Beyond sauvignon blanc

My grandfather drinking wine with friends

My grandfather drinking wine with friends

Greek wines get a bad rep. Although they’ve been around for thousands of years, they’re considered to be more of an afterthought on the restaurant table (or even an avoidance).

While it is true that there is a lot of bad Greek wine out there, things have improved a lot over the past 30 years with many homegrown producers doing a lot to improve the industry. Wine is a central part of Greek life – whether it’s holy wine for church or served at family celebrations, wine has been made in the country for thousands of years.

Like many of you, I don’t know much about Greek wine. When I go to Greece I usually stick with ouzo for mezze (at lunch time, such a treat!) or the ‘table wine’ of an undisclosed variety. A classic bottle of mythos beer is also very welcome. Which is ironic as my grandfather produced wine and retsina, alongside ouzo and liqueur...

I start with the disclaimer that I’m by no means a wine expert. I can’t deny that I’ll happily drink a bottle of Casillero del Diablo of a Friday night…I don’t really know anything more than the mainstream grape varieties, and couldn’t name a good vineyard in France.

But the thing I like about Greek wines is that you can really taste the connection to the past. You can almost detect that unique flavour of fortified wine, like they’ve been sitting in a barrel in a musty cellar for thousands of years. What I like most is that this is largely applied to white wines. I like white wines with a full-bodied flavour and I think this is where Greece excels.

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I was surprised to learn that there are over 300 indigenous varieties in Greece and I’ve never heard of any of them. So I’m intrigued by how difficult it is to find Greek wine in the UK, especially when you can get quite unusual wines from non-traditional locations such as Lebanon, or Romania. But I think this reflects the difficulties in getting authentic Greek produce in the UK – something that places such as Isle of Olive, Oliveology and Maltby & Greek are doing very well to counteract.

My initial thoughts are this is difficult because of a lack of marketing and that the food production industry in Greece is small-scale rather than industrial. But this is what makes the produce so great if you can get your hands on it.

I recently went to Thessaloniki and visited some local wine producers, including the main vineyard in the area owned by Evangelos Gerovassiliou. He really kick-started wine production in the region in the 1980s, and he owns a beautiful, small vineyard growing both indigenous and international varieties. (He also has the largest bottle opener collection in the world on display if that takes your fancy).

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One of his wines is Malagousia, which was on the brink of extinction before he began growing it again. It produces a white wine with melon and jasmine flavours. Again, it has a taste of the past that I can’t quite put my finger on.

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The first vine grown in the area dates back to Byzantine times when the region was called ‘kali meria’ or ‘good place' because of the high quality local produce. From the west you can see the Thermaikos Gulf, the coast of Pieria and the famous Mount Olympus. The geography is interesting as it’s where the bay turns to the Halkidiki peninsula, and you can see the sea on both sides of the road when you travel to the vineyard from the city.

As well as Malagousia they also grow Assyrtiko, which is otherwise mostly found on the island of Santorini. Santorini is an interesting example of the uniqueness of Greek wine. After the phylloxera epidemic that ravaged vineyards in Europe in the 19th century, some of the Greek islands were the few places left untouched, Santorini in particular, and they have a few ancient wines not found elsewhere. They do white wine very well, especially assyrtiko, which I’d say is similar to a pinot grigio – crisp, citrusy, minerally and mouth-pinchingly dry.

As an example of how important wine is to Greek society, they have this text in the vineyard:

When it keeps people company at the table, when they laugh, when they celebrate and when they cry, alone or with others. When they make barrels or bottles or when they used to make clay vessels and flagons. When they carry it over land and sea. When people pray to God or sacrifice to their gods or bury their dead. Prince or pauper, titled lady or housewife, poet or table companion, chef, cook or specialist taster. Wine is part of our lives.

My favourite recent discovery is Greek rosé, in particular the xinomavro variety. I tried one produced in Naoussa, one of the first AOC regions in Greece, about an hour and a half east from Thessaloniki, that specialises in this grape. ‘Xino’ means sour, and ‘mavro’ means black. Not exactly tempting words when associated with wine. But what it produces is something well-structured and full-bodied, with spicy, savoury, almost tomato-y notes.

In general, for me, the Greek reds aren’t as strong as the whites. Greek reds are generally dry and light, whereas the whites have a strong flavour, almost like a white Bordeaux.

Finally, let’s talk retsina. You’ve had a cheap horrible version on holiday right? Well if you can get your hands on a good bottle the flavours are unusual, with a pine note running throughout, and much more delicate. For our recent supperclub we had a retsina fermented in traditional clay pots and made from hand-pulled pine sap. There’s a reason retsina is drunk with mezze at lunchtime – its broad palette is a perfect accompaniment and less boozy so you’re not completely sloshed for the afternoon. Savatiano, from the Attica region of Greece, is the grape traditionally used for retsina and it’s worthwhile seeking wine with this grape out. It’s like a classic Italian white that goes with any dish.

In this spirit of discovering more about Greek wine, we recently partnered up with Isle of Olive, a Greek deli just off Broadway Market in Hackney, and the wonderful somelier Inês Salpico for a summer dinner.

Inês curated a wine list to complement our food menu, and brought together some interesting wines from around the Greece. Inês herself is actually Portugese but has a passion from Greek wine, and explained to me that she became interested in wine as it is so entwined with politics and history. No more evident than in Greece.

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In general, Greek wine producers focus on homegrown varieties, and perhaps this puts people off. The names are unfamiliar and as with many Greek words, hard to pronounce. But I urge you to give it a go next time you come across some. Rustic and food-friendly, it’s a great addition to the table and well worth the extra pennies. Or you can just make sure you seek it out on your next summer holiday. Just remember not to binge on ouzo, nothing good comes from that...