Turkish occupation has helped the area entrer into the "Eastern middle ages". It did not help wine, in the sense that it did not encourage wine production. European Traveller's accounts from the 18-19th century tell the horrors of Greek wines. Up until 1970, Greek wines were mostly undrinkable (with rare exceptions), except by the locals. There were very few small areas in Greece, which have produced wine that was honorable. Such places include (but are probably not the only ones) Naoussa, Santorini, Samos, and Archanes/Peza in Crete.
Slowly, in the 1970s, the work of some visionaries, who have seen up-close the huge gap and progress of Western European wine production, started the renouveau of Greek wines. This is a very slow process that is still in evolution.
There is a huge difference in the wines one finds in the marketplace today. To start with, many if not most are drinkable. And some can also provide pleasure in drinking. This should be compared to the wines I drunk in the seventies and eighties that at their (rare) best were neutral.
There is also a (small) difference in the attitude of Greeks towards wine quality. Although still the vast majority do not care (and cannot distinguish) whether they drink wine or vinegar, there is a small minority that strives to get to know, and drink better wines. This minority is composed of the nouveau-riche society of Greeks that, along with other things, they also ask for good wine, although they are not yet seasoned connoisseurs. It also includes the intelligentsia, which has always asked for good quality.
Below is my personal view on some Greek wines I consider interesting. My views are based on tasting, on many occasions, wines at various times of their developments. I would like to thank in this, a group of colleagues and friends with whom we have had numerous tastings.
1) Unless otherwise stated, tasted wines were bought in (provably) good condition and cellared in optimal conditions (11 C, constant temperature and 75%-85% humidity). I should also stress here that most wines one can buy in Greece, especially whites that are more fragile, are damaged by high temperatures. I found no place in Greece, including wine cellars in posh areas in Athens, that keep their wines under acceptable conditions. The result is that you can get a white that has not been cooked, only if it has been transported during mid November-mid March, did not stay in the van during a sunny day and was bought in that period. Chances that all of the above are true are small.
Also by talking to merchants, you find two types: The "educated" ones, who will expand on being careful how to keep the wine etc, but who keep it in a cement-warehouse at 40 C in the summer. And those, that do not even know the theory.
2) In general do not trust the views of wine merchants, especially if they seem authoritative. I have spoken to many of them in Crete and Athens. I have found none that was really knowledgeable. A friend I trust tells me that he knows one. Even the most posh merchants are not experts in wine. There are two types: those that know nothing and those that claim they know. The first category is innocuous since they will not give you advice. The second is dangerous, since you will be offered authoritative advise, which almost always is invariably wrong or misleading or both.
The same applies to resident "wine critics" that write in the press. Although they make an effort, they do not have the long tasting experience at international level to be trustworthy. This is the reason that "oak juice" according to several of them is an excellent wine. I still remember the statement, three years ago, of a wine-critic of a major Greek newspaper, after we had a long conversation and after he realized that I know something about wine: "I am proud since I can tell when a wine is corked". I am definitely sure there are exceptions to this rule. I was not lucky enough to meet them.
3) There are several guides on Greek wines. I recommend two, although outdated, for distinct reasons. The first, is a book written by Lambert-Gocs who has spent several years going around Greece in the seventies. The book gives a clear idea on the status of the Greek wine-making effort of the period and includes some interesting historical interludes. This book makes very nice reading and I enjoyed it immensely. It will not help you, though, to find the good wines of today. (Incidentally a new book by Lambert-Gocs is out, I have not however read it to have an opinion). The other is an edition of wine-merchant and reliable taster, Manessis, which gives rather accurate information on current efforts in the Greek scene. Unfortunately, this has stopped after the second edition around 2000. The web-page of Nick Cobb, http://www.greekwinemakers.com/ contained for a long period interesting information about Greek wine producers. However I noticed that it has been left unattended in the recent years. Finally there are several other books on Greek wine in the market. From those I looked at I recommend none.
4) There are several wines I have never tasted. There are also wines that were tasted under difficult conditions, so that I could not have a reliable opinion. There are many more wines that were tasted but which I cannot recommend. None of the above appear below.
5) There are no world-class white Greek wines and there are very few that are good to drink, although there has been progress recently because of appropriate infrastructure .
This is because it is much easier
to make a good red instead of a good white in the south. It is also because it is difficult to keep the fragile properties of most whites
because of their handling.
All Greek whites under normal conditions should be drunk during their first year of age. Some do not survive even that. Some if
not mishandled might survive two years. Most are already dead after their first trip.
That being said, several selected fruity whites that were bought in pristine condition and impeccably cellared (see above) had the fruit last 3-6 years.
After following many whites for the last fifteen years I came to the conclusion that only few improved with age. The grapes responsible for this is one hand the Lagorthi, a rare variety almost extinct that was resurrected by Antonopoulos. It has some similarities to Semillon and seems to improve with age if properly cultivated and vinified. The second is the Asyrtiko grape. I have had several examples of well made Santorini wines that from 5-10 years of age started showing noble and sometimes complex mineral flavors characteristic of Alsacian dry Rieslings. The third is the lowly and much despised Vilana grape of Crete. It is very easily oxydized and so far has produced mediocre wines. There have been two barrel-aged versions though that produced noble and complex mineral aromas that are compelling and suggest that a better study of this varietal is necessary.
My favorite Cretan wines are :
(a) The red wine by Economou, an idiosyncratic effort from a very knowledgeable and traveled wine-maker. He has worked for several years in Margaux, Mosel and Piemonte. The wine is produced on the Ziros plateau in south-eastern Crete in a slightly oxydative/phenolic style from a clone of the Liatiko grape. It is produced from 60-70 year old prephyloxeric, non-irrigated vines, with very low yields of about 20 hectoliters/hectare, minuscule not only by Greek but even by French standards. I also tasted in his winery an unusual but very interesting white, that I have never seen in the stores.
(b) Lyrarakis is an important winery located in the village of Allagni, south of Heraklion. The wine that made them known is a blend "Kotsifali-Syrah" from the local grape kotsifali blended with Syrah. It is a soft, forward, easy but rewarding red that deserves its price. Recently the young generation has gone further by producing two very original wines. The first is "Dafnios" made from the little known Dafni white grape. It is a very original and mineral wine, unlike most of the fruity fare that one finds in Greece. The other is the only serious effort I know in mastering the Mandilari grape (common in the Aegean and Crete and used as a blending variety to add structure and color to reds). It is a VERY late ripening varietal that is never picked ripe, except in this case. Picked at mid-to-late October, the 2007 makes a huge difference with grapes picked in late August-early September in Crete. Very structured but rich it has potential although I do not think the final word has been said in the Mandilari variety. This winery experiments also with several other varietals, both local and global.
(c) Manousakis Winery owned by Cretan expatriate Manousakis, and located around the Vatolakos village south of Chania. They produce the line of wines under the name "Nostos" that is mostly exported in the US. The winemaker is the very knowledgeable and forward-thinking Costis Galanis. The winery deals mostly with Rhone varietals and produces a world class Rousanne wine, that is very interesting. They also produce a very good blend of Syrah-Grenach-Mourvedre and several single varietal wines. The blend needs time to evolve and passes sometimes through strong reductive phases. These are very interesting wines that keep evolving and have not yet reached their full potential.
(d) Mediterra Winery (ex-Olympias Winery). They are located in the Kounavi village, south of Heraklion. They have been producing good wines since more than ten years and they have an important part of their production exported. Their wines are not easy to find on the island. The winery produces several wines from the lowly Villana grape. I will make a special mention of a modestly priced white called "Xerolithia" and a barrel-aged version called Anassa that is very interesting with tertiary mineral flavors. The Mediterra Red is a kotsifali-syrah blend that is very good.
(e) Ktima Miliaraki is an important producer of wines under the label Minos. Under the direction of Nikos Miliarakis they also produce some limited production cuvees that are very interesting. The white made from 100% Vidiano grape has a very interesting mineral and subtle smell and a very good/interesting body. The same can be said about the white made from 100% Malvazia grape. The Ktima Miliarakis red made from Kotsifali, Madilari and a bit of Mourverdre is extraordinary with a burgudian nose (due ti kotsifali mostly), a very interesting and balanced body, a few tanins and a good finish. The Metoikos cuvee made from Syrah and Cabernet is also worthwhile. The domaine produces also a dessert wine made from sundried Liatiko grapes that is aromatic and pure, one of the best efforts on the island.
(a) Antonopoulos Wines. This is one of the most forward thinking wineries. I will recommend, the white "Adoli Yis", a white wine made primarily from the grape Lagorthi. It is one of the very few Greek white wines that I have found to improve with age. I always thought that it starts life as a neutral, rather acidic wine until I tasted it young at the winery, where i realized that it has a rich fruity profile. It expands with age and in 5-6 years develops complex and noble aromas reminding aged roussane wines. Another wine that I appreciated only when I tasted in their premises is a special cuvee of Moschofilero, called "Gris de Noir" made from a selected parcel in Mantineia. It has a superb complex aromatic profile dominated by rose aromas, that remind a bit gewurtztraminer, but are far superior because they are understated and elegant. Their Mantineia is also very good with complex aromatics. I defy anyone to find them in pristine condition without going to the winery! Even in a recent tasting the winery organized in Heraklion the Gris de Noir was gone! The winery's Chardonay is opulent and oaky, a good effort for the varietal (if you like oak), albeit expensive. A recent revelation is their red wine, blend of a varietal of Lefkas island, Vertzami (60%), and Cabernet (40%) that is original and very interesting. Unfortunately it is overpriced.
(b) Ktima Mercouri (or Ktima Merkouri ). A very good producer. The Ktima Mercouri Red is a well made, expressive, forward red that can be drunk for several years. I have followed the evolution of this wine since the 1993 vintage. I can state that it can evolve for ten years and although not really improving, it can give pleasure. Its nose becomes fragile though and if more than 3-4 years old, it should be served with care. Their white, "Foloi" made mostly from the local Roditis grape, is an example of a simple fragrant white that should be drunk in its first year of life. Both wines are correctly priced.
(c) Ktima Papaioannou. A good wine producer in Nemea. His Ktima Papaioannou red, is a forward, fragrant and seductive red which is also correctly priced. Although it does not improve with age it can last up to and beyond 10 years as a tasting of the 1993 in 2007 revealed. I should warn though that later vintages were not as dense, as a separate cuvee Vielles Vignes was produced (that is overpriced and is not charmimg neither young or old).
(d) Parparousis. A very good but not widely known producer near Patras. His Taos wine, produced occasionally from 100% Mavrodaphne grapes (an absolutely dry red wine) is highly original with notes of tar, menthol and leather at its youth. The 2004 and 2005 are now on tertiary aromas evolving towards leather and spices with some menthol. This is a wine I will continue to follow as it evolves. His inexpensive Oinari, made from Agiorgitiko grape is probably the best bargain in Greece (with only serious competition from Moraitis' Paros). His entry-level white, "Dora tou Dionysou" is simple albeit a very interesting white made from the Sideritis grape. His reserve Agiorgitiko is excellent but should be drunk in its 5-6 first years of age. Some years he also produces a special white cuve, "Dora tou Dionysou, Cava" from Athiri and Aidani grapes, that has a very original flavor profile, and is very interesting. Parparousis produces also a collection of excellent bradies.
(a) Yiannis Boutaris. This is a good producer, producing a portfolio of wines based on Xinomavro or international grapes as Merlot and Syrah, used in blends, or alone. The "Ktima Yanakohori" is a xinomavro based wine that I have followed since 1994. It is not very charming at a young age. It needs 10 years to absorb its tanin and it develops a fragrant nose that is interesting. The Ramnista wine is also based on Xinomavro but seems better. In a recent vertical tasting of all vintages starting with 1996 till the 2006, the 1996 has won the night eclipsing the 1997 (that had started life more promising than the 1996). The message is that older vintages needed 10 years at least to shed some of their tanning, but some of it was hard and will never disappear. However starting with the new century the tannins seem to have become softer and the 2005 was the first effort in which tannin seemed fully ripe. It is in my opinion the most interesting Xinomavro based wine, although I do not think it has fully reached its potential. A syrah wine is also produced that is excellent and becomes more interesting with age. The 1997 was tasted in 2005 and showed a mature nature and a complex aromatic profile. This is the only example of an imported varietal that I have seen improve with age in Greece. This wine was discontinued and the syrah is now probably blended with Xynomayro in the "Diaporos" wine.
(b) Gerovasiliou. This winery located in the Halkidiki peninsula, specializes in mostly Bordeaux Varietals. Its owner and winemaker is one of the first Bordeaux-educated ones that contributed to the renouveau of winemaking in Greece. The winery produces an interesting white (Ktima Gerovasiliou) partly from the indigenous grape Malagouzia, notable for its fragrant character showing strong hints of Frankincence among other aromas . Unfortunately it is almost impossible to find it alive except at the winery. It is by now overpriced following the fame of the domaine.
(c) Kthma Goutsidou . This is an upcoming producer near the Evros river in Thrace at the north-east corner of Greece. Mrs Goutsidou together with her mother, son and brother are exploring the potential of the area with both local (Pamidi (white), Xynomayro) and international (Cabernet, Syrah, Barbera) varietals, and full organic farming techniques. They are advised by probably the best expert on vine cultivation in Greece, Giannis Kanakis. The first results seem very promising. The wines produced are "Oinos Dikaiwn" (Syrah with Pamidi and Merlot), "Epyllio" (Cabernet, Barbera) and an original non-tannic version of Xynomayro, "Marous". 2008 is the maiden vintage for the domaine.
(d) Katsaros Winery. This is a small producer, that makes a Cabernet-Merlot blend and a Chardonay, in the high altitude village of Krania, near Olympus mountain. It is easily accessible young, showing varietal aromas and evolves gracefully (without much complexifying) over a decade. It is produced in small quantities and it is overpriced in my opinion.
(e) Kwstas Lazaridis. This is a very good producer in the town of Drama. He makes a large portfolio of wines based mostly on French varietals all done well. They include a very good Cabernet "Cava Amethystos". Tastings of the 1994 and 1997 revealed a deep wine that is interesting young and which evolves slowly. However after following it for about 15 years I have decided that it does not improve with age. I do not think it warrants its stiff price tag.
Santorini is a singular viticultural area, with very old vines (some close to 150 years old), a special microclimat and special grapes. The most interesting grape is the assyrtico grape and the most interesting wine the sweet "Visanto" made from mixture of white and red sun-dried grapes, that is further aged as a tawny port. The dry white wines can be very good, and in general age well. An upcoming varietal is the red, "mavrotragano" that produces an interesting aromatic profile, but whose tannins have not been tamed yet. It is interesting to follow its evolution although its first efforts have been overpriced. The two most interesting producers are
(a) Argyros Estate. He produces a very interesting Visanto, aged typically for 20 years is large foudres. It is a well balanced superbly complex wine in the class of top 20 year old tawnys but with a very distinct character. It is unfortunately very expensive. The un-oaked standard dry offering, Domaine Argyros, can be a very good wine based on the Asyrtiko grape. I do not like much the oaked versions of Santorini wines as I think that oak does fit the profile of that grape and does not improve its long-term behavior.
(b) Sigalas Estate. He produces an excellent Visanto that is aged for 3-4 years. The 1996 recently tasted was rich and complex, simply superb. His standard Santorini offering is excellent and usually tops the island's dry white offerings.
An up an coming producer is Hatzidakis.
Samos is another island that built its modern reputation since the beginning of the century on sweet muscat wines. The producer is the local cooperative that is exemplary for Greek standards. The most interesting wines are:
(a) Samos Grand Cru: A sweet muscat, made in the style of Muscat de Frontignan, with nice exuberant aromas of the muscat grape. If properly cellared, it can be drunk during at least 9-10 years without losing its aromas.
(b) Samos Anthemis: A sweet muscat aged for 5 years in large foudres. It shows noble oxydative aromas and a complex profile of dried figs, walnuts, and aromatic resins.
(c) Samos Nectar: A wine made from selected and sun-dried muscat grapes, then aged in barrels. It is still an oxydative wine with complex and interesting flavors. It is formidably sweet (>350 gr/lt), balanced by a combination of moderate acidity and alcohol that is successful. In the last 5 years the quality of Nectar has gone down somehow, and now, Anthemis seems the most interesting wine of the two.
(d) Recently a dry muscat has been produced, "Psiles Korfes", from specially selected grapes in mountainous vineyards of the island. It is dry, elegant and complex, reminding such Alsatian benchmarks as the muscats of Domaine Kientzler and Burn.
All Samos offerings are correctly priced wines, that give a lot of pleasure.