A Quick Guide to Greek Wines
I am often asked, “What is the best Greek wine?” Of course, there is no answer to that question, since there are so many great Greek wines and taste is so subjective.
Here are a few things to know and to look for.
Greek Grape Varietals
Greek wines generally are made either exclusively with Greek grapes or with a blend of Greek and international grape varietals grown on Greek soil.
There are over 300 indigenous Greek grape varieties.
Four of them are the most commercially important:
Xinomavro, which produces dry, tannic reds and is grown mainly in Northern Greece:
Agiorgitiko, which produces softer, merlot-like reds and is grown mainly in Nemea, the Peloponnese.
Assyrtico, a white-wine grape native to Santorini and grown in several places around Greece. As a general rule, it produces minerally, dry wines.
Moschofilero, an aromatic white wine grape, also grown mainly in the Peloponnese.
OPAP – Appellation of Origin Wines
Look for wines that have the OPAP distinction. This is the equivalent of what the French call AOP, Protected Appellation of Origin.
There are 8 such areas in Greece.
The four most commercially important are:
Nemea (for Agiorgitiko wines) in the Peloponnese.
Naoussa (for Xinomavro) in Macedonia.
Santorini (for Assyrtico).
Mandineia (for wines from the Moschofilero grape), in the Peloponnese.
OPAP wines are place-specific and recognized for the uniqueness, excellence and regional characteristics.
Every tourist who has ever visited Greece has probably sipped a cool glass of distinct retsina, most likely while enjoying a seaside view and nibbling on a table full of the country’s robust meze. In days gone by, large barrels of retsina were stacked along the walls of traditional tavernas.
What is it? Retsina is a traditional, resinated wine. Retsina is an ancient wine, or rather an ancient way to protect wine from its number one enemy—air. Pine resin was used to seal the tops of the clay vessels (amphorae) in which wine was stored and transported. Centuries later the same technique was used on barrels, as a way to seal them and therefore protect the wine within.
It is produced in the regions of Attica (where Athens is), Viotia and Evia. It is made primarily from the Savatiano and Roditis grape varieties.
Retsina may also be rosé, which is called kokkineli, and is also produced from the Roditis grape varietal.
The grapes are vinified in the traditional way that most white wines are made, but a small quantity of resin is added during the start of the fermentation process.
The best resin is produced by Aleppo Pine, which flourishes throughout the Mediterranean.
Unfortunately, until very recently, most contemporary retsina was just bad wine masked with the piny, almost turpentine-like flavor of the resin. It was the bane of the modern Greek wine industry until recently, when a few brave wine-makers started experimenting with it. Now, contemporary retsina produced by Greece’s premiere wine makers is light, refreshing, and an excellent reminder of Greek summer!
One of my personal favorites when it comes to Greek wines are the delicious, fruity, brilliant rosés produced in various parts of the country. Look for rosé from Amyntaion in Greece’s north, and from Mandineia, in the Peloponnese.
Greek dessert wines are world-class. There are many to choose from but a few stand out:
Samos has a remarkable wine heritage, stretching to 1200 BC. It is famous for its sweet dessert wines made from the Muscat grape. Look for:
Samos Vin Doux: Light golden color and quite sweet, but soft and rich.
Samos Grand Cru: Soft, sweet and complex.
Samos Anthemis: Deep-colored, barrel-aged for five years, and full-bodied.
Samos Nectar: Three years in the bottle, complex and raisiny.
Like Samos, Santorini is also an ancient wine-making island, producing stellar dry whites, from the native Assyrtico grape, among other things, and the world-class dessert wine vinsanto, also produced from the Assyrtico grape, which is left to dry in the sun before vinifying. The result is an amber-colored, chocolaty dessert wine with unique dried-fruit complexity and underlying minerality, thanks to the island’s one-of-a-kind volcanic soil.