The return of Greek wines
Not so long ago, a Quebec gastronome who ventured to order Greek wine in a popular psarotaverna, found himself in front of a limited and uninspiring selection, which did not reflect the freshness of the meal it was destined to accompany.
A well kept secret
How many of us have had out palates scorched by a low end retsina, with its turpentine whiff, the only Greek wine then available? We soldiered on, telling ourselves that this pine tree scent was the ransom we had to pay for trying something exotic and different, a way to broaden our horizons, while swallowing a little awkwardly.
Apart from low quality retsina, the only other greek wines we knew in Quebec were some table wines, and the celebrated Muscat of Samos. The concept of Greek wine became an exotic thing without much interest, somehow associated with the street corner greasy spoon.
Less than ten years ago, when the Greek-born sommelier Theo Diamantis opened Oenopole, his wine agency, he met with a lot of resistance when mentioning the possibility of importing wines from his native country. “We were constantly told that Greek wines were inexpensive wines for everyday.”
Here, as everywhere else in the world, it seemed, Greek wine remained a closely guarded secret and its consumption abroad remained concentrated amongst expatriates. There are 11 million Greeks in Greece and it seems there are as many outside of the country.
Wine masters of the antiquity
Strangely, it was the ancient Greeks who completely changed the art of making wine, restructuring the image and awareness of what was only an archaic process associated with agriculture. It is also the Greeks who developed the notion of sommelier!
After all, in ancient Greece, worshiping Dionysus, the god of wine and theater (Bacchus in ancient Rome), was accompanied by a complex ceremonial which stretched over several days. Archaeological excavations have shown that the consumption of Greek wine was widespread across the Mediterranean. For a long time, only wines exported from Greece or its islands were considered worthy to be served at the royal or pontifical tables of Western Europe.
The reasons for the disappearance of Greek wines from international markets were numerous. First, wine producing vines were destroyed to make place for the corinthiaki, used in the production of raisins for export. On the other hand, the various political and economic crisis deprived the country of valuable export markets and wine became mainly a local consumer product.
A new perspective
Luckily, the situation is changing dramatically in Quebec. As an example of this, a month ago, in the Precious wine tips Alfred newsletter for the week of May 19th, our consultant sommelier, Steven Molloy, warmly recommended a Gerovassiliou Domaine 2015. He described it very eloquently: “Marked by acidity and minerality, the mouth is nervous and fresh with its lemony finish. Excellent as an aperitif or with sushi. “
At this moment, the SAQ offers about 60 Greek wines, both red and white, in a price range varying between ten dollars and $ 40.50. More and more established restaurants include exceptional Greek private imports on their lists while the sommeliers add them to tasting menus to open the palate to new and exciting variations.
Events like the Salon des vins grecs and the developing expertise in the field from a lot of sommeliers following the example of Véronique Rivest has helped this change of perception.
A recent revolution
The Greeks themselves began to take control of their wine industry recently. For the last 20 years, young oenophiles got very involved in restructuring their production, a production that could involve hundreds of different indigenous varieties of grapes.
We always picture Greece as a country with white houses, where it is very hot and the sun is always blazing. From these images, we conclude that its cultivating area is composed entirely of lots planted on dry ground, with only one type of vine.
Nothing is further from the truth. If one indeed finds landscapes of this type, as soon as you move north, you discover very cool places like the Peloponnese and mountains with their tops remaining snowy almost year round. These conditions, which may resemble those of the Jura, help develop robust and rich varietals. Similarly, coastal and constantly windy Cycladic islands make for much minerality and some flavours of lemons in the grapes grown there.
“Who needs another Chardonnay? “
This certainly explains why this young generation of producers, having studied the cultivation of the vine in Australia and California, with a detour through the Rhone Valley, decided to devote themselves entirely to their indigenous varietals. As summarized by Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, one of the stars of the new movement of Greek winemakers: “Who needs another Chardonnay?”.
What is fascinating is that in parallel to their attachment to the land, they had the very modern attitude to regroup with agronomists and enologists to optimize cultivation and winemaking methods. They focused on two or three dozen of these unique grape varieties and worked intensely with them, favouring the practice of the single varietal in order to preserve both the unity and diversity of their land in the wine.
This results in unique wines, full of originality, European in style but with modern contemporary structures. For most, be they bubbly, white or red, they are remarkable wines, faultless, courting proudly the most discerning palates. They are modern without being modernist or willfully trendy.
You will drink Greek this Summer …
I bet that in the course of summer 2016, you will accompany your grilled octopus with a white from the island of Santorini, made with Assyrtiko and a luscious red from Macedonia made with xinomavro and evoking nebbiolo or dolcetto, will improve your lamb skewers.
As for retsina, unfortunately, the only versions we have in Quebec are uninteresting, flavoured with pine gum to mask bad wine. Remind yourself that this pine gum was what the ancient Greeks used to help the wine keep while stored in leaky jars, stored on rooftops, during the hottest summer months.
On the other hand, you could enjoy some, all over Greece. with a subtle floral aroma of rosemary and all the magic of savatiano. If you want to experience what this varietal of grape can offer, you will find at the SAQ a Domaine Papagiannakos Savatiano 2015 that should enchant you.
The Alfred sommeliers-partners will certainly make sound recommendations for Greek wines through our tool.
Here are some resources to help you discover them this summer.
A SAQ guide to the Greek grape varieties.
SAQ list of Greek wines available in stores and online.
A fascinating one hour video information session on Greek wines with a panel of experts. By New Wines of Greece.
The web site New Wines of Greece which is a valuable mine of information.