The Glories of Greek Wine
By Master of Wine, Christopher Burr
Many visitors to Greece, the islands, and even Cyprus a few years ago would remember the most served wine was an historic wine, Retsina. A basic white wine infused at the time of fermenting with pine resin, which is a preservative. To be honest the wines were pretty ordinary, although nowadays with modern wine making Retsina still exists and if well chilled and if you happen to be sitting by an Hellenic sea shore, and even with some of the more spicy Greek food, what is there not to enjoy?
The ancient Greeks were pioneers in wine made a thousand years before Christ, and there is some evidence that much of the expertise in fermenting and wine making came to the Greeks even a thousand years before that from China, where they were fermenting in clay amphora. In a hot climate the difficulty in keeping a wine from turning to vinegar was solved by the additions of preservatives like resin and also saffron, and often sweet as sugar is also a preservative. They were also good at making Altar wine, sweet red wine for religious purposes, and in Cyprus you can still find bottles of up to one hundred year old Commandaria Coeur de Lion, a sweet red wine originally enjoyed by the Crusaders,- Coeur de Lion named after Richard 1st, “the Lion Heart,” the eminent Crusader King.
But the Greeks always kept many of their local grape varieties rather than plant the well-known and easy to sell international varietals, and made sound red and white wine for local consumption. Modern and better wine making has meant that wine lovers have been able to rediscover grape varieties that had previously never been heard of.
I was recently doing some work in the Northern part of Greece, on the boarder of Macedonia, and an area called Naoussa in Greek Macedonia. There I discovered two grapes which in skilled hands make delicious wines, Malagousia and Xinomavro. These grapes have dark red skins, so if allowed to macerate and ferment with the skins makes big but refined red wines, which can mature and age well. If taken off the skins they make fragrant whites. A bit like Pinot Noir can do in Champagne.
Marks and Spencer have a delicious red blend of Xinomavro and Mandilaria (another local grape) for £9.50, but there is also a 100% Xinomavro from the Thymiopolous family which (also sold by Majestic Wines for £14.99).
For whites, these are just as interesting, indeed perhaps more so.
For those of you who haven’t come across the Assyrtiko grape now grown in many parts and islands of Greece but especially delicious from the island of Santorini, you have a special treat in store. These vines are very old, grown high up in the island on degraded volcanic soils in high trained bushes to get the leaves to shade the grapes from the hot sun, but maintaining freshness from cool nights.
Assyrtiko is crisp and complex and long on the palate, a fabulous aperitif or accompaniment to most fish or shell fish dishes. It makes such a wonderful change from the ubiquitous Sauvignon Blancs grown everywhere these days, or simple, but fresh, Pinot Grigios. This is a “must try” wine from The Whisky Exchange they have Atlantis Santorini, which is 90% Assyrtiko, with ten percent of two other local grapes.
Amazon offer quite a selection, including a Cypriot version called Lyrarkis Estate 2019 for £11.65. Also a stunning Reserve Assyrtiko from Santo, for £32.34.
Majestic Wine also have the Lyrarkis Cypriot Assyrtiko for £11.99 and Domaine Skouras from Nemea for £15.99.
Other interesting whites to look out for in M&S are the lovely bright and aromatic Moscofilero and Roditis (don’t worry, two more obscure Greek gape varietals!), which is from the Peleponese and is great with all sorts of fish and shell fish dishes, for £8.50 per bottle.
Finally, I mentioned the historic tradition of sweet wines. For those of you who like tawny port, or sweeter wines, the Mavrodaphne of Patras from Cameo is probably the best value sweet red wine of quality, at £6.95 in Waitrose. Delicious light sweet raisins and dried fruit flavours. I like it slightly chilled with cheese or liver pate.
So, head for the Greek section in your wine store or online, you will not be disappointed.
Christopher Burr, MW,