tevekelidou, a representative of UK importers Hallgarten Druitt, whose director of buying Steve Daniel has been one of the most enthusiastic British promulgators of Greek wine. Fortunately, she was able to help me out with both pronunciation and geography, as the five wines were spread from regions across Greece. We discussed the changes in the Greek wine industry and she said that the push for exports was focused on showcasing indigenous grape varieties, which sets Greece apart from other wine-growing regions. She is really passionate about the indigenous grapes of Greece. ‘I always try to fly the flag of Greece, as I truly believe in their potential', she assured me. [Even before the financial crisis hit Greece, I discussed this topic with Greek producers in Greece backs indigenous varieties – JH]
Although I think this is the way forward, as there is real interest and uniqueness in the wines, there is work to be done on the promotion of Greek wines in the UK. Unless they have been there on holiday, most Brits are unlikely to have tasted Greek wines and certainly wouldn’t look to buy them. A group of tasters at the Uncorked tasting echoed this point, as two of the three of them couldn’t remember tasting Greek wines before, and didn’t really see Greece as a wine-producing country. This is clearly due to the lack of foresight and entrepreneurial spirit of the Greek wine industry and Greek government in general. Why has it taken the Greek financial crisis to think about exporting wine?
It is really frustrating for me and I am just some Scottish guy with no connection to the country. Imagine if Scotland hadn’t bothered to export whisky? According to the Scotch Whisky Association, whisky exports contribute £3.95 billion a year to the UK balance of trade, or £125 per second! I’m not for a minute saying that Greek wine could be as popular as Scotch whisky, but a bit of effort could have made a significant contribution to the health of the Greek economy over the last few decades.
Despite this, I do think that the recent efforts to provide funding for the wine industry is a step forward. By continuing to focus on indigenous varieties, the Greek wine industry could be much more of a success overseas. Assyrtiko in particular can really sell. It creates unique wines of real quality, especially on Santorini. The red wines I tasted also highlighted Greek red wine quality.
For what it is worth, I did my bit. After the tasting I bought a case of the Gaia Wild Ferment for personal consumption. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.
Here are my thoughts on the wines I tasted.
Gaia, Notios Moschofilero/Roditis 2014 ??
Made from pink grapes, this was quite floral on the nose, reminiscent of Viognier. A bit of sweetness on the palate but dries off on the finish. Light and easy going, this would be good with a summer lunch ... ideally in Greece.
Gerovassiliou Malagousia 2014 Epanomi
This variety was almost extinct before replanting began in 1983. From the north-east of Greece, near Thessaloniki, this is very aromatic, with aromas of peaches and stone fruits. Definitely more serious than the Notios and with a long finish.
Gaia, Wild Ferment Assyrtiko 2015 Santorini
Smoky, almost Burgundian nose followed by flavours of straw, honey and lemon all supported by well integrated oak. Brilliant stuff.
Alpha Estate, Hedgehog Vineyard Xinomavro 2011 Amyndeo
The 2010 was a wine of the week in early 2015. From Greece’s coldest wine region, Amyndeo in the north, this was the other wine I was most tempted to buy. A mix that suggested the flavours of Grenache and Pinot noir, it had dark fruits and leather with nicely managed tannins which made for an exciting mouthful.
Gaia Estate 2011 Nemea
From the Agiorgitiko grape. Quite a spicy nose, followed by a sweet and round mouthful with plummy flavours. Not quite as exciting as the Hedgehog for me but still very good.