You might catch yourself thinking "it's all Greek to me," but as one of the oldest winemaking countries in the world, Greece makes some seriously delicious wine. And as one of the most ancient winemaking countries, Greece is home to a huge number of local grapes, many of which have been around for thousands of years and are found virtually nowhere else in the world. While they've been gaining prominence with wine lovers for their more modern wines made from the so-called international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Sauvignon Blanc, it's their native grapes which proclaim to the world that after a few thousand years of making wine, Greece has still got it. Here are some of the major grape varieties to look out for.
- Assyrtiko - known for making dry, high acid, citrusy wines, Assyrtiko is mostly found on Santorini and is phenomenal with anything that comes from the sea.
- Moschofilero - With melon, citrus, rose, and loads of peach, this grape makes ultra-aromatic, slightly spicy wines and can be dry, sweet, still, or sparkling. Talk about versatile. Fans of Gewurztraminer or Muscat must try it. It's excellent with slightly spicy dishes.
- Rhoditis - Greece is hot, so any grape which can keep hold of its acidity despite the beating of the Mediterranean sun is a winner here. Also found in Peloponnese, Rhoditis is made into dry still wines which taste of apple, honey, and pear, and is also part of the blend that makes its way into Retsina. Enjoy with cheese, fried foods, chicken, and fish.
- Muscat - was this the nectar of the gods which Homer wrote of in his works? Muscat of Samos has been famous since antiquity for its rich, sweet, honeyed flavor. The Muscat grape has since been exported across the wine world, but Greece is its home and where some of the best examples are made. If you like drinking your dessert, you can't go wrong here, but Muscat pairs well with really spicy foods, fruit-based desserts, or simply a bowl of fruit.
- Savatiano - the backbone of Retsina (more on that in a minute), Savatiano is planted all over Greece. It's citrusy, floral, and can be very herbal. Eating crab cakes, grilled shrimp, or a chicken salad? Pass the Savatiano, please.
- Xinomavro – full of berries, cherries, spice, and pepper, Xinomavro might just be Greece's most important red grape. Robust tannins and high acid make it a rich, powerful wine that can mellow out into a thing of beauty. If you happen to like aging your wines, you won't meet a better candidate for your cellar. Drink Xinomavro like Cabernet Sauvignon. Steaks, barbecued meats, game, and especially lamb are Xinomavro's best friends.
- Agiorgitiko – the new frontier of Greek wine. It's elegant yet generous when it comes to aroma and flavor. Plummy, earthy, with loads of red fruit, Agiorgitiko is the Greek red to try if you're a Pinot fiend. Originally grown around Nemea, you can now find it planted throughout the country.
- Mavrodaphne – Usually made as a lusciously sweet fortified wine, Mavrodaphne is made in Peloponnese. Port fans will adore its raisin-like flavor and chocolate notes.
For decades, Retsina was Greece's main claim to fame, a style they've been making for over 2000 years. It's unlike anything else made in the wine world. Long before bottles were common, the Greeks used clay jars called amphorae to store their wine. However, they soon noticed that the amphorae weren't very good at keeping oxygen out, which would cause their wines to go off. Thanks to a little quick thinking, they began using resin from the Aleppo pine tree to seal the jars which not only stopped oxygen from getting in, but also infused the wine with its heady aromas and flavors. Although they no longer use amphorae for storing their wine, today Greek winemakers still make Retsina, using local white grapes like Savatiano, Assyrtiko, and Rhoditis. It's commonly produced around Attica, not far from Athens. A real treat for the jaded palate.
Greece is about the same size as Louisiana and has a varied topography and geological makeup. This is why so many varieties and styles have emerged from the country. In Macedonia up in the north, regions like Naoussa and Amyntaio are planted with Xynomavro. If you're up on your classics, you may know the story of Heracles and the Nemean lion. Nemea is down in the southern peninsula of Peloponnese where reds are made from Agiorgitiko and known by the sobriquet, “the Blood of Heracles.”
Like mainland Greece, many of the islands found in the Aegean Sea are home to outstanding vineyards. Perhaps the most famous of these Aegean islands in the modern world is Santorini (featured in the main image). Here winemakers make racy dry white wines from the local Assyrtiko grape. The volcanic soils help make the island and its wines so unique – it's one of the few places that remains untouched by the phylloxera louse (which destroyed so many of the world's vineyards back in the 19th century).
Crete, the Aegean's largest island, makes wines from the red Kotsitfali and white Vidiano grape. These wines are a fantastic value. But Greece also has a wonderful legacy for sweet wines as well. On Samos, the dessert Muscat wins have been famous since Greece first rose to prominence for wine before the common era. It was one of the styles that helped the country make a name for itself.
Powerful reds, racy whites, and sweet ambrosia are all just a slice of what Greek wine is all about. These are wines for an entire year of great drinking, whether at a summertime barbecue, enjoyed with a hearty winter stew, or a light spring picnic with friends. Don't miss out on the opportunity to try the wines of Greece. Their versatility on the dinner table, quality, and flavor mean there's a Greek wine out there for everyone no matter what your tastes are like.