With 65,000 hectares, Greece has almost twice as many vineyards as New Zealand, but looking at the paucity of Greek wines on UK shelves you would barely know that the land of gods has recently undergone an exciting wine revival.
With the small, but highly rated 2015 vintage now in bottle, it is a perfect time to taste a bit of modern Greek drama in your glass – and also encourage your local wine merchant to stock them too, as many are just stocked by online retailers.
If it is your first time sampling Greek wine, you might be surprised to learn that Europe’s hottest wine country (with the highest recorded vineyard summer temperatures) actually produces refined dry white wines – which make up 60 per cent of its three million hectolitre wine production. In my opinion, Greece’s white wines are its best – and they don’t all smell of pine resin.
So how does a parched country produce such elegant minerally whites? The key is in the indigenous grapes like assyrtiko, malagousia and moschofilero, all of which retain their natural high acidity in the heat.
Secondly, pioneering makers at wineries such as Gerovassiliou in Epanomi, Biblia Chora in northern Macedonia and Costa Lazardi in Drama are exploiting cooler microclimates at higher altitudes up to 1,000 feet above sea-level (head to the mountainous north or the high Mantinia plateau in Peloponnese to find that Greece is not all about hot beaches). In addition, the volcanic nutrient-rich soils on islands like Santorini make minerally characterful dry and sweet whites.
Assyrtiko from the Aegean island of Santorini is Greece’s most exciting variety. Trained in nests on ‘aspa’ volcanic soils on this exposed ‘dry’ island, designed to catch the morning dew, assyrtiko makes intensely focused mineral-scented whites. In northern Macedonia, at Biblia Chora it also makes a good blending partner with sauvignon blanc and semillon.
Aromatic grape malagousia was recently rescued from oblivion by Evangelos Gerovassiliou when working at Domaine Carras.
Malagousia originates from Aitolia on the south coast of mainland Greece, but is now turning out charming basil-scented, exotically fruity dry whites on the Halkidiki peninsula in northern Greece.
If you prefer your dry whites very aromatic and spicy, you might like moschofilero. Inland Peloponnese (and Cephalonia island) make the best examples which can be oaked – but the best are unoaked. Roditis and lagorthi grapes grown near Patra in northern Peloponnese also produce delicious minerally whites.
Clumsy Greek winemaking certainly still exists and with economic times harder than ever, competition is fierce and there is always a temptation to cut corners. There are still plenty of poor Greek wines on sale to unsuspecting tourists in beach tavernas, but if you look carefully you can find real quality.
The last decade has seen an improvement in winemaking methods with a focus on reducing the use of very cool fermentations which can strip the wines of flavour if temperatures are too low. Another winemaking improvement has been in a more balanced use of new oak.
Greek reds revolve around the toothsome xinomavro (acid black) grape which needs to be handled with care. Avoid cheap, youthful, edgy xinomavro, and instead head for smoother bottle aged examples from northern Macedonia. In Nemea, west of Korinthos, in the Peloponnese the agiorgitiko red grape produces more approachable softer reds – and international grapes like syrah are finding their feet in this baked land.
With one of the world’s oldest wine cultures – at 6,500 years old – and one of Europe’s most vibrant modern wine revivals, Greece is once again becoming a wine country we can bank on.
Mantinia, Peloponnese: Semeli Mantinia 2015 Nassiakos - STAR BUY
Smells like viognier with apricot and blossom aromas, but with a tighter, sleeker, palate; very zippy acidity, refreshing with youthful bright fruits made from high altitude grown grapes in central Peloponnese.
£9.75, The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com
Peloponnese: Fteri Moschofilero 2015 Yiannis Troupis
Peach and melon notes, vibrant lemony acidity and lime and fig flavours on the palate – but still quite youthful and taut; would suit viognier lovers.
£12.99, Naked Wines, www.nakedwines.com
Santorini, Aegean: Santo Nykteri 2014 Santo Wines - STAR BUY
Our highest scoring white. This dry white blend was very popular with tasters who loved its jasmine and citrus fruit aromas, rich, weighty, honeyed palate with a hint of spice and good length; very subtle oak notes from three months maturation. Nykteri means ‘staying up all night’, as the vintners pick grapes in the early morning and press the grapes during the night.
£16.99, Laithwaites, www.laithwaites.co.uk
Santorini, Aegean: Atlantis Assyrtiko 2014
Limey gooseberry flavours and its sleek minerality reminded tasters of sauvignon blanc with a slightly herby twist. It also has a nutty and saline undertone – from grapes grown on Santorini’s volcanic aspa soil. Serve as an aperitif or with grilled fish.
£11, Marks & Spencer
Epanomi, Macedonia: Single Vineyard Malagousia 2015 Domaine Gerovassiliou - STAR BUY
Apricot and jasmine, creamy and honeyed with a hint of tropical fruit flavour and smoky oak notes with a characteristic twist to the finish: a well-made rich version of malagousia to serve with smoked fish.
£15.83, Strictly Wine; Corking Wines; The Good Wine Shop; The Drink Shop
Mount Helmos, N Peloponnese: Malagousia 2015 Tetramythos
Charming blossomy herby scents (like a cross between viognier and gewurztraminer on the aroma), the palate is more austere with a youthful zestiness with a rather bitter twist to the finish. A bit too tart for our tasters to drink on its own, but would work better matched with a feta salad or grilled fish.
£9.95, The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com
Drama, N Macedonia: Ovilos White 2013 Biblia Chora * - STAR BUY
Another very high scorer. This is certainly my favourite oak fermented Greek white made by the dynamic partnership of Evangelos Gerovassiliou and Vasilis Tsaktsarlis; nutty vanilla scents from barrel fermentation in French oak with refined grapefruit and lime flavours and creamy palate. Very good.
£18.99-£23, www.highburyvintners.co.uk; www.thegoodwineshop.co.uk; www.strictlywine.co.uk;
www.corkingwines.co.uk; Halifax Wine Company
Naoussa, W Macedonia: Xinomavro 2013 Apostolos Thymiopoulos
An approachable style of xinomavro; here the grape’s very robust tannins have been tamed to a plumper, damsony, smoother red.
£10.50, Marks & Spencer
Halkidiki peninsula: Private Collection Organic Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 Evangelos Tsantali
Our second highest scoring red in the tasting. Organic grape growing is ideal in Greece’s warm dry climate; this is a very acceptable cabernet with typical cassis notes and spicy undertones; a touch rustic but that is part of its charm.
NW Peloponnese: Ionos Greek Red - STAR BUY
Considering its price, this is very acceptable. Much easier to drink than other Greek reds in our tasting with medium body, soft smooth tannins and a hint of pepperiness. Tastes like a cross between gamay and syrah. Made by Cavino from high altitude 700 metres vineyards near Patras.
£6.50, The Wine Society, www.thewinesociety.com
Peloponnese: Thiasos Red 2013
A fruit-driven style of agiorgitiko, but some tasters found the tannins too austere on the finish. ■
£7, www.thedrinkshop.com; www.strictlywine.co.uk; www.corkingwines.co.uk
• Rose’s French Wine Series in Edinburgh starts on 8 September from £42pp, www.rose murraybrown.com