More Greek wines please

A version of this paean of praise for the variety and sheer quality of Greek wine is published by the Financial Times. See also these tasting notes.

Every few months here at JancisRobinson.com, as you may have noticed, we organise a self-pour tasting for wine enthusiasts at Caravan, King’s Cross, in London designed not for profit, but to showcase a particular sort of wine that we think deserves more attention. Our first such event was in 2013, the first of four Barolo Nights at a time when we thought British wine lovers were too focused on French wines. We wanted to expose them to the delights of a great wine that Americans appreciated so much more than we did. Now, I’m delighted to say, Barolo has become much more of a staple on UK merchants’ lists.

Since then we’ve devoted tastings to Brunello, Chianti Classico, sherry, Languedoc wines, great dry German Rieslings, Riesling Kabinetts and cru bourgeois red bordeaux. Two Sundays ago we held our most popular tasting to date, of Greek wines (see our picture report published last week). It sold out in a trice. Tasters queued in the rain for half an hour beforehand and one poor chap drove to London from Newcastle specially for it and arrived only 15 minutes before the 9 pm finish.

On the basis of the wines I tasted, 42 of them, handpicked by Julia, who travels to Greece regularly, it is easy to see what all the fuss is about. The only mystery is why they are not easier to find on lists and shelves outside Greece.

To judge from our selection, Greek labels today are smart, and easy for anglophones to decipher. But it sometimes seems as though, in the UK anyway, the wine trade is reluctant to get to grips with a whole new set of names – regions, appellations, producers and grapes – and is content to leave this exciting field to a handful of specialists such as importers Eclectic (see this report on a tasting of theirs earlier in the year), Hallgarten & Novum, and Southern Wine Roads, and retailers such as Bedales of Borough, Maltby & Greek, Quality Wines, Theatre of Wine, Vincognito, Whole Food Market, Wine & Greene and the admirably catholic Wine Society (see my report on their latest offers published yesterday) – all of whom are more kindly disposed towards Greece than most.

US importers with a decent array of Greek wines include Diamond Imports (wines distributed in New York by Skurnik), Winebow and Athenee Imports. 

The 42 choices included two retsinas designed to expunge memories of taverna horrors of old (one of which was my go-to wine after I’d tasted everything else), five (very) sweet wines including a late-picked red that had been aged in barrel for 10 years, nine reds, and 26 whites, two of them fashionably pale orange because of prolonged contact with the grape skins.

Counter-intuitively for its latitude, Greece is best at white wines. Many of them come from vineyards at elevations so high that, were they in France for example, it would be impossible to ripen grapes there. The vineyards of the Mantinia appellation in the central Peloponnese, for example, can easily be as high as 700 m (2,300 ft) above the Aegean  and enjoy nights cool enough to preserve the delicate perfume of the Moschofilero grape, while retaining quite enough natural acidity to keep the resulting wine, only 12.5% alcohol, refreshing.

Many other Greek wines owe their refreshment factor to sea breezes. Greece’s extremely varied islands are another source of distinctive wines that are every bit as fine as the great wines of the rest of Europe.

It is worth saying that of the 42 wines in this tasting, all were made predominantly, and most exclusively, of indigenous grape varieties, 24 of them in total, and in only three cases were they blended with a small proportion of an international variety. Some of them – red Mavrokoundoura and Cretan white Melissaki – were even new to me, co-author of Wine Grapes, a then-definitive guide to all grape varieties known in commercially available wines when it was written eight or nine years ago.

Robola is the characteristically lime-scented white wine grape of Cephalonia, to be sipped with memories of Captain Corelli’s mandolin, perhaps. Chidiriotiko is thought to be unique to Lesbos, a reminder that there is more to the island than its tragically overcrowded and underfunded refugee camps.

Muscat and the more exotic Fokiano are specialities of the island of Samos, dried in the hot summer sun to produce particularly sweet wines.

Crete has become the source of a wealth of local, extremely distinctive grape varieties with producers such as Douloufakis and Lyrarakis growing grapes such as Vidiano, Vilana, Plyto and Dafni in the mountains. (Another topic, but the island of Cyprus on the same sort of latitude to the east has also revitalised its table wine industry, by concentrating on high-elevation vineyards and processing grapes much closer to them than when grapes would be trucked in the midday sun down to Limassol on the coast.)

But Greece’s prime wine island is still the spectacularly volcanic Santorini, whose speciality is the incontrovertibly noble Assyrtiko, aided and abetted by the Aïdini and Athiri grapes. There were 10 examples in our tasting, almost a quarter of all the wines, and no wonder. Several of them were from the island’s strange, low, basket-shaped vines said to be 100 or even 200 years old. There were examples of wines made as long ago as 2008 and 2010 still going very strong, some with oak and some without, some allowed to ferment naturally without added cultured yeast. All deserve a place in any curious white wine lover’s cellar.

Sophie Parker and Matt Thomson at Greek Wine Night, Caravan, King's Cross, London

Greek reds have improved enormously, and are today much less reliant on imported grape varieties and on the specious make-up of an oaky overlay. It is also becoming clearer which are the real stars. Matt Thomson, a Kiwi who makes wine all over the world, seen above with his wife Sophie Parker-Thomson, but whose heart has been in Barolo and Burgundy, was heard to say after sampling our Greek array, ‘I think I’ve fallen in love with the Xinomavro grape.’ It’s true that the best Xinomavros now being made in the Náoussa appellation in the hills of western Macedonia have the same tension, lightness and graininess as a fine Barolo.

Agiorgitiko is the famous red wine grape of the Peloponnese’s most famous red wine region Neméa and tends to produce fuller-bodied, arguably more obviously accessible reds.

The wines had been assembled in, and shipped from, Greece by Sofia Perpera and George Athanas of the Greek Wine Bureau in New York, in co-operation with an official producers’ organisation. At the tasting Sofia told me excitedly that funds had been approved to promote Greek wines in the UK too, but she still didn’t know what her budget would be. If the UK were to leave the UK, it would be swollen by the EU funds set aside to promote EU wines outside the EU. A thin silver lining?

Our Italian specialist Walter Speller is already hard at work organising our next tasting, a Valtellina Night devoted to the subalpine Nebbiolos of this region on the Swiss-Italian border, on Sunday 1 December. Purple Pages members are currently being offered earlybird tickets and they will go on general sale on Thursday 31 October.

Some Greek favourites

For what it’s worth, I gave 29 of the 40 wines I tasted a score of 16.5 out of 20 (high for me) and these are those I scored at least 17.

Whites

Gerovassiliou Malagousia 2018 Epanomi, Macedonia
Douloufakis, Dafnios  2016 Crete
Oenops, Vidiano 2017 Greece
Gentilini, R Robola 2015 Cephalonia, Ionian Islands
Aoton, Savatiano 2017 Attiki, Central Greece
Methymnaeos, Orange Chidiriotiko 2016 Lesbos, Aegean
Argyros, Monsignori 2017 Santorini
Karamolegos, Pyritis 2017 Santorini
Volcanic Slopes Vineyards, Pure 2016 Santorini
Hatzidakis, Skitali 2016 Santorini
Sigalas, Santorini 2010 Santorini
Boutari, Selladia 2008 Aegean Islands

Reds

Dalamara, Paliokalias 2015 Náoussa, Macedonia
Tsantali, Rapsani Grande Reserve 2010 Rapsani, Macedonia
Alpha Estate, Omega Late Harvest Xinomavro 2007 Florina, Macedonia

See our tasting notes from Greek Wine Night. International stockists can be found on Wine-Searcher.com.

Greek Night at Caravan, King's Cross