The vine did not originate in Greece; it's likely that the Caucasus, to the east, had that honor. But the ancient Greeks were making wine from grapes long before most civilizations, maybe as early as 7000 B.C. And yet, many Americans' knowledge of the country's viticulture begins and ends with retsina, the popular white wine flavored with pine resin. Finally, things are beginning to change: many Greek winemakers have started attracting international attention for their sophisticated wines, which exemplify the great crispness that makes Greek whites such natural partners to seafood and the balanced restraint that suits Greek reds so well to lamb and grilled foods. There are plenty of reasons to embrace Greek wine; below are seven of my favorites.
Native White Grapes
Greek wine growers are learning to maximize the potential of their indigenous white grapes, knowing that a little bit of mountain air, and a willingness to pick the grapes before they swell to cumbersome ripeness, create crackling-crisp white wines that are gorgeous with many Greek mezedes and with seafood. The big star is moschofilero, a variety from the central Peloponnese that creates orange blossom-scented wines that are racy on the palate, light and airy, and possessed of a bracing acidity. My favorite is the 2009 Semeli Mountain Sun White ($12); it has a nose touched with white pepper, and a clear, crisp palate. Robola, roditis, and savatiano are other exciting white varieties. The 2009 Ambelones from Domaine Vassiliou ($17), produced east of Athens, is a blend of sweet savatiano and melony roditis; low in alcohol (12 percent), it has a memorable lime-leaf quality and fine acidity.
Many Greek rose producers pack their wine with lots of fruit, yet the wines show an uncommon lightness and elegance at the same time. Excellent roses are being made from north to south in Greece. One of my top choices is the dry Kir-Yianni Rose Akakies ($17), from Amyndeon in Macedonia, in the north. The 2009 has lovely melon and tomato aromas, plus a palate that uncannily combines grip and refreshment. Another winner is the 2009 Gaia 14-18h Rose ($16), from the Peloponnese; it has a playful, Barbie-pink hue and one of the liveliest watermelon-pear noses I've ever sniffed. The island of Crete has recently emerged as a rose star; the Douloufakis winery there combines the local red grape kotsifali with syrah to create a dry 2009 Enotria Rose ($14) with bounce and acid.
Big Reds with Nuance
Greek red wines are traditionally light-hued and light-bodied, but today a cadre of pioneering winemakers are deepening their wines' color, fruit, and texture in deference to 21st-century tastes, without creating jammy, grandstanding New World-style reds. The most famous area for richer reds from indigenous grapes is Nemea, southwest of Athens, a stronghold of Greece's breakout red grape, agiorgitiko. The 2008 Averoff Fresco ($13) is a delightful choice, full-bodied but fruity and easy to quaff. A bit more structured, the 2008 Nemea from Domaine Harlaftis ($10) is a medium-dark purple wine with plum and leafy-green notes. The 2006 Gaia Estate ($50), from one of Greece's most important wineries, has a wonderful mineral and ripe black currant nose and a marvelous concentration that will mellow beautifully with 10 to 15 years of aging. The refosco grape, which came to Greece more than 150 years ago from Friuli, Italy, is another heavy hitter; Domaine Mercouri's 2006 Estate Red ($25) from the Peloponnese is dark garnet with a nose of leather, spice, and chocolate.
My favorite Greek reds, hands down, are made from the native xinomavro grape. It's cultivated all over northern Greece, but its epicenter is the region surrounding the town of Naoussa, my personal Shangri-la of red wine in Greece. Like a classic burgundy or barolo, the best xinomavros yield an exquisitely complex nose and age beautifully. When xinomavro wine is young, it's light-bodied, shows mellow fruit (strawberries or raspberries), and has soft tannins that are superlative with grilled foods. Excellent introductions are the 2006 Kir-Yianni Ramnista ($30), with its red-fruit nose layered with smoke, and the light and tender 2006 Karydas Naoussa ($26). As xinomavro ages, something extraordinary happens; the wine lurches into tomato territory—we're talking ripe tomato, even tomato jam. And as it reaches full maturity, xinomavro develops hints of earth, white truffle, cedar, even tobacco. Old xinomavro is one of the wine world's great thrills, and luckily, some old ones are available in the United States. The 2000 Vaeni Grand Reserve ($23) delivers a compelling mingling of tomato, cherry, and tobacco aromas and a lean, slightly green, exotically complex flavor. The 2003 Grande Reserve Naoussa from Boutari ($25) carries a lovely fruit nose, with hints of leather and tomato.
Wines of Santorini
The island of Santorini, in the southern Aegean Sea, is a mound of volcanic rock with mineral-rich soil, whipped by strong winds that have prompted the winemakers to train their vines to curl into rounded "baskets" hugging the dirt. This fine marriage of fruit and terrain yields dry, austere wines made from the assyrtiko grape that manage to be both rich and steely at the same time. To taste Santorini assyrtiko at its best, try Gaia's vibrant 2008 Thalassitis ($26) and the bone-dry, lemony 2009 Argyros Assyrtiko ($26).
Late-harvest, sweet wines from Greece have always had a market; syrupy muscats from the Greek islands, for example, have been coveted across Europe since the Middle Ages. The most famous island for dessert muscat is Samos; my favorite bottle is the super-concentrated Samos Nectar ($28), made by the island's winemaking cooperative; it has a tawny color and blazes with a raisiny, caramel nose. Another duly venerated Greek dessert wine is the vin santo from Santorini, made from that island's storied assyrtiko grapes (see above), some of which have been dried in the sun to concentrate their flavors. Try the 2003 Sigalas Vinsanto Santorini ($50); it has an alluring amber color, a viscous texture, and tropical fruit flavors.
I love that retsina is born of a 2,000-year-old tradition, held over from the days when amphorae of white wine had their stoppers sealed with pine resin. But I love even more that the rasp of the resin is so harmonious with kalamata olives, feta, and many other Greek foods. If you don't like retsina, it may be because unscrupulous producers have long used the resin to cover the taste of oxidized wine. But find a fresh and graceful version, such as the inexpensive Malamatina ($4) from Macedonia, and a lightbulb is sure to go off. Better still, seek out retsinas from Greece's best-known winemakers; the astonishing Gaia Ritinitis Nobilis ($16) has the concentrated feel and complexity of a grand wine, with just a hint of high-quality resin from Greece's Aleppo pines.