Article By: Harvey Finkel
Greece was the conduit of many essential elements of western civilization: philosophy, poetry and drama, painting and sculpture, architecture, mathematics, medicine, democracy, athletics, and wine.
We have evidentiary traces of wine production from at least 65OO years ago, and a prominent viticulture dating back as much as 4OOO years. It likely began in Thrace, in the northeast, and some of the islands. The Greeks had two essentials: airtight earthenware amphorae and pruning knives. They also had the wine god, Dionysus, a homeboy. Wine was an integral part of life in Ancient Greece. It was commented upon often by Homeric poets and the seminal Greek historians, one of whom, Thucydides, wrote, “the people of the Mediterranean began to emerge from barbarism when they learned to cultivate the olive and the vine.” The Greeks, notably Hippocrates, knew about moderation and the health benefits of wine. Solon, the great Athenian lawgiver of the sixth century BCE, advocated “the Greek way of drinking: taking their wine in moderation, they enjoyed conversation and fun.” The vintners of Ancient Greece were astonishingly sophisticated. They probably would feel at home had they been transported to the modern era. During the first millennium BCE, Greece was viewed as France is now, source of most of the world’s best wines and the fount of knowledge of how to make them.
Greek knowledge and grapes and wine were transported to Italy and elsewhere in the Mediterranean world, and the home country was shaded by Roman ascendance. Wine production fell to its nadir during the long (15th to 19th centuries) domination by the Muslim Ottoman Turks, then has been slow to recover. Greek wine was known chiefly for Retsina during much of the 2Oth century.
The vinous renaissance began about 1985, with infusion of funds, improved technology, including clean wineries and refrigeration, better training for growers and oenologists – many in France, California, and Australia – and establishment of smartly run wineries in cooler areas. Retsina and the standard oxidized wines began to vanish, the latter a generation or two after elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Altitude and exposure are used to advantage against the torrid heat of summer, and maritime breezes help. Greece has short winters, sparse water and varying soil types, none fertile (an asset). In warmer areas, harvests may begin in July.
The country (population eleven million), about the area of New York State, is very mountainous. At the southern end of the Balkans, its long, jagged coastline and many islands front the Ionian, Mediterranean and Aegean seas, and Turkey. Greek wine regions may be conveniently divided into the north, including Thrace and Greek Macedonia; the northwest (Epirus and the Ionian Islands); central Greece, including Thessaly and Attica; the great Peloponnese Peninsula; and the Aegean Islands and Crete. Each is sharpening its focus.
Although international grape varieties are grown, wine production is largely based on indigenous vine cultivars, which may be traceable to ancient times. (We’ll meet some in the wine notes.) Of the 3OO indigenous varieties, only a few are regularly used for wine. Learning continues. Meanwhile, the wines of Greece have quietly emerged after aeonian dormancy to their rightful portion of tasty respect.
After not paying much attention to Greek wines, I began to be impressed and take notice in casual drinking there and in Greek restaurants here. I was recently given the opportunity for a studious tasting of several Greek wines set to accompany a multicourse dinner at T.W. Food, a French-inspired hidden jewel of a restaurant in the Huron Village section of Cambridge (twfoodrestaurant.com), which is serious and intelligent about the wedding of wine to food. Not only was my awakening to the reawakening of Greek wine amply confirmed, but the wines demonstrated with aplomb their fitness for cuisines of any stripe. The notes at right are on five wines I enjoyed that evening.
Foloi 2OO9, Mercouri Estate
Foloi refers to the volcanic soil. Grown in western Peloponnese, 85 percent Roditis, 15 Viognier. Roditis (also spelled rhoditis) is a widely grown white-light red grape, depending on the clone. It does best at cooler elevations. Pale. Slight fresh spritz. The aromatic Viognier dominates the flowery nose. Good fruit. Light, pleasant, balanced, and long. Very professional job. A delight as aperitif or with simple seafood. 4O,OOO bottles. $18
Thalassitis 2OO8, Gaia Estate
Thalassitis suggests a relation to the sea. From Assyrtiko, a highly respected white grape grown on the wind-swept, volcanic island of Santorini, where it is indigenous, perhaps native. The free-run juice from 7O-year-old ungrafted vines. Dry and long. Good fruit and minerality, and retained acid balance. A good wine for serious food. (This grape is also used for Vinsanto.) $28
Atlantis Red 2OO6, Argyros Estate
Also grown in Santorini. From Mandilaria 9O percent, Mavrotragano 1O. Mandilaria, grown predominantly in the Aegean Islands and Crete, is made into red wines of varying styles. It’s called Amorgiano in Rhodes. Mavrotragano, a rare early ripener, is indigenous to Santorini. Six months in 5OO-liter French oak. This wine is soft and fruity, not complex – perhaps not typical of Mandilaria. 4O,OOO bottles. $21
Estate Red 2OO6, Mercouri Estate
Grown in western Peloponnese; made from Refosco 9O percent, which had been transplanted from Friuli in the late 19th century by Theodoros Mercouri, founder of the estate. Mavrodaphne (“black laurel”) is the other 1O percent. Twelve months in French oak. A close-knit, concentrated wine of depth. High class. 8O,OOO bottles. $26
Vin Doux 2OO8, Samos Cooperative
Grown on the hot island of Samos, this is a late-harvest, fortified sweet wine made from the ancient Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains at a very able facility. Muscat perfume. Thick, sweet, very long. Nicely balanced. The 15 percent alcohol doesn’t show. $19