If a nation happens to have an ancient god of wine, then you know grapes are indeed important to the culture. Such is the case with Greece, one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world and home to our dearest, drunkest Dionysus. In fact, it was in Mycenae (Greece before it was called that) where our modern breed of grape vine was developed and perfected for growth in the dry summers, ample sunlight and mild winters of the Mediterranean.
While the country pales in comparison to the “big three” in Europe (Italy, France and Spain) in terms of total output, that hardly precludes it from offering many eloquent drops. Greece currently boasts more than 300 varietals from 28 appellations, all with quite uncommon names. This means that whatever your choice of acquisition from this land, the label is destined to be a niche product and a head-scratcher for almost all patrons who come across it on a wine list.
Some will be more adventurous and seek out esoteric bottles from smaller countries like Greece while others will be outright intimidated and stick to the more internationally renowned grapes. I’m going to focus on a few key selling points and the four top varietals for you to consider.
Firstly, Greek wines make a good case for appealing to people’s sense of heritage. After all, who wouldn’t want to share a bottle from a region with more than 6,000 years of winemaking? Next is terroir; many Greek wines are cultivated on islands laden with volcanic ash-rich soil, imparting a distinctive earthy flavor and mineral structure. Lastly, many of these same islands were unperturbed by the phylloxera blight of the latter half of the 19th century, meaning that several of the nation’s varietals in use today are truly original in terms of delivering a quintessentially firm and acidic “old world” taste.
As for the four grapes to remember, these are Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Agiorgitiko and Xinomavro, two whites and two reds, respectively.
Originally from the former volcano that is now the island Santorini, Assyrtiko is a steely, aromatic (and phylloxera-resistant) white with dry, citrus-blossom characteristics similar to Riesling. Second comes Moschofilero, which is lighter and quite floral relative to Assyrtiko, making it a better match for desserts or sugar-dominant snacking foods.
On the darker side, Agiorgitiko is the most popular export, with a transparent ruby body and composite flavor profile akin to Pinot Noir. Xinomavro, the other red, is bolder with its opaque violet color and generous burst of sour fruit and tannins in the same vein as many reds from Piedmont. It also ages quite well if you’re looking to sit on some cases for a few years.
This is the cursory level of knowledge your servers should be able to quickly pass on to guests. Any information beyond this can be quite intimidating and should be left for the aficionados and sommeliers amongst us. Any way you put it, though, there’s lots to discover in this ancient land, so do Dionysus proud and pour yourself a glass!