And when it comes to Greek wine, let’s open the treasure trove
Greece is both one of Europe’s oldest and newest wine countries. It has been making wine for 4000 years, but how come hardly anyone knows Modern Greek wine, let alone tasted it? In short, let’s open the treasure trove and start exploring. Some of the “new” Greek wines are rather surprising in flavour and quality, and rarely boring.
Greece has one of the longest known viticultural histories
Greek wine represents one of the longest known viticulture histories in the world. Wine has always played an important part in Greek culture and was one of the five primary elements of the Greek diet, together with water, salt, oil and cereals. It was valued for its nutritional and social role, whether consumed as the complement to a meal or enjoyed as a sedative to relax (or stimulate) the senses. According to Epicurus, the ancient Greek Philosopher (341 to 270 BC) we have pursue the satisfaction of our natural and necessary desires, such as the desire for food or the company of good friends. Proof of that were the intellectual gatherings called “symposia”, where the ancients would eat and talk about philosophical subjects while drinking wine.
Which type or style of wine they drank we don’t know, but it could have tasted something like the modern day Retsina, the more than three thousand years old pine flavoured wine (white or rosé) that can taste suspiciously like turpentine, if it is badly made. This type of resinous wine became popular when the ancients vintners discovered that sealing wine jars or amphora with pine pitch made a lot of sense. The resin prevented exposure to oxygen, oxygen that otherwise quickly let to spoilage of the wines. There was a disadvantage though; it made the wines sticky, thick and smelling of resin. Nowadays Modern Greek wine is so much more than Retsina. In the past 20 years or so the Greek wine industry has undergone formidable improvements through serious investments in modern vineyard management and wine making technologies supported by the efforts of a new generation of native winemakers, trained in oenology schools around the world.
The new Greek wine revolution
The new Greek wine revolution started with a group of pioneering winemakers, who began to think about wine as something else than an interchangeable bulk commodity. Wine should give some kind of a sensory pleasure, defined by the grape variety, its place of origin (terroir) and the way it is made. There were two approaches to solve this issue of creating more contemporary quality wines: to plant international grape varieties or to work with the indigenous ones, meanwhile improving vineyard management and wine making. Some quality winemakers chose not to fall into the trap and monotony of a small range of international grape varieties, but instead made a conscious choice to work with the elements that make the wines of Greece so unique and special.
Greece has more than 300 indigenous grape varieties
The deciding factor was the sheer amount of native varieties and micro climates, yet also the availability of old vines. There are more than 300 indigenous grape varieties in Greece, apart from up-and-coming varieties like Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro. All are Greek grape varieties are vinifiable too, whether they go into cepage or mono-varietal wines or are part of a blend. Not all varieties have been identified however and some of them are on the brink of extinction, while others have been rescued by vine growers and winemakers. Ongoing research, experimental plantings, micro vinification and fine tuning should identify which grape varieties show most potential.
Viticulture is not that easy in Greece
Amid all this you have to remember that viticulture is not that easy in Greece. Greek vineyards lie between 34º and 42º degrees latitude, which positions them amongst the world’s hotter wine producing regions, aside from having to deal with different soil types and altitudes. Greece is primarily a mountainous country with more than 300 larger or smaller mountains covering around four fifth of the country. Due to the complex topography, unpredictable rainfall and the lack of sufficient sub soil it is difficult to grow grapes. What’s more, even on the flatter lands hardly any grapes were grown because the soils were destined for more profitable or necessary crops (in need of more favourable growing conditions). Most vineyards are for this reason found on mountainous and semi-mountainous slopes.
This particular geo-morphology of the country doesn’t favour intensive wine growing techniques. Par example, mechanical cultivation (which is virtually non-existent in Greece’s vineyards) cannot be applied in inaccessible or mountainous terrains. Even with the availability of new technologies, most vine growing tasks are still done manually. Like the hand-picking of the grapes. It is thus easy to understand why Greece has such a small volume of grape production (in quality areas) and why the yields per hectare are low. On the other hand, the altitude of mountainous slopes counter balances Greece’s arid climate. Altitude lowers the temperature while at the same time assuring there is water and air to cool the vines, which helps the absorption of carbon dioxide/CO2 into the vines. In addition, vine growers started to plant increasingly on north-facing slopes, as the northern aspect has a moderating effect on the high summer temperatures. Greek’s big bodies of water, either the sea in coastal areas or the country’s big lakes, influence the predominantly Mediterranean climate (with its cool winters and its hot, dry, sunny summers) too. The presence of water soften Greece’s often harsh, hot and dry climate. When the climate becomes more continental further inland, the difference between day and night temperature, as well as the difference between vintages, increases.
Greece’s trump card: the unique character of its indigenous grapes
As in the last half of the 20th century wine making improved elsewhere around the world, the Greeks began to lag behind. Some vintners also made the mistake of planting international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. The international grapes did not produce the commercially interesting wines they were aimed for, even when the results were competent. In the classic order of things Greece still had a trump card to play: her native grape varieties (that are near impossible to pronounce). The unique character of Greece’s indigenous grapes contribute immensely to the diversity of Greek wines. A wine made of indigenous grapes from a specific terroir is a one-of-a-kind wine you won’t find anywhere else. Many of the world’s wine critics agree that the updated wine making technology in conjunction with the indigenous grape varieties has done much to elevate the present perception of Greek viticulture. The new vine growing practices, along with modernization of the wine making process (using innovative and often environmentally friendly technologies) made the creation of new, quality minded, small-to-medium size wineries (“boutique or estate wineries”) possible as well. The best of these are good, but are they good in the global market too?
Exporting more? What about the quality?
Greece has no choice though, it needs to start exporting more. Especially now as the Greek domestic market has been severely squeezed by the debt crisis. Greek wine makers should look for new markets, because the quality is there. They need to market their wine on a bigger scale too, although some producers seem a bit overwhelmed by the move from a largely local market to a global audience. If you ask the Greek winemakers, whether they want to become a really big winery, the answer is no. Their main concern is to keep complete control over the quality of what they produce.
I have no doubt that the new Greece could position itself as an emerging wine region. Although I am not sure if the government of Athens thinks along the same lines too. I can contribute by drinking the wines of Greece I love: the white Assyrtiko from Santorini, the wines from the black grapes Xinomavro (with its high acidity and an appealing savoury notes) and Agiorgitiko from the region of Nemea, or the sweet, unfortified Commandaria made from the white Xynisteri and black Mavro grapes, probably the most ancient wine style still made. Cheers!