Greece – which is more or less the size of Louisiana – is one of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world with roots that date as far back as 6,500 years. One of the first wine-producing regions in southeastern Europe, wine from Greece was held in high prestige by the Roman Empire and even during the Middle Ages. Highly-priced Greek wine was exported from Monemvasia, Crete as well as other Greek ports.
Greece boasts roughly 300 or even more native grapes that have never crossed the borders of this European country, and each one of these grapes has a distinct voice. Cabernet and Chardonnay are almost everywhere around the world, but if you want to taste wines that are worthy of notice such as Liatiko, Debina, and Limniona, then Greece is the place to go.
Greek wine has been grossly undervalued and unappreciated, no thanks, in part, to the taste of the erstwhile retsina. There was a time in the ‘60s and ‘70s when retsina enjoyed a lot of respect. At the time, even though its exact origin was somehow clouded by history, retsina was an outstanding wine.
After that, only the most inferior examples of retsina were making the rounds and it was soon jettisoned as an intoxicating joke. However, a few of the modern wine producers in Greece are making brave attempts to restore the wine to its former glory by making premium versions of the old vin de table. The new generation retsinas are citrusy, delicate, and exhibit great taste. Greek wines have also started to find their way to the wine arena in the United States, all at reasonable costs.
The most common grapes that tourists usually encounter these days in Greece are Malagousia, Assyrtiko, and Moschofilero for white wines while Agiorgotiko and Xinomavro for red wines. There are a few others that are so rare that only one or two wine producers grow them.
The dry and sunny weather of Greece is primarily responsible for the successful growth of these wine grapes. The extraordinarily high yearly number of sun hours which attract hordes of tourists from all over the world help these grapes to mature considerably well even in high altitudes necessary for good fruit/acid balance in the grapes.
Greece is also a windy and dry country which makes it significantly less susceptible to disease pressure than other wine-producing regions – such as Bordeaux, etc. – thus, providing a moderately uncomplicated path to organic farming. It is believed that this country’s wine culture will explode in the wine universe, attracting hordes of oenophiles, all thanks to its extraordinarily diverse climate, topography, and soil.
And speaking about climate, Greece has one of the most diverse climates in the world, ranging from arid Mediterranean islands to mountainous, wet pine forests that receive snowfall in winter. This is probably why Greek wines are also varied as well.
Greece is situated somewhere at the end of the Alps, meaning that nearly all the country is ruggedly mountainous. The landscape of Greece is so craggy that only goats, sheep, and vines can survive in such terrains. The soil is also generally poor and thin which implies that it is deficient in nutrients that will make it suitable for farming. However, the land is still good enough for growing vines that produce some of the best Greek wines that are popular in the wine universe today.
The current state of affairs presents a marked difference to Greece’s wine heritage as new wines continue to emerge almost daily as a result of their unique value. They are also presently setting the trend in the world of lovers of wine.
Greek Grapes used for Producing the Best Wines
To be sure about the origins of the wine, a system of designations or appellation was put in place, thus creating Protected Geographical Identification (PGI), Protected Geographical Origin (PGO), etc. among others.
In the next few paragraphs, therefore, are some of the Greek wines that you must taste, especially whenever you explore the unique flavors of wine from Greece.
This is a variety that is native to a particular wine region in the Peloponnese (which is responsible for approximately one-third of all Greek wine vintners) called Nemea, which is not far from Nafplion. This region is well-known as a result of this flourishing grape which is used for the massive production of red wine. Agiorgitiko wine are richly flavored with the characteristic tastes of blackcurrant, nutmeg, sweet raspberry along with smooth tannins and pleasantly delicate bitter herbs that result in a velvety palate. The rosé wines produced with Agiorgitiko (Saint George) are spiced with raspberry notes and exhibit a sparkling deep pink color.
Moschofilero grows remarkably well in the region of central Peloponnese and produces an aromatic – but dry – and exotic white wine (AOC wines) that presents flavors of sweet lemon, peach along with a crisp character. It is cultivated in the high altitudes of Mantinia on poor but well-drained soil and ripen well, thanks to the continental climate. When aged, the wines develop exceptional notes of apricots and dried fruits.
This is almost certainly one of Greece’s best wines and is produced all over the southeastern European country, though it is native to the island of Santorini. Assyrtiko is a variety that is known for maintaining its acidity even as it continues to ripen, resulting in a lean, white wine with lemon flavors, a faint saltiness, and bitterness on the finish.
Assyrtiko that has the nocturnal (Nykteri) label are always oaked and present more cream, pineapple, and baked pie-crust notes.
Xinomavro – translated “sour black” – is the dominant grape variety of Macedonia, especially in the regions of Amyndeo and Naoussa (Naoussa is the standout appellation in this area). Xinomavro exhibits a full-bodied tannic and high acid character along with excellent aging potential. It is usually put side by side with Italy’s Nebbiolo-based wine – called Barolo – owing to its licorice and dark cherry notes.
Savatiano – also called the Saturday grape – is the central white variety that originates from the Attica area. It has this critical resistance to heat, and under cold fermentation, provide flavors of lime and green apple.
When aged in oak, Savatiano is highly characterized by an unmistakably creamy mid-palate. But when it is fermented without cooling, it results in rustic retsina wines.
Retsina is made when rhoditis is combined with savatiano and the mixture infused with pine resin. It has its own designation of a TA (Traditional Appellation) while taking on flavors such as peach, ripe apple, and pear with a subtle oily texture along with a prolonged pine finish.
Malagousia grows remarkably well in Macedonia and represents a special that brings about richly flavored wines with stimulating aromas and balanced acidity. This is a white grape variety that was recently discovered and brought back to life by a wine producer in northern Greece.
This is one of the oldest white grapes in Crete and a rising star among several native varieties of the island. This white grape was virtually nonexistent until Cretan vintners recognized its potential and then worked extremely hard to resuscitate its enormous complexity.
Vidiano produces sophisticated wines with a wide variety of white flowers, citrus fruits as well as yellow and white fruit aromas while remaining full-bodied and distinctly robust. Vidiano is making its mark in the wine universe, and many connoisseurs have started taking note of this notable wine internationally.
The PDO of Rapsani in mountain vineyards that are situated near Mt. Olympus is leased to a wine company but owned by twelve monasteries. To be labeled Rastani PDO, there must be three red grape varieties present in equal parts which must be part of the co-vinification process, e.g., stavroto, Xinomavro, and krassato.
The wine is aromatic, aged in cask, and uniquely structured with black fruit, oregano, pepper, rounded tannins, and a subtly sweet finish.
This is a dry sweet wine that originates from the island of Santorini and is produced from the following three white grape varieties: Aidani, Athiri, and Assyrtiko. It is a wine that presents aromas of dried apricot, raspberry, raisin, and maraschino cherries. These also provide dramatic contrasts between bitter and sweet flavors which is caused primarily by its perceptible tannins. This is something that is quite unlike the typical characteristics of white wines.
Muscat of Samos
Muscat of Samos comes in different styles – i.e., both sweet and dry – and nearly always with distinct aromatic notes. One of the most popular Samian Muscat wines is Vin Doux which has less acidity – despite being fortified by at least 15 percent – than other Samian varieties.
Samos Anthemis is another Muscat from Samos; this wine is usually aged in oak for a minimum of five years, and this creates that unique amber color and toffee, butterscotch, and light molasses flavor it is known for.
Samos Nectar is another veritable wine that is produced from sun-dried grapes and then aged for at least three years in oak. This wine has penetrating aromas along with a dark, coffee-like color. It has extremely low alcohol content compared with other dessert wines from Samos.
Also known as the “Black Laurel” of Greece, this is a variety that is grown mostly in Kephalonia and the Peloponnese. It is usually blended with the currant grape (Black Corinth) to create a late harvest dessert wine which has a sharp taste of chocolate, raisins, and high tannins.
Some wine producers even blend it with several other varieties, thus producing full-bodied and flavorful dry red wines.
This is the most famous white wine that Greece is known for, and it is usually infused with the latex of the Allepo pine tree. Retsina wines exhibit aromas of linseed oil, lime peel along with a delicate somewhat piney saline finish. You may likely perceive flavors of roses and apples.
Greek vintners are presently carrying out experiments to discover how to infuse this traditional wine with the latest innovations in the world of wines to produce a new generation of Retsina.
Aidani is a known variety of the Aegean islands and wines produced from it are set apart by its predominantly complex herb aromas, moderate alcohol content, and medium body. It is hardly ever vinified on its own but is regularly part of the PDO Santorini wines.
This is another ancient and historical variety that originates practically from the Aegean Sea as it is cultivated in the mainland of northern Greece. It produces stimulating dry wines which is suitable for the production of extraordinarily dazzling wines.
Wines made from Athiri come with fruity aromas of medium intensity as well as an elegant palate with thirst-quenching acidity, medium body, and modest alcohol content. They are usually available on their own but more common in blends, in PDO Rhodes, PDO Côtes de Meliton, and PDO Santorini.
Greek GSM Blends
The southernmost part of the island of Crete enjoys some of the warmest wine climates in the world. The native red grapes of the region, i.e., Mandilaria and Kotsifali are at some point blended with Syrah to create a sweet, red-and-black fruit flavor, allspice, cinnamon along with soy sauce with soft, sweet tannin finish.
The wine is incredibly fruity and smooth.
This variety is produced in the homonymous area of Central Greece, but not to a large extent. It is usually used in the production of PDO Mesenikola wines which is characterized by the simple fact that they are drunk.
This is a variety that is commonly found in Western Peloponnese with exceptional dynamics. It produces wines that are not heavy but exhibit aromas of herbs, red fruits, and leather. The wines also have moderate tannins and usually drip with alcohol along with a medium body.
This is an almost forgotten variety of Cretan heritage that is known for producing round wines which preserve their enticing aromas, i.e., ripe fruit, laurel, and other herbs, notwithstanding the hot climate in which this variety is cultivated. Wines produced from Daphni have medium alcohol and acidity.
This variety bears the trademark of Cretan wineries and wines produced from it are the essence or embodiment of the Mediterranean wine nature: medium-to-high alcohol content, soft tannins, and a moderate body. It retains enough acidity while presenting mildly intense aromas which brings to mind the fragrance of dry fruits, leather, and flowers. You will find it in PDO Archanes and PDO Peza wines.
You will come across this variety in Northern Greece – Epirus to be precise – is known for producing dry white wines with refreshing acidity, low alcohol content, small volume along with a characteristic aroma of green apple. It is found in sparkling as well as semi-sparkling wines.
This is another variety that was practically saved from extinction in the nick of time in the 21st century. It produces exceptional dry wines that exhibit the aroma of quince. It is also valued for several years now for its unique dynamics, especially in the southeastern Peloponnese region.
This Cretan variety is highly revered for the delicious red wines it produces, and its dynamics are at its ultimate in dessert wines. The aromatic dynamics of the dry red wines it creates – along with spices – is almost directly proportional to their soft tannins. The color is not too deep, and these characteristics deeply reflect the liking – and resistance of Liatiko to – warm climate.
The Lagorthi variety is well-known for producing low vinous North European aromatic wines with crisp acidity, which is reminiscent of a hot Mediterranean country environment, especially if it is cultivated and appropriately vinified. It is usually found in the north of Peloponnese and has the potential for several years of aging.
The increasing development and preservation of this particular Greek variety over the last few years is highly commendable and necessary due to its massive dynamics. Its intense nose of aromas of spices and dark fruits firm – but not too aggressive – tannins make them exceptional, thus giving them a real distinction.
This variety has roots in Lemnos, an island in eastern Greece, in the Aegean Sea, near the Dardanelles. Outside the island of Lemnos, it is cultivated primarily in Northern Greece, and wines produced from it have moderate acidity, medium body, soft tannins, a nose of red-fruit aromas with subtle hints of pepper, and moderately high alcohol content.
But what distinguishes wines from this particular variety which makes them extraordinarily unique is its elegance.
This is a coloring variety that has spread virtually everywhere all across Greece and only matures completely in extremely rare cases. It has several names by which it is known, depending on the particular region it is grown. So, when you see names like Vaftra, Mandilari, Amorgiano Koundoura Black, etc. you should know that they are referring to this well-known variety.
This is why the variety takes part in several blends more often than not, and there is only a handful of single varietal Mandilarias.
Monemvasia is primarily cultivated on the island of Paros and the only known white variety that is included in the production of PDO Pasos or PDO red wine, except for homonymous white wine.
This variety was also included in the PDO Monemvassia-Malvasia sweet wine that was recently established in the area it originated from which is Laconia. They have successfully revived one of the most famous wines in the entire history of wines.
Muscat de Alexandrias
This variety produces delicately sweet but aromatic dry wines that bear the well-known “Muscat” character. It has acclimatized itself perfectly to the island of Lemnos and is generally found in PDO Lemnos and PDO Muscat of Lemnos.
Although many people believe that the white Muscat originates from Greece, it is not valid. However, there is a Muscat variety that hails from Greece which needs to be sun-kissed a lot to give its best.
This grape variety produces some of the best and sweet white wines with a superb quality/price ratio. Examples of exquisitely dry aromatic wines (PDO) include:
- Muscat of Patras
- Muscatel of Cephalonia
- Muscatel of Rio Patras
Muscat de Hambourg
This is a variety that can be vinified and consumed as well. It is prominent as a result of its excellent taste along with the different wines it produces – i.e., rosé and sweet red wines – all of which have soft tannins and comparatively low alcohol content. It is usually cultivated in Central Greece.
This is most likely the most cultivated white variety of Greece as it is found in nearly all the mainland. It is an easily recognizable reddish berry that, after appropriate cultivation and vinification, produces fruity and aromatic wines with crisp acidity. The alcohol content is moderate, and it is versatile enough to be paired with any food.
Robola produces that exceptional PDO wines of Cephalonia with the same name. Aromatic wines from Robola have high acidity along with aging potential, and this gives them a noticeable character that closely resembles that of aged Riesling wines.
This white variety historically characterizes the vinery of Crete and is planted extensively in specific areas of the largest Greek island in the southern Aegean Sea where it is not only appropriately cultivated but also immensely unified.
It can produce wine with moderate alcohol, revitalizing acidity along with a characteristic jasmine aroma with subtle citrus fruit and medium body.
The Four Overarching Wine Zones
The best way that will make it easier for you to get a good handle on these wine regions in Greece is to split the regions up.
Greece has several regions, but they can be split up into four climatic zones:
Wet: Epirus, Thrace, and Macedonia. This region is known for white grapes.
Modulating Mediterranean: Thessaly, Central Greece, and Attica, all of which are renowned growers of white grapes.
Arid: Mediterranean Islands (Samos, Limnos, Santorini, etc.). This area is also popular for producing white grapes.
Stable Mediterranean: Peloponnese, Crete, and Kefalonia, renowned for producing red grapes, and ultimately, red wines.
Greek Wine: Nine Things You Need to Know
The following are the top nine things you need to know about Greek wine:
Greek Wine is Remarkably Unique
Regular varietals – such as Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet, etc. – may be used, but in most cases, they are usually blended with some of the local varieties like Kotsifali, Xinomavro, Avgoustiatis, and Agiorgitiko (in reds), and Moschofilero, Assyrtiko, Savatiano, Vidiano (in whites). You may also check out for producers like Brintzikis (Peloponnese), Avantis (multiple regions), and Boutari (multiple regions) as well.
Lovely Greek Wine is Produced on Magnificent Islands
Greek islands are scenic, and every tourist that visit these islands come away with beautiful thoughts of returning in a few months. However, what only a few of these tourists may not know is that these islands make tasty local wines derived from indigenous grapes.
For instance, the picturesque island of Santorini is the haven of wine archeologists. This is where Assyrtiko originates from which makes up to at least 70 percent of this island’s wine production.
There are, however, several varieties which make up part of the remaining 30 percent that is yet to be formally classified. Over here, some vines are noted to be more than 500 years old! Wine connoisseurs are bound to come across some wines they have not had the pleasure of tasting before in their entire life.
There is also the big island of Crete which is home to several local varieties such as Plyto, Mandilari, Thrapsathiri, and Vilana. And then the island of Cephalonia – which is home to MArodaphne and Robola – is worth visiting as well.
You may look out for Alexakis (Crete), Gentilini (Cephalonia), Lyrarakis (Crete), UWC (Samos), and Douloufakis (Crete).
Greek Wine is Relatively Affordable
Quality Greek wine in Greece costs at least 10 euros or even less in some cases. Twenty euros will get you a Greek bottle of wine of premium quality, but above that amount, you should be ready to be treated like a king, thanks to the special Greek wines that you will be exposed to.
But then, there is often no need to be that overgenerous or extravagant. If your wallet is not deep enough, you can still pick up a flask of cheap but quality village Greek wine for one or two euros.
Matching Greek Food with Greek Wine is Heavenly
Wine lovers will tell you to give Greek’s specialty, i.e., Assyrtiko a try with seafood. But then you will be missing out if all you do on your vacation to the Greek islands is to wash down only seafood with assyrtiko.
Assyrtiko with lamb – drizzled with lemon – is an excellent combination that you will absolutely love. This is due to the citrusy characters in the Greek wine which enhance the taste of the meal in its entirety.
Also, the Viognier-like full-bodied apricot characters of Vidiano goes exceptionally well with pork or chicken. For lighter meat dishes, you need a red with soft tannins, and Agiorgitiko will readily fill that spot. Gutsy red meats, on the other hand, go well with Xinomavro.
Greece Faces Problems in its Economy, But None of It Reflects on Greek Wine
Greeks are all about investing in the wine industry which had almost gone out of fashion but is making a strong comeback in the wine universe, irrespective of the challenges the southeastern European country is facing presently.
So, bear in mind that you are lending a hand to making Greece’s economy better again when you pay for that bottle of exotic Greek wine.
Pronouncing Grape Varieties from Greece May Twist Your Tongue
Although most of the best Greek grape varieties are world-class tongue twisters, that should not put you off from tasting some of the most exquisitely vinified Greek wines in the market today. Just think of it as an experience as well as an exploration. You will also be trying something new for the first time, and be proud to boast to your wine-loving friends when you return to your native country.
At Times, Acacia Barrels Are Used in Place of Oak
Acacia barrels have a way of imparting their distinct aromatic and floral characters without the well-known pleasant vanilla characters that oak barrel deliver. For instance, acacia barrels can give a delightful Assyrtiko Sauv Blanc – which exhibit tropical and white flower aromas – a nutty and olive-like background.
Assyrtiko is the Most Prominent Wine in Greece
There is no doubt about this; once upon a time, it was retsina that was making waves in Greece. But that is no longer the case as Assyrtiko has taken over and become the specialty in modern-day Greece, even though it is produced somewhere else in Greece.
Critics have taken the time to analyze Assyrtiko from Santorini as the alleged showcase wine in Greece. So, what makes this white wine so special among many other extraordinary Greek wines out there?
First of all, Assyrtiko is a white wine that is relatively tough or rough when it is still young and fresh but develops rapidly into several complex arrays of characters which present hints of the tropics and citrus fruits, all of which are carried across a backbone that is mineral-filled.
Secondly, Assyrtiko is a magnificent dessert wine and is specifically as age-worthy as the dry variety. But a warning here: you need to be very careful because they carry a good punch. They are also a bit more expensive compared to other Greek wines, and this is attributed to their growing reputation and acceptance in the wine universe.
So, look out for Sigalas (Santorini), Argyros (Santorini), and Santo (Santorini).
Aussies Invented Boxed Wine While Greece Invented Retsina
Although both are tastes that are acquired, retsina is distinct due to the dash of pine resin that is added to it. This subtle hint of resin makes retsina incredibly intriguing. Drinking retsina as you stroll through a park or forest makes you one with nature, and the exhilarating thrill is one that many oenophiles will not forget in a hurry.
These wines are first-class examples of how the Greeks adapted successfully to the modern-day market. You can look out for Papagiannakos (Attica) and Retsina by Vassiliou (Attica).
A Quick Way of Selecting a Good Greek Wine
Many people, including self-styled oenophiles, find it pretty difficult to articulate what they are tasting and then translate that taste into accurate wine terminology. But then, you should start by asking yourself questions like “Do you like acid?”, or “Do you like alcohol in wines?” Many individuals have no idea how to isolate or detect these unique components in a bottle of wine or whether or not they like them.
Riesling, for instance, is one of the most characteristically acidic grapes as is the resulting wine that is made from that grape. But then, most wine lovers would describe Riesling as a sweet wine and will never mention its acid content at all despite its searing acidity (assuming it is not fermented completely dry for the wine nerds out there. You’ll definitely know that acid is in a wine if you ever stumble upon a bone-dry Riesling).
Experiment with different Greek wines to find out what you like or don’t like. Then, you will have a working database that you can reference whenever someone asks for help.
So, the next time you visit a restaurant, ask the sommelier, “Do you have anything that tastes like Wine X?” The problem is solved. You should also be careful, so you don’t wind up with a much more expensive version of Wine X, so mentioning a price range would be beneficial too.
As you can see, Greece produces some of the most exceptional wines in the world today. The most significant problem that the majority of wine producers or wineries in Greece face has to do with a lack of sufficient marketing. The fact that for several long years, Greece produced many wines of inferior quality is not helping matters either. Those inferior wines gave Greece a terrible reputation in the wine universe, and they are barely scratching the surface when it comes to shaking off the image.
The infamous retsina wine from Greece was a resonated wine that virtually dragged the name of this beautiful southeastern European country in the mud, so much so that many people, even up till today, think and believe that all Greek wines are resonated and therefore have nothing to do with them. But the truth is, it is not all the wines in Greece that are resonated.
Greece was also part of the Ottoman Empire for more than 400 years, and this also hindered the progress of wine production on the Greek islands.
Nevertheless, Greece is slowly becoming a rising star on the wine horizon, thanks to the extraordinary varietals produced from some of the most outstanding islands on earth. All that is required is for the vintners in Greece to ramp up their marketing strategies to reach stellar ratings while ensuring that they continue to churn out extraordinarily unique wines at all times.
But the truth remains that there are lots of wine treasures waiting to be discovered in Greece. Open your mind, forget all inhibitions, and you will make surprising wine discoveries that you will never forget!