A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See also my recent Greek tasting notes (plus some tasting notes on Bulgaria, Georgia, Slovenia and Hungary).
In 2005 Greece’s first Master of Wine Konstantinos Lazarakis wrote a book called The Wines of Greece. He freely admits now that it was a bit of a chore. ‘I was struggling to get enough interesting facts in.’ In the second edition, published last year, he wrote, ‘The quality of the wines has changed dramatically. In the previous book the heroes were obvious; now I am running out of superlatives.’
I can only agree. I am often asked to identify up-and-coming wine regions or countries. Financial crises apart, Greece ticks all the right boxes. A wide range of well-differentiated and acclimatised indigenous grape varieties? Tick. Geographically expressive wines? Tick. Relatively modest alcohol levels? Tick.
Lazarakis doesn’t tackle the question of pricing but, on the basis of a recent tasting organised by a pre-eminent British importer of Greek wines, Eclectic Wines, I would also add another tick: that Greek wines don’t seem to be overpriced. In fact some of them seem extremely good value.
It must be so disheartening for the many Greek wine producers who have worked so hard to revolutionise the quality and range available to find that even some wine professionals think that Greece produces nothing more exciting than retsina whose turpentine taste may mask a multitude of winemaking sins. Even retsina has been revolutionised. Producers such as Aoton, Kechris, Mylonas and Tertramythos have shown that if you dramatically shrink the yields of Savatiano, the Attica grape variety most commonly responsible for retsina, you can produce a wine of real quality and delicacy.
Eclectic showed a 2017 Tetramythos Retsina Natur, fermented in amphora and made with minimal additions of sulphur. The background notes assured us that ‘charismatic winemaker Panagiotis Papagiannopoulos is known as the Frank Zappa of Greek wine’. He’s not nearly as hairy as Zappa, but he’s certainly inventive.
All over the world, trend-conscious winemakers are desperately seeking out makers of amphorae and other clay-pot alternatives to oak for fermenting and/or ageing wine. Coaxing some producers out of retirement, encouraging the training of younger craftspeople. But if any nation of wine producers should be using these ancient vessels, it is surely the Greeks.
The Eclectic tasting was partly an excuse for a tasting of old vintages made by the very first producer they worked with, Haridimos Hatzidakis of Santorini, a hugely talented but troubled winemaker who took his own life just before the 2017 harvest. Hatzidakis’ last wine, Skitali 2016, is a marvel, aged for 12 months on its lees and every bit as impressive as a top grand cru white burgundy. I’d say it’s worth every penny of its price tag of about £47 at UK stockists Theatre of Wine, The Wine Society, Duncan Murray, Noble Rot, Quality Wines and Wine & Greene.
Wine & Greene and Theatre of Wine also stock another outstanding dry white from this beautiful volcanic island, Karamolegos 34 (2017, £31.50). Santorini’s most characteristic wine, the wonderfully nervy, long-lived white made from the local Assyrtiko grape, has done far more than its fair share to put modern Greek wine on the map. (Mary Pateras of Eclectic Wines' picture above right is of volcanic Santorini's caldera, cliffs on which settlements perch.)
The South Australian wine producer Peter Barry of Jim Barry was so impressed by the wines he tasted while on holiday on Santorini that he was prepared to drag Assyrtiko cuttings through the long-winded Australian plant-quarantine process, and finally produced his first Clare Valley Assyrtiko in 2014. Others who have planted it outside Greece include the hugely respected Eben Sadie of South Africa, Alois Lageder of Alto Adige and Mustafa Camlica of Turkey, according to Greece’s second MW Yiannis Karakasis.
Although, along with Aidani and Athiri, it is just one of three prominent and characterful white wine grapes grown on Santorini, Assyrtiko’s qualities are so obvious that it has now been planted in many other Greek wine regions.
Assyrtiko was the first Greek grape variety to establish a national and international reputation. The leafy dry white wine grape Malagousia has a claim to have been the second. But there is now a profusion of light-, pink- and dark-skinned grapes that can offer flavours and characters encountered nowhere else (until they pop up in foreign vineyards). See below.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, ambitious Greek producers were inclined to favour wines made of the well-travelled international varieties, or blends of them with indigenous ones, but today they are much more confident about serving up an all-Greek wine.
It may have been the unexpectedly sleek dry whites that first drew international attention to the modern Greek wine revolution (inspired in part, according to Lazarakis, by the desperate need to export in financially straitened times), but now we can choose from some truly thrilling Greek reds.
Thymiopoulos could claim to have transformed our perceptions of Naoussa in western Macedonia, the most important Greek wine appellation. Instead of being dense and a bit rough in youth, Thymiopoulos’s reds are haunting, fresh and ageworthy. Parallels with Barolo are not far fetched. Earth and Sky (2016, £21 The Wine Society), known as Ghi Kai Ouranos in Greece, is their top bottling, from the family’s oldest vines, but the much less expensive Jeunes Vignes red (2016, £10.95 The Wine Society) and the surprisingly long-lived Rosé de Xynomavro (2017, also £10.95 The Wine Society) are highly recommended too.
The Moraitis family on the island of Paros in the Cyclades is another example of over-achieving wine producers. I particularly enjoyed their Malagousia, the ‘rediscovered’ indigenous white wine grape whose wines seem to taste of green leaves – in a good way.
Then there is Yiannis Economou, who trained in Alba and has worked at Château Margaux and at Scavino in Piemonte but returned to his native Crete to make the most extraordinary local expressions that are available in such limited quantities that his London retailer Theatre of Wine is usually out of stock. Yields are so low, oak so old, ageing so protracted that Lazarakis describes this producer as ‘one of the best and most underestimated winemakers in Greece…the Greek equivalent of Lopez de Heredia’ (a reference to Rioja’s hugely admired arch-traditionalist).
But there are just so many great wine producers in Greece now, virtually all fully conversant with the wines of the rest of the world, and inspired to make thoroughly Greek wines that can match them for quality if not character. As Lazarakis notes, ‘One thing is for sure: the most complex and interesting Greek wines are still to come.’
UK RETAILERS OF GREEK WINE
Bedales of Borough
Maltby & Greek
Southern Wine Roads
Theatre of Wine
Whole Food Market
Wine & Greene
The Wine Society
GRAPES TO LOOK OUT FOR