Greek wines seem poised to knock rosé off its pedestal as the official wine of summer. And why not? Like the pink potion from Provence, Greek wines evoke the warm, Mediterranean vineyards where they are grown.
This is among the oldest winemaking region in the world, with evidence of probable winemaking dating back some 6,500 years. (Trivia: The oldest wine in the world was made in China 9,000 years ago.)
Of course, those wines differed significantly from today’s Greek wines, which differ from Retsina, a pine-infused concoction that was the national beverage in the 1960s.
Twenty years later, significant investment in modern equipment and technology combined with winemakers who pursued an international education in their craft to create an up-to-date industry that focused on quality and flavor while maintaining a connection to the country’s 300+ native varietals, many of which have been cultivated since ancient times.
In fact, there is strong sentiment among the winemaking community that their wines should never be made with non-native grapes. And though such varietals as Cabernet Sauvignon are planted in Greece, they are used primarily for blending.
Here are some of the more common varietals you may encounter:
Agiorghitiko: From the Nema region of Peloponnese, this grape is known for making wines with a deep red color, striking aromatic complexity and soft tannins.
Assyrtiko: As mentioned above, this versatile white grape was first planted on Santorini. The Mediterranean influence gives the wine its dry, minerally character offset by hints of citrus. When the grape is planted elsewhere, such as in Macedonia, the wine becomes more easygoing with greater fruit flavor.
Moschofilero: This distinctly aromatic white grape is grown primarily in Peloponnese. Unusually, its skin is actually grey in color. It produces crisp wines with notes of rose, violet and spice.
Robola: Most notably grown in the mountains of Cephalonia, wines made with this white grape have notes of citrus and peach with smoky mineral tones and a bright lemony finish.
Xinomavro: Primarily cultivated in Macedonia, this grape makes long-lived wines with rich tannins and savory flavor.
White Muscat: A very aromatic white grape used to produce luscious dessert wines.
(Bonus: Click here for an audio pronunciation guide!)
Although these grapes may be unfamiliar, understanding the label is fairly straightforward.
The country’s system of controlled appellations was introduced in 1971 and modified when the country joined the European Community (now Union.) The top “quality wines” have the designation OPAP – the equivalent of the French appellation d’origine contrôlée, the highest status possible.
The OPE designation indicates the next tier, wines considered to be generally superior. There are also designations for country wine (topikos oenos) and table wine (epitrapezos oenos.)
There are currently 25 OPAP appellations and seven OPEs. Here is a look at the major growing areas and key designations within:
- The Peloponnese, with its diverse array of climates and soils, has been home to some of Greece’s best vineyards for centuries. Most of them are located along the coastline, with vines growing at altitudes of up to 1,476 feet. Look for wines from the Nemea appellation, one of the most prestigious in the country, as well as from Mantinia and Patra.
- Red wines from Macedonia and Thrace have an outstanding reputation, the result of a warm climate and high altitudes. Seek out wines from Naoussa and Cotes de Meliton. (The latter is home not only to wines crafted from native varietals, but also some very good Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.)
- Epirus is a cold, remote region whose mountains may be snow-covered for months on end. Look for semi-sparkling wines from Zitsa – they are light, dry and delicately sweet.
- Growing grapes can be a challenge in Sterea Ellada, or Central Greece, thanks to the extreme heat that characterizes the region. While it is a stronghold of Retsina production, a variety of light red, white and rosé wines also are made here. Look for ones from the Thiva or Atalanti regions.
- The mild climate of the Ionian Islands is well suited to grape growing, and numerous interesting wines are made here. Ones to seek out include Verdea, a white wine with slightly oxidized flavors; Santa Mavra, or “healthy black”, a distinctive red wine; and fortified wines from the Muscat and Mavrodaphne grapes.
- Many of the vineyards in Thessalia produce grapes for table wines, though the region has great potential and winemakers are certainly making the most of it. Look for white wines from the Ankhialos region and Bordeaux-style blends from Krania.
- According to historians, the first vineyards in the Mediterranean were planted on Crete. The island is responsible for 20% of the country’s wine production, though it tends to be largely the providence of cooperatives. However, a number of new boutique wineries are raising the bar for quality. Appellations to look for include white wines from Peza and reds from Sitia and Archanes.
- The Aegean Islands are home to much of the country’s great Muscat wines, including Muscat of Samos, Rhodes and Limnos. Some excellent dry reds and whites are made here as well. Appellations to look for include Santinori (particularly forvinsanto), Samos and Rhodes.