Greece: A Wine Odyssey 

Picture of a greek god statue drinking out of a bowl

By: Tod Stewart

It’s hot. I mean, it’s really (expletive) hot. Hades hot. The afternoon sun, with not a cloud to diffuse its merciless heat, beats down on the vines. And on me. I’m not sure if vines sweat, but I’m starting to get just a tad sticky under the collar. Luckily, the vineyard’s elevation, combined with a modest breeze blowing off the Kassandra Gulf, offers a modest respite from my discomfort. The promise that we’d soon be heading back to the cool tasting room of Domaine Porto Carras to sample the fruits of the vine’s labors was also enticing.

  Greece in mid-July is typically hot. This year is record-breaking, as it has been through most of Europe. It might have been a bit uncomfortable at times, but the awesome scenery, fantastic food and, of course, the huge variety of top-quality wines more than made up for any negatives. (At some point, I’ll submit a piece on the pros and cons of being a food/drink/travel journalist…sometimes it’s not as romantic as it sounds.)

  I’m here in the northern part of the country, in Thessaloniki, to be exact, on a junket hosted by Greece and the European Union. My job was to learn more about the protected designation of origin (PDO) Slopes of Meliton and the protected geographical indication (PGI) Sithonia. I was about to get a thorough introduction to one of the area’s most important wineries.

Where I’m at now is in the PDO Slopes of Meliton region, a roughly circular area around Mount Meliton (which is about 120 kilometers southeast, more or less, of Thessaloniki). It’s located on the second finger of a three-fingered peninsula that looks just like the prongs of Poseidon’s trident into the crystalline Aegean. Within its boundaries lie the impressive Porto Carras Grand Resort and the equally impressive Domaine Porto Carras winery. The latter is the place I’m here to check out.

  Concluding my walk through some of the Domaine’s 450 hectares of organic vineyards, I head into the recesses of the winery to taste a range of impressive wines. These include a trio of crisp, fresh, melon/peach/mineral Assyrtikos, two vintages of the ripe, tropical, baking spice and baked apple-tinged Chateau Porto Carras Le Grand Blanc (a blend of Malagousia, Assyrtiko and the red Limnio) and a lemony/cherry/stone fruit Blanc de Noir (100 percent) Limnio.

  Assyerti-what? Malagou-who? You won’t be taken to task if you’re not exactly literate in the vernacular of Greek grape-speak. After all, the land is planted with over 300 indigenous grape varieties, most of which (okay, practically all of which) will be unfamiliar to non-Greek wine consumers (and likely winemakers). Sure, there are non-indigenous varieties, like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and viognier, that are likely familiar to most (and likely pronounceable). But native varieties like Agiorgitiko, Xinomavro, Monemvasia, Avgoustiatis, and maybe Mavrotragano certainly aren’t (yet) household names in North America and don’t exactly roll off the tongue the way chardonnay and merlot do.

  Of course you’ll likely not be bombarded with several hundred difficult-to-pronounce varietals when you begin your exploration of Greek wines.

  As far as black-skinned varieties go, you’re most likely to encounter Agiorgitiko, Limnio, Xinomavro and possibly Mantilaria.

  For whites, you’ll probably meet Assyrtiko, Robola, Moschofilero, and Roditis (the latter two are technically pink-skinned but typically wind up as white wines. More frequently, you’ll also encounter Malagousia.

  “Malagousia has essentially been taking the place of Moschofilero over the past 20 years or so,” observes Steve Kriaris, president of Kolonaki Group of Companies, one of the leading importers of Greek wines into Ontario. “It’s a bit more well-rounded than Moschofilero and ultimately has a little more to offer the consumer.”

  I’m back in Toronto five months after my sojourn and still itching for a way to recreate the “Greece Experience.” In fact, it was the desire of tourists to relive the memories they had of their time in Greece that, in part, led to the popularity of Greek wines on this side of the pond, according to Kriaris.

  “As the popularity of Greece as a tourist destination grew,” he said, “those returning brought fond memories of the experience back with them…including fond memories of some terrific wines, and they wanted to relive the memories at home.”

  It’s Sunday night, and Kriaris, myself and Joy MacDonald, Kolonaki’s national sales manager of fine wines and spirits, are sipping our way through a selection of some of Kolonaki’s latest offerings, ensconced in the wine cellar of a (surprisingly) jam-packed Mesez restaurant.

  Greece is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, with historical records dating production back some 6,500 years. Historically, wine became an integral part of Greek society, interwoven into its culture as it spread through the Mediterranean world. However, it wasn’t until fairly recently (starting mostly in the ’80s) that the Greek wine “renaissance” firmly took hold, and the world began to discover the quality and variety of Greek wines. Why the delay? Kriaris cites a couple of reasons.

  “The ’80s saw the first influx of younger Greek winemakers who had received their training outside of Greece, typically in Bordeaux and, to a lesser extent, Burgundy,” Kriaris explains. “They were not only exposed to more international styles of wine, but came home with the knowledge of how to make them, and they started crafting some really amazing wines.”

  The other reason we’ve already alluded to: the challenge of dealing with multiple tongue-twisting grape varieties planted throughout multiple regions. “There was so much to learn, and consumers felt overwhelmed,” Kriaris concedes. Things have changed pretty drastically these days, both in terms of Greece as an international player in the wine game and with consumers themselves.

  For the number-lovers out there, here we go:

•   1,617 wineries

•   more than 7,500 brands

•   17th largest producer

•   26th largest exporter

•   wine styles = white, red, rose, sparkling, sweet

(source: O.I.V. (2021) / Greek Wine Federation

  Growing consumer interest has also led to them focusing not just on establishing a comfort level with Greece’s indigenous grapes, but making the connection between specific varieties grown in specific areas. “The regionality of Greek wines has just begun,” Kriaris maintains. “Now it’s not just Assyrtiko or Malagousia, it’s Assyrtiko from this area, or Malagousia from that area.”

  While consumer sophistication and curiosity have fueled an interest in high-quality, modern-style wines, it can’t be ignored that the wine that historically became most closely associated with Greece (for good or bad) was undoubtedly retsina. Essentially a wine made from grapes must be treated with pine resin, often so much resin that one got the feeling that they were drinking pine sap rather than wine. But this, too, is changing.

  “Retsina used to be made without much thought,” Kriaris explains. “The amount of resin legally permitted ranged from 0.5 parts to one part per 35 ounces or so of must. That’s quite a range.” Of course, a good dollop of resin can mask numerous wine flaws, and bulk producers of the style tended to go heavy on the pine and light on the wine, as it were. And unfortunately, it was this style of retsina that ultimately hit the export market. In Kriaris’ words, “The bad juice left the country. Ultimately, what happened is that every major producer had to have a retsina in its portfolio, and the huge increase in volume resulted in an equally huge decline in quality.”

  However, the fate (and reputation) of retsina is changing. As every winemaker reading this knows, wine (any wine) is effectively a “garbage in, garbage out” situation. You can’t craft great wine from substandard fruit. And you can’t make a respectable retsina with lousy juice as the base. Today, serious retsina producers start with high-quality wine, often made from a single varietal, and the resin used (sparingly) comes from a specific strain of pine tree grown in limited areas. I’ve tasted some of these “modern” retsinas and can assure you that they are nothing like what most of us have probably experienced. They are typically floral, fruity and fragrant, with subtle notes of pine being a team player rather than the captain of the flavor profile.

  Domaine Porto Carras’ tagline is “New Era,” and it was explained, over the course of my tasting by CEO Sergei Smirnov, that this stood for a “new approach to everything,” not just a new approach to Greek winemaking. “New Era starts with people,” he noted, adding that the “connection between grapes and people matters.”

  Indeed, the modern Greek wine industry is certainly about connecting grapes to people because it’s still a bit of an undiscovered treasure waiting to be uncovered.

  “What I would say about Greek wine is that, in the wine world where everything seems to be just the same, there’s one country creating a huge new identity, varietal over varietal, region over region,” Kriaris concludes. “And that’s Greece. So if you want to get back to the fun of the wine world, which is what got us all here in the first place, and start exploring again, I’d say that a new journey now starts in the Greek wine world.”

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